We spent some time chatting to 5FM breakfast host Dan Corder about the immense effort and work it takes to be on air for 15 hours a week and why he might be a little sleepy when you meet him.
Words by Gugulethu Mhlungu
Who is Dan? (Where were you born, where did you grow up and what did you want to do career-wise when you were growing up?)
I was born and raised in Cape Town, although I think it is more accurate to say I was born and raised at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Both my parents have deep and long-lasting relationships with UCT as academics who worked and studied there, so my young life was defined by the university, the hiking trails around Cape Town’s mountain ranges and the beaches, of course. I spent years studying at UCT after school and, aside from a brief sojourn in the Eastern Cape, I lived in Cape Town until moving to Joburg to work at 5FM.
When did you discover you could entertain and what did you like about it?
I didn’t really think I had any charisma or power to entertain until a few years into university. I was a nervous kid in school and I did not handle performance pressure or attention very well. I actually suffered a bad stutter when I had to give speeches. I certainly loved creating entertainment though, and I wanted to perform. I wrote plays that were brought to life at the school one-act play festival and I competed in the school debating team. In university, I shed much of my self-doubt and anxiety, which allowed me to perform more freely. I had a very successful university debating career that took me around the world. Debating is about speaking in compelling ways that move people. I think my success in debating made me realise that I had some talent at entertaining people and gave me the bravery to sign up for the university radio station, which turned out to be the beginning of my career in broadcasting.
How did you decide to become a radio presenter and how did you go about getting into the industry?
Hilariously, I ended up in radio because I met a very beautiful woman. I wanted to spend time with her and she worked at the campus station. I didn’t have any ambitions to be a radio presenter. Nothing ever happened with the woman but suddenly I was on air every day and loving the high content turnover creative work and all the music. It was late in my degree studies and I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, so radio was a delightful outlet that gave me a sense of excitement and purpose at a time when I was not enjoying studying much. After a year on air, my shows became fairly high profile because they covered the now-famous movements and moments at UCT that year, including Rhodes Must Fall. My show got the attention of Good Hope FM in Cape Town. The station offered me the weekend breakfast show and that was my first show in the radio industry.
Do you remember what and when your big break was?
Absolutely! My big break was a very clear series of events. I was reading Honours literature at UCT in 2015 and working on the campus radio station. My show gained international attention for its coverage of Rhodes Must Fall and one day the iconic BBC World Service contacted us. The BBC World Service broadcasts around the world to hundreds of countries. They had me present a radio piece that I produced on Rhodes Must Fall to the whole world. Soon after, I was hired to a commercial radio station for the first time, and then a film that I directed named Luister was released. Luister investigated linguistic exclusion and racism at Stellenbosch University. The film became a worldwide news headline and caused a political storm in South Africa. Over just a few months, those three events changed the course of my life and constituted my big break.
What has been the most rewarding part of the work you do? Do you have an all-time favourite on-air moment and what was it?
It blows my mind that I get to wake up every day and make life a little lighter for people. That is such beautiful, sacred work. I take my job very seriously, because we have the power to make a joke or play a song or talk about an issue that brings joy to millions. I’m a real romantic about radio. It has the potential to be such a force for good when done right and I do radio every day in the hope of reaching that potential. That is my reward. And sometimes the best radio is heavy and moving, but it is what the community of presenters and listeners need in that moment. I vividly remember the show we did the morning after the news of Uyinene Mrwetyana’s death broke. I wept on air and women listeners took over the show with messages of how they were feeling and what they wanted men to hear. It was an electric show. You could feel the power of the audience saying what needed to be said. It was painful, but it was good.
What has been the most challenging part of the work you do?
The creative workload is unlike anything else I have ever seen. Breakfast radio on 5FM requires three hours of excellent fresh content every weekday morning. That is six to eight new, high quality, carefully designed pieces each day. I don’t even have six to eight interesting new things to tell my parents on most day. The sheer creative output is very taxing, but it is also the wildly demanding content turnover that I, a workaholic, absolutely love. It is hard, but it is the pace I enjoy.
Who are some of your favourite creatives and broadcasters and why?
I think Nick Hamman is excellent. He channels his curiosity and passion for discovering the richness of the world so well and listening to his afternoon drive show on 5FM is full of pleasing encounters with the not-yet-known. Christiane Amanpour is an exceptional journalist, interviewer, and broadcaster. She is such a masterful questioner and I find myself watching her shows on repeat.
What do you wish more people knew about the work you do?
I am jet lagged all the time. I am literally living in the wrong time zone. So if I’m foggy and drained when you meet me, it is not your fault or mine, and I’m not being offish. I just need to sleep!
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Where do you want to take your career? What is on your bucket list?
I always want to be participating in the most demanding, high quality, creative entertainment available to me. Whether it is radio, writing, filmmaking, theatre, news broadcasting, so long as I am able to push myself and contribute at the highest possible level, I am happy.
Tips for anyone who has followed your career and is keen to do what you do?
Lean in to what you are passionate about. The entertainment and broadcasting industries have so much space now because there are so many avenues to find audiences that are interested in all kinds of things. This means that you have the opportunity to create a niche for audiences to enjoy your talents and interests. Some entertainers are effective expressers of all kinds of interests, but mostly the best are the best because they are performing sincere love for what they create about.
What is your life’s motto?
I have two. As Tracy Chapman sang, “All that you have is your soul”. And as Stephen Watson wrote, “solvitur ambulando”, which is a Latin phrase that means “it is solved by walking”.
Follow Dan on Twitter @DanCorderOnAir