The lure of classic radio . . . and 30 years of Mr Smooth, Clarence Ford

Clarence Ford . . . in his comfort zone and celebrating 30 years behind the mic with an online streaming show on Friday, Mandela Day


The hottest ticket in town for this week’s streaming entertainment just has to be the Online Radio Classics Show, doubling as a celebration of top radio jock Clarence Ford’s 30 years on air.

The Online Radio Classics Show looks like a re-work of a stage show that ran at the Baxter in 2012. Then, it also featured Clarence Ford as a co-host with Alistair Izobell and a number of other artists.

This Friday’s show again has Alistair as a co-host along with household names such as Leslie Kleinsmith, Nur Abrahams and Mujahid George. The online event will also be part of the Mandela Day activities by raising funds for charities.

In these Covid-19 times, online shows have been the go-to medium for artists to generate an income. It is interesting to note that entrance to the 2012 show was R150 a person. This time round, it’s R75 – for a household! Get it on Quicket. Google them.

The performers were hard at work at rehearsals this weekend and Clarence promises an “intimate evening of reflection, laughs, and music” in a “green room” studio that will feature the latest technology to heighten the home-viewing experience

As a radio presenter, Clarence enjoys almost cult-like status from the thousands of listeners who catch his weekday and Sunday shows. People plan their Sunday evenings around his 7pm to 10pm slot on Heart FM.

But who is Clarence Ford? When I researched for this article, there wasn’t much on the Internet to give me content. It was all about seaside jazz gigs and cruises. Nothing about the man and what goes on inside his head

To give a better idea the person behind those mellifluous tones that floats your boat on radio, I decided to play:

“Twenty Questions with . . . Clarence Ford”.

When did your radio career start and how did it come about that you got to be involved in radio in the first place?

It was serendipitous. I was a manager in FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods], and part of my responsibility was sales promotion. I would announce the specials and a customer literally suggested that I be part of a development and training course for aspirant radio announcers. This was at the SABC. On completion of the course, they said I lacked the talent for the job. Fortunately, I was head-hunted for a retail position in Namibia. With my training in hand, the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation offered me a radio position in 1990.

You talk about your time in Parkwood Estate which was essentially an area built by the apartheid government for people from the “coloured” community. From where was your family “displaced” and when did that happen?

I was born in District 6 and have fond childhood memories of the place. We were forcibly removed in the early ’70s.

What were your experiences like growing up in Parkwood, an area generally regarded with a degree of trepidation by the people of adjacent Fairways?

I was lucky. Gangsterism and drug addiction was rife. My matriarch mother was a disciplinarian. My parents also insisted on quality education. My high school days at Livingstone had me thoroughly embroiled in politics, with little time for mischief. Livingstone raised generations of anti-racist and anti-capitalist proponents. Fairways produced some fine minds. Some of my favourite classmates and comrades were from Fairways. While the class divide was palpable, I did not experience it all.

You finished up at UWC in 1984 with what you describe as an incomplete BA (anthropology). What did you do after UWC and before you started your radio career in Namibia?

Cape Town was on fire in 1984 and 1985 with significant student-based uprisings. Class boycotts were the order of the day. I became an “unqualified” teacher at Belthorn Primary School. I then joined Pick n Pay as a retail manager, before a stint as retail manager for Woolworths in Windhoek

What shaped your early years as on-air radio personality? Did you change your persona from a Cape Flats sound to a more rounded presenter appealing to a broader audience?

My first on-air position was in Namibia. I also worked in Johannesburg before coming back to Cape Town. In both markets I struck a neutral tone as my cultural history was of no importance in these markets. I would, instead, immerse myself in local issues and frequented shebeens alongside the high life that comes with the job. This balanced my perspectives. In Namibia, I would go on to do serious actuality, including high-level interviews. My anti-racist views are well known in the markets that I served. Livingstone equipped me well for my stints outside of my comfort zone.

What was your brief in terms of audience reach when you joined Heart FM? Is your pitch unashamedly targeted at the tastes of the masses on the Cape Flats or do you entertain thoughts of inclusivity to embrace the denizens of the leafy suburbs in the shadows of the mountain?

All FM stations before Heart FM were SABC stations. I worked at Good Hope prior to joining Heart. The baggage of apartheid history would keep these stations stuck in a mould. Heart FM was the 1st greenfields FM licence in Cape Town. We did champion a consolidating aesthetic from the outset. My pitch when I returned to Cape Town would be from my social history vantage point, which is eclectic in essence and relevant to the city.

In 30 years behind the mic, what has been the standout feel good moment of your time as an on-air personality?

Clarence Ford with everybody’s hero. He interviewed the great man three times.

Three interviews with MADIBA . . . all unequivocally standout moments!

And has there been a moment when you felt that you wished the earth would just open up and you would disappear down a hole?

A couple of times. I have expressed my views of management with my mic open by accident.

There are some critics who say Cape Town’s music lovers are stuck in a time warp and locked into the sounds of the ’70s and ’80s with the likes of Earth, Wind Fire and similar African-American sounds. What do you say to them?

The 60s, 70s and 80s were seminal decades in creativity generally and music specifically. Technology and a sexual revolution were driving forces in an evolution of sound. Post the ’80s, music did succumb to commercial influences. Imposition from radio stations would fundamentally alter the course of expression. The visualisation of music brought added commercial opportunity. People would start to watch music to the detriment of its sound. Those are good decades to be stuck in.

Is there any particular popular song that grates on your ears and that will never see the light of day again on your turntable no matter how many requests you get for it?

Justin Bieber!

What does Clarence Ford listen to when he has a quiet moment at home? What is your favourite song and artist and do you have an eclectic taste or do you focus on a particular genre?

I have eclectic tastes, but I am very partial to jazz and the South African variant thereof. I love Stan Getz, Winston Mankunku, Toots Thielemans, Kyle Shepherd, Miles, Joe Zawinul, Stanley Clarke, Errol Dyers, Moses Molelekwa, Paul Hanmer, etc etc.

What live entertainment shows do you go see and listen to (pre-Covid 19)? Who is your favourite local performer?

Kyle Shepherd, Ramon Alexander.

The Jazz On The Rocks events in Tietiesbaai and the more recent ones in Plettenberg and Mosselbay have become something of an institution on the local scene. Is it still valid calling it a “jazz” event given the line-up you have there?

I established Manenberg’s Jazz Café in 1994 and The Cape Town International Jazz festival in 1998, so my track record in music and jazz is established. I have been liquidated twice; I think I understand the business and jazz is a difficult business. The same question can be asked of many international jazz festivals. We feature jazz on all our stages. If we featured it exclusively, the festivals would not be sustainable. These stages grow the appreciation of the genre. I am happy about that and the fact that my organisation spends more on musicians and bands than any other business in Cape Town. We give musicians work with seven annual and scaleable festivals annually.

How has Covid-19 affected the events schedule . . . the beach-side gigs and the cruises, considering that it is quite possible this situation could stretch well into next year?

The trepidation is real. The future is unknown and debilitating! We have needed to postpone or cancel four of our projects. All our summer festivals were completed before the onset of Covid-19. Our travel projects have suffered a setback. We liaise extensively with government and tourism authorities about our programs, and, for now they are happy for us to proceed with planning. Remember, our projects are also significant for the rural tourism industries. Our festivals significantly impact the tourism and cultural economies of rural communities. Remember too that the bulk of our profit we invest into social projects in the host communities. We have worked hard to make such projects sustainable. An inability to deliver on especially our more profitable events will deliver profound repercussions.

Alistair Izobell and Clarrie Ford . . . together again with Radio Classics, streamed on Friday night to a screen in your lounge.

You are celebrating 30 years in the game with your good friend Alistair. You two enjoy a strong following on social media. Are you hoping for similar outcome to what Marc Lottering had with his  recent show where he sold more than 15,000 for his show?

We are claiming a benchmark event. A first for SA in which a green studio is employed to merge multiple technologies and media into an audio-visual spectacle. Initial indications are that it will be a commercial success. For us, it is about refining the aesthetic qualities of streamed production. In this regard, the Radio Classics production will be unlike any witnessed on a streamed platform. We wish to deliver a means for the performance arts industry to build on the foundations we are laying. Charity in this Madiba Week is also central to our agenda. The nominated charities are as much impacted at times of Covid-19.

What do you think the future holds for live gigs when performers will have the capacity to generate an income by doing online streaming and having the audience enjoy their entertainment in the comfort of their homes?

Streaming will be a growing revenue [stream] for the performance art industry. I project that streaming will run parallel to “live” performances, enabling a global market, and increased commercial viability.

Your secondary education was at Livingstone High where presumably you had the benefit of their highly political teachers (of the Unity Movement) at the school. Are you a political person and did that shape your political thinking?

I am a child of the Unity Movement. I am anti-racist, so I do not subscribe to the concept apart from the human race. I am also a social entrepreneur. Social entrepreneurs are more focussed on profit because such profit enables the sustainable social projects that our Camissa NPO delivers on a year-round basis. We do not do the flashy stuff. We change hearts and minds.

On one online YouTube clip you talk passionately about Afrikaans as being part of who you are and that it actually represents the diversity of the broader South African community who speak the language. Where would you have ended up had your mother not put you in an English class?

The generation that my parents represent were hardest impacted by apartheid policy. They had their dreams trashed and were forced to eke out a living on the fringes of society. Through this lens they protectively nurtured and even cajoled their offspring into directions that could deliver a better survival. English as a language was one such a direction. The choice of schools and academic achievement was also seized upon to escape the cycles of generational poverty. These were positive steps taken be them. More negative means were skin lightening creams and straightened hair (swirl kous), which aesthetically they viewed, as less threatening to the ruling “white” establishment. I am active on the front of liberating Afrikaans from an exclusive history. Afrikaans is in fact a Creole tongue, forged from interactions between indigenous Khoi and enslaved communities, with the colonial Dutch history. My forefathers traded with the Dutch long before Jan van Riebeeck came to Cape Town. It is true that in the Dutch colonised South-East Asia, a similar linguistic history unfolded. The Dutch banished many members of royalty and Islamic scholars to Cape Town as slaves. With traces of even Arabic in Afrikaans it can be claimed that it served as a bridging language while colonialists were still speaking Dutch.

Your business partnerships centre on the word Camissa. Is this indicative of your nod to your roots and where do you sit with “colouredism” and the growth in the movement in the Western Cape?

Yes, unequivocally so. Camissa is the original name of Cape Town as given to it by its indigenous Khoi population. It means “Place of Sweet Water” in reference to the many springs that still today, spew forth the sweetest of water from Table Mountain. The many (now underground) rivers that flowed from these springs enabled the sustainable settlement of what is now Cape Town. From these rivers my Creole identity emerged. Many diverse people, some against their will, depending on the essential building block of nature, to survive. Cape Town is arguably one of the most socially engineered cities in the whole world. We need to return to Camissa and reconcile the true origins of our cosmopolitan nature, to be truly able to embrace an inclusive future.

How do you prepare for your Sunday night gig that has a cult-like following on the Cape Flats?

I don’t. It’s a busk that resonates broadly. It is essentially a safe place for anybody to go. It also tempts one into a time where life was slower. We tend to chase our tails in this time of the information revolution. There is no place better than the moment, where you completely submit to the beauty and simplicity of music. The music of a time before commercial imperatives overshadowed artistic expression.