The talk radio scene in South Africa is set for a shake-up. In December, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) awarded an FM frequency commercial license to Power 98.9 FM. Power FM is set to take to the airwaves by September, becoming the first fully black-owned and operated talk radio station in the country. A consortium led by MSG Afrika Investment Holdings and Khanyi Dhlomo’s Ndalo Media, along with other investors, own the station. The provincial license means that the station will only broadcast in Gauteng, where Primedia’s Talk Radio 702 leads the market, followed by the SABC’s SAfm, which has a national platform. “That’s good enough for now,” says MSG Afrika’s CEO, Given Mkhari.
Mkhari came up with the idea for Power FM over a decade ago. He wanted a station that was owned and run by black people; a station that addressed the issues of the majority of South Africans. Mkhari has risen steadily in the broadcasting industry on air and off.
Born and raised in the small town of Tzaneen, in Limpopo Province, north of South Africa, Mkhari grew up with the radio. “There was no TV back then; all I had was the radio,” he says. But even when TV eventually arrived in his hometown, Mkhari was still enthralled by the airwaves. He received a bursary to study teaching at the University of the North, formerly known as Turfloop University. It was here that he had his first encounter behind the mike. The university was the first in the country to receive a campus radio license.
But it wasn’t only about playing the latest tunes. Mkhari believed the station had a big role to play in keeping students informed. “It wasn’t just about entertaining students, it was more of an information source to bridge the gap (between the university and the rest of South Africa),” he says.
During term breaks, Mkhari would travel to Johannesburg to find holiday work. He became a fan of Metro FM and made it to the finals in a DJ competition the station hosted. His failure to win didn’t stop him. He is proud of his determination and perseverance. “You win some, you lose some; but you have to fail somewhere along the way in order to be more successful,” he says.
After graduating with a teaching degree in 1996, Mkhari wrote an essay on the developmental trajectory of South Africa, which won him a scholarship to study in New York. “I struck a deal with my lecturers to attend class two days and work for a local radio station the rest of the week,” says Mkhari. “I started making coffee and then worked my way up to become a producer on WBLS.” He helped produce the famous Les Brown Breakfast Show.
Even though he was living the dream, Mkhari missed home. His mom had died just before he left for New York and he felt that he needed to be at home with his five siblings, of which he is the eldest. When African American rapper Tupac died in September 1996, Mkhari seized the opportunity to make his big break in South Africa. Mkhari called Metro FM and offered them the story. Metro jumped at the offer but didn’t anticipate that he would become a daily feature on the station.
Mkhari did. “When I signed out, I said: ‘This is Given Mkhari reporting live from New York; catch you tomorrow same place, same time’. And that was that, Metro FM was stuck with me. They made space for an entertainment report every morning during their breakfast show.” The entertainment reports earned him a reputation with radio executives and Mkhari was soon offered a post in South Africa.
He came home, worked on Metro FM, did a short stint at Kaya FM and then disappeared. He entered the advertising world and bought a stake in The Jupiter Drawing Room, one of South Africa’s leading communication and advertising firms. He then started MSG Afrika with his longtime friend and partner, Simphiwe Mdlalose.
“Simphiwe and I are like brothers; we grew up together, we studied together and we’ve been in business together since we started on campus radio.”
Together Mkhari and Mdlalose run MSG Afrika. “He (Simphiwe) maintains the organizational structure and pays attention to the detail, while I’m the creative, strategic thinker. We complement each other perfectly.”
The partnership has certainly paid off. The men developed a plan that won them the first commercial broadcast license in Limpopo in 2008. A local women’s consortium funded the operation. It took six months to get the station running. Three months after launching, Capricorn FM drew 45,000 listeners. Today the station boasts an audience of close to 1,5 million listeners.
Work has now started on their latest win, Power FM. The director of Media Monitoring Africa, William Bird, says it’s a wonderful progression. “It not only indicates his personal drive, but also how the broadcasting sector has sufficiently transformed to enable him to achieve these things.” Bird adds that Mkhari’s rise says much about his love of the industry and praises radio that retains skills and expertise. “We are in the unusual position where you have a very senior person who knows the business from many sides,” says Bird.
“The majority of our on-air staff will be fresh talent. The idea is to develop new people and to grow the current pool of talent,” says Mkhari. Some industry experts argue that this may be an approach that will take longer to grow an audience. But Mkhari says that the idea behind Power FM is to make a difference. “There’s no point in pulling in talent from other stations who will say the same things they’ve been saying for years; we want a new, different perspective and the only way to do that is to develop new people.”
Mkhari wants the content to drive the profile of the station. “It’s about addressing the issues of poverty, race, inequality and the diversity of South Africa, and getting people to engage with and debate these issues that still affect the black majority of South Africa.”