Here is the final bit of the sixth installment of ‘How we Came to Swim in the Wine Lake.’ For those of you who involuntarily missed the first five (and two thirds) engrossing episodes, they live on here in cyberspace on De Morgenzon’s facebook page. We also have a ‘blog’ on www.demorgenzon.com.
We, if you recall, assembled our team and went into our IBA hearing in the Crowne Plaza conference centre just off Grayston Drive in Sandton. No one had thought we stood a chance. Our line-up was politically correct in the extreme – the weightiest underdogs possible.
Our structure! The IBA wanted to see black economic empowerment and they wanted to see women as shareholders. We could, of course, have found a couple of well-connected black movers-and-shakers and persuaded them to take the shares that we’d fund for them. The only value that would have been added by an oligarch or two to our ranks would have been on the day of the hearing. It also rankled … the iconoclasts lurking in our souls objected.
We decided to give the IBA exactly what they wanted … in buckets. We created a company called Mmino Holdings and gave (yes gave – no loans, no conditions) the shares to women who had devoted their lives to music for little or no reward. We created Ughubu Holdings, a company predominantly owned by black male musicians. Similarly, Disability Empowerment Trust representing over 5 million disabled people was given a stake. We created the Ingoma Trust, with highly respected and independent trustees including Judge Richard Goldstone, Prof Mzilikazi Khumalo and Peter Sullivan, and a mandate to fund serious music. Classic FM UK took a stake and Liberty Foundation kept 20% with a promise that we’d plough any money we ever made out of it into the world of serious music.
We assembled our team and went into our IBA hearing, unquestionably the rank outsiders. No one had thought we stood a chance. Our line-up was politically correct in the extreme. Our brilliant lawyers, Lauren Jacobsen and Mark Rosin, Dave Kelly who had run Bates Wells for years and was hugely knowledgeable of the advertising and media landscape, Michael Masote the highly respected (and first) Soweto music teacher (whose nephews are the Soweto String Quartet), the Masote’s son Kutulwano, the talented cellist who still plays an important role at the station, Sibongile Khumalo the famous South African soprano, Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo – the Head of African languages at Wits and Composer of, inter alia, uShaka and Princess Magogo and our National Anthem, Ladumo Magangane – a legend in the choral world, Professor Andrew Tracey who with his father Hugh, had assembled, archived and developed the world’s most important archive of African traditional music. The legendary Sophie Mcina who had never previously owned a share in anything. Dr William Rowland, the blind intellectual who spoke so passionately about the role of radio in the lives of those who cannot see. Eon de Vos, Mark’s brother-in-law who had run Radio Highveld for years joined us as CEO and brought unquestionable expertise. Michael Bukht came from ClassicFM in England. Winnie Kunene, projects manager at the Liberty Life Foundation and John van Zyl completed our team.
The hearings were open to the public and were well attended by people in the broadcast industry – those competing for licences as well as many established players. No one thought we stood a chance and we were met with amused skepticism and the occasional sympathetic smile. The hopelessness of our cause was taken as given. We began our presentation and a hushed silence slowly crept over the room … the very large room.
Professor Mary Rorich, with her characteristic thoroughness and humour, had scripted and thoroughly rehearsed our very impressive team. Eon de Vos produced us superbly. We were good – very good indeed. A few years later I was speaking with David Niddrie, who had been an IBA Councilor at the time. He told me that before our presentation no IBA councilor thought we stood any chance at all, but we blew their socks off.
We were granted a licence and the daunting task of delivering to Gauteng a classical music radio station.
So we set about carving our space in the spectrum. Our friends from London were very supportive and we learned from them. We also undertook extensive research into domestic tastes in ‘fine’ music. It was soon apparent that black South Africans were very tolerant of a wide range of musics. ‘Whites’ weren’t nearly as accepting of music with which they were unfamiliar. The crucial test was ‘how long will a listener last before he changes station.’ In other words, you’ll cope with something that’s mildly discordant but will change stations if it really irritates you. We found genres that no one … absolutely no one … could tolerate. Chinese music was impossible and Chinese Opera distinguished itself – we found not a single person in Gauteng who could survive more than a few seconds of it. Indian music also proved challenging. A few elderly Indian listeners enjoyed Indian classical music. No younger Indian people did.
So, if you’re running a classical music radio station you’ll try to determine what your audience wants and deliver it to them. If, on the other hand, you’re a wine snob you’ll tell your audience what they ought to be drinking and show mild disapproval of any divergence of opinion – never mind of taste. To succeed in radio, however, we had constantly to monitor and change programming to find a space where we could be more accessible – more popular if you will – without sacrificing either stimulation or challenge.
We were to start broadcasting, but no one knew about us and we had very little money. I wrote posters and we had them strategically strapped to trees and poles all over our broadcast area. Some still make me smile:
The essentially Jo’burg one – “Gratuitous sax and violins.”
The one that I still fervently believe – “More opera, less Oprah.”
The one that highlighted our educative role “For the birds and the Bizet.”
The one I feared most – “On a Haydn to nothing.”
I fear this is becoming too hard to Handel, but there were many more.
Our first three years were very difficult indeed. We started wrongfootedly by disputing the RAMS radio listenership figures because of their woefully inadequate and antiquated methodology (which I still believe). We commissioned our own research and our numbers came out fantastically – in the true sense. There was an element of fantasy in them. Simply put, they were horribly overstated. Naturally the media planners in the agencies, whose intelligence and competence we had perfectly justifiably questioned, punished us. Nevertheless, we had built an amazing audience with the highest LSMs of any media by far. We were, depressingly, in the hands of gum-chewing miniskirted media planners capable only of taking their spreadsheets and going for numbers. “Raydeeo is a numbers gayme doll.” Come on! Yes, but what – quite frankly – is the point of advertising products to people who either have no interest in them or can’t afford them?
We soldiered on. Our expenses were bizarre and we were about as overstaffed as the SABC. Finally, though, we began to break even, and ultimately to make money. Liberty’s support was unstinting, although my Murdochean aspirations were suspiciously regarded from under my colleagues’ hooded brows.
Sadly we couldn’t afford all of the radio training and community radio support we were providing and it had to go. The ABC Ulwazi Training institution was housed within ClassicFM and we arguably did more training of aspirant young broadcasters than even our woeful national public broadcaster. We had to choose between our social obligations – as we saw them – and our survival. We cut savagely down to a lean mean machine. Mike Ford replaced Eon de Vos who had done an excellent job of getting us up, running and in the public awareness.
An unanticipated consequence of ClassicfM’s growth was that I had to stop going to concerts and musical events in Johannesburg. The fanatical music-lovers would spot me… beady eyes keeping track of, and anticipating my every move. Short of locking myself in a toilet stall for the interval, I had to deal with a never-ending and totally remorseless phalanx of disgruntled passionate classical music lovers. I’d be regaled with furious questions like “do you know how many times you’ve played “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” this month (never more than twice a year I think .. we checked the records). We were cursed by our blessing of passionate, involved and committed listeners. No one phoned Five FM to complain “Jus bro …. You’ve played Justin Bieber twice this month.” Quite the converse .. they like it so they want more. Not less. Weird really.
One of the catalysts for ClassicfM’s financial success was our relationship with Alec Hogg. MoneyWeb bought 20% of our company and Alec brought his business show to us as a joint venture. Suddenly we had the best, and most desirable, business show on radio and the flow of both sponsorships and advertising revenues became torrential.
Alec wanted to increase the amount of business talk – we felt we couldn’t for a number of reasons. Alec, whose obvious first interest was to grow MoneyWeb, arranged to parallel broadcast his business show on a second radio station which would give him much additional time for business talk. We couldn’t accept our platform being used to grow a competitor’s audience so we – in a very difficult decision – gave Alec an ultimatum and parted ways. Peter Bruce and Business Day stepped brilliantly into the gap and we went from strength to strength in the business market. Peter Don, ClassicfM UK’s representative on our board put in a special effort and helped us through the immediate post-Alec turbulence.
Alec, who had been toying with selling his 20% to Primedia, ultimately sold his shares to Dominic Ntsele and Ivan Khosa, the soccer supremo. Dominic soon set about buying our empowerment partners’ stakes in the company. Mmino Holdings and Ughubu Investments accepted his offer. A little later DET too decided to sell. I, however, wasn’t satisfied with the price Dominic offered Liberty Foundation for our shares, and Classic fM UK was influenced by our thinking. Ultimately we came to a mutually acceptable price and Dominic, being a gentleman, agreed unilaterally to increase the price accepted by the earlier sellers.
Dominic, who has his own vision for the station set about making major changes. Sadly he ended the relationship with Business Day, but the station still sounds good, and is doing well. After continuing as chairman for a few years I came to feel that I had reached my ‘sell by date’ and decided to resign from the board – which I did at the beginning of this year.
Classical music’s challenge is to be more accessible to a growing market and not to scare people away because they don’t feel they have the requisite knowledge to enjoy it. It’s the same with wine. You don’t need special knowledge to enjoy classical music. Most people who say “I don’t like classical music” inevitably do. I always respond by asking “did you see Harry Potter or Titanic or Star Wars? Did you like the score?” Naturally no one didn’t, so I continue – “well, that’s classical music…
Albinoni’s ‘Adagio in G minor for Organ and Strings’ sounds so elevated. Perhaps you’ll remember it from Flashdance, or Gallipoli, or Rollerball, or Show me Love, or Welcome to Sarajevo … or from The Doors? Jim Morrison made it hugely popular. Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ sounds so serious, but has been featured in many movies including The Last Castle, and Maurice, and The Terminal Man, and Before Sunrise, and Hannibal, and The Silence of the Lambs, and The English Patient.
I’m on a bit of a roll here. Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto featured in Dead Poets Society, and Invincible, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Tomorrow Never Dies, and Fearless. His 5th Symphony in countless movies including Austin Powers in Goldmember, and Bowfinger, and The Breakfast Club, and Celebrity, and L.A. Story, and Saturday Night Fever, and Starsky & Hutch, and Immortal Beloved, and Howards End, and Fight Club.
So, in my long winded way I eventually establish that everyone enjoys some classical music, but is nervous to admit it. The reason is apparent in the inevitable and slightly embarrassed answer “but I don’t know anything about it.” And therein lies the rub. No one wants to appear ignorant or stupid, and people presume that some special knowledge is a prerequisite to enjoying classical music. It’s the same with wine. It really isn’t necessary to have any expertise, and not knowing much about what’s in your glass doesn’t detract from its taste.
Wine not only tastes wonderful, but it enhances the taste of one’s food and induces a feeling of goodwill (too much goodwill, however, can have one fail a breathalyser test). It also has a range of health benefits. In short, wine has for a few thousand years been the adult beverage most associated with good taste, sophistication and style. However, the wine industry makes a huge effort to confuse the average consumer – the product range is hopelessly fragmented, hugely confusing, and virtually impenetrable. A combination of complacency, misinformation and stubbornness keeps us trapped in the same old paradigm. An unwillingness to adapt and change prevents us from growing a larger consumer base. Surely the wine industry would be well served by becoming more consumer-focused, simplifying our messages and improving our ability to communicate? No. Strangely our approach remains the same, “we must better educate consumers, move them up to better wine.”
The wine industry has traditionally placed its focus on connoisseurs and wine snobs rather than the much greater number of unpretentious people who enjoy wine. According to Tim Hanni, many producers, retailers and wine writers have taken much of the potential enjoyment out of wine drinking by shrouding the subject with myth, snobbery, and arcane or pretentious language. This facade has been a convenient means of confusing or even intimidating wine shoppers into making purchase decisions much less helpfully informed than is the case with most other foods and beverages. In fact, it is perfectly possible to provide – in relatively simple day to day language – the basic information which most wine drinkers need to select any given wine.
Hanni asks, “what are we missing that keeps a vast majority of consumers confused, mystified and intimidated?” The answer is to start cleaning up a lot of the tired clichés and misinformation that is disseminated under the pretense of “wine education,” and enforce a greater rigor in the information we dispense. What would it look like if the wine industry took on the mission to understand, embrace and cultivate ALL wine consumers, not just the over-saturated segment we narrowly define as ‘worthy’? What if our next educational initiative were internal and focused on learning more about consumers and discovering more about who likes what and why?