Every weekday, hundreds of thousands of people across Africa tune in to hear her…. She’s DJ Azania, and she presents her show, Total Bliss, on South Africa’s largest commercial radio station, Metro FM, in Johannesburg. With excellent presenting skills, and a deep knowledge of music, film and art, Azania Ndoro is considered one of South Africa’s brightest radio talents.
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In South Africa in the 1980s, Ndoro’s home in Pimville, Soweto, rocked to a very different rhythm than is heard on her current show, Total Bliss. At that time anarchy ruled, with militant youth fighting the bullets of apartheid security forces with stones and petrol bombs.
“These were the sounds of my childhood – my formative years,” Ndoro recalls.
In the 1980s, South Africa’s townships were wracked by violence, and schooling was almost non-existent. So Ndoro’s mother enrolled her in a primary school attended mostly by colored – or mixed race – pupils. “Their education was a little better than ours,” the DJ reflects.
Ndoro excelled in her studies. By the time she was ready for high school, apartheid was in its death throes, and she was accepted at what was once a whites-only school in Johannesburg. Later, she studied commerce at one of South Africa’s leading tertiary institutions, Wits University.
“I enjoyed economics, I enjoyed being at Wits, and I had visions of being (the minister of finance’s) right hand lady,” Ndoro says. Then, she laughs, “But I didn’t finish (the degree) because show business came along.”
Wanderlust was also a distraction for Ndoro, albeit an “enriching” diversion from her studies. She worked in London for almost three years, “doing very menial jobs, just to get by.”
While she was there, Ndoro toiled as a hotel receptionist, an assistant in a CD warehouse…and a bar lady.
Upon her return to South Africa, though, the eloquent and attractive Ndoro was offered an opportunity to host a national television show. Accepting the offer was a big step for a person who describes herself as “naturally shy.”
“When I was younger, I watched a lot of television; I listened to music. I wasn’t one that was out there looking to be in the center of the action. I was always looking and observing on the periphery,” says Ndoro, adding that it was during early childhood that her “love” for radio began. “I’d listen and I’d analyze…and for me the intrigue was in how things are put together and composed.”
‘A very mellow slow jam’
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During Ndoro’s TV stint, she prepared a demo tape and distributed it to various radio stations. Metro FM responded, first employing her as an assistant producer on its afternoon drive-time show. “It was a great way to learn radio,” she says, “and a great way to know how to build and compile a show.”
Then came Ndoro’s greatest test. “There was a lady doing the midnight-to-three slot, and she could no longer do it, and I guess for my bosses I was the natural choice to take that on.”
Ndoro found herself broadcasting to a sparse assortment of insomniacs, hard-partying night owls and long-distance truck drivers. But the DJ impressed, and now drives her show, Total Bliss, between the far more respectable hours of 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. every weekday. She has up to a million listeners at a time in South Africa alone, with many more tuning in on the Internet and on satellite radio across the continent.
“Because of the sort of listeners that we have (mainly young adults) and what they’re doing at that time of day (in South Africa), our focus is largely on music,” Ndoro explains. Her listeners need her to provide a “very mellow and slow jam” to help them to settle into work in the morning, she says.
“We focus on soul and R&B, and not up-tempo stuff.”
One of Ndoro’s biggest challenges is to prevent her show from becoming stale and predictable.
“If you’re not careful, this can easily happen, because I’m on air at the same time nearly every day of the week…. You have to keep your creativity on such a level that it’s constantly relevant; the material must change all the time.”
According to Ndoro, radio’s uniqueness lies in the “lightning pace” at which it’s able to move, its vibrancy and the fact that it’s “totally live, with no room for error.” However, because her show’s live and “the pressure’s always on,” unforeseen “glitches” do sometimes occur – incorrect songs are played, inappropriate live listener comments are broadcast.
“(Radio’s immediacy) can also be a bad thing – the unpredictability of what we do every day,” she states. “Radio is dynamic; you cannot say when you start the show as to how it will work out.”
‘They’re totally wrong!’
Ndoro says she’s aware of the perception among some of her fans and members of the public not familiar with the intricacies of the radio industry that a DJ’s life equates to “easy street.” After all, the presenters are heard only for a few hours a day – a short span of time during which they’re almost always laughing and playing music and having fun, and not seeming to work very hard at all.
Ndoro responds, “They’re totally wrong! They’re absolutely wrong! Preparation for (your next) radio show starts the minute your (present) show ends…. So literally, you’re working around the clock.”
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As soon as she leaves the studio at 12 p.m., she prepares promos, sound bites and archive sound to use on her next show. She says a good DJ’s mind never rests.
“You’re driving, you have to note down an experience. You’re observing something – say in a restaurant – and you take note, and work to present that something in a unique way to the listeners, to turn the mundane into something entertaining.”
Ndoro says she often awakes in the early hours of the morning to make notes for her show.
“So even in the middle of the night, you can have your notebook on the side and you scribble something and you hope that by morning you’ll still remember the essence of what you’re trying to communicate.”
But at the same time, Ndoro acknowledges that hers is – with all the public adulation and the fact that she gets to work with her “first love, music” – an “amazing” occupation. She wants to grow old in radio, to one day be a “radio veteran…. But still relevant! Just at the right radio station, communicating the right things.”
And no longer consigning herself to the periphery, however much she continues to insist how “quiet” a person she is.
The shy little girl huddled over a tiny transistor in a small home in Soweto is gone. In her place is a young woman confidently embracing her place in South Africa’s fast-changing media environment.