The 20-year journey of FM radio in Uganda

A presenter in the studio. PHOTO BY DOMINIC BUKENYA

What you need to know:

THE Long trek. With the mushrooming FM stations in Uganda, very few people have a clue on how FM radio came to be. Edgar R. Batte takes us through the journey.

On December, 18, 1993 John Katto, with two Israelis and two South African engineers drove to Lugazi, 31 kilometres from Kampala. At the town’s market park they met a lady with an old radio set.
“I asked her to switch to 88.2FM frequency and the music was streaming clearly. It sounded wonderful. We jumped up in joy and people around thought we were mad,” Katto recollects.

Sanyu FM was on air and whereas it was not the first FM radio station to go on air, to the radio lover it provided a fresh sound. Green Channel, airing on the frequency of 98FM was the first FM radio station, but it did not claim its place in history.

It went on air in a subtle way. Nonetheless it pioneered a new trend and Radio Sanyu came out more prominently playing more music than adverts and routine announcement which was typical of Radio Uganda.
With FM radio on air, radio would never be the same. Twenty years later, a lot has changed. More FM radio stations have been licensed and the idea of loyalty to a particular radio station is fast dying out.

Freshness to the audience
Radio critic Timothy Kalyegira, says, when FM radio went on air it was something new, something Ugandans had never experienced in their lives.
“It was crisp clear CD quality sound. It was exciting for many of us,” Kalyegira recounts.

He says radio sounded fresh and many listeners could not believe an FM radio would stay for long and as such they went on to record the music on tapes so that if it went off air, they would have some cool music to listen to.
But slowly, listeners got used to FM radio. “It lasted and deejays came on and we got to appreciate that there is Radio Uganda and there is another. It was revolutionary exciting,” he recalls.

Twenty years later, it seems not to have achieved it all. “Radio is not yet there. We lack documentation. The news format that Monitor FM abandoned in 2003 would be best now when talk of corruption, politics and succession is so much and even musicians sing about it. This is what made stars like Andrew Mwenda and so for Meddie Nsereko and Betty Nambooze. Then the Bimeeza’s like Radio One’s Spectrum pioneered. Radio is still a force and the first social media we had,” he elaborates.

Why prefer some presenters
Entertainment journalist and blogger Moses Serugo, says, there are a few radio presenters worth listening to.
“I like to think discerning folks like me have since tuned out because you do not find the finesse of Alex Ndawula on breakfast, Allan Mugisa aka the cantankerous’ bawdy humour or even DJ Berry’s zouk on radio anymore. It was more than just the music back in the day,” he explains.

Serugo argues then, it was about the listening experience with value to the listener where there was something new to learn, something new beyond back-crediting songs. “Fact is most of what is on radio today does not appeal much to me beyond Kalisoliso, the Radio Simba press review and Kenneth Katuramu and Sima Sabiiti on XFM on Saturday mornings on their Morning After the Night Before show 6am-10am,” he adds. Kalyegira argues that radio is still the main communicator compared to social media which has not produced stars and following like radio has, thus radio remains a central part in people’s lives.
Kalyegira was a newspaper critic and if you were a keen listener to radio in the mid-1990s and a reader of this newspaper you will remember his articles in Coffee Break entertainment pages that compared radio stations and radio personalities on who did what and how they did it.

He was particular on bringing to light what edge one station had another over another and which presenter was doing it rightly or wrongly.
He recollects, “Capital was started by the William Pike and Patrick Quarcoo and the first interview they scooped and which shifted many people towards Capital was with the Kabaka (Ronald Muwenda Mutebi) on Desert Island Discs. He was at the time still the Ssabataka.”

Kalyegira remembers all this partly because he was also one of pioneer news anchors at Capital FM. He says given the background of Pike, having been Managing Director at New Vision, Capital was more serious, with news items. And news was not presented in the conventional way of so and so has said.

Breaking tradition
“We were the first people who introduced sound bites in the news. We had a script and we played sound bites along with the news item,” he says.
The veteran journalist explains that with such news items and programmes like ‘Desert Island Disks’, ‘Capital Gang’ which cut Capital out as a more serious station, the market started segmenting naturally.

He adds, “Sanyu was thereon perceived as the ‘what’s up’ and Capital was more populist and more like ‘Facebook’ with serious people like Charles Onyango Obbo, Frank Katusiime on Capital Gang set the stage for the national discussions Kiliza Oba Gana and Andrew Mwenda Live.”
Kalyegira was first Ugandan news reader after Pike. He recollects that he got into Capital because Pike was going on leave.

“One day I had visited my friend David Ssepuuya who was Features Editor at New Vision at the time and he told me about an opening at Capital since Pike was returning from leave and he was looking for a news reader at Capital. Ssepuuya asked me if I were interested and when he talked to Pike, he was hesitant saying I was radical, the former news reader recalls.
Kalyegira was surprised because he had not yet become as critical and political like he is today.

“Writing about politics for me started in 2004. For much of the 1990s I was a radio reviewer and an entertainment writer, anyway Pike gave me a chance and Quarcoo did my voice test. That is January in 1994, two weeks after they began,” he remembers.
He read and broke news like when President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down.

“Richard Mulondo who was doing the breakfast show left and joined the news desk. This was at the time when Alex Ndawula had just left Sanyu. He joined Capital just around Easter in 1994 and he took over the breakfast show. From then on deejay Berry joined then Peter Sematimba, deejay Bruno, Shanks Vi Vi Dee who became stars,” Kalyegira further recalls.

To be continued next Sunday.

Pioneers in the FM radio industry (Part 1)

On December 18, 1993, Radio Sanyu, went on air. Two weeks later, on December, 31, Capital Radio went on air. FM radio brought excitement among masses.
As such it gave birth to a crop of celebrities, of radio presenters whose clout was built around sounding good on radio yet never seen. It was a big break from the monotonous Radio Uganda which was about news, talkshows and minimal music. The new stations capitalised on offering more music and less talk. The journey of radio has been tumultuous but the main players have stayed. We bring you some individuals who, in hindsight are the real backbone of the industry owing to their quirks and industriousness.

Alex Ndawula
He is arguably the best radio presenter of this generation for the 20 years of FM radio in Uganda. Alex Ndawula, with his take-it-or-leave-it attitude, has got radio lovers hooked. He was the first presenter on Radio Sanyu.
“When it started it used to be at the late Mzee Thomas Katto’s house in Naguru. The station was named after his wife. John knew me because I went to the same school with Emma Katto at St. Mary’s, Nairobi,” he recalls.

Ndawula’s love for music had started while he was still in high school. “In Senior Three when I started going to night clubs, there was a deejay who intrigued me. He would enter club at 8pm and play so much music. You would not know where the first song started. I liked his style,” he explains. Ndawula started learning how to deejay. He became serious at Nakawa Business School where he studied marketing.

When Radio Sanyu opened he was a deejay at Club Clouds where John Katto met him and told him about his new radio station. Katto says that since Alex knew how to mix music he could easily learn how to present on air.
Alex and Chris Ireland were the first presenters on Sanyu, each taking three-hour shifts to work. The late Irene Nambi read the news.

“Chris liked pop music and I liked soul and jazz. Chris would go from 10am to 1pm then the things would heat up then since there was no air conditioner. As it was switched off we would take a rest. I would do the afternoon stretch from 2pm to 5pm then Chris would do from 5pm till night. We would sleep in the studio. We were paid Shs100,000 only, no transport was provided,” Alex recounts.

“Rasta Rob came half way through January. That is about when I left because my birthday was on the 8th. I was supposed to do a show and I got a surprise party,” according to the veteran.
He found a new home at Capital Radio where he did the Big Breakfast Show with Irene Ochwo, and the two were Uganda’s first duo. When Ochwo resigned after getting a better offer at Radio One, Christine Mawadri replaced her.
Ndawula enjoyed working with Mawadri. “She is very good. She was fun, well read and very different. I think my best time ever on radio was when I was working with her. We would laugh, get serious and fight, but I was very sad when she decided that she was not going to do radio anymore. Even now, I think if she went back on radio she would just beat all these women on radio and rank up,” Ndawula says.
He feels his time is up and he plans to leave radio soon. “It is 20 years already. I want to do private parties and may be go back to club,” he reveals.
He says most radio presenters are not good because they do not take time to prepare for their shows and rely on newspapers to keep their shows going.

RS Elvis
Elvis Kalema Ntale, better known on air as RS (Rhythm Selector) Elvis started out his career on radio at Radio Sanyu only days after it had gone on air. That was in January 1994.

He had been a deejay with Charlie Lubega’s Soul Disco. He says he got into Sanyu thanks to a relative he always went to visit.
“Nepotism! It is a good thing after all,” he jokes. “I was still a student at the university and working for Soul Disco. One Saturday afternoon after Alex had left Sanyu, there was no one to fill the slot, I was called to do his show,” he adds.

It was his first time on air. “I had no training whatsoever. It was my first time on radio desk. It was not bad. Otherwise, I would not have been called back. I just remember Mzee Katto (RIP) coming to the station and telling me to open up a little and be more relaxed,” he recollects.
He was at Sanyu up to May 1996. In August 1997 he joined Radio One and has been there since.

Comparing radio today and back then RS Elvis, says back then there were just a handful of stations. “It was Sanyu and Capital when I started. Now, I cannot keep count,” he says.

And throughout the 20 years he says he considers Candy Wekesa, who used to do the Wind-down Zone, as his best presenter.
“She is a respected lawyer, mother and wife now. She did a show called Wind-down Zone on Sunday back then. I would have to make the decision whether to stay home and listen to her or ride my bike to the beach with my friends,” Elvis explains why she stands out.

Irene Ochwo Byaruhanga
Her background as an English Literature teacher at St Marys College Kisubi makes her an articulate person. She is naturally brilliant. Irene Ochwo Byaruhanga says people thought she was good at communication and asked her to try to do radio.

“So I went to Capital Radio and did an interview. I felt very silly when I did but then within two days they called me and told me I had a good voice and character and that I should join them,” she recalls.
She joined and started out by doing the mid-morning slot. The programme director told her she had a good character and asked her to be paired with Alex Ndawula.

“We were the first breakfast duo. I did that for some time and while I was there Radio One was emerging. They approached me to work with them and told me they were a specialised radio focusing on memories. Fine, but I wanted a challenge- my own show after doing a duo show. I joined and I have been here since,” she says with a smile.
Ochwo is Programmes Director at Radio One which she joined in 1997, after three years as a presenter at Capital Radio. Ochwo presents the Mid-Morning Show at Radio One.

“Being in the programmes department I listen to other radio stations and I will give you my honest opinion. Radio in Uganda has become mediocre. Anyone opens a radio station, plays music, throws on anyone without thinking about character, the intelligence levels so if you are looking at personalities it is a little hard to break out,” she argues.
Ochwo says anyone can get on radio so having a personality marked with a radio station is dying – anything that can speak and make people happy goes on air.