Stuck on repeat: After 30 years, can radio in Uganda find its groove again?

This opinion was written by ACME’s training team.

Three decades ago, Ugandan airwaves exploded with the crackling promise of a revolution. The landscape of Ugandan radio changed dramatically with the introduction of private stations, offering a broader range of programming. Standing at the 30-year mark of private radio in Uganda, we can reflect on the sector’s journey and envision its future direction.

While some stations have carved out vibrant niches and nurtured loyal audiences, others remain trapped in a time warp, their studios echoing with the hollow thuds of broken promises. Programming feels stuck on repeat, failing to resonate with the pulse of new generations. And most tragically, the claim of being Uganda’s primary source of information often rings hollow, falling short of its potential, with content skewed by entertainment fluff, commercially-driven agendas, and unverified speculation.

Driven by a desire to see radio thrive, we offer these reflections for consideration.

At its best, radio serves as a vibrant tapestry of voices, reflecting the complexities and aspirations of Ugandan society. It can foster understanding, stimulate creative thinking and contribute to positive change. However, the current challenges threaten to dampen its impact and limit its reach.

To bring things back into balance, radio in Uganda needs a shake-up. We must begin by dismantling the shameful exploitation of the very voices that give radio life. Fair and timely compensation for journalists isn’t just a moral imperative, it is a strategic investment in quality content. Despite playing a critical role in Ugandan media, radio journalists and hosts often bear the label of “poor cousin” compared to their colleagues in print, TV, and online. Many lack contractual agreements, face job insecurity, and receive below-par compensation. This disparity needs urgent attention, as it is a troubling legacy of the past 30 years and a significant hurdle to overcome in the next 30.

Radio owners must remember the reason they hold their licenses. Radio licenses in Uganda convey a significant responsibility – to serve the public good. Granted by the people, these licenses are not solely commercial opportunities but rather are public trusts. To hold a licence entails a fundamental obligation: to inform, empower and connect the nation’s diverse communities. This unwritten contract goes beyond financial gain, forging a crucial link between broadcaster and listener. The next 30 years will not favour broadcasters solely focused on profit maximisation. Instead, success will lie in aligning with the needs and aspirations of the Ugandan people.

Moving forward, Ugandan radio must shed its one-size-fits-all approach and embrace content tailored to diverse audiences and local needs. Today’s listeners demand personalisation, interactivity and relevance to their daily lives. This requires hyper-local programming, tapping into specific needs and interests of communities within a defined geographic area. Hyper-local programming isn’t simply about regional news; it’s about providing hyper-specific information, resources and entertainment relevant to the day-to-day lives of listeners in a particular village, town, or district.

Radio must rise above its role as mere information gatekeeper and embrace the mantle of true informer. In-depth analyses that unpack complex issues, investigative journalism that shines a light on injustices, and a rigorous commitment to fact-checking and independent verification – these are the instruments needed to rebuild trust and ensure that radio becomes the true watchdog for the people.

The digital landscape presents both challenges and opportunities for Ugandan radio in its next 30 years. Far from replacing the unique power of radio, digital platforms, podcasts, and interactive formats can serve as potent amplifiers. Through strategic digital integration, radio can expand its reach, transcend geographic boundaries, and cater to niche audiences with greater precision. However, it is crucial to recognise that technology is merely a tool, a means to an end, not the end itself. The heart of radio lies in the human voice, the warmth and immediacy that fosters an intimate connection with listeners. Embracing digital advancements must not eclipse this core element.

While past practices have shaped the industry, continuing down the same path amidst shifting trends offers diminishing returns. The current model requires a significant re-evaluation to ensure sustainability and relevance in the next 30 years. Effective self-reflection demands rigorous examination of target audiences, their evolving needs and aspirations, and a candid assessment of content effectiveness in reflecting their lived experiences. It is only through honest self-evaluation, acknowledging limitations and celebrating achievements that radio can build a future truly aligned with Uganda’s dynamic present.

Radio in Uganda stands at a crossroads. The first 30 years brought a wave of diversity, but also exposed fissures. The next 30 years offer a choice: remain entangled in these challenges or embark on a bold reinvention. Then radio will break free from the inertia of the past and fulfil its true potential as a transformative force for the nation.

ACME Mwalimu

The African Centre for Media Excellence's training unit, known as ACME Mwalimu, scours news platforms and online resources to curate the best training tips and resources for journalists and media organisations, empowering them to become impactful contributors to public debate and development. If you have a training tip or question, you can reach out to ACME Mwalimu at training[at]acme-ug.org.

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