The Bona Retsang television show is about to find a new home on the public broadcaster SABC 1, where it has the potential to reach millions of young South Africans. In preparation, the team has begun gearing up to meet the needs of being on the national broadcaster. This has meant the addition of a second show per week and added pressures to an already busy schedule for its journalists and programme makers. To understand the team’s preparedness, I decided to get an insiders view of what it takes to go national on SABC 1.
It is 11am on Thursday and the Bona Retsang production team go through the motions before the taping of the show. P.K and Zack Attack, the show’s hosts, do their own make-up as they talk through the script and joke with the technical crew who move around them adjusting lights and moving the set into place. The soundman places microphones on the hosts who respond as if on auto-pilot moving their arms, hair and collars to accommodate the hidden microphones. The show’s producer and director, Shane Potgieter, does a quick run through with the team seeing if the script is clear. Shane is no stranger to the pressures of national television as he produces a live show each morning which features content from Bona Retsang community journalists called “Geleza Nathi ”. The Bona Retsang team continue to set- up and rehearse, everyone focused on their own job and getting it done right. The mood is very different from everything that has lead up to this moment. “We can’t stuff this up” says Shane “This is the national broadcaster”.
It’s Monday 9am and the production office is a hive of activity. Everyone involved in the show is on a computer, a tablet, the landline or a cellphone. They are all looking for stories, a rush before the 9:30 editorial meeting, which will decide on the content for this week’s show. The stories they are searching for are not necessarily the big stories; rather these are the stories that matter to the audience. According to P.K (Phetitle Khuzwayo) who, when not hosting the show, is also one of its producers; “Bona Retsang means look at what we are doing. We are not just reporting, we are reporting with a positive twist, we are looking for those stories of young people making a difference, facing challenges and overcoming them.” Part of the content needed for the show is gathered from community journalists shot on handi-cams and edited with basic editing software, some of the content is cellphone-shot community journalism from across the country and some of the content is shot by interns learning the ropes at Vuselela –media, the company that produces Bona Retsang. The result is that there is a constant hum of hushed chatter, the toggle sounds of a mouse and the clicking of keyboards as stories are developed.
Someone blurts “It’s 9:30” and the team scramble out to their editorial meeting.
Beside the various reports and community journalism pieces that make up the show, Bona Retsang is shot in a green screen studio. The green screen is then replaced with a very realistic set as the show is recorded. The show is shot each week as if it were live. This reduces the amount of time the team need to spend editing the show, a luxury they do not have. “Live-to-Tape” recording has the advantage of feeling like live, full of energy and first hand emotion, the only difference is that it is recorded to tape to be broadcast later. Sitting in the control room the director and vision mixer watch the show as they put it together. Calmly, more like air-traffic control than creative, commands are spoken and gracefully executed. The young intern, Sophie Robertson, sits behind the tele-prompter, a device to feed lines of dialogue to the hosts, and orchestrates its speed as P.K reads flawlessly, energetically, mixing her languages to appeal to the vast audiences who will view the programme even though the script is written in English. The team cut to a pre-recorded segment shot earlier in the week, P.K makes a joke and the whole team are in hysterics. They don’t have much time to compose themselves as they are about to be live again soon. Shane and Lebo, the shows timekeeper, count down in unison “Live in…5…4…3…2…1….”
There is tension in the air as the team continue to make phone calls, rustle up guests and find experts and subjects to interview, almost as if a ticking time-bomb is in constant countdown to the show. One of the most important considerations is finding young people to be the centre of the show who have positive stories to tell. For P.K there is an added dimension with the show heading to SABC 1, this is finding better quality guests. “Its been a challenge we set ourselves to find guests who are well known celebrities or are high profile, with important things to say. In the past we found people sort of right to interview, now we choose experts who are specific.” The change she says, has meant much higher quality but equally as much pressure.
The studio team are readying the set for an interview. This requires a newcomer to be given a microphone and get a quick briefing. While the team set up for the segment Zack Attack and the guest joke and talk about what is expected. The team seem to have it all under control as the studio manager sits patiently and posts a tweet.
The editor-in-chief is also the journalist for this week, as much of the team is away training community journalists who will be contributing stories to Bona Retsang. Mthoba Chapi readies his crew to go and get an interview. He is in a rush, this week he will need to have 4 stories, 2 per episode. With the gear loaded the team are away, rushing across Johannesburg to Alexandria township to collect a story on recycling and how young boys have found an alternative to crime through the collecting of discarded plastic and metal for a local initiative the feeds these young men and pays them for their collections. With the move to SABC Mthoba says he is “excited and nervous, it’s a big deal”. With the show on the national broadcaster Mthoba believes that the bar has been raised as the programme is “double the pressure to produce what we did last year, twice as fast, but much much better”
The inserts created by Mthoba, P.K and the team are put together in edit and sound design, approved and readied for the show in studio. Across the courtyard of the Melville production offices is another building, a double story wooden office where Sarah Kiguwa-Smith co-ordinates an army of journalists. Under her command are 25 community centres across South Africa and more than 100 schools that are creating content for the show. Each episode features 3 pieces of community journalist work, either cellphone clips from schools or basic journalism shot on handicams, and it is up to Sarah to have this work ready for the show.
The live-to-tape broadcast comes out of its second advertisement break. PK and Zack Attack are ready to start the link into the final segment of the show, the popular Boogooman Bhoba, a comedian that gives the news a funny twist through jokes and opinion. Lebo passes a stop watch to Shane. He calmly speaks into a microphone that only the hosts can hear: “P.K. we are 30 seconds short”. There is no hint of panic on their faces as P.K turns to Zack and ad-libs a 30 second discussion about the show and the week’s content.
The journalists and the production team work continually. If they are not creating a story, they are researching a future production or on social media building the shows brand with loyal followers. The SABC 1 has yet to give the team their broadcast dates and until this happens the team continue to practice and prepare as they know it could be any day and quite possibly without much warning. Mthoba Chapi comments: “ We know we have room for improvement, we are working on an identity, we are working on our consistency, everyday we get better”. Producer P.K is optimistic about the show, although the proposed time slot of 4:30pm on Wednesdays and Friday afternoons is a traditionally tough slot with lots of competition. She said “We are speaking to active South Africans who want to make a difference, this is a different audience…I just hope they understand what we are doing and support it.”
The final segment of the programme plays out with funny man Boogooman’s famous catch line “Holla Black” and the show’s credits roll. The team congratulate each other and return to offices where they prepare for the next one. All in a days work.