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Tuning into Talent

Young radio industry talent wants to feel seen, heard and understood, writes TIM ZUNCKEL. This means we must invest – and invest now – in their future.

There is a popular trend on social media that looks at where someone or something started and where it currently is using a photograph, #HowItStarted and #HowItsGoing. A quick browse on any of the platforms will show a myriad of people, projects and events in various stages.The juxtaposition of the two pictures often creates humorous moments by showing how something has slipped backwards and looks quite disastrous, but can also highlight monumental strides and progress in other instances.

As a business, radio knows how to celebrate. From music to events, iconic people and moments to everyday life, radio can amplify events and revel in the success of others. It is with this spirit that we recognise our own good work and take a moment to applaud ourselves at the annual South African Radio Awards.Those who’ve been nominated and ultimately win in each category will no doubt post a #HowItsGoing picture, and so they should; this is the one time in a year when we can celebrate ourselves. For every #HowItsGoing picture there is a #HowItStarted moment.

As an industry, do we create enough #HowItStarted opportunities? Do we invest time, energy and effort into finding aspiring talent, nurturing their skill, training their ability and mentoring their development? Being a product of campus radio and actively working in the training and development space, I think the answer is no, but the reasons are complex. The South African broadcasting business has developed substantially since the early ‘90s, when commercial and community radio was introduced as an independent layer in the radio landscape.

The three-tier system of public, commercial and community radio sectors has always had a ‘people need’ and the sectors have loosely navigated the movement of talent between stations. Although we often associate ‘talent’ with on-air staff, it must be said that the ‘people need’ in all the sectors is vast and varied from technical, to sales and marketing, to those who contribute to the content value chain including presenters, producers, journalists, audio engineers and creatives.

Perfect People Filter Community radio is the perfect people filter and is the sector that has undoubtedly contributed the most amount of talent to the broader industry.This is because it is collectively the biggest (by stations and people) and because of the relationships within the communities it is based. It is far easier for someone who thinks they have a calling to work in radio or who is drawn to the allure of the medium to pass by the local radio station and try and get involved than to knock on the door of a bigger broadcaster.

This results in high turnover of community radio volunteer staff as people are introduced to the medium and the rigours of working in a station.Those who are dedicated and passionate stick around and quickly learn several basic skills in the community radio environment. The Media Connection, for example, has an academy with the mission to develop skills across the community radio sector.The initial learning curve is steep and those with natural inclination move quickly in the community environment, often becoming an attractive proposition for bigger stations.

Nthabeleng Matela (Metro FM) is a classic case of a community radio enthusiast becoming a commercial radio talent. Working as an economist in 2017, Matela knew she wanted to be in radio and approached her local university-based community station Tuks FM in Pretoria. With a clear goal in mind, she embraced the training offered by the station, attending as many sessions and workshops as she could, bearing in mind she had a full-time job.

Her commitment and focus meant she stuck it through the first round, watching others whom she trained with gradually disappear.Taking on a graveyard shift meant she was broadcasting at night and working by day.This hectic routine led her to making a considered decision after talking to station management. She resigned from her full-time employment and soon found herself presenting the afternoon drive on the popular campus station. With regular feedback, airchecks and guidance she matured quickly in the community space and was soon operating at a high level within the station. Her efforts were rewarded with a South African Radio Award for Best Afternoon Drive Presenter (Campus) in 2019, an accolade that helped springboard her into her current position at Metro FM, presenting the 4AM Club (weekend mornings 4–6am). Her current slot is billed as a training opportunity at the SABC station, and she regularly stands in for other shows as she establishes herself in a commercial radio environment.

Asked what the one piece of advice she would give other aspiring radio people is, Matela says, “Always remember why you want to do radio. It must be for the listener. Radio connects through powerful stories; learn to tell yours and maybe someone looking for talent will connect to your story.”

Community radio is often burdened with the time and cost factor of the base level training, and commercial radio has been accused of poaching talent from the community sector without investing back into the talent development regime. It seems like a fair accusation at face value considering the amount of community radio talent currently employed in the commercial and public radio sectors.

The challenge is that there is no formula to quantify the input that community radio invests into talent identification, training, and development.The trade-off at community level between station and staff is often that staff work as unpaid volunteers in exchange for the opportunity to learn. When an opportunity presents at a larger broadcaster, why wouldn’t the community talent consider it, especially if it is a paid job?

Talent Risks Ask any radio manager what they consider the risks in their station to be, and talent will be on the medium- to long-term risk analysis. Gauteng-based YFM created the Y Academy as part of their plans to mitigate the talent problem.YFM managing director Haseena Cassim explains that the station had an exodus of established talent that caused them to rethink the way in which talent is identified and hired. The Y Academy allows the station to expose candidates to various aspects of their business and operations.The academy was never just about on-air talent or DJs; it was a holistic approach to addressing skills shortages that could arise in the business.

Talent Development Cassim shares that they have at times have had 30% of their on-air team compromising Y Academy graduates and as much as 40% of the off-air staff having come through their training programme. These are impressive numbers and more impactful if you consider that the talent has been groomed in the station’s ecosystem.Those candidates who pass the Y Academy exam and stay on at the station can immediately begin to add value. When talking about the challenges that Covid-19 has had on their training academy, Cassim adds that for the first time in many years,YFM has had to look outside their academy. Listening to Cassim describe theY Academy concept, it seems obvious that a training division is essential if we want to employ the best of the best.

Grant Nash, Primedia Broadcasting’s head of creative solutions and Boston Media House’s radio knowledge manager, agrees that we need to do more as an industry and that we aren’t doing enough to develop talent. Nash is a community radio alumnus and author of the local radio textbook Next Level Radio. As part of his work, he spends time as a radio professional considering the academic training of students, ensuring they are workplace ready when they graduate. He believes there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Nash says, “The old ways of relying on community radio stations and a small group of individuals to drive talent development no longer works. As an industry young creative talent wants to feel seen, heard and understood, meaning we must invest and invest now in their future. We need to find ways to get in front of young talent. We need to mentor them one-on-one to allow them to explore, create and grow. Mentorship and coaching by everyone in the value chain, not only old fuddy-duddy programmers, need to drive the talent pool forward.”

From a talent perspective it seems as if hard work can pay off, and Matela’s story above resonates with many currently employed in the radio industry. At the recent Radio Days Africa Conference, Sakina Kamwendo spoke about her introduction to radio and the development of her career. From her session I took out that a keen interest, unfaltering desire, an appetite to learn and being prepared to start at the bottom are part of the recipe of being spotted, nurtured, and developed.I believe there is also an element of natural ability that mustn’t be overlooked. Showing up is simply not good enough.You need to show intent, show up, show interest, and understand show business.My message to young, astute and creative practitioners is that the radio industry has yet to refresh their thinking on talent.There has never been a better time to leverage your skills and talent, invest in yourself and know the difference between a career and a job. We know radio is looking for the next big thing, #HowItStarted. Could it be you? #HowItsGoing.

Original article from THE MEDIA MAGAZINE.

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