Dear Radio…

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This episode is a celebration of 100 years of radio on the African continent. Radio is our beloved grandmother. Our lifeline. And to honour her, we asked friends in Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda to share their best radio memories with us. Little love letters in sound…

Transcript

Disclaimer: Radio Workshop is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. The official record for Radio Workshop’s podcast stories is the audio.

 

Lesedi: Hi, it’s Lesedi here. Welcome to Radio Workshop. We have so much at our fingertips, right? Just turn on the radio and in comes the world. It might be Bush Radio in South Africa, which has been broadcasting since the early 1990s.

Snippet from Bush Radio: Bush Radio represents perseverance, volunteerism, and a vision for community radio to flourish our roots…

Lesedi: Or Fedeco Community Radio in Tanzania…

Snippet from Fedeco Community Radio

Lesedi: Ghetto Radio, the voice of youth in Nairobi, Kenya.

Snippet from Ghetto Radio

Lesedi: And with nearly 8 million listeners, one of the biggest radio stations on the planet, Ukhozi FM in South Africa.

Snippet from Ukhozi FM

Lesedi: I’m talking about radio because we are dropping this episode on World Radio Day, and I’ll just say it. We love World Radio Day! We are so into it. We do something special every year to honor this day, which the United Nations General Assembly first adopted on February 13th, 2012.

[MUSIC]

So why are we so keen on radio?

Well, radio is free. It’s portable. It connects people and amplifies voices. And even with everything else like TV, phones, the internet, radio is still the most used mass medium in Africa.

The 2020s also mark a hundred years of radio on the African continent. It feels like radio’s been in our lives forever. She’s our beloved grandmother. She’s been a lifeline. She’s kept us together through joyous and difficult times. So yes, World Radio Day, we are here for you.

Besides Radio Workshop is deeply rooted in radio. We’ve run workshops at community radio stations since 2007 and over the years, we have made many friends on the continent who love radio as much as we do.

We reached out to them and asked them to share their best radio memories with us. Little “Dear Radio” love letters in sound. We start off with Munira Kaoneka. She’s based in Tanzania. Radio saved her from a long, tedious, boring… Well, I’ll let her tell you.

[NOISY STREET]

Munira: I’m standing at a busy bus stop in Dar es Salaam exhausted after a day in the sun. Music streams out from a nearby shop. I don’t notice at first. But it seeps into my subconscious. [MUSIC COMES UP] It’s the song, our song, the one that always played on the radio during those family trips. And just like that, a spell is cast and I’m transported back to a childhood memory.

[MUSIC FADES] 

I’m 10 years old in the back of my father’s beaten-up, but sturdy Pajero with my mom and two sisters. My dad’s at the front with the driver, my brother at the very back with the luggage. Just like every December since I was born. We are driving to a little village atop the green Usambara mountains and the radio’s on.

[MUSIC FADES UP] 

It was the same each year. Classic Bollywood music from the likes of Shah Rukh Khan accompanying us all the way from our home on the coast to our ancestral home, up in the mountains.

Eight hours on the road with the windows down, the wind blowing in as the car rushed along the highway. Eight hours of my dad reminding us that when he’s at the wheel, he needs absolute silence. Even the sound of rustling plastic disturbed him. So other than sleeping or chewing on our snacks, quietly. There was nothing to do, but listen to the music and drift away.

[MUSIC FADES]

I spent my time in the car imagining what the music video will be like. If you’re familiar with Bollywood movies, it’s not hard. Beautiful characters in colorful Indian garments dancing away on Swiss mountain tops.

As the landscape outside changed, so did my visions. The closer we got, the more my thoughts turned to the pilau my grandmother would make for Christmas. The traditional games I would play with my cousins and snuggling for the fireplace at night with cups of tea.

[SOUND OF STATIC FADES UP]

This was the journey that was needed to make all that possible. By the time we got to the mountains, all we would hear was static, but the loss of signal meant that the eight hours were almost up.

[STATIC FADES]

We were almost home.

Munira on a call: I think I was in the front with Mariam because I have a memory of sleeping on Mariam and that she didn’t used to like it.

Munira’s sister: [LAUGHS] I don’t remember that!

Munira: Years have passed, my sisters and I can agree those trips home have changed. Not all of us make our way up every year. And my father softened with age now prefers conversation over the radio. Although our memories of those trips aren’t as vivid, they still remain tied to that one song.

Munira on a call: It’s called Ah Gaye Din Sanam… Wait… Can you hear?

[MUSIC FADES UP]

Munira’s sister: Oh! Send me it!

Munira: With just one song we go back to being young, crammed inside our dad’s car, trying our hardest not to make noise, humming quietly along to the music on the radio.

[MUSIC]

Munira on call: [LAUGHS]

Munira’s sister: Oh my god! Oh my god!

Munira on call: [SINGS ALONG]

Lesedi: Munira Kaoneka is an environmental engineer and has a podcast. No, it’s not about engineering. Munira says it’s about those who call Africa their home. That’s why her podcast is called the Kaya Sessions. Kaya means home in Kisamba.

[MUSIC] 

Lesedi: So an interesting fact about radio in Tanzania: From 1951 to the mid-1990s, the country had only one radio station, just one, and now it has 218. So despite the cries over the years that “TV will kill radio!” or “the internet will kill radio!”, radio is still going strong, connecting people with stories, information, and news, which takes us to our next story in Nigeria.

Radio’s often the place we turn to for news, especially when events are unfolding quickly, and the truth is murky. Journalist Nduka Ojinmo takes us back to just such a moment – to the 1990s during the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, under his regime, local radio stations avoided discussing politics. It was safer that way. Which left only one place on the radio to learn the truth….

[MUSIC FADES]

Nduka: The date was eighth June 1998. I was 12 years old at the time living in Port Harcourt. I remember walking home from school that day, and when I turned the corner and Mama Charity’s shop was closed, I knew something was wrong. Now, usually the green, yellow and red polythene bags that hung on the shop door signaled that I was almost home, but something was definitely going on.

People talked in small groups on the streets. Others seemed to be in a hurry. [MUSIC] I did not know it then, but there had been rumors that Nigeria’s military ruler was dead. General Sani Abacha. The Despot. The one whose name still evokes fear in many Nigerians today.

If rumors of Abacha’s death were unfounded, it might mean chaos. His soldiers had flocked people on the streets for less trivial matters. It might also have been a coup. And if that had been unsuccessful, it meant reprisals and riots. So shops quickly closed and that’s why Mama Charity had taken in those colorful bags and gone home. Even my mother closed her provisions shop early to hurry home. I found her crouched over the kerosene stove using a wooden ladle to stir eba. A meal made from cassava flakes.

“You hear say Abacha done die?” my older brother asked.

“Shh,” my mother said, lowering the fire on the stove as the eba congealed.

“Abacha die?” I asked.

I saw the cold stare from my mother. She made a point with the ladle. My brother and I knew what its hard edges could do if we continued talking, so we kept quiet.

General Sani Abacha on radio: The following decisions come into immediate effect. The interim national government is hereby dissolved.

Nduka: The brutal Sani Abacha had seized power in 1993 after elections had been annulled.

General Sani Abacha on radio: All processions, political meetings and associations of any type, in any part of the country are hereby banned.

Nduka: He unleashed unimaginable terror. For four years, people were killed throughout Nigeria by firing squad, by bombs, by bullets. I had heard everything about Abacha from my father. My father did not go past primary school for his education, but he could read and write, and unlike most people in our compound at Mgbuoba, he had an obsession with the news.

He liked to read newspapers and watch nine o’clock news on TV in the evening, but his favorite medium was radio. He had a small silver-coloured Sanyo radio, black around the edges from overuse. It was placed on the shelf where the children could only reach it with a stool. Sometimes he would shout, “Nduka, get me my radio. It’s time for the news.” Or, “Children, can’t you see I’m listening to the news? Quiet!” He always reminded us that the radio was bought before we were born. It was like a first child to him.

[MUSIC]

So going back to that day’s event, by early evening my father had returned from work. A small crowd had gathered in the open space in the compound shared by 20 families or so.

“Abacha can’t die, I heard he has a special native doctor,” said Papa Ejima.

“I heard it was a coup,” said another.

On and on the discussion went. In the background a song played, it was high-life music coming out of a small transistor radio. Radio Rivers II was the only radio station we had in Port Harcourt at that time, and it was government-owned. These days, there are 20 of them.

“So, how we go take Sabi if the wicked man don die,” asked Ma Ngozi in pigin.

She wanted to know how the crowd was going to confirm Abacha’s death. [MUSIC DROPS AWAY] No one said anything.

“If na true, BBC go carry am,” said my father, “Nduka, bring my radio.”

So I went in, climbed on the dining chair and picked up my father’s radio from its place on the top of the shelf. My mother was inside. She gave me side eye for being outside after she told me not to, but she didn’t stop me.

I turned the knob as I took the radio out. The red light flickered on and I extended the antenna. The crowd parted as I brought the radio forward. I could have been carrying a prize trophy or a poison chalice, hope or despair.

I handed it over to my father, [STATIC] who began fiddling with a few knobs as he joined the radio close to his ear. You could only get the BBC on a shortwave band of the radio. The technology is rarely used these days but then you could use it to listen to foreign radio stations. The shortwave band has a distinct scraping sound as if someone was using sandpaper on the other side of the radio. It never sounded clear enough, no matter how much you tried. Only by delicately tuning a knob could you get the clearest signal of the BBC. [BBC WORLD SERVICE JINGLE FADES UP] The trick was to get the radio as close to the ear as possible on low volume. Then turn it up only when you have found the perfect spot on the dial.

“Shhhhhhh,” said my father, when the family tune for the news came on the radio. A hush fell over the crowd.

BBC announcement: Nigeria’s military leader, General Sani Abacha, has died…

Nduka: Now this is where my memory gets blurred. I think I heard “Nigeria”, I think I heard something about Abacha. Or maybe I did not hear anything at all. What I do remember is that about a minute into the news, there was a loud roar from the people in our compound. One man took off his shirt and ran through the narrow door onto the street, another ran into his house shouting, “It is over!”

The noise was not just coming from our compound. It seemed to be coming from everywhere. My mother came rushing out. My younger brother was crying. He had been startled out of his sleep. My father lifted me on his shoulders and ran in circles.

“Abacha don die, man not be God o!”

Papa Ejima then emerged with his bigger radio – a cassette player that was much louder than my father’s. He slotted in a tape. The adults started dancing and the celebrations went on into the night. Abacha was really gone. The general was dead.

[MUSIC] 

Lesedi: Listening to Nduka Orjinmo’s story reminds me radio and African history go hand in hand. Think back to 1994, the Rwandan Genocide. Radio didn’t just document the horrific events. It was used to divide people and stir up tribal hate and violence.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]

[MUSIC]

Fortunately, radio has brought us more jubilant moments like the release of South African President Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment.

Radio announcement: Amandla! Awethu! Amandla! Awethu!

Lesedi: These radio moments have been etched in the collective memory of many Africans. But as you can imagine, radio touches people every day, not just during these momentous events. Plenty of listeners experience radio in a more intimate and personal way as though the host were their friend on the air talking just to them, like the person in our next story who shares how radio was a comforting companion when he needed it most.

[MUSIC FADES]

Here is Onyango Otieno’s story from Kenya.

Onyango: Life growing up at home was hell. My parents argued a lot. They fought about money, women and alcohol. They would hurl vicious insults at each other. It was horrible to witness. I watched as they tussled with each other from wall to wall in the living room. I’d try to separate them, but Dad would throw me off.

Sometimes my dad’s rage was directed at me. There are many stories I could tell. Too many. Like one time he burnt my hand thinking I had stolen a book he had misplaced. I was 10 years old! [MUSIC FADES UP] Yes, being a child in that house was one long nightmare. The violence didn’t stop and I couldn’t do anything about it, so I had to look for an escape, and that’s how radio came to my rescue.

[MUSIC] 

When I was 16, we moved into a house my parents had built in a place called Mlolongo in Kenya. I had my own bedroom. They didn’t let me hang out with my friends much so I made a happy life for myself in my room. I stuck pictures of my favorite Freedom Fighters and activists on the walls. People like John Garang, Fela Kuti, Dedan Kimathi, and Wangari Maathai. It felt lively and affirming to have them around me. I wrote poetry and music to take shelter from the fighting, which got worse and worse. An argument might start from 10 P.M. and stretch into the wee hours of the morning. As they raged, I took out my pocket radio with earphones. I’d put them in and turn up the volume to drown them out. [MUSIC FADES]

I’d listen to local and international radio stations. They gave me a sense of what the outside world was like. While I really enjoyed listening to those programs, the best show, the most important show I listened to, came on every night at 10:00 PM. After Hours with Chao Tolle on Capital. FM.

[SNIPPET OF THE SHOW]

I would lie on my back, staring at the darkness, listening to the soothing music she played on her late-night show, [MUSIC] but it wasn’t just the music. Chao offered listeners uplifting affirmations on her talk show. She’d say things like, “You’re beautiful.”

“Thank you for being here.

“Your spirit is welcome in this space.”

“You are important.”

Words nobody had ever told me before. Chao was like the friend I needed to talk to in the middle of the night when my heart was broken. She had a calm, therapeutic voice. She sounded like somebody I could trust. All of which quieted my anxiety and made me feel safe enough to sleep.

[MUSIC] 

Lesedi: Onyango Otieno is now 35 years old. He is a certified trauma coach and healthy masculinity advocate in Nairobi, and he says he owes it all to radio.

So we’ve got one more story. A “what?! you must be kidding?” kind of story. Where radio meets miracle. You know that kind of story. When listeners call in and win money, or where listeners help someone find a missing relative. Those radio moments that fill listeners with awe.

Radio host and producer Julie Kilama has that kind of story. It takes place in Uganda and starts with Julie as a radio-obsessed teen.

[MUSIC]

Julie: When I was growing up, my mum bought us a radio set with a cassette player. You know the ones that played tapes. We kept that one for special occasions, but we had a smaller one that we listened to every day or brought with us whenever we went to the farm. We’d listen in the mornings, but then turn off at midday to save the batteries for the evening shows.

In Acowa small village in Uganda, where I come from, radio is everything. Most people either can’t afford TV sets or they don’t bother buying one, because there’s no electricity to run one. So radio is everyone’s go-to for the latest news, information and entertainment. Back then kids didn’t have many celebrities to look up to. We didn’t have access to newspapers, so our favorite radio personalities became our role models. And for me, it was a man named Peterson Mateeka.

[RADIO JINGLE]

Julie: That sound right there meant it was time to drop everything and give Peterson Mateeka and a caller in need your full attention. The show was called Voice of Agony, and it was the most famous radio show in Teso sub-region.

Radio archive: My name is Peterson Mateeka, and welcome to Voice of Agony. A place of the broken-hearted

Julie: Peterson was like an on-air therapist helping people in distress. He often received letters from listeners explaining their troubles. He then picked a letter a day and read it on air, after which he offered emotional support and suggestions. He would also take phone calls from listeners who gave the most wonderful advice and the kind of suggestions that would make you think there was no problem without a solution. Oh! Voice of Agony was just incredible, so uplifting…

[JINGLE CONTINUES]

I loved the show so much. My grandma let me have the radio on weeknights so I could listen in bed, even though she thought it was a distraction. In fact, when I was at school, a few friends and I would sneak onto the verandah of one of our boarding school teachers, so we could listen to the show through her locked door. We almost got caught once, so the following time we smuggled a small radio into the dormitory, so we’d never miss an episode. That’s how much the show meant to me.

What I didn’t know was how big of a role it was going to play in my life.

[JINGLE FADES]

When I was 16, my uncle David showed up unexpectedly at my boarding school. My mom had been ill, so we went to the hospital to see her. When we were searching for her ward, we met a well-known taxi driver from our village, and we asked him where mom was and he said, “There’s no need to lie to you like you are a child. Your mom is dead. Go home and wait. They’ll bring her body home.”

My God, I couldn’t believe it. I was desperate for this news to be a prank of some sort, but it wasn’t. In that moment my entire world shattered. My brother was there, he was crying, and I almost lost my mind screaming, but, but nobody seemed to care.

It was officially the worst day of my life.

[MUSIC FADES UP] Weeks after mum was laid to rest. I went to school. My pain only got worse. I would cry in between lessons and after class. Sometimes I would even cry in class. I needed to feel some kind of relief but how? I remembered Voice of Agony and I decided to write to Peterson Mateeka.

I knew Voice of Agony was a safe space for the broken-hearted. And at that time I was the broken-hearted.

I plucked a piece of paper from my school book and started writing.

I wrote, “Dear Peterson and Voice of Agony, thank you for reading my letter. I am Esther Juliet Apio, and I’m in Acowa. I love your program a lot. I listen to it every day, and I know you have helped many people. I know you can help me too. My mummy has just died and I feel lost. I don’t know what to do.”

I later begged a taxi guide to help me deliver the letter to Peterson for free. He looked at me with sympathy and agreed. I was happy knowing as a step closer to Peterson.

I went back home to tune in, expecting the letter to be read that same night, but it wasn’t.

After two days, I started to worry that he didn’t consider my letter worth sharing with his audience. That made me feel worse, but I hung on to hope that he would eventually share it.

Another three days went by. Then FINALLY my letter was read on air. Just hearing Peterson read the letter in his soft-spoken, compassionate voice made me feel a little bit better. I actually smiled for a minute. His studio lines blew up with calls and messages of support and encouragement from his listeners.

That night. I also heard other people’s stories of grief: children orphaned at birth. Those living off what they could find in a garbage bin or at the dump. It humbled me and put me in a better place to handle my grief. I thought to myself, “People are actually going through that?!” [MUSIC] They helped me see a part of me that I wasn’t seeing because of my grief. I needed to be strong. I reminded myself daily of the advice I’d been given by listeners: Be grateful for what you have.

Slowly I learned to live again.

[MUSIC]

From that day onwards, I only had one dream: to become the next Peterson Mateeka.

By the time I graduated from school, Peterson Mateeka was still on air, but his show was now called Soul Connect. I happened to get my first radio gig around the same time. It was at a station in Moroto, the Northeastern part of the country. What started as a station visit and a quick “hello” on air turned into me staying on to complete the entire show with the radio host Robert Karobi. We played music and chatted about how complicated women can be.

Robert ended up inviting me to join his show every day until I was able to handle a show on my own. He’s the one who actually gave me my own air name “Essy”, from my name Esther.

A few years later, I had grown into a big name in radio.

Unfortunately, around that time, Peterson died after a long illness. The legend was gone, but as they say, “The show must go on.”

I reached out to the manager of his station who invited me for a dry run, and I got the job! And so after Peterson was laid to rest, I took over his show.

Before I stepped into the studio for my first show, I was nervous. [MUSIC FADES] This was Peterson’s program. But then I sat in his chair and put on my headphones and I say to myself, “Girl, here you go.” And then I played Whitney Houston’s song, Where Do Broken Hearts Go.

It’s the one Peterson always played as a signature tune. And as a song played, memories of my teenage years came through. My heart was beating fast. My eyes were teary. It was a mixture of sadness and extreme excitement.

I’ve been the host of Soul Connect for five years now. Every day I get to speak into the same microphone Peterson once used to speak to thousands of broken-hearted people, including me.

Even though my mum wanted me to become a doctor, I am sure she’s happy I found radio, because it provided comfort and support for me when I needed it most. And I am so glad I get to do the same for others…

Julie on air: Good evening, dear listener. It’s March 5th, and welcome to your favorite radio show Soul Connect on 994 ETop radio with your girl Essy. Don’t you forget there is so much coming up, including the letter that we will be sharing at a quarter bus, 10:00 PM for now, let’s have some Celine Dion….

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: A big thank you to our storytellers for these heartfelt radio love notes. The perfect way to celebrate World Radio Day with stories about community and connection and the value of radio in our lives.

We didn’t get to feature all the radio stories that we received, so look out for them on Radio Workshop’s Instagram hashtag Dear Radio. Special thanks to our reporters, Munira Kaoneka, Nduka Orjinmo, Onyango Otieno, Ruth Omar, Tande Elias, and Julie Kalima.

This story was produced by Radio Workshop.

Producers: Jo Jackson and Mo Isu with research assistance from Anilisa Centane and Naomi Grewan.

Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast.

Our managing producer is Jo Jackson.

Sound Engineering by Jo Jackson and Mike Rahfaldt.

Music by Qhamani Sambu and Edible Audio in Cape Town. T

he song in Munira’s story is Ah Gaye Din Sanam by Sonu Nigam, Hema Sapthasai, Jaspinder Narula and Abhijith Bhattacharya.

Archival tape, courtesy of the BBC, the International Monitor Institute, and the Shortwave Radio Archive. Bush Radio, Ghetto Radio, the voice of youth. And Ukhozi FM. Find out more about who we are and how to support us at radioworkshop.org.