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Radio Covers Nairobi Papal Visit

Radio’s resilience outweighed inclement weather and lack of sponsors, guaranteeing coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to Kenya

Siblings Keitha and Wayne Nyamato present the welcome bouquet to Pope Francis on his arrival in Kenya on Nov. 25, 2015. Photo by Gregory Lagat

NAIROBI, Kenya — Heavy rain failed to dampen radio’s coverage of the recent papal visit to Kenya.

Pope Francis came to country in late November and though a public holiday was declared to ease traffic, security measures appeared to be less intrusive than during President Obama’s “homecoming” tour four months earlier.

A huge crowd, largely made up of the country’s 33 percent Catholic population descended on the capital with expectations of seeing the pope and having a good time.

“It was very nice,” said 8-year-old Cynthia Misoi, one of the children choir singers, “and then people put up their umbrellas … and then we couldn’t see a thing.”

For radio stations that had braced themselves for a long series of difficult technical issues, all these challenges were rendered moot by one rudimentary hurdle — getting to the venue of the papal welcome mass.

For easy accessibility, the church event organizing committee deemed it more convenient for the faithful to assemble at the city center’s University of Nairobi graduation grounds rather than the covered national stadium — the normal venue for events of this magnitude.

The rain, which fell heavily on the eve of the mass, turned the unpaved expansive field into a soggy quagmire and continued intermittently for much of the service.

Father Gerald, morning presenter for Catholic radio station Waumini (Believers) FM had a busy day, “I was in the studio by 6 a.m. for ‘soul food,’ the dawn shift, while Sister Adelaide was already at the church service venue. Almost immediately I started taking calls from listeners, some of whom were on the road from far towns traveling overnight for the event.”

Sister Adelaide is a nun, a presenter and the station administrator. Father Kinyua, the usual host of the dawn shift, is the director of Waumini FM.

For Sister Adelaide, the event was very much up her alley. Her philosophy of working in a Catholic station “for all Kenyans” has made her emphasize inclusivity hand in hand with pastoralism. She thus has no qualms about allowing her presenters to play Celine Dion or Whitney Houston when secular listeners request them.

“What matters is the message on the song, not the singer,” she said. “If the requested song has a connection with the topic under discussion, then by all means, indulge the listener — and add a vocational rider to it.”

Equal effort was expended in searching for his holiness,
and where to put one’s foot next. The elusive papal dais
is located at the foot of the mast. Photo by Gregory Lagat

Waumini FM’s Father Gerald, left, and co-presenters Joseph and Isaiah, right, analyze the live video footage from national public broadcaster Kenya Broadcasting Corp., during their own show.
Many radio stations simply relayed the audio feed from
this TV signal. Photo by Gregory Lagat

Sister Adelaide, and her team fed her listeners with snippets of information that were relayed throughout the day to Father Gerald in the studio, who also followed the events on TV.

For young stations like Waumini FM with no outside broadcast facilities, the public national broadcaster Kenya Broadcasting Corp.’s live coverage was helpful.

The stations relayed KBC’s audio signal and interrupted it occasionally to add their own identity. From a cost and convenience point of view, this was probably pragmatic; the rain and mud made mobility at the venue difficult, the wide security ring around the papal dais also made the “public” accessibility of the event something of a paradox. For the 3G Tieline Commander links, there also was the fear of network disruption by the papal security.

Another disincentive for full continuous coverage, was quietly apparent — lack of sponsors. It was surprising that, for a family event, there were few commercial adverts run even on the major networks. Nation Media, Standard Media and Mediamax with a combined eight radio channels, gave hourly updates, but they appeared to favor their print and TV mediums, which had a fair amount of sponsorship.

Not all stations were enthralled with the distinguished guest.
Milele FM’s Mwajuma and “Choirmaster” Mogaka continued
with their popular midmorning show “Kazi Mpango”
(“Job Seekers Haven”) show.

George Kagoru, Mediamax’s radio technical head, checks
out his equipment at the station’s new facilities. Mediamax
has one daily newspaper, one TV station and five
radio stations.

Their voluminous newspaper supplements certainly looked as if they had bagged more lucrative deals than radio. A comparison with other competitive media seemed to reinforce this assessment — there were numerous billboards strung up in record time, advertising household goods and other utilities for as far as the eye could see.

Radio fortunately had a clear advantage in one respect — versatility. Although TV OB vans were more conspicuous than the occasional radio trooper or station wagon, this was a ringing endorsement of how technological strides seem to have favored radio more, or faster than TV. One or two people can set up a radio link to the studio, compared to the entire crew required by a TV field production unit.

Outside broadcasting vans of five media houses lined up near the service grounds. Fatigue notwithstanding, the technical crew found the ground
too wet to lie on but had to improvise sleep anyhow.

It was no surprise then, to find that whereas less than five radio stations (out of Nairobi’s more than 40) aired the entire event live, the vast majority hooked up when notable segments of the program demanded it, then rushed off to other events. Of the five TV stations that set up their dishes, two (KBC and Citizen TV) aired the event in its four-hour entirety.

Radio Africa’s technical head, Mark Osiro appreciated the contrast between radio’s live coverage today and 15 years ago. “Before, you had to set up an STL link — a transmitter on-site and receiver mast at the studio — and ensure you were within 60 kilometers line-of-sight distance of the studio receiver,” he said.

“Then you waited for what providence could throw your way; it could be rain, or an inexplicable static hum, or loss of the return signal on the presenter’s headphones, forcing her to anchor blind,” he continued. “Nowadays with transmission through IP connectivity, a mic, a 3G Commander and phone network is all you require. The OB van has become redundant.”

George Kagoru of Mediamax couldn’t agree more. As the official in charge of five radio stations, his technical expertise was under pressure. The entire media house was moving to new premises and his technical studio and transmission equipment had to operate seamlessly during this exercise. Although he says that he wasn’t too worried. “We have a healthy backup infrastructure,” he said. “Even our OB van can fill any airtime gap if need be.” With new and probably some of the most modern equipment on Kenya’s radio airwaves, he perhaps could afford to relax.

Both media houses limited their coverage of the papal visit. Radio Africa, with a more up-market clientele, felt it outside their target bracket and Mediamax due to the relocation of its studios, was content to leave the bulk of it to its TV and newspaper wings. In both cases, standing sponsorship contracts of running programs didn’t leave them much choice.

The overall feeling of a job-well done was shared by the Catholic church and its adherents. Father Kinyua saw a positive responsibility in the church’s role in building a groundswell of support for a national cause. He couldn’t resist seeing a parallel between the papal visit and his station’s “Voice of the Shepherd” weekly program.

“The best radio,” he said, “is the religious channel, because it gives guidance. Better yet, the best one is the one led by a priest.” It was hard not to see that he had one in mind.

Even 8-year-old Misoi got a chance to see the pope again, her choir’s popular songs landed them a late invitation for an encore performance the following day at the national stadium, for his holiness’ last engagement.

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