20 years of FM radio stations in Uganda

By Timothy Kalyegira

The opening up of the Ugandan broadcast airwaves in 1992 came two years after the government decided to relax its decades-old control of the foreign currency market.

Since independence, control of the national radio broadcaster was strictly by the government, especially considering that when military coups and guerrilla uprisings were staged, taking over the state-owned radio was always one of the main strategic objective of the mutineers.

However, in 1990, the 45 year-old Cold War had just ended and the perception was that the capitalist West had triumphed in its battle of the will with the Communist East because of liberalism, and so free market liberalism was now the model to encourage and spread around the world.

Privatization of the economy started in 1991, the same year as the downsizing of the civil service. In 1992, the first private television station, CableSat TV, founded by Peter Katiti, went on air.

Originally, the first private FM station, Radio Sanyu, was supposed to have been a joint venture between the family of Thomas I. Katto and William Pike and Patrick Quarcoo.

But when Quarcoo and Pike appeared to be taking longer to arrive at a decision than expected, Katto moved quickly to secure a licence, equipment and that was how Radio Sanyu became the Katto family station.

Beaten to it, Pike and Quarcoo scrambled resources and at the last minute also registered and set up Radio Kampala Limited, which came to be known as Capital Radio.

On 16 December 1993, after several weeks of testing its broadcast signal, Radio Sanyu went on air. Two weeks later, on 3 December, a second radio station, Capital Radio, followed.

Radio Sanyu was mainly entertainment while Capital Radio sought to differentiate itself as a more serious station, aiming at the older demographic, emphasizing news and an early programme of interviews, Desert Island Discs, copied from the BBC.
Ugandans who in recent years had resigned themselves to an increasingly stale Radio Uganda, with its programming dominated by politicians, politics and policy, were treated to a breath of fresh air.

Here were two stations, on the FM band that had never been used before, playing 18 hours of crystal-clear, CD-quality hits from America, Britain and the popular Zairean music of the time.

A new era in broadcasting, in journalism and in popular culture and advertising had begun in Uganda.

The FM stations became a rallying point for the public, old and young and they set the national entertainment mood as well as reflected it. Social life that had felt stagnant for several years was infused with excitement and a feeling of optimism, at least in the southern half of the country.

The radio stations were, so to speak, the first social media before the Internet made its appearance in Uganda.

The Radio Sanyu and Capital Radio stirred up the advertizing market in the country. Before then, adverts on radio and TV had been bland and somewhat imaginative.

Radio adverts were now “jazzed up”, exciting and sometimes as exciting as the more popular DJs. Capital FM and Radio Sanyu targeted the urban AB market with mostly western Pop and Black American Rhythm and Blues music.

Stiff competition grew between Radio Sanyu and Capital FM over who had the largest listening audience. The top DJs like DJ Berry, Peter Sematimba, Rasta Rob MC, Gloria Kamba and Alex Ndawula became household names, better known than most cabinet ministers and national sports stars.

Full page newspaper adverts proclaimed conflicting figures by the marketing research company Stedman & Associates purporting to show Capital or Sanyu at number one.

When Capital Radio introduced a Saturday morning show called the Capital Gang, hosted by Patrick Quarcoo and with a panel made up of Mbarara politician Winnie Byanyima, the Monitor Editor Charles Onyango-Obbo, New Vision Corporation Secretary Patrick Kiggundu and computer supplies dealer Frank Katusiime, it set off a new national trend of political debate and discussion of major national issues.

These debates would later be taken from the studio and to the public in town hall meetings broadcast live nicknamed “Bimeeza” in Uganda, which were very popular until the government banned them in 2009.

The runaway success of Radio Sanyu and Capital Radio soon attracted attention from potential investors who not only saw a new source of profit but some also recognized the symbolic importance of owning their own station.

The first of these were the John Katuramu, the then Prime Minister of the Toro Kingdom, and the Buganda kingdom. A station, the Voice of Toro, was launched in Fort Portal town and in 1996, Central Broadcasting Services (CBS FM or Radio Buganda) was also started.

The radio market was now spreading to the upcountry towns and also to the lower income, lower CDE social segment of the market.

CBS FM, positioned as the voice of the Buganda kingdom, was much anticipated and eagerly received. The Voice of Toro became the de facto voice of the Runyara-Kitara public of western Uganda.

In 1997, Radio One joined the market, targeting roughly the same audience as Capital FM while in 1998 Radio Simba came on air as a competitor or alternative to CBS.

In 2001, the Monitor newspaper launched its own radio station, Monitor FM, which attempted the ambitious format of News/Talk, much in the same spirit as Radio Uganda.

It would prove a difficult concept to execute for a station that had to compete commercially and without the public broadcaster status enjoyed by Radio Uganda, and within two years the News and Talk format was abandoned.

In the meantime, several stations were springing up in various parts of Uganda: Mega FM in Gulu, NBS FM in Jinja, Radio West in Mbarara, Step FM in Mbale, Voice of Kigezi in Kabale and many others in nearly all major towns.

The most notable exception, however, was Entebbe, Uganda’s former capital and where the international airport is located.

By 2013, 20 years since private FM broadcasting came to Uganda, the radio market was close to saturation, with up to 117 radio stations spread all over the country and even most upcountry towns with at least two.

There were also more recreational distractions than in the 1990s, among them the Internet, several shopping malls in Kampala, beaches in Kmapala, Mukono and Entebbe, 24-hour pay television services and the Barclays English football Premier League.

Even then, radio was still a central feature of national life 20 years after it made its appearance and changed Ugandan society.

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