Presenter Chimwemwe Mikwala in the MIJ FM on-air studio
BLANTYRE, Malawi — The Malawi Institute of Journalism radio station serves as a role model — in terms of both creativity and professionalism —for Malawi’s more than 30 radio stations.
Since its inception in 2001, MIJ FM (www.mij.mw) has continued to take the country’s radio industry by surprise through its continuous advancement, achieving heights not generally expected from a small radio station with limited coverage.
DO OR DIE
“We are a trusted source of news thanks to the reputation that we have built over time. We are a training institution and as such, we have well-qualified staff,” said Senior Broadcaster Deus Sandram. “This gives us an edge in as far as listenership is concerned. But we are yet to show our full potential.” MIJ FM started broadcasting to the city of Blantyre as a “radio laboratory” for journalism students.
The station, which has since extended its reach and now broadcasts to the country’s three major cities (Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu) and their surroundings, uses one transmitter per city to cover a radius of 500 kilometers each.
“MIJ FM was established with financial support from the Danish Embassy in Malawi to offer hands-on experience for journalists training at the Malawi Institute of Journalism,” he said.
Sandram explains that the withdrawal of Danish aid from Malawi in 2004 forced the station to change its approach.“The removal of funding meant we had to rely on advertisers to survive. But most businesses were reluctant to advertise with a station that only aired in Blantyre, therefore we had do more to attract advertisers,” he said.
The move obliged MIJ FM management to transition the station from a community service and to apply for a commercial license. After the license was granted, MIJ FM began broadcasting nationwide.
Part of the transformation included adding more programs to attract sponsors. These included drama productions, bedtime stories and a career guide.
“With the addition of the new programs to our schedule, MIJ FM has become an exemplary station due to its professional prowess in handling issues of national interest,” said Sandram. “Since going nationwide, we have won several journalism awards.”
For example in April 2013 in a competition organized by Gender Links (www.genderlinks.org.za), a South African gender equality advocacy group, MIJ FM grabbed the “Media Award of Excellence” for the best coverage of gender equality issues. This qualified the station to compete with other African media houses at a regional level in Johannesburg later that month.
At the same Gender Links awards ceremony, MIJ FM’s sub-editor Mwai Mtumodzi was named top performer in the radio category, beating out 12 contenders from the country’s electronic and print media and also qualifying him for the regional competition in South Africa.
The station is also renowned for its innovative programming. Sandram is recognized for his vernacular satire program, “Bwande,” where a villager in Malawi writes a letter to a relative in the West. BBC’s “Focus on Africa” recently singled out Sandram as “one of the very few African journalists who are creative enough to articulate important issues in their native language.”
Another program, “Democracy Forum,” enables listeners to share their views on a designated topic. This innovative content is possible thanks to a team of 30 fulltime employees and 10 journalists who work as interns.
“To get to this point, we had to sail rough waters,” said Sandram. Despite the accolades and respectability MIJ FM now has gained, he explains, the station has in the past been blacklisted by former political powers for airing issues deemed critical of government.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Sandram says officials from Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority had asked the station several times to stop airing news because as a “laboratory station” it was not allowed to air news, but, he says, “we pulled through because the conditions of our license allow us to broadcast news.” After surviving several storms, misfortune struck in 2004. Police closed MIJ FM after it aired an interview with an opposition politician who threatened to mobilize supporters to bar foreign heads of state from landing in Malawi to attend the inaugural ceremony of then-President Bingu wa Mutharika, whom the opposition accused of rigging the 2004 presidential elections.
During the closure, police arrested some MIJ FM staff members, including a reporter and the station director, on allegations of airing information that would incite violence. The station later reopened, thanks to pressure from the The Media Institute of Southern Africa Malawi, a local media watchdog that described the act as a suppression of freedom of expression, which the government was claiming to safeguard. “But this is now all history,” said Sandram.
“Today our goal is to be the number one radio station in Malawi and to continue to broaden our horizons,” he said.
On the technical side, MIJ FM’s production studio is fitted with a 12-chanel Soundcraft console, while the on-air studio has a 16-channel Soundcraft desk. The studios use Tascam tape decks, Denon CD players and Tannoy monitors.
Since the station’s launch, no major equipment upgrades have been done, except for replacing some CD players and studio headsets. This, says Sandram, is a clear indication of the top quality of the studio gear the station is using.
Meanwhile MIJ FM has started to upgrade its studios in Lilongwe and Mzuzu to turn them into production studios. Up until now the station has only used them for reporting.
Lameck Masina reports on the industry from Blantyre, Malawi.