Catherine Grenfell perkolate online

March 2017. Interview by Marelise Jacobs. Cover image: Catherine Grenfell - Courtesy of Lindo Sibiya

Last year popular radio personality Catherine Grenfell decided to say farewell to 5FM. After working at the station for fourteen and a half years, it was time to move on to something new. Combining her love of music and passion for young people, Catherine is now part of a new online radio station with fellow former 5FM presenter Jon Savage. Catherine spoke to us about how she got into broadcasting, new beginnings and bringing story telling back to radio.

From Behind The Scenes To Behind The Microphone

I studied lighting and sound at Pretoria Technikon, now known as TUT and specialised in lighting and sound as well as stage management. After graduation I moved into working in theatre and live events doing production management. From there I moved to event management and worked as the assistant technical manager at the Dome at Northgate. That was quite out of my comfort zone but I've always been the type of person who, if opportunity comes my way and it feels right, then I will do it. A friend of mine who was working for Mark Gillman, the breakfast show presenter at 5FM, was leaving that position and said I should put in my CV. I loved radio so I decided to give it a try and started producing the show even though radio was never even on my radar.

5FM then wanted a girl on the show because at that stage it was an all male show. The station was very male dominated, not only in terms of presenters but also in terms of listenership. They wanted to increase the female listenership and as I was a single mom at that stage, it worked for them in terms of speaking to quite a big audience. Not only single moms but parents as well. I was young, I was going out and I loved music so it worked really well for them. I then got put on air which had never crossed my radar either. I worked with Mark for a very long time before moving over to DJ Fresh when he arrived. I used to do the traffic on his show and I also got the opportunity to take over a live show that they had wanted to do. We decided that we wanted to really do something for local music.

“... After fourteen and a half years at 5FM I decided that it was really time for me to move on...” - Catherine Grenfell

That was where I was really pushed local music, across all genres. I started having the live shows where we had live performances, then we had a DJ on it as well and then I brought in some comedy in between the acts. There was also some spoken word poetry and it became more like a platform to showcase amazing South African talent. That was really important for me. I worked with DJ Fresh for over nine years, it was a very long time. After a while I felt that I wasn't challenged enough, so I decided to work with Warrick Stock, aka the Shady Lurker, which I was really excited about because I really believed Warrick had a lot to offer for radio.

After fourteen and a half years at 5FM I decided that it was really time for me to move on. Time to try something new and do something different. I didn't actually have a plan, I just knew that I needed to leave. I'm very spiritual in that sense that I opened it up to the universe. I put it out there that I need something new, something different and hopefully it will come to me - and it did.

Telling Stories

In 2016 I started a new online radio station with Jon Savage called The Eye. We're using a very different format than conventional radio. I wanted to go back story telling in radio and really being personal. I taught radio for four years at Boston Media House and that's when I really found my passion for teaching. I didn't know that I would be a teacher and I absolutely loved it, for me that was probably the most special time. Teaching young people about something that I'm passionate about and hearing what they wanted to hear on radio, hearing that they've got an opinion and they want to talk about things. In this day and age radio is just not doing that, commercial radio is very much based on entertainment and quick fixes and not getting to deep rooted matters. Often it doesn't even have to be something controversial, it just needs to be something that means something to young people, that they want to talk about.

We've got amazing presenters and they're quite diverse. We've got Jack Parow, Gigi Lamayne and Kwesta. We've got international artists such as Mos Def coming to South Africa and they're telling stories through music. What I loved about Jack Parow is that during his first show he spoke about South African hip-hop that influenced him. From Prophets of Da City to different artists that influenced him and he told all these beautiful stories. He's such a natural story teller.

“... Radio is not always something you have to sit and listen to with a crowd, you can just be by yourself and become extremely connected with whoever is talking...” - Catherine Grenfell

The music that I've chosen for the station is extremely diverse. You can go from Britney Spears Hit Me Baby One More Time to AC/DC Back in Black to a Hugh Masekela track. I've chosen songs that are just really good songs. I truly believe that we don't have to be set on just one genre for a radio station. As long as it's a good track, you can play it all mashed up together. We are on 24/7 and have eight standard presenters over two months and it works on a rotation basis. So they'll do a live show on Thursday which plays out on the Friday, the following Monday and Tuesday and then a brand new presenter on Thursday again. There's a lot of room for really cool and different shows and we're slowly growing, not rushing things. Radio is the most personal medium that you can ever have because it's so anonymous. With television you've got a picture and with social media you can find anyone, but with radio you can come in and be anonymous. You don't have to give your name and you can tell a heartfelt story. Radio is not always something you have to sit and listen to with a crowd, you can just be by yourself and become extremely connected with whoever is talking. That's really what I want to bring back in terms of radio.

When we start telling stories and are honest about how we feel about things, that really brings everyone together. You start understanding other people and that for me is extremely important. To give young people have a platform to tell their stories. I'm very excited about getting this going and using all these different mediums and make great radio. That is my big dream, to travel the country and teach young people about being able to use their stories to bring a nation together. You can come from a wealthy background or you can come from a poor background or a different culture but you feel the same thing when you break up with someone. We feel the same thing before you write an exam, there are certain emotions that we all go through. It doesn't matter what your background is. It's really important that we start seeing that.