Berksie deserves better


TALK RADIO HOST John Berks needs no introduction for most radio listeners. Instrumental in bringing Radio 702 to life, and in sowing the seeds for talk radio in South Africa, he had humble beginnings in Klerksdorp in the 1940s, and his is a life story that takes him to LM radio in the 1960s, to the mushrooming of South African radio in the 1980s, to the halls of radio fame, as he follows his dreams. By any accounts, it’s a story which should shimmer. But in this book, it doesn’t.

The writing is lucid enough, but unforgivably amateur inconsistencies in the spelling of names, the repetition of story threads which skew facts, and the material’s structure make you think this book was rushed through with nary a consideration for its integrity as a piece of writing, or a document of radio history.

Binckes fleshes out the irrelevant minutiae of Berks’s anecdotes in the third person. What the book gains in simplistic narrative that teeters on superficially entertaining reading, it loses in ignoring not only Berks’s voice but also the context of radio in South Africa. The few verbatim accounts of telephone gags Berks did on radio, are fabulous but alas too few, and the resulting work is a laboured, poorly written, appallingly edited read, which presents Berks as a socially inept fluke who was in the right place at the right time.

If you remember how Berks seduced the radio waves with his dulcet tones and reinvented its tradition with utter chutzpah, and complete hilarity, this amateurish book makes no sense. Binckes’s attempts to offer the back-story of this icon of South African entertainment reveals Berks as a man of monumental inadequacy with an itch and a stutter and a tendency to resign from jobs serially. Reminiscent of the Danny Kaye biography by Martin Gottfried, there’s such a focus on the man’s petty faux pas that descriptions of his talents feel hyperbolic.

The book improves as it goes; ironically, the most coherent chapter is the last which deals with Berks’s thwarted presence on RAM FM, a Palestinian/Israeli radio station under the aegis of entrepreneur Issie Kirsh.

As a biography, it’s a missed opportunity. Berks’s colourful character, his talent for mimicry and his iconic presence on air, exuding drama, sex appeal and charisma, just don’t sparkle from these pages.

  • What A Boykie: The John Berks Story is written by Robin Binckes, by published by 30° South Publishers, Pinetown (2015)

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