Berksie in the Morn – he did it his way!
This week, we bid farewell to a South African broadcast icon and a special friend, not only for me, but for millions whose lives he touched through his many years on radio – John Berks (Berkowitz).
John and I joined Radio 702 in the same year – John behind the microphone and me behind the desk in management. And so began a friendship that spanned four decades.
John Berks (also affectionately known as Berksie, Long John Berks, LJB, or just Berks) had already earned his place as one of South Africa’s favourite sons when he joined the fledging Radio 702 on 1 October 1981. With “Berksie in the Morn”, 702 skyrocketed to success, and life would never be the same again for the then “PWV”.
After dropping out of school in Standard 8 (Grade 10), John started his working life as a factory hand in his hometown, Klerksdorp. He moved on to become a delivery boy for the local newspaper before becoming a reporter with the Germiston Advocate. After several initial rejections, his radio career began in 1964 when he was employed as a disc jockey on LM Radio. He subsequently joined Swazi Music Radio, Radio 5, and Capital, not forgetting his legendary fun calls on Springbok Radio.
John Berks’s broadcasting career was nothing short of sensational and at the same time, he managed to raise his two children to become fine young adults. Lance and Sherise, having grown up in an unusual set of circumstances with such a high-profile and controversial father, are living examples of their father’s deeply-rooted values which didn’t necessarily fit his controversial public image. When all is said and done, John Berks was just an old-fashioned guy with a rigid set of traditional values (especially when it came to his kids).
With the irreverent Berksie came his cast of characters: Gertjie; Poppy; Jan Sweetbak; Mrs Goldberg; Charles Fortune; Colin du Plessis and the many others who may have served the show at any given moment. The mornings came alive with his brilliant imitations, exercises, rail reports, fun calls, his irrepressible humour (“What a boykie!”), his warmth (reminiscing with blue-rinse ladies or ageing ducktails), his rudeness (cutting callers off who weren’t to his liking – “You bozo, you!”), his unpredictable competitions which could range from anything from singing families to recreating Old Macdonald’s Farm live on the radio with gullible and/or sporting listeners.
“Love him or hate him, but never miss him” was painted on buses driving around Johannesburg. Berksie found his way into the intimacy of our bedrooms, our bathrooms, our living rooms, our motor cars, our offices, and above all, into our hearts and minds. He made us laugh, he made us cry, he made us cringe, and he made us think. Long after the day was well underway, we would continue to muse over Berksie’s morning offerings – “Did you hear what John Berks said this morning?”
“What’s John Berks really like?” was a frequently asked question. Having worked with him for so many years and supposedly his boss – as if Berksie could have a boss(!) – what was Berksie really like? He was a remarkable man. He was at once public property yet an enigmatic loner, highly skilled at drawing people to him like a magnet, yet he remained reclusive. He was a deeply emotional and charitable being, yet had a public image of being blunt and miserly. As his fellow broadcaster and one of his closest friends Gary Edwards recalls, “While one of his most endearing qualities was to make people laugh, John was also notoriously tight with money. While other staff members at the radio station ordered takeaways from the local cafe, John would have someone buy him a half-loaf of bread to which he added fish paste. He was awkward at social gatherings, always trying to avoid a handshake, and arriving late and leaving early. But these human quirks were more than compensated by his generosity of spirit, and he was responsible for creating opportunities for many others, myself included.”
In fact John had an uncanny knack for recognising talent. Along with Gary Edwards, he also had a hand in many other broadcasting careers, including Stan Katz, John Robbie, Gareth Cliff, Jeremy Mansfield, and many more.
The story of John Berks is a significant one. He was a unique human being with an extraordinary gift for being able to reach into peoples’ hearts through their ears with his compelling voice. He was a gifted observer and orator of life (as well as having an astonishing ability to get grown-ups to make animal noises on the radio!).
He was also a leader. John Berks had the courage and vision to forge ahead where others trembled with trepidation. He pushed the boundaries in our historically restricted country, in which choice in entertainment was notably impoverished. He left his distinctive footprint across the airwaves, which enabled fellow broadcasters and radio managers to build the paths upon which so many have subsequently travelled. As well as his unique brand of humour and ability to evoke the intensity of reaction he did, he was the one primarily responsible for the introduction and subsequent success of talk radio in South Africa. As Gary Edwards said, “Not bad for a kid from Klerksdorp!”
Issie Kirsh, broadcast pioneer, founder of Radio 702, and friend of John for more than 50 years, sums it up beautifully: “John was a legend in his own time. He was the perfect example of how a man should lead his life. John was the kindest, most sensitive, and endearing person you could ever be blessed to meet. He will be sorely missed by his family and by many friends who loved him so dearly.”
In a nutshell: John Berks – beloved partner of Manda, devoted father of Sherise and Lance, doting grandfather of Joshua, Tia, Benjamin, Mia, and Jesse, treasured brother and uncle of Cynette and Rhona and their families, special friend of just a handful of people whom he allowed into his inner sanctum and, of course, broadcaster extraordinaire whose memory will remain indelibly imprinted on the hearts of countless people who worked with him and grew up listening to him – what a boykie!
Berksie – you did it your way! Thank you for the memories, my friend.
- Rina Broomberg is the former station manager and later managing director of 702, and is co-founder of CliffCentral.com.