John Berks was the godfather of radio. There is probably not a single radio presenter in South Africa today that has not been in some way been influenced by the great Berksie.
The radio legend passed away on Saturday at 80 after a period of illness. Tributes have been streaming across social media since the news broke. Berks hosted the breakfast show on 702 before it became talk radio and the shape shifted to the change in format effortlessly.
His prank calls, sharp wit and at times, controversial dalliances with sexism made for exceptional radio. He was one of the most listened to broadcasters in South African radio history. In 2017, author Robin Binckes What A Boykie – The John Berks Story was published. The book not only celebrated his career but also spotlighted some of the greatest moments of humour on radio, as created by Berks. Who could ever forget characters like Jan Sweetpack and Gertie, among many others?
Former colleague John Robbie tweeted: “His gift was humour and irreverence in an age when, even that, was seen to be rebellious. A friend and a mentor and a legend.” And a legend he was. And a rebel. Berks first walked out of a science class at Milner High in Klerksdorp in protest of being held back a year.
He was in Standard 8 (Grade 10). Berks, who retold this story several times over the years, said the teacher had suggested that at least when he was travelling by train, he would recognise Berks as the ticket clipper. He also walked out on a job at Radio 5 in the 70s, uncomfortable with the monopoly of the state-owned broadcaster.
After joining a fledgling 702 thereafter, he later became SA’s best-paid presenter and was a relentless voice in support of independent radio. Berks’ career started at the original incarnation of LM Radio in 1964 after passing an audition.
Before that, he had a stint as a journalist for the Klerksdorp Rekord in his hometown. Prior to that, he spent time on the production line in a Rosettenville factory. His last show on the talk radio station was in 2001, which also marked the genesis of Gareth Cliff’s commercial radio career.
Cliff took over the slot at the time. The starting blocks of Jeremy Mansfield’s career were also somewhat pegged on the coattails of Berks. Mansfield presented sport on his show. Veteran broadcaster Aki Anastasiou, who reported traffic on 702, also for Berks, said the jock was a major influence on his career: “A radio giant has fallen!
A pioneer of talk radio in SA. He created the most authentic theatre of the mind experiences for his listeners. A sense of humour like no other. He had such a massive influence on my radio career. John Berks you were one of a kind!”
Cliff, who made several appearances on Cliff Central over the years said: “To a legendary radio broadcaster and man who inspired and entertained many South Africans over the years…” Dan Moyane said: “History will always recognise your im- mense contribution to broadcasting. From music radio to talk radio, you did it your way. You set a standard that few will ever match.” – firstname.lastname@example.org