Taking a trip down memory lane of 702's 40 years
At midday on 28 June 1980, South Africa welcomed a new radio station that would champion the rainbow of sounds and later place itself at the centre of political debates in this country. The first voice on the station was that of Paddy O’Bryne.
That marked the arrival of Channel 702 – the rainbow of sounds - the station that was to evolve from music to talk format.
Channel 702, later renamed 702, set up its studio and transmitter atop a mountain in Ga-Rankuwa. The choice of this township was informed by its location in the “independent homeland” of Bophuthatswana, which allowed the station some degree of “freedom”.
Though part of Pretoria, Ga-Rankuwa as part of the apartheid grand plan, was governed by the homeland of Bophuthatswana. Its location greatly suited and afforded the station access to the coveted Gauteng (then called PWV) market.
One of the brains behind 702, Issie Kirsch, had identified an opportunity that would capture and captivate audiences across the colour line. Noble and since as the dream was, the station for a number of years remained predominantly white, until fairly recently.
The selection of Bophuthatswana was to circumvent censorship by the South African government. After all independent radio stations stood no chance in apartheid South Africa and its thought control philosophy.
Politically bankrupt and detestable as they were, homelands offered a strategic springboard and loophole for independent radio in our country. Capital Radio used Transkei to establish itself in 1979 and entrenched itself in the hearts and minds of radio listeners in that part of our country.
Channel 702 would over the years recruit some of enduring radio personalities such as Cocky “Two-Bull” Tlhotlhalemaje, Jerry Cohen, Paul Stephens, Alex Jay, Stan Katz, Martin Bailey, Neil Johnson, John Berks, to name a few who presented music that appealed to a rainbow of listeners.
John Berks and Stan Katz brought with them a wealth of radio experience that assured them significant listenership, which stood the station in good stead. Long before the advent of community radio, 702 had carved a niche for itself as a community-oriented approach to broadcasting.
One classical example was the successful hosting of the Concert in the Park in January 1985. The Concert drew 125,000 people of all races, raising R450,000 for Operation Hunger.
When Radio 5 (later 5fm) switched from AM to FM, copying 702’s format, jocks such as Alex Jay, Martin Bailey and Neil Johnson were poached to join the station. The fierce competition unleashed by Radio 5, coupled with a lack of a strong signal, forced 702 to consider talk format. Years later the station would make the switch to FM.
Despite being born out of an apartheid loophole the station went on to give the Nats sleepless nights. When John Robbie took over Talk at Ten on the station in January 1990 FW de Klerk was about to initiate political reforms that ultimately saw the release of political prisoners.
The release of political prisoners ushered in a new political climate that culminated in negotiations for a new political dispensation. It was a very volatile period in South African politics with the country on the knife-edge and threats of civil war from right-wing elements. There was a lot to discuss and 702 presented itself as the platform for such debates with left and right-wing political leaders.
Whenever violence broke out in Katlehong, Thokoza or train violence in the Reef, 702 would be the source of credible news. The news team became a crucial part of the story of the birth of new South Africa, staffed by luminaries such as Brett Hilton-Barber, David O’Sullivan, Judith Dubin, Dan Moyane, Deborah Patta, Chris Gibbons, Alyce Chavunduka, Vuyo Mbuli, Chris Gibbons, and Thabang Mamonyane, to name a few.
The mid to late 90s also marked the arrival of versatile hosts like Zandile Nzalo fresh from Radio Bop and Shado Twala directly from Metro FM. The station started positioning itself to thwart any possible threat posed by Greenfield stations such as Kaya FM and the repositioning of SAfm as a competitor in the provision of news and information.
Veteran journalist Jon Qwelane was brought in to beef up night-time radio. Over the past ten years, the station has evolved from a predominantly-white station with black hosts and listeners to a totally South African radio station that understands the demographics of its country
Over the recent past anchors such as the late Xolani Gwala continued to maintain the station’s position in the media landscape, even with the new threat presented by Power FM. Gwala had big shoes to fill when he replaced John Robbie on breakfast. Robbie had endeared entrenched his combative style of interviews on the station over the many years he was associated with the station his departure in 2016.
The recent repositioning of the station also saw young but talented Clement Manyathela taking over the mid-morning show from the dynamic Eusebius McKaiser. McKaiser himself had replaced another brainy and talented host Redi Tlhabi.
With forty years on-air and a weekly listenership of about 404,000, it would be interesting to see how the station plans increase its listenership while remaining a force to be reckoned with in this digital age.
Modise is a public servant in love with radio. He writes in his personal capacity.
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