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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Community Radio Comes to the Nairobi Slums

ACORN organizers and director of the station and several volunteers

Nairobi     Visiting Korogocho, where ACORN Kenya has worked for the last more than eight years, we wanted to make sure that we had an opportunity to visit an interesting experiment in community radio, KOCH-FM 99.9.  Years ago, I had noticed there might be such a thing when we were visiting our groups, but we had failed to make a connection.  More recently, we had tried to track them down, and ACORN Kenya’s organizers, Sammy Ndirangu and David Musungu, had done several preliminary shows, and a partnership was growing.

Meeting the station manager, Doreen Maan, we got a much better understanding of exactly how unique the station is.  KOCH was the first noncommercial station licensed by the Kenya authorities for broadcasting in the slums of the city and allowed to program on 99.9 as a frequency.  The government’s view of “slum radio,” organized and supported by youth as the driving force in Korogocho, was to limit the power of the station to only 25 watts so that their reach would only be about 3 kilometers.  Given the size of Korogocho as the 3rd largest slum in the country and the oldest in Nairobi, that still gave the station a potential audience of hundreds of thousands of people, if they could reach them.

community radio KCOH 99.9 in Korogocho

Later additional licenses were issued in other lower income slums in Nairobi, such as Pamoja FM in Kibera, Ghetto FM in Pumwani and Mtaani Radio in Riruta Satellite. Since these radios target a specific audience from the lower income settlements and are limited to only a narrow range with 25 watts of allowable power in a unique arrangement, they share a common frequency, 99.9 FM with each other as community radios in Nairobi.  They program a range of music and commentary.  Sometimes they even are involved in some activism.  Quoting from one description about KOCH-FM:

…In response to the political violence witnessed in Kenya after the disputed results of the December 27 2007 general elections, Koch FM gathered community members to create peace messages and jingles, which they regularly played on air. The team mobilised people to donate food and clothes through radio appeals; they then distributed the donations to the over 500 families that were camping at the Star of Hope Academy in Huruma. In collaboration with other pro-peace initiatives, Koch FM mobilised, organised, and undertook a call-for-peace procession in Korogocho and Ngomongo. Apart from peace slogans, songs, and chants, Koch FM distributed handbills and T-shirts with peace and reconciliation messages.

Indeed, these were our kind of people.  We had an extensive conversation about ways that ACORN could partners with KOCH, as well as the prospects for KOCH joining our partner, the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement and sharing some programming, technical tips, and experience.

We hope great things come from this small beginning.

tower for KCOH

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