EXCLUSIVE | Omar Essack, O Media: Between devastation and privilege [Year-Ender 2020]

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An international thought leader in Radio, TV and OOH media, Omar Essack  brings more than three decades of experience in South Africa and has remained one of the most popular international speakers at various leadership events, including India’s biggest Radio forum by far, the Promax India Radio forum.

Omar, who was CEO at South Africa’s Primedia Broadcasting till April 2020 — and before that, Group CEO at Kagiso Media where he worked for 13 years — had only just resigned from Primemedia after a 30-year career in the industry when the lockdown swooped down upon the collective existence across the world.

In this sensitive and exclusive piece on the year that was, Omar is torn between a realization of general devastation and personal privilege, and writes a personal account of the journey of his family and he, through a difficult year that proved to be one of discovery — of self and much more. Read on.

Ihad my moment of reckoning with 2020 before the virus making it clear who was boss. After 30 years in corporate media, 22 of them as a CEO of radio stations, broadcasting companies, and finally as the Group CEO, I decided to hit pause on my career. I negotiated my exit in February, signed off on the 27th and the world started to unravel and lockdown in March.

Although I remained available to my employer until the end of April 2020, I was effectively free. This was the first time in 3 decades that I did not have to rise early and think about the competition, the strategy, the purpose and vision, and mostly, the people.

Was this to be a privilege or a punishment?

There was no telling.

The lockdown has been devastating for millions of people. It has cost jobs around the world, particularly in developing countries, where there are no helicopter cheques from governments to ease the burden.

In India and South Africa and Brazil and so many nations across Africa, South America, and Asia, this pandemic’s impact on the poor has been catastrophic.

As I write I am torn between my knowledge of the impact on the most downtrodden of our society and the privilege that I am about to exhibit in my recollections of the year. It is an indictment on us that we participate in societies that are crafted to entrench inequality. That each nation regards its poorest people as a burden. I am one of those who are fortunate to have escaped my circumstances and so I write with a tinge of regret that my experiences are relatable only to a tiny minority of the world’s people.

It is an indictment on us that we participate in societies that are crafted to entrench inequality. That each nation regards its poorest people as a burden. I am one of those who are fortunate to have escaped my circumstances and so I write with a tinge of regret that my experiences are relatable only to a tiny minority of the world’s people: Omar Essack

What does a media executive with 30 years under his expanding waistline do under a lockdown with no office to go to, no strategies to execute on, no shareholders and staff to engage with, and no reports to write…

The first thing to learn is that a title holds no sway in the home environment. From cleaning a toilet to washing dishes (no manicure can rescue these soap leeched fingers) to washing clothes and hanging them outdoors and bringing them back in, to learning to cook more than a fried egg and a grilled cheese sandwich. I embraced the life of a ‘home executive’.

If I were forced to do this for the rest of my life, I would find it mundane and mind-numbing. But my privilege affords me access to the treasured distraction of infinite media choice, to help me cope. As an accompaniment to all that cleaning and vacuuming and washing and cooking and more cleaning, I voraciously consumed more content than I have done in 30 years.

Everything from audio books to podcasts to YouTube videos. It is incredible how these diversions made every boring but necessary task a pleasure, easily dispensed with, except for cooking which requires concentration and multiple viewings of the recipe and method on YouTube.

As someone who has spent a lifetime in linear media, particularly radio, this was my first comprehensive experience of having so much audio content on demand… The true treasure of all this content though is
the ability to share it with
family: OMAR ESSACK

As someone who has spent a lifetime in linear media, particularly radio, this was my first comprehensive experience of having so much audio content on demand. And it is mind-boggling how much there is available on any subject that you could want. And if it doesn’t exist, I also learned how easy it is to make your own. All you need is a mobile phone and an app to be a broadcaster (or should that be a podcaster?).

The true treasure of all this content though is the ability to share it with family.

I worked long hours when my older daughter, Hannah, was growing up. I never missed an important occasion but she saw me briefly in the morning and then over dinner most evenings.

My younger daughter, Zara has had a full 10 months with me around while she was schooling virtually. Enough time for her to see me unshaven, cultivating a beard, unkempt hair, barely out of pajamas, slouching around the house with a basket full of washing. Judging by her expression, my esteem has diminished with each passing day.

Nevertheless, the saving grace was the evenings spent watching ‘Rear Window, the Hitchcock masterpiece or discussing what I’d learned on the StarTalk podcast with Neil deGrasse Tyson or on ‘Hidden Brain’ or the BBC’s ‘The History Hour’. And Regina, my wife, and I started playing board games with her again, after dinner. Each meal was spent together, something that rarely happens when we are all working and on different schedules.

Deep into the year, when the lockdown restrictions had eased, I drove 6 hours to Durban and picked up my Ma and Papa and brought them to my home in Johannesburg.

I’m 54. This would be the first time in any of our lives where we would spend time together round the clock for weeks. Papa is 81. The internet is too intimidating for him. My passion for film and music and books come from his example to me.

How did we ever manage in a world where we were at the mercy of limited choice from a single broadcaster. The lockdown proved to me that the smorgasbord of content served up today on any topic at a whim enriches my relationships with those closest to me and made a pandemic-bearable: Omar Essack

And GOOGLE helped deepen our bond. He would speak of a song from Mohammed Rafi, or a scene from BaijuBawra or Richard Burton’s performance in ‘Look back in anger’ and lo and behold, I would find it for him and cast it onto the big screen in the living room, put on the surround sound and enthrall him. It became a game and after a week he would try ever more challenging titles. I was rarely let down by the long tail of content available online and at the end of a click.

How did we ever manage in a world where we were at the mercy of limited choice from a single broadcaster. The lockdown proved to me that the smorgasbord of content served up today on any topic at a whim enriches my relationships with those closest to me and made a pandemic bearable. We had enough distraction to stay away from the endless stream of devastating news about the ever-rising infections and the morbid scoreboard counting the rising death toll, on CNN.

For the first time in 30 years, I was purely a consumer, with no regard for commercial viability, no thought about the potential of a piece of content for revenue generation and audience growth. It was pure, unadulterated freedom.

Some people say that this pandemic changes everything. That societies and business will never be the same again. For many of us, its impact is lasting and inescapable. Lives lost can never be recovered. For the very few of us that are fortunate, it has allowed more family time and the gift of content discovery. These new habits forged during the harshest lockdowns will endure forever.

Your thoughts, please