As POWER 987 turns five this year, POWER Head of Digital Verashni Pillay sat down to chat to one of its co-founders, Andile Khumalo. Read the interview below.
Verashni Pillay: How did POWER come to be?
Andile Khumalo: Radio was always our plan. The strategy of MSG Afrika at the time was to be a big player in the media industry, but what you do is, you start with all the ‘barrier to entry’ media services. And the most sophisticated and most high margin services in those in was advertising. So that’s how we ended up owning the Jupiters of the world [Jupiter Drawing Room] and Metropolitan Republic. But the plan was always to own the platforms. And radio was the play. Radio was definitely the play.
Verashni Pillay: It was always the long-term goal?
Andile Khumalo: Yeah. And Capricorn FM blew the lights out. It absolutely changed the game for us in a secondary market, and now we had an opportunity to play in the most lucrative primary market of Gauteng.
Verashni Pillay: So the idea of POWER wasn’t crazy?
Andile Khumalo: The amazing thing was that we could finally play with the big boys because now it’s a Gauteng station, you know, it’s not a little station in a rural province.
Verashni Pillay: And, crucially, taking on the big players?
Andile Khumalo: Yes. And you always felt that something was kind of missing… Because I would listen to 702, as I needed to know my news before I started my day, and it would sometimes be something that John Robbie just wouldn’t quite get the way I did, or would express it in a way I wouldn’t. But that’s all there was to listen to. And I would listen to the conversation – the station is clearly professionally run, sounds really good – but the perspective, the point of departure, was not a black one. I use John because I listened to him more than perhaps any other presenter on the station.
Verashni Pillay: And he was brilliant.
Andile Khumalo: Very good broadcaster, but the station missed it. It became more obvious to me because I knew what we were working on, and for the first time, thanks to Given’s insights I had something to compare it to.
Verashni Pillay: I want to take you back to the early days. Tell me some anecdotes that you recall that stand out in your mind.
Andile Khumalo: First of all, it was having to fly the plane while we were building it. We had no offices, and had to camp out at our advertising agency, The Jupiter Drawing Room, as the builders were busy here at POWER House getting it ready for us. We had to start hiring people and building systems while getting ready to launch the station.
Verashni Pillay: What was your role?
Andile Khumalo: My job was to raise the capital for POWER. That was hard. I remember a senior executive at one of our funders said: “We’re going to do this, but I think it’s the biggest waste of money”.
Verashni Pillay: Really?
Andile Khumalo: Yeah, he was man enough a few years later to come back and say: “You absolutely proved me wrong”.
Verashni Pillay: And you guys are doing it because of the passion. I mean it was really driven by passion.
Andile Khumalo: And you know what? I don’t think we’d be here if it was anything else. Because I’m pretty sure with the God-given talents we’ve been given, we could do so much else, but this is institution stuff. This is legacy stuff. This is stuff that gets you to be interviewed by Verashni, talking about the early days, because you were there, you helped bring it to life. Wherever it ends up now is great, as long as it’s alive and still doing what it’s doing. But, man those days were tough.
Verashni Pillay: You became the Managing Director of POWER in addition to your other roles at group level. And then on top of all of that you started hosting POWER Business? How did that happen?
Andile Khumalo: So one day the POWER Business presenter calls at around 3pm and says he isn’t feeling well and won’t be able to come in. Given and I had very clear roles in the business, and he was the one responsible for programming. So I shouted over to Given, who sits next door to me, that he didn’t have a presenter that day. What would normally follow is a call to the programmes manager who would then frantically search for stand-in for the day. But not on this day. Given replies by saying: “Let’s go for a smoke” — which is his code for: “Let’s talk about something I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you”. He says: “Man, I think you should do this. You’ve got the content, you’re full of shit, you’re going to be an equal to these CEOs, you’ve got personality, you know this shit”. I’m like: “Given, no. How the hell am I going do that on top of all of this?
Verashni Pillay: When was this conversation?
Andile Khumalo: I think I might still have my first runner. I’m not joking. I’ve been doing it for three years. I stopped now in 2018. So yeah, 2015.
Verashni Pillay: And you had no radio experience?
Andile Khumalo: Zero. Nothing. None whatsoever. I had a lot of opinions, which is lovely. It’s like being a football coach on my couch. But needless to say I couldn’t say no and I did the first show and the second show and the third show …
Verashni Pillay: And you fell in love with it?
Andile Khumalo: I think that there are a few things in my life that I cannot anticipate. This is the one thing in my life that I could never have thought I would enjoy as much as I did.
Verashni Pillay: You had a very clear idea of where you were going in life…
Andile Khumalo: I generally do, you know, like, my life is not an accident.
Verashni Pillay: I know that you’re a planner.
Andile Khumalo: I’m a planner. And I don’t like people who mess with my plans. I’m very deliberate. This was a surprise. The other problem, of course, about myself which I know very well is that I can’t do half measures. If I commit to something I want to serve it, I want to be there. I want to honour it. And if I realise that, for whatever reason, I can no longer honour it, I leave. I don’t try to make it work, because that’s just not the life I want for myself.
Verashni Pillay: Because that leads to mediocrity?
Andile Khumalo: Yeah. So when I got on air, I then had to create room in my life, cos I’m going to do this well. I’m not going to just do it. So I dedicated a lot of time and energy. I listened to every podcast of every interview I did in the first six months of my show. Every day. Before I slept, I’d listen to my whole show all over again.
Verashni Pillay: But who does that? Most people go crazy hearing themselves talk.
Andile Khumalo: It drove me crazy too. I was like: I speak like that?! I didn’t know I speak like that. My voice sounds funny.
Verashni Pillay: It’s horrible.
Andile Khumalo: Then I got used to it and I was like, screw it Andile, how else are you going to be better? So I listened to a lot of radio, and I listened to all my podcasts. And I would say: I could have asked that question differently, or I there was too much preamble to that question, and over time I got better at it. In my own style of course.
Verashni Pillay: So you were learning radio on the job?
Andile Khumalo: I was learning on the job. And fighting with my producers!
Andile Khumalo: POWER will always draw more of a response from the market or the public than any other radio station. Because the listeners of POWER – the ordinary South African – sees POWER as their own.
Verashni Pillay: They do. “Emotional shareholders”.
Andile Khumalo: They call themselves emotional shareholders, I mean, where else have you ever heard that? Perhaps the closest is a very big political party whose members call themselves a broad church – even there – no one believes they own it!
Verashni Pillay: Who says that, where does that term come from?
Andile Khumalo: They know it’s Andile and Given [behind it]. But they don’t care. We’re just the guys who run it.
But our people have a very high standard of us. When the few of us, those who get those rare opportunities, get to play in the premier league, or be up there with the big boys, we then put very high expectations on them. So the same thing that happens at 702, if it happens at POWER, the first question is: “Ah, look, black people again. They’re gonna screw it up again”. And that’s not because black people hate other black people; it’s because of the place we find ourselves in the timeline of our own maturity as a society of South Africans, particularly as black South Africans. And we as the generation that is here need to recognise we are here and instead of fighting that reality we must own it and say: how then do I play my part in dealing with it?
Verashni Pillay: You’re being quite benevolent about it, and diplomatic, but it got ugly: the so-called exodus of presenters in the early days, the reports about trouble at the station, the rumours that circulated about you guys?
Andile Khumalo: I’m not benevolent about it. I just get it. Maybe I’m fortunate that I get it. You have an industry that is very limited for talent – proven talent – and there are only a few that you are able to attract to buy into the dream of POWER. But because of where you are in the timeline of our country, you’re just waiting for one sign: one thing to show you that this thing is sub-standard. Why? Because white is right. You come from generations and generations of brainwashing to tell you that black is sub-standard and white is the standard. You couldn’t wish that away when POWER launched. You can’t unlearn it that quickly. It’s not easy. So I think because they loved it so much they were just waiting for somebody to prove them wrong. And like most things in life, if you look for the reason, sooner or later you will find it. What does Denzel Washington say ?“If you hang around the barber shop longer enough, you will eventually get your hair cut”?
Verashni Pillay: Yes, you’re used to putting on a mask when you go into a white corporate environment.
Andile Khumalo: Yes, because then you learn to deal with it, you are there for the pay check. And actually, it’s easier for you to tolerate because their levels of expectation of you are low in any case.
Verashni Pillay: I still think you’re benevolent but yes. Okay last question: do you still think POWER is keeping its promise?
Andile Khumalo: I think generally we are. I think we have moments we could do it better. We could be better at serving our people on specific things, and specific items. My own personal view is that POWER needs to be more bold, and start taking a stance on things that affect our people the most, ands tart being an agent for positive change. As we all know, we are not just a radio station. We are much more than that.
Verashni Pillay: Thank you so much AK, thanks for your time.
Andile Khumalo: You’re most welcome V.