A new kind of magic

Yolisa Phahle, newly appointed CEO of M-Net

The vibrant new boss of SA’s leading entertainment network is an entertainer in her own right.

Entertainment is magic. It flights viewers on journeys with actors, performers and artists to escape from reality and keep them engrossed in gripping content filled with pleasure and delight.

But to hold the attention and interest of viewers and audiences is not always as easy as it seems. “It takes lots of planning and preparation behind the scenes to provide viewers with content they want to see,” says Yolisa Phahle, newly appointed CEO of the Electronic Media Network Limited (M-Net). “Our viewers pay for our services and we therefore need to constantly provide what they look for, in the way they want it, and when they want it.”

M-Net already invested considerably in producing local content and wants to increase their focus on three core African markets — South Africa, West Africa and East Africa to facilitate further growth, thus the reason for appointing Phahle who has earned a reputation for turning broadcasting concepts into gold.

Yolisa Phahle joined M-Net in 2005 as general manager of Channel O and since then earned praises for being a dynamic and capable all-round broadcasting executive who conceptualises and launches new channels left and right. 

She spearheaded Channel O’s revival and turned it into the number one music channel in Africa, and the most highly regarded outlet for African talent and videos on the planet.

After that, entertainment options grew rapidly and Phahle had been at the forefront of local content development when acting as the director for local interest channels which led to more diverse growth in viewership base.

Her portfolio included MK and KykNET, which has grown significantly in later years, and Vuzu, a youth-focused entertainment channel featuring a wide variety of genres.

In 2010, Phahle was tasked with launching the now hugely popular Mzansi Magic that showcases locally produced content with a strong entertainment focus, and content mix of local and international feature films, music specials, documentaries and soapies.

In 2012 Phahle oversaw the launch of Mzansi Magic Music, South Africa’s first and only 24/7 channel that offers traditional music, jazz, gospel, soul and all-time classics. 

Just recently she successfully introduced the Mzansi Wethu and Mzansi Bioskop channels together with her capable team, as she says none of her achievements would be possible without them.

Mzansi Bioskop revolves around films that reflect the day-to-day reality of the people of Mzansi, and Mzansi Wethu is a hearty new general entertainment channel featuring an array of locally produced content that includes sitcoms, game shows, reality fare and a brand-new studio-based soap filmed in the popular Lokshin style.

Phahle intends to keep more magic flowing. She says, “Our mission now is to create the best television entertainment in Africa and beyond. The world is changing and evolving, and more and more opportunities to produce local content are opening up, opportunities that were never available before.”

Phahle has no traditional background such as finance or law that lead to the appointment of most CEOs in South Africa. She has only background in music, film production and creative ingenuity with the rhythm of Africa in her soul.

She is the first black woman CEO of M-Net and will concentrate on developing content and markets in South Africa, reporting only to the sub-Saharan CEO of M-Net, Patricia van Rooyen.

“Being a CEO is an enormous responsibility and a huge privilege for me,” she admits. “I’m very proud, but am also now more acutely aware of how far I have come. Actually how far South Africa as a country has come, considering our past and now 20 years into democracy.”

M-Net is a wholly owned subsidiary of MultiChoice South Africa, founded in 1985 as the country’s first private subscription television service. Today, it boasts an array of general entertainment and niche channels and broadcasts to over 2.5 million subscribers in 41 countries across Africa. 

Phahle says, “M-Net’s first channels also brought many firsts for South Africa with many new international productions available to viewers.”

At the same token, in the late 1990s when the new democracy just started, many opportunities across sectors mushroomed and Phahle reckons a new wave of development – as she refers to it, “the next passionate explosion”, especially in broadcasting content, is around the corner.

“We have a wealth of talented actors, scriptwriters and production companies in South Africa, and we can certainly produce quality content. The people I’ve worked with in the last four years illustrated what’s possible, and I’m looking forward to consolidating existing partnerships and building new ones.”

Phahle believes it is vital to play a leading role in the evolution and transformation of the industry. For the man on the street it means growing opportunities as interns at M-Net to learn more about producing and broadcasting.

“We’ve created more than 100 intern opportunities last year, and all of them are now working in the industry. Close to my heart is telling local stories and creating opportunities and by interacting with them, I can impart what I know.”

According to Phahle, a leader’s challenge always remains in the fact that one is only as good as the people who work for and with you. “I think this is a universal concept; recruit the best talent and develop them further in the positions they excel in. They must trust you, believe in you and be very clear on what their roles and responsibilities are, otherwise it would be impossible for them to deliver.”

Her success with Channel O and Mzanzi are testament to this.

“All the successes of those who worked for me are also a testament of my talents and looking for opportunity to make it work. It’s like a circle. If you believe in people and trust them to do a good job, they will deliver, and feel valued if given the right resources to make it happen,” she smiles.

In keeping employees engaged to perform and remain motivated, Phahle uses various strategies which she developed over the years. “I’ve learned a lot in the seven years I’ve been here. I walked into a place with a lot of questions and not many answers. People were also sceptical and questioned me a lot on what I know about the country since I was born and raised in the United Kingdom.”

In the end, it was more about making her expectations and goals for the organisation clear, and rewarding the right behaviour. “Nothing is more discouraging for employees than to work in a department where their efforts are not being acknowledged, or where others are continuously overseen for their incorrect behaviour or non-performance.”

Luckily working for an entertainment provider is in itself exciting and working in a fast-growing environment is riveting. “I’ve seen many professionals develop remarkably quickly and we are continuously approached by very talented and amazing people, which makes engaging everyone much easier.”

Even though Yolisa Phahle was born and raised in the UK she is deeply rooted in South Africa. In the UK, she grew up as part of a community of South Africans who all played a part in the advancement of the arts in South Africa. These include Hugh Masekela, Arthur Maimane (previous managing editor of The Star), and the late John Matshikiza, who combined stage acting in London with political activism.

When she was a young child, she did not watch television so much until her cousin came to visit. “Television was not available in South Africa at that time and he watched television 24/7. The bug also infested me and since then I became an entertainment junkie.”

She was glued to the screen and her father warned she would not amount to anything if watching television all day. “Guess what, dad, I actually am making a living today from watching telly,” she laughs as she points out that watching television gives her lots of inspiration.

After school she did not go to university to study for a degree as her father had wished, but instead went to Guildhall School of Music and Drama to be trained as violinist and keyboard player. “I was trained in classical music but it soon became boring and miserable, and the pop scene looked far more interesting, happier and rewarding.” 

She soon found herself playing violin with critically acclaimed 1990s pop act Soul II Soul, and becoming a founding member, composer and musician in the Island Records-signed Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra.

She shared stages with Jamiroquai and appeared on the same stage as Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Seal and Prince. In 1993 Yolisa performed with Duran during An Acoustic Evening Tour and The Dilate Your Mind Tour, which included the Live In South African show and the New Orleans show.

“I can remember vividly from performing with Duran Duran when Nick Rhodes, keyboardist for the band, told me to never come on stage wearing a certain jacket again,” she says. “This taught me the value of image and branding. You can have the best product, but brand image and people’s perceptions do really matter a lot in our world.”

In 1998 she joined the BBC World Service as studio manager and music producer where she produced and oversaw live music sessions with Oasis, Paul Weller, Coldplay and the late Amy Winehouse. In 2001 she became a senior producer at BBC 6 Music which was the broadcaster’s first-ever digital radio station and its first new music channel in 30 years. 

The pull of her South African roots and her enduring love for African music drove her to the country in late 2005 where she took up the general manager position at Channel O. “The transition from BBC to M-Net was very smooth, as their customer-centric policies, philosophies and outlook of driving for excellence were the same. So I fitted in quickly.”

According to Phahle it’s not the fact that she grew up in the developed UK that led to her position today. “It’s true that depending on where you grow up sometimes make it difficult or easier to get to the top, and I was lucky to get an education in the UK. But I know people who have made huge inroads with no education or coming from very adverse backgrounds. It shouldn’t stand in people’s way of driving for excellence.”

She came from a hardworking family and is a naturally driven person. “I like to think no matter where I was in the world, I took advantage of all the opportunities that came my way. However, it is also true that being in the right place at the right time helps. In essence, getting to the top is a combination of many things.”

It’s vital that personal values and that of the organisation a person works for are aligned. “I wouldn’t be able to do my job if there was a contradiction. I value people, I like watching people, their facial expressions, their actions and behaviour. I therefore really landed my dream job,” she smiles.

Family life

Phahle enjoyed travelling the world with her music career and to Nigeria, Kenya and Angola for M-Net in developing content, “But my home is where my heart is,” she says, which is with her family of two sons, age 17 and 13, and her new husband who’s also a well-known South African musician.

“My kids are also musically inclined and there’s lots of music happening at home. I live in the same street as my mom and both my parents were very supportive of my career, looking after my kids while I was travelling.”

She sometimes works long hours and has to be away many times from home. “Luckily the kids are now at an age where they can understand my passion for entertainment, and they’re very proud of what I do and what I’ve accomplished so far.”

In her position as CEO she would like to form new partnerships with producers and audiences, and developing South Africa’s talents to ensure the industry grows. “I would like to assist start-up companies who would love to showcase their ideas and develop the stories important or inspirational to them.”

Finding out what audiences want is sometimes a challenge. At the moment, viewership base can be determined from a combination of market research and audience ratings. 

“But sometimes people also don’t know what they want and we have to decide what would be of interest, selecting content carefully to stand out from the clutter.”

M-Net’s brand is to create channels that stand for something very specific according to consumer responses, including digital platforms where people now can watch online or on mobile devices. 

With this in mind, Yolisa Phahle will lead broadcasting operations to even greater heights, and cement the organisation’s leadership in the media and entertainment space.

Phahle told Leadership magazine she is always focused on pleasing audiences and in the future she will continue looking at underserved markets. 

“With the variety of channels we have, we can accommodate a wide selection of content in all language groups to tell stories that are believable and authentic for everyone.

“I also hope my achievements are testament of what can be done and are setting good examples for others of what’s possible in this world. As for me, as an activist in the entertainment industry, I get the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, letting them escape to a world of magic.”

Rizel Delano

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