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Radio Africa Adopts New Strategy

With a tactical eye on the future, the media house has thus far launched 10 radio stations, a TV station and a newspaper

NAIROBI, Kenya — Radio Africa is the second most popular media company in Kenya. Having started off with Kiss 100.3 FM in 2000, entrepreneurs Patrick Quarcoo and William Pike began a 15-year launch frenzy that resulted in the inception of eight radio stations, one TV station, one newspaper in Kenya, as well as two radio stations (Capital FM and Beat FM Kampala) in Kampala, Uganda.

Quarcoo is Ghanaian. Media analysts marvel at his uncanny ability to accurately read the Kenyan media market.

Radio Jambo’s Bramwel Mwololo with his “Mazungumzo wazi wazi”
(“Tell It Like It Is”) show. As a former sports programming station,
the TV monitor on his upper left was used for monitoring games
and events. All photos by Gregory Lagat.

Kiss 100.3 FM, for long the station’s flagship brand, targeted the middle-income teenage-to-young adult demographic. It’s hold on this group was very tenacious, helped by a talented breakfast jock — Caroline Mutoko — and a deliberate marketing policy of gifting its listeners cash instead of prizes during on-air quizzes and competitions. Kiss regaled urban teen with a mix of urban hits, house music and a sprinkling of incipient homegrown hip hop tracks.

Times, though, have changed. Kiss is still around, but listenership has decreased. The initial demographic of the station has grown older and Radio Africa has begun to place its Classic 105 FM at the forefront.

Over the past 10 years, Radio Africa has seen one of its competitors, Royal Media, upstage the public Kenya Broadcasting Corp. by emulating KBC’s programming format, music playlist and even hour clock to claim pole position in ratings and, crucially, commercial ads.

This convinced Radio Africa to revisit its strategy and push its Classic 105 FM (with its often controversial presenter Maina Kageni), upfront. Its breakfast show targets the spenders — urban workers — but its bilingual presentation and Kageni’s unique handle on phone-ins and yester-music took in many fans (especially women), with the exception of the conservative/religious segment — who hate it rabidly.

One of the news cubicles. At present only Radio Jambo carries news live, the other Radio Africa stations prerecord their bulletins.

The year 2009 was ripe for another change. According to James Njoroge, Radio Africa’s music director, the broadcaster “saw the need to launch a big national station.” He explains that KBC and Radio Citizen were there, but they felt a listener needed something different — something it couldn’t get it between the two. Radio Jambo [Swahili for “Hello”] was launched with a very big footprint. I think we installed 19 transmitters.”

Radio Jambo is now heard in most of Kenya. As a predominately Swahili sports station (featuring local/Western soccer premier leagues) at inception, it has morphed into an inclusive station with mass appeal and a broadening of its demographic net to capture the low-income market.

With last year’s launch of an offshoot, Radio Jambo Turkana, in one of Kenya’s most remote, sparsely populated areas, some feel Radio Africa is being too optimistic in expansion.

The server room rack manages Elenos
STLs, Omnia processors and RDS
streamers from Inovonics for each of
the five stations serving Nairobi
and its environs.

“On the contrary however,” Njoroge replies, “it falls in neatly within our strategy to reach as many people as possible. Turkana is the biggest county in Kenya. As a challenged area, it receives the second biggest government revenue allocation after Nairobi county. Again, it has many NGOs who need advertising and social awareness publicity for locals and for refugee programs. And lastly, oil has been discovered. People are beginning to flock there. Count us among the pioneers.”

This two-pronged approach — going for the mass national audience while maintaining narrow niche markets — seems to have served Radio Africa well. East FM, a private Asian music station was bought out and is now part of the Radio Africa stable. “As the music director, I may not understand Asian hits,” laughs Njoroge, “but a majority of Asian advertisers bring their adverts here. We are grateful for them. I can’t complain“ Applying the same template, Radio Africa launched XFM — a rock station targeting the expatriate community and the newest addition, Radio Gukena — for the Kikuyu — Kenya’s largest ethnic group.

Radio Africa has 14 transmission sites spread throughout the country for its 70 odd transmitters. Six radio stations; Kiss, Classic, Jambo, XFM and East FM and a new one, yet to be-named, are housed centrally in Nairobi while the newest two — Jambo Turkana and Gukena FM have their studios in Turkana and Nyeri.

The six stations’ signals are relayed via Elenos STLs to Limuru Township 35 kilometers northwest of Nairobi from where the signal radiates back to the city and surrounding areas from transmitters at that high point. The same stations also relay their signals to Alldean Networks — a private satellite signal distributor, 15 kilometers from Radio Africa, where a KU Band uplink is used and then downlinked and decoded in rural areas. These signals are then fed into Communications Authority mandated 1 kW transmitters for local reception.

Mark Osiro, Radio Africa’s technical head.
He oversees transmission for eight radio stations and one TV station.

Mark Osiro, Radio Africa’s technical head for radio and TV, still prefers to have Alldean pick their signals off-air using professional tuners before uplinking instead of utilizing the IP connection they set up for redundancy. He has potent reasons. “Analog is the most stable under our present circumstances,” he explains. “Fiber interruption here is still the norm rather than the exception. We don’t have good streaming quality for any consistent length of time. Secondly, our bandwidth is still expensive, picking the signal off-air is free,” he said.

Cognizant of modern trends however, he affirms that it’s only a question of time. “We are moving toward digital. In any case our field programs are now relayed live through our two Tieline 3G Commanders.”

Radio Africa’s centralized setup has enabled it to build modern studios with an integrated network. The media house’s server room rack has six OmniaOne digital processors, a server for web streaming for all stations and a recorder for ad traffic and studio output.

All studio on-air mixers and consoles are sourced from Arrakis and Radio Systems. “The two have seamless features,” says Osiro, “They are both IP-based, have balanced ports and a modular design, lastly their spares are affordable and available in local stores.” Radio Africa also uses Seinnheiser headphones and Electro-Voice RE320 mics.

Osiro’s only disappointment is with the RDS streamer he has installed for all his stations. “The number of listeners with sets that are able to receive metadata is negligible,” he said ruefully, “I think manufacturers aren’t marketing enough of them. We are transmitting metadata to the wilderness — for the time being. “

Gregory Lagat, an East African radio programs consultant, reports on the industry for Radio World from Nairobi, Kenya.