Three weeks ago many Christians in Nelson Mandela Bay were shocked and confused by the news that their radio station, Kingfisher FM was taken off air over a licence infringement. Alan Ahlfeldt, former station manager of Kingfisher FM, shares transparently about the difficult road he and his team walked growing the station and building relations with the church and community. And he writes frankly about painful behind-the-scenes struggles that contributed to their broadcast blackout. Kingfisher FM is fighting to get its licence back and meanwhile, its loyal staff are continuing to share hope-filled radio online
It all started six years ago, with being handed a community radio station to run. The funny thing about many community radio stations is that they are being run by people who aren’t necessarily convinced by the media and don’t know radio in the first place. Many just pass into the hands of the next person willing to give it a go and so it landed in my lap and I did just that, I gave it a go. With some experience in radio but much more in media generally.
Kingfisher FM has been around for more than 20 years and is part of the story of thousands of people in the metro. Radio hits you with its huge learning curve and straight away it was realised that the mandate of the station was a Christian Community station however it was functioning as a lifestyle station, which ironically went against its licence (more about the dreaded license talk later).
The church was estranged from the radio station to a large degree and many relationships were tense. Within the organisation there was a feeling that something was off-kilter but we threw ourselves in with passion nonetheless, wading through radio jargon and trying to get a handle on that elusive something.
One of the first things to do was to take the station back to its original mandate as a Christian station, the next was to hit the marketplace and sell like blazes to try and get the company liquid. A subversive feeling however prevailed. One of our staff members had an anniversary and her Facebook posts showed that it was celebrated in a style completely out of sync with her salary; she also happened to be the bookkeeper.
An in-depth analysis of the accounts identified that our SARS payment (we had dutifully paid SARS on time) had been diverted to a different account. On further investigation it was discovered that our internal bookkeeper had stolen two VAT payments, confirming the feelings of murk and so started a road of betrayal, investigation and a forensic audit by MAZARS, our long-suffering and gracious audit partners for the last six years. Over one million Rand had been stolen.
Our staff were mortified, our journey had just taken a new turn and we moved on regardless. Together we built relationships with the church, opened our doors as those before us had to hundreds of interviews within the community and created a core set of values. HOPE, EXCELLENCE, AUTHENTICITY, RELATIONSHIP all underpinned with the LOVE of Christ.
In case you were not aware, the staff of community radio are special people. You are looking at a small handful of people, most of whom have to work second jobs, do not earn market-related salaries, wear many hats within the station and within Kingfisher FM this handful of people strove to bring professional, authentic, hope-filled radio to the community.
Compare this to commercial stations who have large staff contingents with much more financial leverage, one sees a picture that is vastly different. The community station is a training ground for the up-and-coming, a space where a handful of people struggle and figuratively sweat blood to give the community the excellence and care it deserves.
When our listeners turn the dial we wanted them to experience a flow of excellence despite the extreme struggles beneath the surface. Struggles with our signals, lightning, load shedding, power surges. Both signal towers needed 4 x 4 access and in the true style of community radio, it felt like these towers cried like babies… a lot.
Logistically this was no man’s or woman’s playground, it was a space that had the words “GODS PURPOSE” written all over it. Our goal was to be a platform that operated with integrity and we did everything in our power to make it that, but it was not enough.
In stepped our ICASA licence ordeal. Any direct order given by ICASA was always met with a high jump and salute. However, when it came to the licence renewal which comes along every five years we missed the boat. The board who in the eyes of ICASA is in charge of compliance were unaware of the pending date and our management team was so focused on logistics that it missed it as well.
If we did receive any direct reminder, it was missed in the deluge of 200 emails a day. After the fact however and much searching of emails, it was discovered that an email was sent to the music department and then forwarded on to the management team. None of the management team, however, recall seeing this reminder. It was a blow like no other.
We discovered the lapsed license quite by chance after a period of weeks of talking to ICASA and requesting the license so that we could research possibly moving our broadcasting tower. When they said that we did not have a valid license, we immediately asked for the process to address the issue and place a late submission. We were told that there is no process but we should proceed anyway and hope for the best.
After submission, we were informed that ICASA would not accept our submission and we were informed that our community’s 24-year-old station would have to go off air. No amount of discussion got us anywhere.
It was then discovered that many stations across the nation were also being taken off air — over 40 in fact. It seemed like a culling.
It seemed like our hard work was all in vain for the love of God and our community. What would happen to our staff — the five staff members and the other 19 that receive some sort of stipend every month? It did not seem to be real.
By this stage we had not received an official letter to go off air, but it seemed to be pending. Then in stepped a “saviour”. A staff member brought a gentleman into the station; we will call him Mr T. Mr T was from an organisation that dealt with ICASA on behalf of community radio. He was a believer. He knew radio.
This Mr T firmly believed that with the organisation called the NCRF (National Radio Community Forum) on our side we would survive the ordeal and find favour with the giant. He received a contract for six months to work with us on compliance and the development of our Xhosa programming.
But within a matter of six weeks we started to question his intentions. A time of deep stress and intense fear followed. This was happening at a time when load shedding had its heel on our necks. Every time it started or finished I had to be at the station to take it off generator or put it back on, be it day or night. Middle-of-the-night petrol stops became a habit and family life was controlled by Eskom.
Meanwhile, our Mr T was proving to be a snake in the grass. He mainly gave us verbal instructions. We struggled to get him to back up the compliance instructions with actual data from ICASA. He took it upon himself to order us to not call him by his actual name but to refer to him as “Apostle”.
He had insisted on us getting nine new presenters on board in order to populate the airwaves with through-the-night and weekend presenters. This we could not afford as our staff are paid in increments during the month, however he insisted on us using volunteers.
Now, it was not in our hearts to take a group of people, many of whom would have to be at the station at strange times and place a burden of non-payment on their shoulders. Long debates and discussions where we fought him on this, were met with insistence that volunteers were the way to go. (Many community stations go this route but we felt in our hearts that it becomes abusive after a while, so generally steer clear of it). It was eventually decided that we would give the volunteers three-month contracts and do our best to find sponsors for the night time programming in order to protect them and us.
Promises were made of money flowing in once the community got a taste of the new programming and that ICASA would look favourably on this move. Mr T then placed himself as a presenter in two slots. Again, a discussion ensued as he was contracted to fulfil his compliance contract and we felt there was a clash of interests.
He pushed hard, insisting this was part of a strategic plan for ICASA, and he would only be on air for a time. As a result, he carved his platform in night-time radio. Compliance went out of the window and the hardcore battle began. Mr T became abusive with management and held his ICASA ace card over our heads.
Many staff members will never know the battles waged behind the scenes as we discovered that he was a man with a mission to take over a radio station, a man in need of a power platform. Mr T had moved from a sleepy coastal town and started his ministry in the city. Our platform would feed that ministry. Like a boy in a candy shop he wanted to take it all.
“I will take you down!” were words flung at management, and then came the abuse for non-payment of the very people he had insisted we engage as volunteers. There were extremely dark moments.
Everyone at the station soldiered on. ICASA hung over our head, yet our AGM had given rise to a bright, new, young chairman of our board — a man who had walked a road with management. However, events that followed, prevented that dream from being realised.
On advice from our new chairman, our management team had to resign and a task team took over the station. Compliance had to be achieved by October 20, so the licence renewal was couriered on the 18th. We felt we had complied. But ICASA did not even open our renewal application!
After a heated board meeting, the chairman cut off communication with the previous management team and the board. Even after ICASA took Kingfisher FM off the air late last month he did not communicate with the board, insisting on a process as opposed to addressing the situational crisis.
A task team who largely knew very little about radio was tasked with running the station and required to report back after one month. The staff carried on fulfilling their duties regardless, and management did what they could on the side.
Political turmoil within the task team was the order of the day. This was largely kept from the staff. A huge struggle for control of the station ensued, and so Kingfisher was saved by a storm. ICASA arrived with the police to order it off air. The beauty of the moment as told by the staff was that the police officers were met with smiles and offers of warm beverages. They were heard saying: “God is in this place, look at how they behave they even offer us coffee…”.
The switch-off experience was ordered, gentle and the police drifted off to attend to more important criminal matters.
The ICASA staff acted like gentlemen and so we went off air. Mr T, on hearing that ICASA personnel were at the station, phoned in a huff and masqueraded as a Kingfisher board member, ordering them to keep Kingfisher on the air. He did not do his show that night. I wrote a press release and sent it to our chairman. The chairman made Mr T the PR to the media which made no sense to anyone.
The next day an abusive threatening Whatsapp was sent to me by Mr T, even accusing me of having a Kingfisher vehicle (of which there is none) and not using it to transport his nighttime presenters.
This man who acted in an unstable way was given the go-ahead to speak to the media on Kingfisher’s behalf. He was ordered to stick to the press release but was unable to do so. Divide and conquer was the order of the day. And so, the local Herald newspaper ran a subjective and misleading article on their front page on January 30.
The board, which was ignored by our new chairman throughout this time, only met two weeks after the station was taken off air. Our chairman did not attend that meeting and instead chose to resign via email as the meeting was due to start. The former chairman, Wouter van der Westhuizen was reinstated. The task team was disbanded and the board was able to spend three productive hours planning a way forward.
We have heroes on our staff. Michele Lourens our ops manager had been on the task team and at the forefront of the political onslaught. Staff kept their heads down and worked faithfully. And around every corner is a God story of exceptional note.
As it stands, together with the board. We take full responsibility for our licence not being renewed. Our books are open to the community in the spirit of transparency and we have been audited for the last five years. We have withstood a spiritual onslaught that is unlike anything we have experienced before. We have always welcomed input from ICASA and if we survive this, will fight tooth and nail for an ICASA compliance workshop that can be attended by each and every board and staff member.
The truth of the matter is that the integrity to serve God in all we do is real at this radio station. The way forward is now through SACRO, the South African Community Radio Organisation and an attempt to apply for a new license.
Kingfisher FM is one of many SA stations who are struggling for the right to keep on broadcasting. As your community radio station, we ask for urgent prayers. Prayers that GOD’S WILL be done in this station. It is not owned by man. It is a platform for Christ in the Bay and beyond. It’s been a very hard road, yet one that has rewarded us time and time again, as we have walked through our doors to serve Christ and the community.
Know that we have fought hard and with every good intention. I have stepped down as general manager and have welcomed Michele Lourens in as interim GM. I have pledged to do my best to walk alongside her and this station as all too often with community radio, bright new people step in only to be floored by the logistics of it all.
I thank you for this opportunity to tell part of my story. I have a whole new respect for anyone in the political world. I have chosen not to reveal Mr T’s name as he is a member of our community and has a family. Our young chairman was a man stuck between a rock and a hard place; he is someone I respect.
Often in life we find ourselves in situations that floor us and the battle for the airwaves does that to many who seek an audience. For the community at large who have poured out blessings and words of encouragement, I thank you. To the incredible team at Kingfisher FM, you are true heroes. May God have His way.