Community Radio in Uganda

Catholics have more than six radio stations in Uganda

            Kampala         Writing about community radio in Uganda could be very short, even if not sweet, story:  there is none!

            At least, there is none in the way we might recognize such a concept in the US or even in African countries.  Kenya has a fledgling network of small community radio stations in twenty-two different areas around the country, including four in major slums of Nairobi.  South Africa reportedly has a burgeoning community radio scene.  Uganda, not so much.  At least not yet, and that’s been part of the discussion I have had for days with colleagues while in Kampala, including Ricky Moses and Kenneth Lubangakene.  

            Interestingly, there is no real difference between commercial and noncommercial radio in Uganda.  Every licensed station is able to sell commercials.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The rationale is straightforward:  it’s hard to support noncommercial radio, so even a station wanting to be community-focused or operate as a noncommercial, is allowed to sell advertisements in order to try and stay on the air.  That makes sense.  In fact, talking to a radio engineer on the phone, as well as my friends, I remarked that a quick count on a website I thought was the government’s came up with almost fifty-five stations.  In such a crowded market, even for a city of 1.5 million that number of stations alone explains why most of them were relatively low power at 1000 watts with only a few at 4000 or 5000 watts.  He claimed that there were as many as 200 that had been licensed.  I was scratching my head at these very different numbers until my friends simply noted how many had gone off the air, unable to make a go of it.

the British Government gave Uganda an old Ford Model T at independence on the pull out…change is hard (displayed in Uganda Museum)

            So even if arguably being able to sell ads might make a station more sustainable, there are still some peculiarities.  The Catholic Church runs a half-dozen stations, and they also sell ads.  Listeners are hardly able to distinguish the church’s stations from any other in terms of programming except that there is a Sunday service that is broadcast and some daily prayers.  The government owns a newspaper which also owns a half-dozen stations or more around the country.  They also sell ads.  That’s a bit dicier when most would wonder if some enterprises might be buying to curry favor.  It’s not quite the Trump emoluments issue, since it is for public, rather than private, gain, but it’s a bit odd.  Add to that another fact that the national police and the national government require any licensed station to provide them each a free hour of broadcast time per week for any messages they want to deliver to people  Given that all stations are also required to pay 5% of gross revenues as a tax along with $500 USD per year annually to maintain the their license, and it all adds up, as another reason stations are allowed to advertise.

            I did hear stories of nongovernmental organizations that had tried to put stations on the air, presumably trying to establish a community radio presence in the country.  A Peace station was one example, but the end of the story was one of internal conflict over buildings and property between the founders, and the programming seems to have become indistinguishable from the rest of the dial.

            There’s huge opportunity here and real demand, but we would be breaking pretty new and hard ground.

a woodcutting in the Uganda Museum shows life and government in its scenes
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First Impressions in Uganda

Kampala

            Kampala         Flying into Entebbe, a glance out the window to the left, as the plane looks for the runway, is suddenly breathtaking, as the vast savannahs of Africa meet the blue waters of Lake Victoria.  For all of the drama of Entebbe in our memory and imagination from the days of plane hijacks and Idi Amin, walking across the tarmac from the plane to the airport building you are struck by not only the unexpected beauty of the surroundings, the green grasses and tall trees meeting the red dirt, but also the smallness of the airport serving a 1.5 million city not far away in Kampala.  

In the same way the relatively new bypass highway in Nairobi had been a surprise, the partially built expressway leading towards the Uganda capital was also another welcome relief for as long as it lasted.  We cruised quickly by toll booths, still waiting to clutch their first coins.

The airport was also amazingly orderly despite or perhaps because of its smallness.  After a first bit of chaos involving unexpected health forms that had to be completed, we sped through immigration.  Coming into the main greeting area whether in Toronto or Mumbai or Nairobi or Mexico City is always a scrum as families crowd around and touts and pickups waive signs at passengers coming through the doors.  Not in Kampala.  The airport seemed almost empty.  A passenger had to go outside and then find the hotel and other drivers with their signs sitting calmly under a tent away from the exit gate.  

            Once in the city, we embrace the real Kampala.  My hotel was owned by the Catholic Church somehow and had the clean and plain comforts I associate with former nunneries that have been converted to conference centers without quite making it all the way there.  We jumped into a matatu to travel to the city center and then climbed on the back of a moto in order to get the last mile out of the way.  

Teeming is the only descriptive word that works here.  People in motion on every footpath.  Motorcycles, cars, bicycles, and people in a turbid confluence at every street corner and crossing.  Matatus, full of scrapes and dents, fat with people crammed into every broken seat, moving like bumper cars into every narrow space to get a bit farther down the road as their hawkers screamed to the street the destination intended and request for the next passenger.  

            The malls of Nairobi yesterday now seem a distant memory of another time in another planet, as the surging of Kampala, now the fastest growing city in Africa, sweep one along the way with a smile on your face at the quickness and energy while you are desperate to understand what it all means and where it is going.

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