Talk radio station 702 is wrong to believe presenters need to be a certain race

Radio station 702’s recent relaunch is a desperate attempt to find a foothold in a crumbling legacy media landscape. It’s quixotic so long as the station holds dear outdated ideas about programming and the media consumer.

The legacy media landscape may be under stress, but talk radio has an advantage over music radio, which is battling advert-free streaming services for the attention of music lovers. Talk radio’s disadvantage is that its presenters cost more to feed than the digital programming software behind music radio. So, talk radio stations need the right people to attract listers.

702 believes these people need to be of a certain colour. In a recent interview in the Sunday Times, Primedia Broadcasting acting CEO Geraint Crwys-Williams admitted to failures at the station but waxed lyrical about the shifting racial profile of its presenters, as if racial diversity is the panacea for all its ills.

Race is a cosmetic metric when the consumer is human

It’s not. Race is a cosmetic metric when the consumer is human, and that’s something Crwys-Williams seems to have forgotten: all listeners are human and therefore slaves to emotion. A listener in Soweto shares the same range of emotions as someone in Shanghai.

Emotions should not be confused with feelings. Emotions have physical expressions. Someone will express anger — an emotion — by clenching their fists and shouting, but they can harbour resentment — a feeling associated with anger — without any external clues. Whereas there are only a handful of emotions, feelings number in the hundreds. The fact is, these emotions and feelings are shared.

It’s within this expansive range of shared human emotions and feelings that a properly qualified and skilled talk show host can find the tension needed for compelling radio. They just need to know how to develop the tension that appeals to the human ear. They don’t need to be of a certain colour.

They also don’t need to be interested in politics. Tune in to 702 and sooner or later the discussion turns to politics — the lowest-hanging fruit in talk radio programming. The idea is that introducing politics splits the audience along partisan lines, creating the necessary tension that encourages debate. It’s a cheap tactic with hidden costs. Politics is toxic, and bringing it into radio programming risks infecting the audience with all its malignancy; something for which 702 is paying the price.

Politics is the lowest-hanging fruit in talk radio programming

Talking about crime is just as injurious. Sure, it’ll get people talking, but it’ll leave a bad taste in their mouths. That’s why I’m not surprised the feedback from 702’s listeners that prompted the station’s rebranding and relaunch asked for more of a “balance between light and shade”.

Thinking that South Africans are joined primarily by shared interests in politics and crime is unimaginative and disrespectful. As a programming philosophy, it’s just lazy. It’s one of the reasons I left radio to concentrate on writing and chose probably the hardest thing for media consumers to connect with: science.

The pushback against science by legacy media organisations such as 702 and their consumers is as strong as it is puzzling; after all, there is not a single element to the human experience that is not examined by science. Not one.

Primedia may point to the unravelling media landscape as a reason for losing listeners, but whereas technology skips ahead to its own beat, human nature drags its heels. And therein lies the secret to connecting with listeners.

So here’s my challenge to 702: if it is serious about reimagining itself and growing its audience, it shouldn’t bother with the skin tone of its presenters. Rather train them to think about the science of human behaviour. Lose the preoccupation with politics and crime, and focus instead on the shared emotions and feelings common across the scope of humanity.

And it needs to change its name: “702” points directly to the frequency of a competitor.

Originally published in Business Day, 12 October 2020