The Eye is an innovative digital radio station, based in Cape Town, South Africa, and is created by two radio veterans, Jon Savage and Catherine Grenfell. It breaks the mould of traditional radio, and showcases a different way of doing digital radio. Despite only streaming their first show in October 2016, The Eye is growing in leaps and bounds.
Most recently Grenfell hosted a live broadcast of her radio show “Your Best Live Concert of All Time”, using their latest invention, the mobile radio box, from the comfort of her patio and living room in Johannesburg. Within only three weeks of using the mobile radio box, Savage says requests from all over the world are streaming in for the lightweight radio box. Their radio-in-a-box solution was created to solve one of The Eye’s challenges, but now has grown into a separate business.
What makes The Eye unique from other digital radio stations?
JS: Firstly The Eye does not operate in the same way as other online radio stations operate. What I mean by that is, instead of just being radio moving online, we have designed The Eye to work with the way people engage with content on social media.
CG: Ours is all based on storytelling. That’s always been a very important thing for me is actually going back to radio and in terms of storytelling. So our station is very much based around whoever is presenting a show has to tell it through a story, whether its songs that influenced your life, bands that you’ve been on the road with. Anything like that, it has to be told through a story.
I’ve always believed that radio is such a personal medium. So when you are telling true stories and you’re telling personal experiences, it touches people in a very different way than commercial radio does. And that’s what really makes The Eye radio completely different to anything at the moment in the digital space and even on the actual commercial radio station.
How are you using social media to make your content different?
JS: What works on social media is not an “always on” environment. …Radio works in an “always on” environment. You get into your car, you turn it on. You listen at night, you listen in the morning, on the way to work. It’s always on. We have an “always on” component, but The Eye works differently … we believe that people can choose the content they engage with. Our job is to make amazing content every week, which doesn’t mean we have to make content 24-hours a day. It means that when we do a show, people on social will engage with that show.
For example, we’ve just did a show today with Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, who told the story about how they organised The Rumble in the Jungle concert with Don King, back in the 70’s with Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo].
It’s a story they’ve never told before. And the story behind that is so unbelievable. They talk about working with James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Don King. And that’s an amazing story. Now that’s a radio show worth listening to.
Our focus is on making meaningful content, as opposed to just filling the airwaves with content 24 hours a day.
What are some of the interesting topics that garnered a lot of feedback from audiences?
JS: I can tell you that the Hugh Masekela show today was highly memorable, just because of the nature of that story. We had Jack Parow read on air the first rap he ever wrote from when he was thirteen years old out of a school text book, which was interesting. We’ve had some of the biggest hip-pop artists in the country. One of my highlights was Reason and SugarSmaX from Skwatta Kamp having a very deep discussion about the impact of calling women ‘bitches’ in their raps songs over the years. We’ve had Slikour and Sipho Pityana fighting over the future of our country.
And we’ve had Zolani [Mahola] from Freshlyground interviewing lots of celebrities including Francois van Coke and Thandiswa Mazwai about what Africa is going to look like in a 100 years’ time. That segment is called Future Afro. There’s just an absolute plethora of great content. I get very excited whenever we do a show.
CG: Slikour interviewed Lindiwe Hani, which we all know who Chris Hani is and she just brought out a book about him. But there are not a lot of people who knew him personally. We all know of the struggle hero, but we don’t actually know him personally. So when Lindiwe was coming on the show, they were going to chat about the book but she had to bring songs that her dad listened to. The show was called, Songs that my dad listened to. And it was such a beautiful glimpse into this struggle hero’s life that most of us never knew. I would have never thought that he perhaps was listening to classical music as well as Whitney Houston and traditional African songs. His variety of music was incredible
What is the format of the The Eye?
JS: Each show gets broadcast live, and then it gets three more [repeat] broadcasts during the week. In those three broadcasts, we target different audiences on social media so that we are simultaneously split-testing how well the show performs in different demographics. And after the three shows, it goes onto an “On-demand” menu, so you can listen to any of our shows at any time.
Who is your target audience?
JS: What is interesting about The Eye is that we do not have one broad audience; we have multiple segmented audiences who are highly engaged, which I think is a way more powerful audience base.
On June 22, Catherine Grenfell had a live broadcast of her show using the mobile radio box. How did that idea come about?
JS: The mobile desk was invented out of a frustration of not having a Johannesburg studio yet. But also as we were talking to some of our DJ’s, they were coming up with very cool ideas of what we could do. For example, one of our DJ’s is BCUC, the group. And they actually have their own shebeen in Soweto, and they suggested doing their show from the shebeen. So that gave me the idea of not only making a mobile office, so that we could do shows all over the country, but we could actually do special broadcasts from anywhere. I also knew that we are a very small team with limited resources, so I wanted to make sure that Catherine could carry, install and open up that suitcase from anywhere in the country.
It had to be small and lightweight. And it had to be user- friendly so that she could do it, because we are not a very big team. We don’t have all these guys working for us. So it was really operated as a one- man show. That one person could arrive in a location and open it up, set it up and broadcast live on air from that location. But I also wanted it to look beautiful, which is why it has a lot of shiny lights and a light box built in. It’s not purely functional. I wanted to make sure that wherever The Eye was, we made an impact.
One of the things I believe is a challenge in digital radio is the mindset that you are not a “real” radio station. So to overcome that, The Eye built a very beautiful radio station in Cape Town that overlooks Loop Street in a big glass window. And so when we built a mobile radio station, we wanted it to be also beautiful. We didn’t want it to just be like a guy’s laptop in his bedroom. That’s a lot of where that box idea came from, like how to make it really look cool.
How was it broadcasting the first show using the mobile radio box?
CG: It was really exciting. I actually felt like I was doing radio for the first time. I was so nervous and I was so stressed. But when you’re working on a digital thing like that and you’re on your own like I was doing it at home, there are so many things that can go wrong. But it was such a great experience. It was so awesome to be in the comfort of my own home doing a radio show … My show is very interactive in terms as I put up a theme and then I’ll ask people on social media what’s the song that changed their lives or what is the best concert they ever went to. And I will take those stories and relay them on air. It was just nice to be in the comfort of my own home and allow my children to give their best concert experience.
So the digital box is amazing. I had one hiccup with it where I was broadcasting from Micasa’s album launch and there was this echoing sound and I just couldn’t fix it. We eventually figured out it was some button in the system that sounded like it was being clicked. That’s extremely stressful when it comes to doing this. But I suppose that can happen with you in a studio or if you’re at work. Technical things can go wrong if you’re working with equipment, something can always go wrong. I did have a hiccup, but my show was great and now I’ve been able to slowly start troubleshooting if there are any problems to make sure that it works.
Which components of the radio mobile box did you buy from Gumtree?
JS: The computers, the mics and the mic stand. The main contents of the box are all second-hand equipment, but everything in our studio is also second-hand. We have a vintage record player. We have vintage speakers. So everything is kind of old school vintage, and — in that way — cheaper!
What was the idea behind helping others start their own radio stations?
JS: A big fundamental part of The Eye is to drive culture forward and we see this as a great opportunity to build lots of these and put them into communities all around the country so that we can actually create opportunities — not only for new DJ’s for The Eye, but to have community radio stations that are accessible all over the place.One of Catherine’s passions is teaching radio and we definitely think that radio is a valuable skill that we’d like to teach all around the country where people need it most. And this box is a great asset to go into the community and teach kids how to do radio and leave a box there for them to create their own radio stations.
CG: I started teaching at Boston Media House about four years ago and I was teaching radio and I’d just realised I never thought I’d be a teacher. And I absolutely found this amazing passion for teaching people. The project that we’re going to work on next is just on educating people on how to tell their own stories. So whether it’s recording it on your phone and sending that story through to putting it on your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or just sending it via WhatsApp to your friends and families, is to really just keep that storytelling. As I said, everyone has a story and in telling our stories, we might come from completely different backgrounds, but we will find things that we can relate to.
I’ve always been involved in the music industry and that is a really huge passion for me, is to teach young artists how to do interviews. An artist can break with a song, but then don’t have an idea on how to answer questions and if they do a radio interview, they come across like they’re uninterested or unknowledgeable about what they’re talking about. So I really want to help people to learn about how to do interviews, how to answer questions, how to grow your social media.
How are you going to make digital radio financially viable and into a well-run business?
JS: That’s what we are doing at The Eye. We have a strong business team behind us. We have a very strategic focus on how we operate as a business. We are looking all the time at different models. We see where digital radio is struggling, and we are constantly evolving to make up new ways to solve those problems. It’s also why we don’t operate on the 24-hour always on model, because it makes no financial sense in the current climate. I’ve got a hugely smart team behind me.
On the the public facing side, we are just making the best radio ever. Behind the scenes, we are very aggressively looking at the future and trying to forge a model for sustainability.
What are the challenges facing digital radio in South Africa and the rest of the continent?
JS: Obviously access is a big one. And a large part of our business is looking at tackling that. There’s no short term solution for that. From the top down, there is a fear from advertisers of spending money on digital radio, because of the way that digital radio is currently presented. And so our model is very different to how traditional digital radio is currently being sold. We have a constant uphill battle with educating brands and agencies about a different way of looking at digital radio, but are able to provide massive value to them. And that’s really one of our biggest challenges. We spend so much time showing people the numbers and showing people a different way of thinking, showing people how an engaged listener is a 100 times more powerful than what is considered “reach”.
Five very engaged and involved listeners is more powerful than 500 “reached” listeners. They may or may not be listening. But engaged listeners are the key.
CG: The biggest problem for South Africans is obviously data. And I’m really hoping that mobile companies come to the party and just bring down the data costs, just in general and not just for people listening to digital radio. The data costs in South Africa are just so ridiculous. As that comes down, more people will have access and be able to listen and go online and be able to hear all these stories that are on digital radio, because there are a lot of podcasts, different documentaries etc. And it’s so important for people to be able to listen to these things and not only as the radio stations plays them but perhaps later on when they’re able to go on and listen to a show in their own time.
But I think data is the biggest problem for digital radio. And also people are scared. You can’t say, if you listen to an hour show, this is perhaps how much data you’re going to use. It totally depends on external circumstances. And so that fear of the unknown that if I go on and listen to something, will it drain my data? And also the fact that a lot of people drive in their cars or perhaps they’re listening on their cellphones. Overseas, a lot of the cars have digital, already in their car radio, satellite etc and we don’t have that yet. So I think all of those factors as well as just general advertisers know that things are moving in the digital space, they’re very much based on numbers and they want to know how many people are listening etc, and they’re quite scared to take the plunge to advertise on digital.
But we know that it’s slowly moving there and the reality is that you have to start some time in terms of digital. So whether you’re at the forefront or you wait. But you have to start some time. We took the plunge and decided to start now even though we know that digital is still not the biggest listened to radio stations, but it is very important for us to have started already and are building up so when the data comes down, we’re really up and running, and we’re already leaps ahead.
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