A love letter to radio
The world’s love story began, to be fair, in the 1890s when Italian Guglielmo Marconi invented the wireless telegraph.
But it was not until the turn of the century, in the 1920s to be exact, that radio truly came into its own: people rushed to buy radios as it became clear that this medium was the fastest way to receive news and entertainment. Not to be outdone, business, political and other social structures and institutions, such as churches jumped on the bandwagon as the power of radio grew.
This was particularly true of the United States of America, where a whopping 80% of the population owned a radio by the end of the following decade.
The “Golden Age of Radio” had arrived and it was here to stay!
Picture these images: people in a darkened room huddled around their radio sets listening to news in shell-shocked London during WWII. Go to Africa, where an entire village – literally – will be huddled around one radio, listening to the latest English Premier League matches. During elections in Africa, radio is king. Citizens will take their tiny transistors with them everywhere to listen to the results. It is also this versatility that has made radio the preferred medium in Africa to obtain and disseminate information.
Even the advent of television could not unseat radio!
The power of radio is none more apparent than in Africa. With far-flung towns and villages and poor infrastructure, this medium is more often than not, the only link to rest of the country, the government and the rest of the world, for many Africans, especially in rural areas. This is true even today, when the continent is grappling with basic infrastructure, let alone the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Radio is able to reach the farthest corners of any African country. In a continent as vast as Africa, radio is an indispensable tool or asset. Citizens can be informed in real time of events as they unfold, be it disasters, pandemics…or coups d’etat as the case may be.
It is this power and versatility, coupled with the fact that it requires modest financial investment, that has always made radio the preferred domain of African governments.
This was particularly true of dictatorships in Africa.
Radio was strictly regulated and became, to all intents and purposes, ‘his master’s voice’. This also ensured that information filtered from the top down only. Punishment was swift to those broadcasters who dared to challenge the status quo or who deviated from the norm of praise-singing.
This was the case even in benign civilian dictatorships. I remember as a child growing up in Zambia, I’d listen to the English Service of Radio Zambia and dance frenetically to the latest pop hits. The only other radio service was the Domestic Service, which broadcast in the Zambian indigenous languages and would belt out a mix of local hits and Congolese rumba. This was also owned by the State.
Paradoxically, we also listened to Lourenco Marques Radio (LM Radio), a private radio station that broadcast on short-wave from the then Portuguese colony Mozambique, located only a stone’s throw from the border of apartheid South Africa. In hindsight, it is no surprise that there was never any news on the station, not even snippets. This suited us just fine, as all we were interested in was the latest hit parade, which the station churned out twenty-four hours a day, every day!
Even in the far north Maghreb region of Africa, they all appeared to have used the same blueprint as their sub-Saharan counterparts for total control of radio.
In Algeria for instance, Radio-Television Algerie, where I started my career in broadcasting over forty-five years ago, was the only broadcaster in the country. But then again, the president had seized power in a military coup. The programmes were strictly regulated to reflect government domestic and foreign policy. It therefore came as something of a mild shock when I moved to France to work for Radio France International, still government-owned, but with a free hand to report freely within the bounds of a strict code of ethics. We even had a union!
But what was really a source of wonder were the several private and independent radio stations operating in the country, ranging from music to news stations. The listener was spoilt for choice.
In apartheid South Africa, the airwaves were spewing out propaganda and disinformation by the bucket loads. Recognising the power of radio, the Southern African liberation movements went on the offensive. Harnessing this powerful medium to their cause, they set up radio stations in several countries, from as far afield as Ethiopia to broadcast on shortwave and straight into the belly of the beast. Game on!
For decades, Africans were fed a diet of propaganda and carefully scripted and vetted programmes aimed at keeping them docile and in line. It worked…for a while.
The winds of change swept across Africa, inexorably ushering in a new era of multi-party democracy. This new-found democracy invariably brought with it calls for a free media and freedom of expression as cornerstones of democracy.
While the Windhoek Declaration of 1991 set the tone for a free and pluralistic media on the continent, the African Charter on Broadcasting (2001) cemented the importance of opening up the airwaves and allowing a diversity of players on the broadcasting landscape. However, to be honest, the people had long appropriated the airwaves. A precursory tuning in to FM in Zambia and a barrage of independent radio stations would hit you. The same was true in Malawi, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
For the large part, these private and independent radio stations were urban-based, catering for an urban elite. Their programming catered very little for the large rural populations found in Africa. It was glaringly obvious that something had to be done to give rural-based populations a voice and be part of the development process. Enter community radio!
Technology had also advanced to such levels that one could broadcast from a suitcase.
These advances made it possible for community radios to enter the broadcasting landscape and cheaply too. They set the development agenda of the community in which they operate – at least they are supposed to. Unfortunately, they have not always been the catalyst for meaningful change in the lives of their communities, the reasons of which I will not go into in this article. Suffice it to say that the rural populations remain, to a large extent, short-changed.
Some twenty ago I was introduced to a brilliant concept by Zimbabwean veteran journalists – Mavis Moyo, Jennifer Sibanda and Dorcas Hove – that gave women, whose were only heard occasionally on radio – a voice.
The concept – Development Through Radio (DTR), allowed rural women to set their own development agenda and assist their communities in the process. This was done by giving the women recording equipment and teaching them how to produce programmes on any issue relevant to their communities. The programmes would then be flighted on mainstream radio.
In Namibia, I set up a pilot DTR at a women’s collective in Omahenene, Omusati region, with great success. Their programmes were broadcast on the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation’s Oshiwambo language service, now Kati FM. Dare I make an appeal to benefactors out there to enable the replication of this concept to all rural populations?
The opening up of the airwaves has been a move in the right direction to not only strengthen democracy but also to provide listeners with a wider choice of information.
Has the increased use of the internet and social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook slowly relegated radio to broadcasting history? Not a chance! Radio has risen admirably to the challenge and taken ownership of the internet. One can now tune in to one’s favourite station on your smartphone or tablet from the comfort of your bed or couch, without having to fiddle with those pesky dials. Bliss!
Decades later, through tumultuous and peaceful times, radio has been a constant. A familiar. A legend.
The love story continues…