JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It's 11:13 p.m. in Radio 702 Land and thousands of people out there in the townships and the suburbs and the heartland of South Africa are getting ready for bed with their radio dials tuned to John Robbie's voice.
In a soundproofed room deep inside a downtown office building, Robbie, a former rugby star, is talking rapid-fire into a large microphone. He's in his working position: leaning back in a swivel chair, his white socks and brown wingtips perched on the table in front of him.
"Let's talk to Whitey on Line 4," Robbie says. "Go for it, Whitey."
"I don't think there's any place for any black in South Africa," Whitey says. "Especially not for Mr. Mandela or . . . the black people with the big mouths."
"Where should they go, Whitey?"
"I think they must be killed, John."
"Yeah. I think if Nelson (Mandela) or Chris Hani (the African National Congress military chief of staff) were executed, then the biggest part of the problem in this country will be over."
"Look," Robbie says, "I'm fascinated by your viewpoint. But do you seriously, seriously, seriously see that as any way to look at the future? Isn't that total lunacy?"
"I don't think so, John."
"Whitey, I appreciate your call. It scares the wits out of me. But thank you very much indeed."
It's now 11:18 p.m. in Radio 702 Land. Robbie takes a sip of coffee, his fourth cup in the last hour. He can feel the momentum of the show shifting. More callers are waiting on the five phone lines. Untold numbers of others are trying to ring through.
Things are just starting to heat up on Radio 702's "Talk at Ten." And it'll get even hotter before John Robbie bids farewell at midnight, which is just how he likes it.
"Talk at Ten" is a first for South Africans--a no-holds-barred political call-in show. And in less than eight months it has become one of the most talked-about and contentious two hours of radio in the country, quadrupling the audience during its weeknight time slot.
Although as maddening and frustrating as South Africa itself, "Talk at Ten" offers the only forum in which ordinary whites and blacks in the country can listen to each other. On any given night, listeners are treated to the great span of political thinking, from left-wing black revolutionaries to right-wing white racists as well as a not-so-silent majority of worried South Africans, both black and white.
Few callers go away unchallenged by Robbie, a 34-year-old with blue eyes and a stubbly crew cut who oversees the nightly melee like a rather opinionated college professor who's addicted to caffeine.
"I just treat it as if I'm having a drink with the listener in a bar and we're talking politics," Robbie said. "If he makes a point that I think is nonsensical, I'll say, 'That's rubbish.' "
That makes Robbie a rarity in South Africa. Even at Radio 702, the country's only independently owned radio station, talk-show hosts have grown accustomed to gently steering callers away from hard-core political discussions. And few tell callers, as Robbie did good-naturedly the other day, "Cut the nonsense and get to the point or I'll cut you off."
At first Robbie's willingness to express his own opinions, including a strong opposition to apartheid, took many listeners by surprise. Robbie and the show's producer, Alan Matthews, received several death threats during the first few months.
"Some people seemed to have a problem with the idea that a talk-show host might not be totally neutral," said Matthews, a 26-year-old former schoolteacher. "John isn't shy to say what he thinks about apartheid. But he also doesn't let people who agree with him get away with their views."
The number of death threats dropped eventually and Robbie says he gets far less abuse today, even though unwelcome calls at home have him planning to change his unlisted telephone number for the second time since May.
"There was an initial shock among people, but I detect that maybe they've grown with the show," Robbie said. "And maybe I've softened a little bit."
No one at Radio 702 knew exactly what to expect when it set aside time four nights a week for open political discussions and put Robbie, its popular sports editor, in charge. Politics in apartheid South Africa can be a fiery, deadly arena.
"It was a risk," station manager Rina Broomberg said. "But its instant success indicates to us that people really need to talk." Nevertheless, she admitted, "sometimes when I listen to the show, I still get a little nervous."
"Talk at Ten" is broadcast across a wide area of South Africa that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria as well as townships such as Soweto, Sebokeng and Alexandra. The station's market research suggests that many of the estimated 30,000 listeners, 20% of whom are black, believe that the program is helping them understand, for the first time, how their political opponents think.