The 90%: Shuffling Away From The West and Vindicating an Industry

Don Laka Hlaudi Motsoeneng SABC radio Platform

By now we should all be aware of yesterday’s sudden announcement by music veteran and musician’s advocate Don Laka that the SABC had agreed to force all 18 of its radio stations to play 90% local music

There is a well-documented global shift away from traditionally programmed radio towards (sometimes) curated, playlist-based streaming of music, and the proportion of people listening to radio in SA is certainly declining, so for many who read Platform this recent development in the radio quotas will have very little effect on listening habits.

That said, the number of people in SA with stable and disposable internet access – let alone access to streaming and internet broadcasting – is tiny. It’s safe to say that SABC’s network of 18 radio stations reaches a MASSIVE audience. It’s no wonder that the airtime on those stations is so hotly contested; getting radio play grants musicians a whole new audience receptive to their message and sound, plus access to a fairly substantial direct income stream. That’s aside from any other knock-on effect of being on high rotation on the airwaves, such as better and bigger gigs, access to a new world of collaborators and so much more.

Whilst the overwhelming overall response to the news has described it as a radical masterstroke and exactly what the industry needs (stretching as far as calls to expand this policy to every aspect of our lives), there are some who are not so convinced.

A dominant negative response has been that we don’t have enough quality music in the country to fill 90% of the airtime devoted to local culture. To that there are two primary responses:

Firstly, SA likely does have enough quality music lurking in every corner of the country, but quite frankly, what we don’t have is enough quality journalism uncovering and legitimising that music to be able to easily see the cream at the top. A vast majority of the country’s writers, editors, program producers, DJs, etc. don’t work hard enough to decode and validate raw cultural progression in a respectful and insightful way. This inevitably weakens the ability of radio compilers to both find and feel secure in their finds when considering whether to put something new on. If radio compilers’ choices were backed up by a stronger body of legitimate, high quality journalism, we’d see a filtering out of the mediocre middle ground bullshit and allow the most genuinely interesting music to push through more clearly. The currently dense and murky waters of under-explored and under-interpreted local music would be made more clear and the best would be more easily found. This is a problem that won’t be solved by the 90% rule, but the rule will certainly make the need to solve it more clear and urgent. If the radio compilers step up to the plate and deliver on compelling local music 90% of the time, then local music has a real shot of becoming part of a healthy, vibrant ecosystem of subcultures.

Secondly and perhaps contrasted to the above, if there is going to be trash on radio, let it at least be our trash. Commercial Top 40 radio stations like 5fm, Metro FM and Good Hope FM are always going to have to play the type of music that ICASA has awarded them a license to play and which works for their target audiences. That doesn’t mean that those stations have to necessarily play formulaic, almost mechanised plastic bullshit, but if the compilers decide to go that route at least let it be made locally, so that we’re not exporting our collected royalties overseas. This jump in local music on radio means a huge injection of vitality into a currently malnourished music industry. This may not directly lead to an instant increase in a healthy myriad of new forms of music, but it will indirectly make that more viable to even consider pursuing.

The decision to dominate the airwaves with local is not necessarily going to change the type of music played, but locals who make the type of music that is already being played on radio will continue getting paid and will be shifted out of the 35% periphery and onto centre-stage. The space that they previously occupied will now be open to more up-and-comers, some of whom will replicate the dominant sound and some of whom will be part of the huge contingent of musicians in SA already switching it up. Either way, the local industry benefits, and if a few more musicians are able to make a basic living from the direct and indirect effect of increased radio play, then the quality and diversity represented is certain to increase. At the very least, we will likely see more pop superstars in SA, but that also means bigger and better concerts for other acts to play at, more focus on affordable non-foreign headliners for festivals which leaves more money on the table for local support acts and a myriad of other positive knock-on effects.

Aside from that, if, as we are seeing now, the most far-reaching provider of music to a population – radio – is compelled to find and broadcast music that reflects the identity of that population, they will be forced to find the most engaging examples of that cultural identity to keep the audience engaged and listening.

This is a concept that has already been tested and proven in the Nigerian music industry, which has seen huge growth since changing its radio and broadcast policies to be inward-looking.

Of course, even with relatively limited national internet access locally, the global North and West will continue impacting our evolving tastes, but radio itself shouldn’t perpetuate that. What needs to be acknowledged is that the US and UK have reached such cultural ubiquity across the planet due to exactly this form of self-congratulatory, incubatory media (and of course, partly post-imperial economic privilege). A good example is the BBC, a well-funded bastion of ‘Britishness’ in absolutely any form, which has been a huge catalyst for  the upliftment of just about any form of British music for decades.  And, of course, nobody needs to be convinced of how much America values the American-ness of literally anything.

This dominant self-effacing idea of South Africans that we don’t have a depth of excellence in the local music landscape is a concept that no Brit or American music listener would even entertain in relation to their own scenes and its dominance in SA is fed by the dominance of their cultural produce in our spaces. If we only consider how much music from the continent as a whole has influenced and built the movements that the US claims as their own, we can only conclude that there are worlds of undervalued music waiting to have a national light shone on it and currently being drowned out and suffocated by the dominance of Amerocentric music.

Rather than suffocating radio playlists with tired ideas of Brit- and US-soaked indie pop rock and imported aesthetics in hip hop and dance music, for example, radio could start to reflect an evolution of globally-connected, but regionally-rooted sincerely authentic cultural and subcultural values being expressed through music. Local musicians would be given the space to think and work and radio listeners will finally be given the chance to fall in love with authentically regional music without the constant agitation (and current saccharine positive feedback loop in local radio) of the sounds and ideas of seemingly larger-than-life global pop superstars.

This quota decision will not necessarily immediately switch up that West-centric aesthetic that the biggest of SABC’s stations pander to, but it will certainly pave the way for us to overcome our inferiority complex and flush out the imported ideas that have little bearing on our lives.

This decision is essentially a radically pro-local-economy and culturally Afro-centric move, one desperately needed (and broadly welcomed) in a still highly West-centric cultural landscape and collective headspace. While it may seem extreme to jump to 90% overnight – with little time to prepare for the shift and for station managers to gear up their show formats to accommodate local music – the rule will apply for 90 days, and a more long-term decision will be made based on listener feedback during that period. Let’s hope the radio compilers don’t unintentionally sabotage the efforts to build faith in the music landscape.

It’s true that this decision could be clear-cut electioneering by Motsoeneng and may be easily reversible after the 90 days is up and the municipal elections are over, or that a compromise quota will be reached after the ‘trial period’, but the very fact that a national conversation is happening around how much we value our own music is progress in itself.

In the meantime, we’ll stick to finding our local music wherever we can online and grow the movement of excellence and subcultural inquiry until national radio has no choice but to include those who we champion.

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