Nay to whiskey, yay to podcasts
The rapport between Sam Cowen and Gareth Cliff is just what you would have expected from two of South Africa’s favourite radio personalities; they spoke with brutal honesty about their experiences and provided oodles of humorous banter at August’s Lowveld Book Festival.
As Cowen said early on, when you do a three-hour show five days a week on radio, there is very little you do not share with the public. And to the audience’s delight, neither of the guest speakers held back much at all.
Cowen’s no-holds-barred memoir entitled From Whiskey to Water is a frank account of her addictions to alcohol and food, her attempted rape, and how she came to find the next “addiction” which would end up saving her life – marathon swimming.
The much-loved Cowen, who was a radio host for more than 20 years on 94.7 and Radio 702 and had previously written two books on motherhood, had kept this side of her life hidden from the public eye for more than 14 years.
Founder of online hub CliffCentral.com and former 5fm radio host, Cliff said he had been quite shocked to hear about Cowen’s struggles with addiction, and wondered how she had coped.
“I drank a lot on my own because I don’t like people. I’d always been an overachiever, and I had a heroic tolerance for alcohol. I am an ox,” she told the audience at the Barnyard Theatre at Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre, White River.
“Having a husband who travels quite a lot is a problem when you are having an affair …with a bottle.”
Cowen recalled an evening when she opened 12 bottles of wine in order to see if she could finish them all. She woke up the next day having drank nine and a half.
“So you became a super swimmer and swapped one addiction for another?” Cliff said in jest.
Cowen likened working for a popular and successful morning radio show to driving 200 kilometres per hour in a Ferrari without being able to slow down.
“It wasn’t a wonderful career. It just looked like it from the outside. We get to look back at it now and think it was great. But I had to peddling all the time, and the alcohol took the edge off,” she said before turning the conversation to Cliff and his recently-published book, Cliffhanger.
The “confessions of (this) shock jock” take one behind the scenes to explore the highs and lows of Cliff’s career.
“Gareth, your own book is quite revealing. Although you laugh things off a lot, I could see the pain there,” Cowen said.
The ever-controversial Cliff explained to the audience what happened during the fateful period of the Penny Sparrow debate which saw him dismissed from his job as an Idols judge. He tweeted that “people really don’t understand free speech at all”, in response to the outrage over Sparrow’s Facebook post in which she called black beachgoers monkeys.
Cliff admitted it had been difficult to be publicly accused and that Twitter was not a place for discussion about issues like these.
“When MNet said they didn’t want my services anymore, I was happy because I was bored. But people like EFF National Chairperson Dali Mpofu said I just couldn’t let that happen,” Cliff explained.
So he took on one of the largest media companies in the world in Naspers.
“They had 14 lawyers and three advocates. I had a lawyer and an advocate. We won, but it doesn’t feel like a victory,” he said.
Although he regrets wading in on the Sparrow debate and other things he has commented on, Cliff stands by his opinion and says he may have a process addiction when it comes to freedom of speech.
“It is my only sacred cow, and the one guarantee that we can at least find a better process. I have never met anyone I would give the power to censor me,” he mused.
“You only know you are free if you can say what you think without checking with someone first, but we should all be very aware that we will be held by what we say.”
Cliff added that podcasts - digital audio files which a user can download and listen to - are the new space for those kind of conversations, where sarcasm and irony can be heard. Cliff took the leap from traditional terrestrial radio to the virtually unknown world of what he calls “infotainment” online content in 2014.
For both Cliff and Cowen, the writing of their memoirs contributed somewhat to their individual “healing” processes, if you like.
For the latter, however, writing the book did not help her find serenity.
“I don’t think I am built for it. I found out things about myself I didn’t want to know. Have I made peace with it? No, I don’t think I ever will,” Cowen said.