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RAEESA MOHAMED (article first published : 2006-07-29)

When Raeesa Mahomed returned to work at Lotus FM in January after maternity leave, it was to find herself with an unexpected set of problems. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) regulations had laid down that, for the first time in its history, the station would have to produce four hours of radio drama each week - and Mahomed was told that this would be her baby. Before she went on leave, she had been producing documentaries. This was to be something completely different.

"Because we had never done it before, there was no archive material, and no-one with any experience. I had to start looking for writers and actors and getting scripts produced. And we had to start on March 23," says Mahomed. She still manages to look cool and relaxed, but admits it has been a major challenge.

"The only people with any experience of radio drama in Durban were Springbok radio veterans - and that was all a long time ago," she says. "And obviously, what we broadcast has to appeal to our target audience." This, she explains, is roughly in the 25 to 49 age group, although the spread covers both older and younger, mainly Indian listeners.

Mahomed's first move was to set up teams for two daily serials. She involved two well-known theatre personalities as producers - Yugan Naidoo to establish SA Law as a six minutes a day serial on the morning breakfast show and Rajesh Gopie who took charge of Kismet Court, a 15 minute weekday serial at 12h25. "That left me with 15 minutes a day to fill, so I took it on myself," she says.

She put out an advertisement, calling for material. Plenty came in but not too much was useable. However, there was one well-written synopsis from a new writer, Kayon Dixon, and she decided to ask him to develop it into a serial which she would produce. "He has been superb, writing and delivering every day for a three month contract," she says. The result has been What We Want to See in the afternoon broadcast slot. "It caught on really well - people were crying when it finished," says Mahomed.

But for the writer, who writes as a hobby, and for Mahomed who was producing, working as executive producer on the other two serials, doing administrative work and trying to source material and actors, enough was enough. They just had to have a break.

Help for the fledgling drama department came from Caroline Smart, Durban arts personality and veteran of the Springbok Radio days. Mahomed had phoned her about setting up a review panel to get feedback on the programmes and Smart offered help with the production process. "Every few months we are going to have a festival of short stories, and then go back to a longer serial. Caroline unearthed some old Springbok scripts and I asked her to adapt them for Lotus. The stories are universal, but they needed changes to names and language."

Smart did the casting and recording, and the first festival of short stories was created. Lotus also broadcast an adaptation of Marguerite Poland's Shades, which is a high school setwork and which Smart had already adapted for a stage production. That went well, being aired during the school holidays when teenagers could listen in.

However, as the drama component of Lotus FM's lineup only started in March, it is too early for any Radio Audience Measurement Survey (Rams) figures to be in yet, but the early signs are good.

A new serial, Psycho Art, which is about a group of eccentric artists in Durban, will start in August. Again, Mahomed has found a new writer, Bella Janse van Vuuren. "There's a lot of talent out there," she says. "I've got so many scripts I haven't had a chance to look at. I'll go through them and call people in."

I ask Mahomed about the content - to what extent does Lotus FM have to combine education with entertainment? "We have a Public Service Broadcasting mandate to inform and educate. So we get told that certain issues have to be covered - for instance, August is Woman's Month and so that will have to be reflected in the dramas. But we have to strike a balance - we can't be on a soapbox, preaching."

Mahomed draws her actors from the ranks of professional performers in Durban and from drama students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal - where Mahomed herself also studied. "Hardly anyone has done radio work before, but they are enjoying it - and they tell me it's great not to have to worry about having a bad hair day. No-one sees."

As radio drama is a new experience for pretty well everyone involved, Mahomed is planning to set up workshops for writers and actors. She is keen to source new talent within Lotus FM's listening community - "We need teams of writers and new actors," she says. "We're always looking for someone who can come up with a good story and write for the Lotus FM profile."

To her relief, budgets have been approved and she is about to get an assistant, leaving her more time to read through the scripts that have already been submitted. "It's not a schlep - it's a joy," she says, explaining that she is finding the challenges of radio drama very fulfilling. It may have been a baptism of fire, and it may have been forced on Mahomed and Lotus FM by Icasa regulations, but she is discovering something listeners have always known - radio is a great medium for storytelling.

To contact Raeesa Mahomed, email raeesa@lotusfm.co.za Margaret von Klemperer




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