Media Talks Back with Therese Owen

Therese Owen has a slow-boiling frustration brimming inside her, a certain central finger always perched for perusal. Coupled with a tongue that cuts deep and a flair for picking up on the tiniest nuances that surround her, i’m compelled to go through with this interview even though my Sakifo hangover is making standing up to her at nine in the morning particularly difficult. Partly because I haven’t met many music journalists who match her devotion to spewing ink-venom; and partly because the aggression stems from an interesting historical perspective of arts journalism’s journey in South Africa since its apartheid days. Besides, she’s hugely entertaining.

Between generous doses of profanity and quirky insights into the heart of what makes South Africa’s music scene tick, I can only vouch for the fact that it was well worth scratching the surface with Owen.

Mandovi: Tell us a little about your career trajectory.
Therese: I’m a national music writer for an entertainment section called ‘The Tonight.’ It comes out in all 4 of the dailies and I work for an independent newspaper group which was part of the multinational that belongs to Tony O’Reilly. Bastard, bastard, bastard!

Mandovi: Why is he a bastard?
Therese: Well because our company was treated like a colony. At one stage, we were the only company in this territory making any money at all. Rands are worth nothing you know, then he came took all our profits and used it to boost all his ailing bloody newspapers in England. So he stripped down our newsroom into absolutely nothing. As it is our newsrooms are usually manned by foetuses, I mean 20-something doe-eyed things who didn’t have any experience [looks at me pointedly] so the whole thing was a serious mess so i’ll say it again…bastard, bastard, bastard!

Mandovi: Got it, I promise not to be friends with him. What’s the situation like now though?
Therese: [Laughs] Good. Now actually we’ve been bought back by a South African company so i’m hoping things will be better now.

Mandovi: Let’s hope so. How long have you been at this?
Therese: I think this is going to be my 20th year as a music journalist.

thereseMandovi: Then you’d probably be the best person to tell me how the music scene has evolved over the years?
Therese: So what happened was when I decided to be a music journalist instead of an entertainment or just a regular journalist, I concentrated purely on music because I live there. I don’t live in America or England and we’ve been very culturally colonised by those two countries. To the extent that all the black kids there all speak with an American accent. That was around ’94 around the same time we became a free country and for some reason, it was still a time when we thought it was far more lucrative for us to cover international artists, there was virtually no local scene. But I still thought there’s no way i’m doing this. There were two music columns which focused on local music (this is in Herby, where i’m from) and I took over from there.

Then in ’96 I moved up to Jo’burg and started a column. The scene was just exploding then with a silvery sort of separation. The white rock music scene was going crazy too. One of the reasons was because they’d stopped conscription, there wasn’t a chance earlier to start a band at all so that happened for the first time so yeah, it completely exploded. And then on the black scene there was a thing called ‘Kwaito,’ kind of slowed down house music with rap music over it. That was a celebration of the fact that they were free. As a music journalist, I immersed myself in both.

Mandovi: How supportive is the media currently?
Therese: It’s completely changed now. At some stages I couldn’t get any work because they just weren’t interested in South African music and I was like i’m certainly not going to sit down in a court room and report about that…boring! So what I had to do was persevere and it has paid off. I’m very committed about writing about South African music.

Mandovi: I’m getting the feeling that there aren’t too many others like you within the same space though, are there?
Therese: No, you know i’m not going to be all ‘everything is brilliant’ because it’s not but what’s happened in the meantime within the world is that entertainment journalism is selling everything. People magazine, Heat magazine, all that shit is affecting the culture in South Africa too. I believe this is because of Princess Diana by the way, I think she started selling newspapers all around the world, made everyone turn on their televisions so I think people started realizing the value of celebrities.

Mandovi: And this approach extends to the music scene too?
Therese: Damn straight.

Jerri Mokgofe Photography

Jerri Mokgofe Photography

Mandovi: So what kind of media works best?
Therese: Well, a few years ago only 9% of all South Africans had access to the internet out of which only 3% had access at home which means you had to be at school, varsity or work if they want access. Now all of that has changed because people are like phone f***ed. Completely f***ing phone crazy. But i’d say a majority of the people get it through radio.

Mandovi: Are there independent radio channels?
Therese: Yes but only in the urban areas. You have to remember that we’re still very rural so we’ve got our own language channels which primarily plays their own language music but obviously they’ll bring in the very commercial stuff as well. It’s not all pervasive like India though from what i’ve heard because the TV shows are still very urban. Blog readership is increasing too and they read a lot at large but over 50% of the information that’s simulated is through radios and newspapers.

Mandovi: I heard that the radio’s not very supportive of playing local artists though, can you shed some light on that?
Therese: That’s true especially in the urban areas but the NC came into government and they forced them to play 20% local content. They had to because these f***ers weren’t doing it on their own. Honestly, I was like ‘Buddy, the South African public pays your bloody salary and you still don’t want to play South African music?’

Mandovi: What about digital media?
Therese: It’s definitely very omnipresent, very advanced and the young people are on it all the time. I don’t even think they know that newspapers were invented!

Mandovi: So has there ever been anything, print, online whatever that revolutionized the music scene?
Therese: Me!

[I laugh]
Honestly, I revolutionized the scene! You think i’m joking?!

Mandovi: Honestly, I can believe that! But back to the topic at hand, what I mean is some sort of specialised publication?
Therese: When I was growing up we always had this thing, Top 20, Top 40, then there was one Andy Davis started with one SA music section and also Y Mag which spun quite a revolution. Now at the moment there’s nothing. We have Rolling Stone but that’s it.

Mandovi: What are some of the current, key trends you’ve been witnessing in South African independent media culture?
Therese: We’re in a difficult position in that we come for a background where the apartheid govt used suppression of the media as a tool to suppress society and journalists were locked up and it was around that time that i decided to become a journalist. Then when we became free we held the freedom very close to our hearts. A lot of editors who are in charge now were young strugglers and they hold it very dear to their hearts too. What’s happening now, what’s evident are the side effects. We have too much press freedom and people steal a lot. They’re trying to bring in a suppression of information vote whereby any politician or MP or member of city council or provincial government employee, if they find out we’re onto something or about to print it they can can say ‘oh you can’t write about that, it’s a matter of national security.’ And then if we do write about it anyway, we can be jailed for it!

therese1Mandovi: Is it going to be passed?
Therese: They’re trying. We as a journalist community are fighting it so that’s kind of the underlying ethos of journalists in South Africa at the moment. We have this freedom of expression and these f***ers are trying to suppress it.

Mandovi: Is there any kind of regulatory board for the press?
Therese: Nope. But we do have an Ombudsman. He regulates us so if we’ve done something wrong or we’ve written something badly of course we do print retractions etc. people do sue us we’re just not rampantly printing anything we want to. And we do try to regulate ourselves as much as possible.

Mandovi: If there was one thing you could change about the media w.r.t to arts and music, what would it be?
Therese: I want radio to play 40% South African music. At least 40%, that’s the most important and what needs to change. I’d like corporates to oversee it too, not so much the government because who cares about them. Maybe they could establish an arts council or department or something so yes, i’d like corporates to be more involved in promoting music.

Mandovi: Any advice for upcoming independent artists trying to garner the right media attention?
Therese: Don’t wear your sunglasses to an interview. Sorry, it’s my pet peeve with these kids. You know they get all ‘yo, yo, yo’ and i’m like ‘take your glasses off otherwise you go!’ Also, always tell the truth. As soon as you admit the truth it goes away. Find a journalist you can trust and and get them to tell your story right, that’s it.

Mandovi: Is this actually an issue for local, independent artists?!
Therese: Definitely in my country, don’t know about yours.

Mandovi: Ok that almost wraps it up, one last question though. What are your biggest challenges as a journalist in South Africa?
Therese: I don’t know, i’m quite bored. I’ve done everything, the SA music industry is sailing off quite nicely and what i’d like to see happen is that there are more journalists like me who are able to write about both the white culture and the black culture. The younger generation of journalists are seeded in their own brackets you know, they pick one and they only cover that. They don’t do both and I’m the only one who’s doing it so who’s the one who’ll take over from me? I want to have left some kind of legacy, that’s a big worry for me.

An exclusive by

Mandovi Menon

Mandovi Menon has worked as a journalist with Times Of India Internet Limited, Mid-day and Digit9.0. and on film scripts for production houses such as Pritish Nandy Communications, Full Circle Productions, NuMobster and Visual Narrator. She frequently contributes to some of India's more reputed Indie/Alternative music blogs such as The Wildcity and Border Movement and also freelances for IndiEarth. She has also garnered interviews with eminent artists from Dub FX and Koan Sound to Shaa'ir + Func and Sandunes.

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