Today is World Radio Day, an opportunity to reflect on the milestones achieved through the ‘Reithian trinity’ of information, education and entertainment that radio plays.
Until 2015, radio was the main source of information in Kenya according to a 2015 survey conducted by Reuters Institute at Oxford University.
A report on the status of media survey done by the regulator, Media Council of Kenya (MCK) in 2021 and released recently reports that radio content is consumed by over 74 per cent of Kenyans each day.
From the investigation, 83 per cent of the respondents accessed radio content via FM radio receiver devices and mobile phones, 13 per cent via set top boxes while four per cent through digital apps and online platforms.
Most scholars agree about the fact that the media is critical to the wellbeing of society and that information is an indispensable resource that people and society need to operate.
Among the over 200 radio stations in Kenya, the top three most listened to radio stations according to MCK include; Radio Citizen at 27 per cent, Radio Jambo at 22 per cent, Kameme at 15 per cent, Radio Maisha at 13 per cent and KBC Radio at 11 per cent.
A 2021 Media Assessment by Internews included Milele FM, Radio Jambo, Classic 105, Kiss FM, Inooro, Ramogi FM, and Hot 96 among the top.
Research findings have averred that Kenyans prefer radio for news and entertainment. As we celebrate this World Radio Day, here’s a look at the radio environment in Kenya.
History of radio
Mbeke reports that Kenya’s broadcast media has a long history stretching back to 1927 when the colonial government set up the first English radio broadcasting, the East African Broadcasting Corporation (EABC), which served only Whites and Asians.
It went on air in 1928 in what is believed to be the first wave of radio reforms. The British East African Company used the medium as a tool for relaying services to the expatriate community as broadcasting was minimal and rarely tailored for the local population.
Later, World War II meant that Africans needed to be informed about their relatives recruited into the war and so some content began targeting this segment of the population.
Scholars believe that the first official broadcast focus on Africans came through the launch of African Language Broadcasting Services using seven local languages.
In 1953, the African Broadcasting Services (ABC) was established carrying inclusive broadcast content to the local Kenyan communities.
Major African languages (Dholuo, Kikuyu, Kikamba, Kipsigis, Nandi, Luhya, and Kiswahili) were used at different time of the day and night. The seven-language African Broadcasting Service was clearly designed to counter the Mau uprising, a thorn in the flesh of colonialists.
This expanded through the 1959 launch of the Kenya Broadcasting Services (KBS). Given the financial and technological needs of this sub-sector, it did not generate the private interests seen in the print media.
Into the 1950s, however, the African Inland Church’s Biblia Husema Studios had launched Radio Kijabe, which remained for many years the sole privately owned station in the country.
On the eve of independence, the colonial radio station was renamed Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), later renamed Voice of Kenya (VOK) in 1964, was established with regional stations in Mombasa (Sauti ya Mvita), Nyeri (Mount Kenya Station), and Kisumu (Lake Station), at the time comprising Western province and Kericho Districts.
VOK was later transformed into a state corporation reverting to KBC and designated a parastatal and mouthpiece of government in 1989. The eight-hour battle for the control of the microphone in 1982 is well inscribed in the annals of our history.
After 30 years of colonial rule, the second wave of radio broadcasts began after the country attained independence in 1963.
Radio was still heavily characterised by government control or referred to as public radio. The highly restricted radio and TV environment remained as such until 2000 despite various attempts by entrepreneurs to register private radio stations.
Notable among these attempts were repeated applications by the Nation Media Group (NMG) and those of Royal Media Services (RMS) proprietor S.K Macharia.
Wilson Ugangu, a media scholar notes that radio sub-sector has experienced the largest amount of growth in Kenya over the last decade.
It is agreeable that radio has achieved immense penetration since liberalization of the media sector in the early 1990s.
Generally, the radio scene in Kenya is characterised by public radio broadcasting, commercial and privately owned FM (which broadcast in English Kiswahili and various vernacular languages), and community radio broadcasting.
This phenomenal growth in radio is attributable to the liberalized and competitive media environment that has developed in the country since mid-1990s.
Other than the vibrant sector of private radio, the country has also community radio stations which is comparatively not well developed in the view of Ugangu.
The Homa Bay Community Radio Station was the first community radio station set up in the Western part of Kenya in May 1982.
It was an initiative by the Kenyan government and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
This radio would soon be shut down by the Kenyan government two years later as the government kept a keen eye on any radio broadcast following the 1982 coup attempt.
Another community radio station, Mangelete applied in 1997 but had to wait for its licence until 2002. Today, Kenya can boast of a number of community radio stations which should not be misconstrued as vernacular radio.
As of October 2012, Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) now Communication Authority (CA) issued nearly 365 radio frequencies, 300 of which were operational. Since the liberalization of airwaves, a notable trend has been the growth of vernacular radio stations.
In 2000, Kameme FM became the first local language station, whose operation was however suspended the following year. A new round of local language stations emerged starting 2004, their distribution covering all of the major ethnic languages across the country.
RMS, a private media company, leads in this field with the following stations broadcasting in local languages: Inooro (Kikuyu), Ramogi (Dholuo), Mulembe (Luhya), Musyi (Kamba), Muuga (Meru), Chamgei (Kalenjin), Egesa (Kisii), Wimwaro (Embu), Vuuka (Maragoli), Sulwe FM (Bukusu) and Maa (Maasai).
Other vernacular FM stations include Kass FM, Kitwek FM (Kalenjin), Coro FM, Timau Radio and Kameme FM (Kikuyu), Radio Nam Lolwe, Radio Lake Victoria, Mayienga FM, Dala FM, Kewi FM, Nyanam Radio (Luo), Star FM (Kisii), West FM (Luhya), Mbaitu FM (Kamba), Kaya FM (Agiriama), Minto (Kipsigis) and Anguo FM (Taita) among others.
Apart from locally owned private radio stations, the country also boasts of a number of international broadcasters operating FM stations. They include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Voice of America (VOA), Radio France International, Radio China and East Africa Radio. Both BBC and VOA broadcast in English and Kiswahili.
According to a Tweet by MCK on March 6, 2021, there are 92 TV stations including free- to -air and vernacular, 200 Radio stations that are operational, 100 publications and 9000 accredited journalists and media practitioners.
Undoubtedly, the growth of local language radio stations has revolutionised the country’s media scene in the most unprecedented manner.
These radio stations have incited debate in recent times and sometimes attracted the wrath of government for their content. The disputed 2007 General Election and its aftermath was probably the one moment when the spotlight was focused on local language radio stations.
Social media taking over?
Kenya’s radio environment is said to be highly competitive with most media houses jostling for a profitable foothold.
However, some of the radio stations are ill-equipped, many are poorly staffed while most are either owned or associated with politicians, raising the fundamental question of editorial independence.
Many argue that social media is slowly taking over radio. At the same time, it is the hotbed of fake news fashioned in first degree disinformation.
Despite the many ills bedeviling the radio sector, it still remains a formidable source of news to most Kenyans. As we celebrate this day, the media ought to contain the growing competition for hot and selling news. Instead, it should promote its customary public service role.
Happy World Radio Day!
The writer is a communications specialist