06/04/2017 12:52 SAST | Updated 06/04/2017 18:05 SAST

Touch vs Metro: The Embattled SABC Cannot Keep Up In The Battle For The Airwaves

As it loses key radio talent, can the SABC remain relevant in today's fast-shifting radio scene?

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No one is irreplaceable, even Bonang Matheba, but if the SABC continues to butt heads with some of its biggest stars it could find itself the subject of a bigger talent drain.

The South African radio scene is in the throes of one of its most thrilling power struggles to date.

On the one side is Metro FM, part of the state broadcaster SABC, and on the other is Tbo Touch's glittering new online station Touch HD -- a pioneer in the local online radio platform which is streamed online through any internet-connected device.

After leaving Metro last year where he became a household name, Touch is currently making headlines for poaching some of the best talent from his former employer including Glen Lewis and (reportedly although it hasn't been confirmed yet) Bonang Mathebu and Unathi Msengana. He's also nabbed Tim Modise from Power FM.

When Touch (full name Thabo Tbo Touch Molefe) resigned from Metro last year, not many would have thought that today he'd be at the heart of the station's annual April reshuffle.

After leaving the station Molefe joined forces with fellow radio mogul, Gareth Cliff, to launch his digital radio station, Touch Central (now Touch HD) in August last year.

Earlier this year, he revealed that he would be relaunching the station and giving it a R28million facelift, and made it clear that the relaunch would come with a new line-up of radio heavyweights.

Jumping ship?

With the SABC reportedly in a financial crisis, was the exodus inevitable?

If the reports are true and the public broadcaster is indeed unable to pay independent TV producers, what hope is there for the DJs, most of whom, if not all, work on a contract basis?

The broadcaster's attitude towards its DJs and some senior presenters could end up being its downfall and to the gain of Touch HD -- that's besides all its other shenanigans as far as money is concerned.

According to TshisaLIVE, Metro FM's management labelled Matheba a diva and also accused her of holding the station to ransom. She claims she was only told about dramatic changes to her 10am to midday weekday show, The Front Row, on the day they happened although this was contradicted in a report by The Citizen and whatsapp messages revealed by TimesLive.

No one is irreplaceable, even Matheba and Glen Lewis, but if the SABC continues to butt heads with some of its biggest stars it could find itself the subject of a bigger talent drain.

Or perhaps, this is the best way to #OpenUpTheIndustry as the Twitter trend implies.

Changing radio scene

The winds of change are blowing on traditional radio as we know it with the country gearing up for both the advent of digital radio and more online streaming. According to techcentral.co.za, DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) offers many advantages:

The Southern African Digital Broadcasting Association (Sadiba), the National Association of Broadcasters and a DAB+ Trial Working Group are running digital radio trials on DAB+. The trial covers Johannesburg and Pretoria and includes 40 public, commercial and community radio stations.

Working group chair Dave Cherry says South Africa has taken note of the numerous success stories on the use of DAB+, especially in Australia with its vast landscape.

There are many advantages to using DAB+, cost-saving being key among them. "If the public broadcaster had 18 radio stations, it would need 18 licences and 18 transmitters under the current system. With DAB+, just one transmitter would be needed to broadcast 18 stations," says Cherry.

More and more presenters and jocks are joining digital radio space and so are their listeners. The time would be now for the SABC to strategise and reposition itself to compete with the new wave of radio. However the broadcaster is mired in crisis after crisis, heavy political battles and has recently reportedly run into a major financial crisis and cannot pay all its bills.

These are some of the new kids on the radio block.

  • After leaving 5FM, radio mogul Gareth Cliff launched his online radio station, CliffCentral FM.
  • Touch also launched his online music radio station, now called TouchHD.
  • Earlier this week, Massiv Metro went live. The station is the brainchild of former Metro FM DJ, Sbusiso "DJ Sbu" Leope.

What the trio has in common is their past history with the SABC and they are now seem to poaching SA's best presenters from the public broadcaster with ease.

Remaining relevant in today's fast-shifting battle of the airwaves will be increasingly difficult for such a large and lumbering beast as the SABC.