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Live on air as we celebrate World Radio Day

By Elly Gitau
Saturday, February 13th, 2021
Alex Mwakideu.
In summary

For years, radio has remained a mainstream medium for information dissemination and edu-tainment. And as the globe sets itself to mark the World Radio Day tomorrow, Elly Gitau looks at how the Kenyan radio is fairing at a time when the digital space is threatening to take over. 

“Make me your radio, turn me up when you feel low, this melody was meant for you, just sing along to my stereo.”

These are the lyrics to the chorus of of the song Stereo Hearts, the 2011 hit song by American rap rock band Gym Class Heroes featuring Adam Levine.

Stereo Hearts is a love song the singers cryptically used to show their feelings and desires to be loved.

The cryptic use of radio in this jam came out so well. To the lovers of radio, myself included, listening to this song, especially the chorus, always leaves a happy feeling in your heart and mind. I digress.

For the people born in Kenya up to probably 1998, the most synonymous news and entertainment medium they became fond of was the radio.

In a majority of homes then, TV and newspapers were deemed a luxury, only affordable by the rich.

But radio reigned supreme. Radio was an adored feature. Radio was loved, almost worshipped. Radio was like an occult; it made families whole, so to speak.

By the turn of the new millennium, access to electricity was only confined in urban areas, with most rural parts of the country pitted in darkeness, unlike today when millions of homesteads are connected to the national grid.

According to the World Bank’s statistics, more than 70 per cent of the Kenya’s population had access to electricity by 2018.

Before year 2000, a majority of radio listeners in the country solely relied on dry cells to power their valued gadgets.

“Radio has always been a major part of my life. Growing up, my brother DNA (artiste) and I would record over my dad’s cassettes and listen to ourselves talk and sing.

I always wanted to be on radio,” says Tina Kaggia, the breakfast show presenter at Nation FM, who was inspired by the likes of Teddy Muthusi, Munene Nyagah, Ngatia Murenga and Fareed Khimani.

She adds that being the introvert she is, many people didn’t think she would hack being on-air.

“What people don’t understand is that introverts take note of their surroundings, and that is how I can do a breakfast show solo.

The greatest challenge though is protecting your Zen (the mindful awareness of the present moment).

It can be tricky when you are having a horrible day, but the show must go on. Also, people prodding into your private life can be a challenge,” she says.

Tina opines that even with the powerful emergence of the digital media, the mainstream radio will never die.

Jalang’o.

“Podcasts and other digital media are great, and they are a great avenue to explore.

Jasper Murume and I started Nyumbani Radio podcast when Covid-19 hit, but the radio educates, informs and entertains with little or no internet access.

Radio is here to stay,” says Tina also nicknamed The Voice, who has been on radio for more than a decade now.

Voices of yore

Having joined radio in 1977, veteran radio broadcaster Anunda Sakwa, however, says that radio has long lost direction.

“The radio lost it when employers started employing half-baked graduates as presenters.

Many of the presenters today are the ‘know it all’ type that can never heed advice from radio legends.

They say that we are old and understand nothing about today’s radio. I admit that dynamics have changed over the time, especially due to the rapid emergence of the digital space, but we must stick to what radio stood for,” he tells Spice.

Milele FM breakfast show presenter Alex Mwakideu—who has been on radio for 16 years—begs to differ with Sakwa on the calibre of presenters in today’s radio.

According to him, there has to be no better time to be on radio that now.

“Times have changed and everyone must move with the time for them to fit in today’s society. I ought to see the social media not as a threat to radio but as strength.

The two complement each other. When I hype my show or a news piece on my social platforms, it adds more listenership,” says Mwakideu, whose career in radio was greatly influenced by the late Tony Msalame and Classic 105’s Maina Kageni.

Carol Radull.

He adds, “I understand where Sakwa is coming from and I respect his opinion as a legend of the industry.

His time on radio was when radio used to be so powerful that it could overthrow a president from power.

Today’s presenters and media owners are mostly after ratings in order to bring in the revenue.

So, presenters must pull every effort to gain as many listeners as possible. This is just part of the radio evolution, and if you fail to adapt, you’ll definitely fall off.”

Digital realisation

Carol Radull was on radio for 24 years, until last year when she pulled the plug on her illustrious career.

Although proud and thankful of the “valuable” experiences learned on radio, she doesn’t miss it.

“The digital space has disrupted the radio in a major way, and I am grateful for making the transition.

There are a lot of opportunities in the digital platforms because they communicate more directly to your listeners.

But the radio will still rule for many years to come, because in many parts of the world, a lot of people cannot yet afford resources such as the internet to go online.

Jahmby Koikai.

But for me, the radio is not the only option,” says Radull, who marked her debut on radio in 1997 at the BBC World Service.

DJ Joe Mfalme owes his success in the music industry to radio. Until last month, he was a resident spin-doctor at Capital FM for 12 years, before making the switch to Homeboyz Radio.

He opines that as a deejay, it is easier to do a show on radio than on any other medium.

“Radio has always been the best for me because it comes with more freedom than say the TV.

It is hard to do a three-hour music show on TV, but it is doable on radio. On TV, you’ll need to dress accordingly for the set, among other requirements, whereas on radio, no such restrictions can hinder you from doing a show.

Yes, the digital media has its strengths, but it’s not a threat to the mass radio.

The radio will be here for the long haul,” says Joe, a great fan of ex-KBC presenter John Karani.

Jahmby Koikai aka Fyah Mummah managed to create a massive fan base as a reggae radio presenter during her time on the now defunct Metro FM.

She says that radio doesn’t command the influence it used to back in the day, as the space is now saturated with niche radio stations.

“During my time on KBC and then Metro FM, I loved the interaction with our listeners via phone calls, emails and letters.

Today, the listeners are spoilt for choice because there are too many radio stations, which is making listening to radio lose its taste.

I love radio and I miss being on air, but I have personal reservations and requirements that anyone who would have interest to hire me must meet,” she says.

Felix Odiwuor aka Jalang’o has been on radio for 15 years now. He believes that of all the mainstream media, radio is still in the lead.

“A majority of people still listen to radio to get factual news. However, radio presenters, journalists and newsreaders have to up their game because of the disruption caused by the digital media.

Back then, the radio used to ‘break the news’, but today, people themselves are breaking the news on social media.

So, as a broadcaster, you must rise above this challenge for you to remain relevant. And that makes  this the best time to be on radio,” he intimates.

The regulation

Kenya has more than 140 licensed radio stations and whereas there are two categories of radio (free to air and subscription), one must be approved and issued with an operating license by the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) at a fee to operate a radio station.

The fees are charged according to the license category and the location of service delivery.

“In accordance with provisions of Section 46C of the Kenya Information and Communications Act, 1998, it is illegal to provide any form of broadcasting service in Kenya without a licence.

Contravention of this law attracts a fine not exceeding Sh1 million or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or both,” cites the CA.

The World Radio Day, which is observed annually on February 13, was proclaimed in 2011 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012 as an International Day.

“Radio is a powerful medium for celebrating humanity in all its diversity and constitutes a platform for democratic discourse.

At the global level, radio remains the most widely consumed medium. This unique ability to reach out the widest audience means radio can shape a society’s experience of diversity, stand as an arena for all voices to speak out, be represented and heard,” the Unesco cites.