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Radio Citizen Plays Its Mass Appeal

Station balances quest for expansion versus modernization imperative

NAIROBI, Kenya — Radio Citizen has faced numerous hurdles, including being shut down many times since its launch in 1999.

The station is finding that its motto “The fountain of truth,” is no longer enough to pull in the same listenership, which stood by it under a strict regime. Program Director Fred Afune has grappled with this challenge since he joined Royal Media Services, Citizen’s parent company, 13 years ago to expand, develop and offer strategic direction to the company’s two television and 14 radio stations.

Program Director Fred Afune has been providing strategic direction to Royal Media Services for about 10 years. On his upper left are some logos of the stations he oversees. Photo by Gregory Lagat

Radio Citizen, the media house’s flagship station, adopted a mass-market goal to compete with the public Kenya Broadcasting Corp., This has forced Afune to shift focus from social values to programs focusing on personal development. Political commentaries have taken a back seat, he says, “The average listener is interested in increasing their income, sending their kids to the best schools, good health and how and where to get the best deals on everything.”

The station ranked second in Nairobi last quarter (behind Classic FM, 23.3 percent) pulling in 16.8 percent of audience with programs such as “Chapa Kazi” (“Work Diligently”), which runs the whole gamut of employment challenges, opportunities and advice.

Royal Media Services started off as an alternate news option to the state-run media. It moved to its present suburban location from Nairobi’s city center in 2003. All of its stations are housed and administered centrally. “Imagine having 14 stations in disparate regions, each broadcasting in an ethnic medium you are not conversant with,” says Radio Citizen Station Head Waweru Mburu.

Security, cost reduction, oversight and convenience are some of the benefits, but what about the disconnect with far region audience targets? That indeed is a challenge for the stations, he says, but road shows — organized when sponsors can be found — bridge the gap. Mburu’s deputy, Joyce Gitaro, who also doubles up as transmission controller, has the unenviable task of ensuring that day-to-day operations are executed optimally. There are seven English-/Swahili-language shows per day, running 24 hours.

One of the two transmission room racks in the RMS complex in Nairobi, where signals are bundled and relayed 35 kilometers
away to transmitters in Limuru and then uplinked to satellite.
Photo by Gregory Lagat

Flexibility in operations is what Gitaro applauds. “Radio Citizen has little bureaucracy. If I approach the administration with a project proposal, which I can defend ably, chances are, I’ll be given the budget.” She has famous jocks and a number of unique shows to prove it. Willy Tuva presents East Africa’s first cross border youth musical show every weekend. It has gone crossmedia as well, airing to huge audiences on Citizen TV on weekdays. Fred Machoka regales the upper range of Citizen’s 15- to 35-year old age demographic similarly on weekends. “We have created program brand names,” she says modestly, “in the process, our presenters have become brand names too.”

Radio Citizen’s signal is sent alongside its sister stations from the studio to the C Band satellite uplink via STL to Limuru, a township 35 kilometers northwest of Nairobi. Seven of the radio programs are distributed to terrestrial transmitters for reception by adjacent communities. The rest are uplinked then received at remote target sites for regional transmission to the local populace. Royal Media Services uses Broadcast Electronics transmitters for all their 14 radio stations.

Transmission via IP link is still a challenge, says Sammy Gikingo, Royal Media Services’ technical head of Transmission. This is chiefly due to cost. “The cost of bandwidth is still too high to maintain a consistent level for our 30 plus transmitters,” he opines. Furthermore, the connection in rural areas is still sub-optimal, and it involves handing over transmission control to a third party. For the time being, “I would rather have an argument with a satellite,” he says.

Sam Karanja, Royal Media Services’ head of Studios is proud of the expansion work his department has achieved. The basic infrastructure of the studio was designed with future expansion in mind. Hence, issues like allowances for cable ducts and air conditioning were sorted out at the beginning. However, he acknowledges that it’s probably time to move from expansion to modernization.

One of the six production studios serving the 14 stations
of Royal Media. The management elected to house all of them
in one location, then diffuse transmissions to their target
audience regions. Photo by Gregory Lagat

Royal Media Services is looking beyond its home audience. “We stream all 14 of our stations on our websites,” says technician Moses Nganju as he checks the computer servers in the control room. Indeed Radio Citizen’s fan mail comes from countries as diverse as Russia and Qatar. The Volicon off-air recording monitors have enabled the station resolve marketing agency queries regarding advert airing discrepancies for both radio and TV. This used to be outsourced to third parties at a huge cost.

The rapid pace of technological change is bringing some discomfort however to some in the Kenya broadcasting industry, especially where program distribution will be divested from broadcast companies to third parties.

Digital radio (such as DAB, DRM) might still be some distance away, but you find the long-term sustainability of any capital project under consideration being given added scrutiny than before. “Some of these transitions seem to be driven by big business; the manufacturers,” says Gikingo, “even when you buy into it, another change will come in the next 10 years or so.”

Until then, Gitaro believes she has most of the tools to sustain and increase listenership on the content side. She swears by the credibility and the institutional informal rapport she uses to sustain listener loyalty.

“Take our style of communication,” she offers, “when we came in, stations were talking to the urban listener — in English,” she said. “We have not only changed to Swahili, but to the informal conversation that even rural folks can understand. When you are behind the mic, your audience should feel they are listening to a friend, not their teacher.”

Gregory Lagat, a radio program consultant, reports on the industry for Radio World from Nairobi, Kenya.