It’s one of those voices. The sort you can listen to all day and never tire of. One that strings together strong opinion, personal insight, knowledge, wisdom and just the right degree of jollity to hold your attention and make time disappear. It’s a voice heard by hundreds of thousands of people across the country. For many, it’s the first thing they’ll hear each morning, a voice that’s familiar and comforting, one that these listeners rely on to get them through still-sleepy eyes, fights for the bathroom, primping and preening, and the horrible tangle of traffic. It is a voice that people look to for reassurance. ‘They want to know if it’s safe to go outside,’ says Bongani Bingwa, in that voice. ‘They want to know if the world is the same one they went to bed knowing. Will they be okay? Will they get through this day?’
It really is a voice that matters, that people depend on. Words are enunciated and clear, sure, but what’s even more important is that Bingwa’s voice carries the weight of an informed, well-read and wisely opinionated broadcaster who cares tremendously about the impact his words will have. When he goes on air on Talk Radio 702 at 6 am, he does everything he can to deliver a show that will set the right tone.
There’s a prevailing optimistic streak that – together with a very human kind of insecurity – compels him to give the best of himself all the time. ‘It doesn’t matter how tired I am; it doesn’t matter what’s going on in my life: At six o’clock in the morning, I’ve got to be that voice of bright sunshine that hopefully gets you out of bed and gets you thinking about your day. What does it mean? It means I don’t have the luxury of having a bad day. I don’t have the luxury of being “in my feelings” or in a bad mood.’
The hope, says Bingwa, is to talk about things that will fascinate people, and sometimes, those may well be trivial and silly. ‘But is it all silly? No. Is it all serious? No. I like the idea that you don’t quite know what we’re going to talk about, but I also like the idea that by the time you get to the office, you’re going to have a sense of what’s going on in the world, without realising that’s what we’ve set out to do. South Africa is a challenging country with very serious problems, but I don’t want to be a depressing person in the morning. I don’t want to be the person who causes you to move to Perth!’
His show is necessarily chatty and effervescent, but Bingwa says almost everything is written down. He believes in being prepared. ‘Almost verbatim, the things that I say between 6 and 9 are actually written down. That’s how meticulous I believe one has to be.’
He believes that having an opinion that matters comes with a burden of responsibility. ‘I can’t shoot from the hip. We live in the age of social media, so my opinions must be well considered. They must be well informed, they must be well reasoned, and they must be thought out. If I say something stupid on the radio, it’s all over Twitter in seconds.’
Yet despite working from a script, Bingwa is a consummate conversationalist, capable of holding forth in a manner that reveals an inherent gift for storytelling that seems woven into his DNA. ‘I come from a family that tells stories. My mother, who is 80 years old this year, is one of the best storytellers I know. And even when you think you’ve heard her stories ten, 15, 20 times before, she has something to say that’s new. She continues to make me laugh, because her stories always surprise me.’
The accidental broadcaster
Bingwa says he’s had a love affair with good voices all his life. ‘As a boy, when I was asked what I wanted to do with my life, I always said: “I want to be a DJ.” Today, in my head, I’m a journalist. I don’t think of myself as a DJ, but it occurs to me that the reason I wanted to be a DJ was because I listened to people and how they spoke.’ Those early voices in his life were the old Radio 5 DJs of the 1980s – guys like Alex Jay, Barney Simon, and Phil Wright, who did the Top 40 on a Sunday morning. ‘These guys were good speakers on the radio, and the radio was my life. That was when I was 14 years old and I was more in love with the radio than I was with TV.’
Strangely, while that childhood fondness for the radio instilled in him a love of music that’s still very much alive, he never imagined that he’d end up in broadcasting. ‘People always said: “You sound like you should be on the radio or on TV,” but I thought that was a bizarre thing to say. I love words and I love ideas, yes, but I always thought I would become a writer.’
In an ironic twist, Bingwa has ‘issues’ with his voice. ‘I think it’s a bit too high-pitched sometimes – particularly when I get emotional. I have to adjust buttons in the studio so that I can be more in control and be more centred.’
At university, though, he did test the waters, taking some courses in drama, experimenting with theatre. ‘It was the mid-1990s, and it was a very fluid time,’ he says. ‘There was this sense that anything was possible… When you talk to kids today who are 25, they don’t understand what 1994 meant. They don’t understand that moment of hope, that spirit of reinvention, that notion that anything could happen and everything was within reach. In those days, I had a sense that I really could achieve anything I wanted to.’
What he has achieved was kick-started almost entirely by chance, though. He happened to enter a speaking competition and someone who heard him being interviewed then invited him to an audition. The next thing he knew, he was a children’s-television presenter, and the rest is a history of scaling the ranks of the broadcasting world. When he left Carte Blanche in March, he’d been with the long-running current-affairs show for 11 years.
He says that even after more than a decade as an investigative broadcast journalist, he doesn’t actually enjoy the confrontational interviews that were a mainstay of his work for Carte Blanche. He says that for him, the thrill never lay in grilling people who had potentially done something heinous or unforgiveable. Rather, he went into tough interviews always willing to discover that there was another side to the story.
Either way, television never had the same appeal as radio, which he refers to as his first love. ‘Because, on the radio, I can be myself. On the radio, it’s my ideas, it’s my mind speaking to yours, hopefully engaging with yours. Television has a formality to it, a gravitas and a smoothness; there’s a prettiness to it, because it’s visual. TV is about looking at things, whereas on radio, I’ve got to describe it to you, I’ve got to make you see it without the visuals. When I succeed, it’s a lot more fulfilling.’
He also says radio gives him a greater degree of control. ‘On TV, there’s somebody in my ear telling me when to speak and when to stop speaking. There are five million other things going on, whereas on the radio, it’s just the two of us – me and you.’
Prime time family man
Still, it’s not as if he’s cut TV out of his life. He’s taken up the vital prime time anchor position at SABC News, a move that – combined with his early-morning wake-up to prepare for his radio show – is keeping him extremely busy. ‘It’s a transitional moment in my life right now, trying to get used to doing two very big current-affairs jobs, so I have scaled down on a lot of social activities. There are parties I’m not going to be going to, dinners I’m missing out on, friends who probably won’t speak to me for very long. But once I’m settled, I’ll get into a rhythm; whatever happens, my downtime is for my kids and some of my close friends.’
Family, he says, is everything. ‘My family is my life. My kids are my life. I can step out of broadcasting at any moment – there’s always going to be somebody who is younger, has a smaller waist, a brighter smile, and shinier teeth. On radio and TV, I’m replaceable, but I’m hopefully not replaceable to my kids.
‘Because I’m an insecure person, my children have taught me that I matter. Parents will tell you that they didn’t know they could love another human being as much as they love their kids. That’s great. But the really humbling thing is knowing that somebody loves you as much as your kids love you. It’s the most humbling kind of love. Your kids love you in a way that recognises the very best of who you are. That thing they say in corny romantic movies – “You make me want to be a better man” – that’s actually what your kids do. Every day you want them to be proud of who you are as a person.’