Finding a Way Forward for Community Radio in Uganda

Kampala    In our last day of meetings, we wanted to make sure we had a way forward in Uganda, not only for potential organizing, but to begin the work with an initiative in community radio.  The more we puzzled over the paths forward, choosing first one direction, and then another, and then both, we realized that despite believing earlier that the process might be quick, in reality it could take years to achieve, certainly one to three at the least.  Even as we moved in these directions, I wanted to make sure the trip to Kampala had been worth the time and trouble for my colleagues as well as myself and our scarce resources.

            Why not start with an internet radio station?  At the least, a block of programming on acornradio.org, perhaps 10 to 16 hours on a weekend at the beginning to prepare for a launch of uganda acorn radio.

            Looking at the population statistics for Uganda, we could almost see this relatively small country swelling before our eyes.  The estimates showed more than forty-one million people in 2017, an over three million increase in one year, compared to the same amount over the previous five years.  Internet penetration was estimated at over 31%, although these figures are notable for their hard rock boosterism.  Under any terms with the right approaches, we would build listenership, and would do so nationally, even if our primary intentions were in Kampala and Arua in the northwestern part of the country.

            Other research we uncovered, as we met on the patio of the Kampala Kolping Hotel, examined the state of community radio in the country.  The authors argued that there was nominally a half-dozen, but in their report treated the efforts with skepticism.  Most were in rural areas of the country.  One of the larger was organized by women journalists and called MAMA.  We couldn’t find a listing on their website or the governments on the power of their broadcast, but they claimed on their website that their signal could reach thirteen million people in a huge area covering most of the southern part of the country.  Who knows?  But at least we might not be alone.

            Once I broached starting, even with this tentative first step, my colleagues responded enthusiastically.  We made lists and workplans.  We huddled over a computer, when we were able to get on the internet, and looked at equipment price lists and debated local purchase versus shipping overseas.  We talked about the languages and content of programming.  We covered any topic we could think of until the day was fading, buses and work were calling my friends, and my time was running out in Uganda.

            I even found myself crawling around behind the hotel and measuring in my mind’s eye whether an antenna on top of this Catholic NGO’s hotel might be enough with some power to reach the slums spread out all around us.

            From such small beginnings, we will see what we can make happen in the coming months and years.

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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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