Pretoria FM celebrates its 30th anniversary this week. Willie Spies, CEO of the radio station, tells more about the growing pains and joys the station has gone through since its foundation.
The first 15 years of the existence of Pretoria FM was a period of epic legal battles in which the radio station had to go back to the courts time and again for its right to broadcast. During that time, the radio was several times in the Supreme Court, twice in the Constitutional Court and twice in the Court of Appeal, where the most important battle was won in 2007 and 2008.
After the settlement of the epic legal battle in 2008 and the issuance of a permanent license for the greater Pretoria area, the station stood on the eve of a new chapter in its existence.
The long-standing legal battle aroused great public sympathy and the radio station was supported financially through difficult times, thanks to the sympathy of thousands of listeners who supported the Vasbyt collections four times a year. After the legal battle was won, it became clear that that stream of energetic sympathetic support would gradually dwindle.
The challenge of the board and management would be to put the station on a sustainable financial basis of continued existence according to normal business principles.
Shortly after his retirement as a judge of the High Court of South Africa, Judge Johan Smit accepted an invitation to become involved with the board of Pretoria FM.
Judge Smit later wrote that from a reading of the financial statements of the station in early 2011, he realized that the station found itself facing a new existential crisis.
The existential crisis was no longer one of a hostile authority that wanted to close the station, but the brutal economic reality of falling income and rising expenses as well as the practical reality of an aging management team that led the station for the first 18 years of its existence. have and the lack of a next generation.
The station’s staff had a very uneven age distribution. At that stage, approximately one half of the staff and management corps were already over 65 years of age and the other half were young people in their early 20s.
The staff turnover of young staff members was also very high and several young announcers started working at the station for a year or two, only to then be snapped up by large national broadcasters such as eTV and the SABC or even by political parties and other corporations as communications officers .
Salaries were small and there were no pension, medical or disability benefits for staff.
This created a vacuum of experienced middle-management level staff who would have to form the core of the continuation of the station on a sustainable basis. With an ever-changing junior team and an aging senior team aged 68 and over, the station’s sustainability was impossible.
Something would have to be done to steer the station away from this unsustainable reality.
Judge Smit shared his concern with the board and it was decided to knock on the door of the Solidarity Movement with a view to developing a growth, development and sustainability plan for the station.
As a lawyer, Smit was tasked by the board to reach out to the decision makers of the Solidarity Movement. He later said that he learned precisely as a lawyer that if you want to contact someone, you contact his lawyer. In the first half of 2011, the retired judge of the High Court, as a representative of the board of Radio Pretoria, made a phone call to Willie Spies, a lawyer who represents both Solidarity and AfriForum as a client, to start a conversation with Flip Buys from the Solidarity Movement and his team.
The initial discussions between Judge Smit, Willie Spies and Flip Buys were followed up with further discussions between office bearers of the Solidarity Movement and an implementation committee formed by the board of Radio Pretoria to deliberate on a growth and development plan.
After the exit of Mr. Clem de Clerk as CEO of the station in 2011, the management crisis was brought to a head.
It was agreed that the Solidarity Movement would fund an interim chief executive for Radio Pretoria for a period of three months. The job of the interim chief executive would be to manage the station, find and develop a new management team, finalize a business and sustainability plan for the station and put the station on a sustainable basis.
It would be his unprecedented task to find a chief executive, a station manager and a marketing manager for the station within three months to overcome the management vacuum.
The three months of Willie Spies’ part-time involvement became six months, the six months became a year and finally Willie Spies is still involved after 12 years as executive chairman of the board of the station.
The growth and development plan culminated in the following milestones over the next 12 years.
1. As a first step, a consultation process was launched with staff, listeners and advertisers to determine needs and identify gaps;
2. An amount of R100 000 allocated by the Solidarity Movement was used to improve the sound quality of broadcasts by installing sound processing equipment that refined the mono sound of broadcasts to a deeper stereo sound;
3. The 45-minute pre-recorded current affairs programme Folk microphone was transformed into a live hour-long pulsating news program with live interviews and public participation;
4. The broadcast schedule of the station was standardized in accordance with international best practices, with the introduction of horizontal programming which meant that the same person acted as host or hostess every weekday in the same time slot;
5. The hour long Folk microphone has been expanded into a comprehensive news and current affairs offer under the umbrella name Audio newspaper with a morning edition, a lunchtime edition and a late afternoon edition;
6. The management team was gradually expanded, initially with Fred Maree as station manager and Corrie Pretorius and Marianne Breytenbach as his deputies. Later, Sarel du Plessis was engaged as a management consultant and Sarel would play a defining role in the next milestone, namely the inclusion of the station on DSTV’s audio bouquet under the now well-known channel 887, during June 2013;
7. A new legal challenge had to be fended off: ICASA notified late in 2012 that the eight relay stations in Pietersburg, Tzaneen, Thabazimbi, Naboomspruit, Koster, Brits, Greylingstad and Newcastle were not licensed and had to shut down. A court case followed and although the court case was initially lost, the table was still set for a negotiation process with ICASA which led to licenses being issued for these transmitters in April 2015;
8. In July 2015, the eight relay stations together with the anchor station in Pretoria were united under one brand name Pretoria FM, the new brand quickly took hold and listenership figures according to official RAMS numbers rose to a new high;
9. As the station reinvented itself as a business enterprise, which had to succeed financially, the time became ripe for the re-establishment of the station in new modern studios. In early 2014, the station moved into its brand new bespoke studios in the HB Forum building in Val-de-Grace, after Corrie Pretorius had done the necessary scouting and found a suitable site.
10. The station gradually developed its own sales team. It was learned early on that the station’s airtime sales were its main lifeblood and that the station had to own it and could not simply outsource to advertising agencies. This process really gained momentum after Hennie Koortzen joined the station in mid-2014 as morning shift presenter and station manager.
11. The staff corps was stabilized and retirement packages were negotiated with older staff members while efforts were made to develop and retain new entrants with pleasant working conditions, proper salary packages, medical, pension and disability benefits that did not exist before. Today, the staff is extremely stable and there is only a slight staff turnover with a gradual age distribution of staff which makes sustainability a given.
12. Since 2019, Pretoria FM has annually presented the Aitsa Afrikaans Music Awards where recognition is given to successful new releases of Afrikaans music in all its genres. The fourth Aitsa Afrikaans music awards will take place this year on 19 September 2023.
The purpose of existence of Pretoria FM is to promote Afrikaans as a language, and also Afrikaners’ cultural, religious and family values. That is why Pretoria FM offers a nationwide network of Afrikaans stations known for their independent reporting, quality programs and a pleasant listening atmosphere in Afrikaans
The future is one in which Pretoria FM will constantly renew itself, without abandoning its raison d’être and raison d’être.
In the digital age, FM becomes one of several channels appreciating the message of a radio station being broadcast, social media platforms and channels such as YouTube and Spotify compete to offer content to a hungry listening community. Pretoria FM will take its place there too.
Pretoria FM will remain a listening companion and a home companion for its listeners and community from Afrikaner ranks. Every mobile phone in the hand of every Afrikaner man or woman, regardless of whether he or she lives in Pretoria, Paris, Perth, New York or London, can become a radio that continues to bring the message of hope, faith and life in Afrikaans not only in Pretoria and the northern provinces, but over the green hills of KwaZulu-Natal, the golden Free State plains, the arid Karoo, the mountains, valleys and beaches of the Cape and to every corner of the earth.
Thirty years ago, Rev. Mossie van den Berg when asked “what now?” said “now we just go on”.
Today “keep going” and we grow and build and make sure that nothing will drive us out of this land that is our home, but that our message is heard:
yes we keep going
To fly the flame of freedom to the moon,
We your myrrh’s side, your tent in Bethlehem,
There is little we can do, we are Pretoria FM.”