100 years of radio: Indelible lessons from the airwaves

26 January 2024 | Story Kamva Somdyala. Photo Kamva Somdyala. Read time 4 min.
Broadcaster Nancy Richards delivered a two-day lecture series titled “100 years of radio”.
Broadcaster Nancy Richards delivered a two-day lecture series titled “100 years of radio”.

Respected radio broadcaster Nancy Richards shared with her University of Cape Town (UCT) Summer School audience sage lessons from radio and what it has taken for women to be the great radio personalities they are. She presented her “100 years of radio from a woman’s perspective” lecture on 22 and 23 January.

The history of women in radio, Richards said, included having to overcome stereotypical, often-repeated, and unsubstantiated claims about their suitability for radio.

On 18 December 1923, radio was introduced in South Africa; however, Richards’ lecture took the audience to 1933 – 10 years later – to the BBC where Sheila Borrett, the first female announcer on the BBC’s National Service in 1933, was fired after just three months on the job because the broadcaster received thousands of complaints.

“Some of the complaints and adjectives used to describe women’s voices on the air were: shrill; grating; monotonous; lacking in personality, appeal and humour; stiff; forced; harsh and annoying,” said Richards.

Richards, after sailing from South Hampton to Cape Town on the RMS Pendennis Castle in 1974, conducted her first radio interview in 1993 and signed off on her last show in March 2018.

Accident and chance

After arriving in Cape Town, and in the absence of television, it was the radio that kept her company. She said through this she also learnt much about the country because radio “becomes social education”.

“What radio taught me is that it’s not about you – it’s about the person that you are talking to; the listener; it’s about asking the right questions. He who asks the questions, controls the conversation.

“For me, radio was a journey of complete accident and chance. One lesson about radio is that what you hear stays with you. If you hear it on the wireless, you tend to think it’s true. There’s a longevity about it. It’s personal and emotional. It’s also very, very scary.”


“I discovered that it wasn’t all about sitting in the booth, but also taking your microphone out to people.”

She spoke about her mentors and how they taught her to put a smile in her voice and to never answer her own question.

For many years Richards also worked on the Woman’s Show on SAfm – a programme which started in South Africa in 1952 and ended in 2018. It was around 1997 when she started, by chance, because the then presenter had chosen to stop presenting the programme – known at the time as Woman Today – and Richards agreed to stand in until the broadcaster found a suitable candidate.

“I stood in until 2013,” Richards noted.

‘Great communication tool’

Radio, said Richards, is about being engaging, informative and authentic.

“I discovered that it wasn’t all about sitting in the booth, but also taking your microphone out to people, so we did a programme called Women in the Streets and I spoke to all sorts of women – in supermarkets, while they have their trolleys, I would have a conversation with them. During the World Cup, we did a series of foreign women football fans. Taking the radio to the people was such a great communication tool.

“Eventually, in 2013, the woman’s programme cantered into the sunset. It left questions about whether a woman’s programme was necessary then? Could it be necessary now?

“But that was not the end, as I returned to do an environmental and literature show at SAfm.”

The final goodbye, after more than two decades on radio, came in 2018, packed with lessons and fond memories.  

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