Kampala- When a radio or television presenter or talk show host is about to open telephone lines to allow the listeners to chip in with their views, perennial callers ready themselves.
“You enter studio telephone numbers in several mobile phones and wait (for) when the host announces the listeners can call in,” Mr Bashir Mugerwa, a perennial radio caller, says. “Then you dial all the telephone numbers at once.”
If one call fails, another will go through. This is how painstaking making calls on several radio and television stations, especially political and social programmes, has become.
For the uninitiated callers, the only remaining avenues for passing feedback to broadcasters may be letters to newspaper editors and social media platforms.
The airtime is left to a few “skilled” power brokers who often call in programmes not to give unique ideas, but advance political or business aspirations of those that are dear to them at that moment.
Many of these brokers, our investigations have revealed, solicit money from people entangled in scandals or those victimised desperately looking to tilt public opinion in their favour.
Some people think that these callers have the ability to make or break politicians or businesspeople.
Calling into radio stations, those close to business have told us, is a paying venture now, if craft is applied.
We were told that some of the regular callers exclusively took to defending those in trouble or criticise some politicians on behalf of others. The game also extends to businesspeople, who in many cases have their reputations or businesses propped up by the regular callers.
Mr Moses Kaggwa, an elected leader of telephone callers on radio stations, says that he knows a few making a living out of making calls into radio stations.
“True, there are people who send us money maybe on a weekly basis because they enjoy what we say. But I have always advised my colleagues not to treat it as a permanent job,” Mr Kaggwa says.
Mr Muhammad Sseggirinya, a renowned supporter of Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, says he spends at least Shs15,000 on telephone airtime a day, which is Shs5.4m a year. He says he draws the money from his mobile telephone accessories business in Kyebando, Kawempe Division.
Politically, some perennial callers on local radio stations that defended the government or those who crossed from the Opposition to the ruling party were rewarded. More than a dozen callers, including Mr Kigozi Kaweesa and Mr Linos Ngompek, are now Resident District Commissioners (RDCs).
He, however, says he was once called by a perennial caller on radio stations promising him that he would get a stall on one of the new buildings near Mutesa I Stadium if he stopped decampaigning the project but he declined the offer.
Radio managers say
Mr Michael Kisenyi, a programmes’ director at Radio One/Two, says “MPs call and complain that some callers contact them demanding money lest they talk against them on the radio”.
Mr Kisenyi says having a few listeners calling in has an impact on listenership.
“Some callers think we have telephone numbers for special callers, which isn’t true. When a caller continuously fails to give his or her view, they tend to tune to other stations that give them the opportunity to air out the views,” he says.
Unfortunately, the perennial callers don’t keep loyalty to any radio station; they keep the nob moving to where their interests are.
But with tough competition in the broadcasting industry, every media house is on the edge. A single mistake of uncontrolled anger could send the programme, and if not the station, into downward spiral. Many presenters cautiously deal with them.
It is only a few daring radio stations that can deal with them.
The 89.2 CBS FM programmes manager, Mr Henry Mpinga Ssempijja, often discourages perennial callers from participating in his midday show.
Mr Francis Babu, proprietor of a radio station and a politician, says that there are many good regular callers but it is only an insignificant number who have resolved to blackmail and extortion that are hijacking a good idea.
“These are undisciplined people and they are known but I don’t know why they aren’t arrested. They ask ‘essente y’oyo tunagilyako ddi?’ (When will we eat his money?),” Mr Babu says.
“The bad thing that they are always around Parliament. Some cheap politicians are paying them to defame others,” he says.
Mr Moses Kaggwa, the deputy president of radio telephone callers association, confirms his organisation has also received complaints of extortion from sections of members of the public against his members but he declined to name any.
“It is alleged that Shs250m was given to some callers on radio stations by a local political party but they didn’t share it with the people they claimed to have represented,” Mr Kaggwa says.
Several of his members hold the same opinion. Members of the callers’ group told this newspaper that the said funds led to infighting within and that a new leadership was elected. The members elected a team that had earlier shown trustworthiness in handling such funds.
“No telephone callers can allege that I received money on their behalf and I didn’t pass it to them. It is one reason why I was voted overwhelmingly by telephone callers,” Mr Kaggwa says.
These power brokers go to an extent of identifying with the people whose interests they are fronting.
It is not surprising to hear a listener calling into a farming programme and introduces himself, for example, as Muhammad Ssegirinya who lives in a city governed by the Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago or a one Ssalongo Ssetumba who resides in the city governed by KCCA Executive Director Jennifer Musisi.
Ideally, callers with such background would be blacklisted from participating in the radio call-in programmes but many broadcast media don’t have technology to know the identity of incoming calls beforehand.
Mr Denis Jjuuko, a media and communication consultant, says the problem emanates from the way media houses entice people into listening in.
“Here, we always try to buy audiences by telling them to listen to land a chance of winning fuel coupons or getting an opportunity for the station team moving in passenger vans to pay for them their transport fares,” Mr Jjuuko says.
Mr Jjuuko adds that in the developed countries, it is done in a different way. “Media houses in developed countries have deliberate plans to train their audience on how to listen in, participate and engage,” he says.
He says media houses need to have more ways of engaging their listeners like using online platforms.
Most of the callers are beyond the reach of Uganda Communication Commission (UCC). Mr Fred Otunnu, the spokesperson of UCC, says their controls don’t go beyond ensuring minimum broadcasting standards but they once received a complaint from someone.
“We carried out investigations and the radio station was warned against using their medium to carry out attacks against someone,” Mr Otunnu says.
He says cases of some callers defrauding politicians and businesspeople is a responsibility of the police to investigate.
Police have both been beneficiaries and victims of these perennial callers depending the police officer handling them.
Leaked tapes of the Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, revealed that some of the perennial callers on talk shows meet security officers and they get “facilitation”.
At the height of Walk-to-Work protests by the opposition in 2011, many perennial callers on radio station often flocked the police headquarters to meet top police officers.
Many of them were turned into crime preventers who not only had to tip the police whenever there is a plot by the Opposition to stage a protest but also had to discourage others from joining the protests through media outlets.
Police were able to defeat walk to work protests.
Although Kampala Metropolitan Police Liaison officer Anatoli Muteterwa denies paying perennial callers, he says they engaged them, like any other citizens, through their community policing strategies.
“What happens is that when people listen in and regular callers are defending the police, they think that we pay them. These are people who do it because of love of peace and security. We pay no one for that work,” Mr Muteterwa says.
With every group continuing to court the callers on radio stations coupled with unclear regulations and reluctance by victims to report to authorities, they may wield more power and create patronage even within media houses.
But with several groups and individuals continuing to court the extortionist callers to finish off their plots, their power may grow bigger and breed patronage even within media houses.