Tag Archives: Radio

A look inside Radio Democracy

For much of the past month I have been working with journalists at The Society for Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown. Most people here refer to the station as 98.1, but its name is a nod to its origin. The station was set up 16 years ago, in the middle of the civil war. It first broadcast in secret, from a location near the airport. The aim was to promote democratic values and human rights. A mission that remains important today.

Arnold Elba hosts music request shows, including "TGIF" on Friday. He gave me a shout-out on air last week.

Arnold Elba hosts “TGIF” on Fridays. He gave me a shout-out on air last week.

Many of the employees are so young they can’t remember much of the war that ended in 2002. Some are paid $50 to $100 a month. Others are volunteers.

Keziah Gbondo, Arnold Elba and Mabel Kabba share a laugh on a conference call.

Keziah Gbondo, Arnold Elba and Mabel Kabba share a laugh on a conference call.

Stories are focused on human rights issues. Most programming is in the country’s de facto national language of Krio (Sierra Leonean Creole), with the aim of reaching as many people as possible.

News scripts are written in Krio. A language I am learning, slowly.

News scripts are written in Krio; a language I am learning, slowly.

The main local news content is aired at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.. Bulletins contain three or four stories, gathered by the station’s team of a dozen-or-so reporters and producers.

The Society for Radio Democracy began broadcasting in response to a coup during the civil war.

The Society for Radio Democracy began broadcasting in response to a coup during the civil war.

Radio Democracy takes BBC World Service news bulletins at the top of most hours, and airs the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme at 1700 GMT. Freetown is on GMT all year ’round, because Daylight Saving is not observed in Sierra Leone.

Reverend Matthew Quattay is the court reporter and a Methodist Minister. He is a mentor for many of the younger staff members. Some of the women call him their “boyfriend.” He prefers the term “father.” One day he told me about a court case involving a man who allegedly tried to cut off the testicles of another man. The case had to be adjourned because the victim was in court and was in too much pain. After work that evening, Reverend Quattay went to deliver a sermon at his church.

Reverend Matthew Quattay and Keziah Gbondo

Reverend Matthew Quattay and Keziah Gbondo

The headquarters are on Upper Waterloo Street in Freetown’s chaotic city centre, but all the action happens up the hill at the studios in New England Ville. The equipment is basic, when compared to a station in a developed country. USB keys replace the Internet and network drives. Employees often have to improvise to get a story/programme to air.

Equipment is old, and employees often have to improvise to get a programme/story to air.

The hot seat at Radio Democracy.

There is a real team spirit at the station. When Keziah Gbondo couldn’t go on a JHR reporting trip to Bombali District she gave her story to Mabel Kabba. The following week, Mabel gave one of her story ideas to Keziah.

The station's studios are located above the city centre in the New England Ville complex.

The station’s studios are located above the city centre in the New England Ville complex.

To listen to podcasts and to read about what was on this morning’s episode of Good Morning Salone, click here.

The patience of my job

On Friday, I was helping one of the employees at Skyy Radio with writing and recording her voice track for a radio documentary. We were forced to delay its recording twice, because others needed access to Skyy’s only recording studio for more urgent matters. When we did finally get started, we were again interrupted. This time, by Jesus himself.

Skyy Radio's recording studio

Skyy Radio’s recording studio

The heaving baseline of African Christian pop music reverberated inside the studio. I stopped the recorder and walked outside to see if I could figure out where it was coming from. There, about a block away, was a speaker, almost as tall as me. And I’m pretty sure I could see it wobbling.

I decided to go and see if they would turn it off for 10 minutes. I had to use sign language when asking, but the guy was not lacking in Christian spirit, and was happy to help. In fact, he kept it off until I returned to thank him. (Later I was told that it’s illegal to play loud music in Freetown before 4 p.m. An early curfew, rather than a late one. That’s Freetown.)

This is just one of the daily challenges employees can face in getting their jobs done.

At Skyy Radio, the budget is tight. Ten people work on five desks, with around eight stools to sit on. The stools are the same height as the desks, making them less than comfortable. No one complains.

Inside the Skyy Radio office

Inside the Skyy Radio office

There is no air conditioning, meaning all the windows have to be kept open. The office is located on the busy Circular Road in Freetown. The noise is constant. From car horns, to thundering diesel trucks and funeral parades, there is hardly ever a moment’s silence in the office.

To give you an idea of the noise, I left my audio recorder on the windowsill for 20 minutes. Here are just some of the highlights, compressed into one minute.

Circular Road, seen from the Skyy Radio office

Other obstacles to efficient work include:

Frequent power outages. Nowhere in Freetown gets constant electricity. Businesses need generators for power. Sometimes those generators break, so laptops and mobile phones slowly drain of their power.

Heat and humidity. You try working hard when the humidex in your office is over 40°C.

Traffic. Traffic in Freetown can be horrendous. I’ve often gotten out of a shared taxi and walked.

Police checkpoints. This has only happened to me once, so far. My taxi driver was stopped for driving on a street that was supposedly shut to cars. After 20 minutes, and a Le10,000 payment, we were on our way again.

My taxi driver is stopped by a police officer

My taxi driver is stopped by a police officer

Red tape. To get an interview with an official you often have to call their media person. You arrange to meet them. They then ask for a triplicate letter, addressed to specific people, requesting an interview with the official. You go back to base, get them printed, signed and stamped. You then bring the letters, in person, to the appropriate people, and wait for the interview to be granted. This is followed by numerous phone calls to see if the interview is going to happen.

But despite all these challenges, the work goes on and it gets done. It’s just that, along with hard work, talent and skill, every journalist in Freetown needs one vital virtue. Patience.

African women in media: Making waves in radio

Bridget Nambah

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

“Mostly ladies are known to be shy … [too] shy to talk in public.”

This is a strange declaration from Bridget Nambah, a DJ and talk show producer at Tamale’s Diamond FM. The 19-year-old from Ghana’s Northern Region is fighting her own stereotyping. She has been broadcasting since high school, when she snuck into public speaking seminars to learn her craft.

“In Ghana here, most often ladies don’t report,” she says.” [Producers] want the ladies to be comfortable. When they are sending out reporters, they are mostly sending out the males. A man can easily defend himself from danger but a lady cannot do that.”

While female journalists are becoming more common in urban centres like Accra, Tamale is still an outpost for traditional gender norms, says gender expert Safia Mousah. She says leadership qualities are not fostered in Ghanaian women, so they do not pursue professions like journalism.

“In our culture, the women always takes the backstage,” says Mousah, who works for the anti-poverty NGO, Action Aid. “She takes all the instructions.”

Women who are outspoken are deemed “deviant”, according to Mousah. She points to the lack of women in Ghanaian political life as a telling example of this. Female politicians are scrutinized harshly about everything from their hairstyles to their husbands; scrutiny from which their male colleagues are exempt.

“Looking at the very few women we have in leadership roles, in journalism, it’s very clear that  [society] is hard on them,” says Mousah.

Nambah credits her strong personality for her success.

“Generally in Africa, women are perceived to be relegated to the background”, says Akosua Kwartemaa, the female manager at Tamale’s Fiila FM.

Since starting at Fiila nine years ago, Kwartemaa has seen a slow progression of gender equality in media.

“Of late, things are changing,” she says. “We feel, what a man can do, we can do and even do it better.”

In Malawi when ‘Life’ gets tough, it gets banned

Saturday night in Blantyre and the drinks are flowing at Mustang Sally’s, a fluorescent bar with a swimming pool centerpiece frequented by ex-pats and a new generation of young Malawians who have money.  The laptop DJ plays LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” for the eighth time of the night.

No longer under the strict censuring control of one-party-state president Hastings Kamuza Banda, Malawian airwaves have opened up to music that in the 20th century remained an unknown.  In the years following the country’s first multi-party elections in 1994, the Malawian music industry has diversified, with Malawian artists more free to perform traditional, gospel and reggae-inspired sounds, and some images and styles even being scavenged from sexually provocative, explicitly violent and drug-saturated music on  stations such as  MTV.

Today Malawians can praise any God, they can even party rock, but if you ask Lucius Banda they still can’t protest.

Lucius Banda, the first Malawian musician to use his platform to protest government. Photo submitted.

The first musician to sing openly against political oppression in Malawi during the decades of one-party rule, Banda says growing up in absolute poverty and amid systemic social injustice inspired him to “make sure there’s an alternative voice from the government.”

“Coming from a broken family living in absolute poverty, life was difficult,” remembers Banda.  “We had to go to the Catholic mission houses to clean toilets to pay for school fees.  After we’d paid that, we’d go to school, and then if the president was visiting your area you had to raise money to give him as a gift.

“We couldn’t afford that and so we wouldn’t be allowed in class, maybe for two or three weeks.  It was like getting candy from a grandchild,” he says.  “I don’t forget that.”

In the 1980s Banda began his music career singing gospel songs as part of the Alleluya Band, but eventually branched out on his own to produce music that would “sensitize people to regain their conscience.”

“I didn’t like singing love songs,” he says.  “I talked about injustices, the suffering of the people, that was my main concern.”

In 1993 Banda released his first solo album titled “Makolo”.  The single “Mabala” which means “wounds” was critical of the ruling Kamuzu Banda regime, which he said afflicted pain on those already living in absolute poverty.

In 2001 when then-UDF chairman and President Bakili Muluzi attempted a third term, Banda released the song “How Long.”

“I did a lot of songs rebuking [Muluzi],” Banda says.  “Why should we have become a friend of Mugabe and others who were clinging to power?”

In 2005 he released the album “Enemy (of the State)” where he criticized current president Bingu wa Mutharika for quitting the UDF party that had ushered him into power to seek re-election as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate instead, and in 2006 and 2008 he released the albums “Survivor” and “Freedom” respectively with messages meant for Mutharika: “We’ll survive you” and “You will see when people realize the truth.”

But in 2011 his latest album of protest music and its title track “Life” attracted negative attention from the Malawi Censorship Board and a ban by the Malawi Broadcasting Company (MBC).  Now that his music is banned from Malawian radio stations, Banda says Section 35 of the Malawi Constitution has failed him and that without free expression the music industry is “harsh” in Malawi.

“You can’t criticize people who are in positions where you put them with your vote,” he says.  “They say, ‘Stay quiet as I’m sitting on your money’ at a time when we don’t have a strong opposition and [Malawians] are weaker than we were in terms of our reactiveness to dictatorship… The Malawians you meet today are not the Malawians of 1994.  In 1994 Malawians were aggressive.  We were patriotic.  The Malawians you meet today I’m sorry to say are desperate, everyone for himself, ‘as long as I get mine it’s OK.’  That’s why we cannot come together and fight one common enemy.”

Though he still believes Malawians who love their country should show that they’re not happy with what is happening, Banda says the MBC ban has hurt his medium.

“Because of the ban, slowly [my] music is dying, people don’t listen to it, youngsters don’t listen to it, so they [government] are succeeding,” he says.

“Today you have to censor yourself so much when an artist is supposed to be free.  If I were going into the industry now, in this environment, I wouldn’t go.”

This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website on March 8, 2012.

Listen to Banda’s song “Tikamalira” (Why We Cry) here.

The cynic in me gets a slap in the face

Every once and awhile the generosity of strangers can floor you.

The community of Fishula is a 15-minute drive outside the bustling regional capital of Tamale. Despite the nearby streetlights, restaurants, colleges and swimming pools in Tamale, Fishula’s water comes from a dirty well, there is no electricity and worst of all, an entire generation has not received any formal education.

An elder in Fishula shows Diamond FM's Maxwell Suuk the well they use for drinking water

Politicians in Ghana will often use distance as an excuse for depriving rural villages of basic services but clearly that wouldn’t fly in this case. I travelled to Fishula with a district assembly member and Maxwell Suuk, a reporter at Diamond FM.

When visiting any rural village in Northern Region it is customary to go and visit the chief to pay your respects. He usually lives in one of the larger mud huts and if he is Dagomba – the majority of chiefs in this region are – you enter, squat and clap your hands quickly and gently and say “naa…naa…naa” over and over again.

You inevitably are asked to offer kola. In the not-too-distant past, this actually meant a kola nut exchanged as a symbolic gesture, but with the influx of NGO’s to Northern Ghana and as modern comforts slowly seep their way into villages it usually means cash, especially if you are visibly Western.

I sat quietly on a goatskin waiting to be asked for kola. I huffed and puffed internally – at times I felt like a walking ATM. Pleasantries were exchanged in Dagbani for what seemed like an eternity and as Max tried to wrap things up I could sense he was anticipating the same thing as me.

Suddenly a procession of men entered carrying a heaping bowl of groundnuts, a bag of guinea fowl eggs and a huge duck.  It was a knobby, red, ugly duck that screeched and flapped as it tried to scramble lose from the man’s sturdy grip. I stared in disbelief at Max as it became clear the chief of this incredibly poor community wanted to offer us gifts for coming to hear their plight.

I put up my hands to protest. The district assembly member mumbled under his breath to me:  “you cannot refuse, you will insult him.”

My mind began racing wondering how I was going to carry the struggling duck as effortlessly as this man from Fishula. I couldn’t smile at Max, fearing one of us would burst into laughter.

We thanked him for the gifts and asked the man to carry the duck to our Tamale-bound taxi and stuff it in the hatchback. It squawked and kicked as we laughed the whole way home. I called my Ghanaian host family to tell them I was bringing home a surprise.

The following day my grandmother yelled for me to come outside. She wanted me to come see how well she had roasted my poor friend – here in Ghana animals are rarely recipients of generous treatment.

Student radio program debuts on MIJ FM

Journalism students Japheth Thole and Simon Makamba conduct an interview for an episode of Neighborhood Watch. Photo by Katie Lin.

On July 3, 2011, Neighborhood Watch, a student-run radio show, was proudly launched on MIJ FM in Blantyre.

The bilingual (English-Chichewa) program focuses on analyzing and reflecting on human rights issues occurring in Malawi, but also aims to involve student journalists at the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ).

Inspired by the crime prevention concept where citizens organize themselves to monitor their communities, the show’s producer and creator, Archibald Kasakura started Neighborhood Watch “having seen the gap that was there between the people and their understanding of basic human rights.”

“Malawi is a third world country and issues of human rights have just surfaced,” he explains.

“We are coming from a background whereby human rights were not a part of our system. Our politics were dictatorial, and most people were not told – were not educated – about human rights.”

Kasakura estimates that more than 80 per cent of Malawians listen to the radio daily – so it made sense to produce a program for this widely-used medium.

As a student production, aspiring journalists at MIJ will be given the opportunity to develop their broadcast skills under the guidance of professional journalists, including MIJ FM’s Wonder Msiska.

Not only will the students be required to source stories, conduct interviews, and write scripts, but they will also be receiving valuable training in sound editing.

And Kasakura is confident in the show’s contributors: “A lot of them have shown interest – and if that interest is sustained, many people will benefit from it.”

But with the show still in its infancy, there are many challenges facing both Kasakura and his team of contributors, such as funding and access to resources like voice recorders.

Nonetheless, he is positive that their hard work will incite positive and far-reaching change in attitudes towards certain controversial cultural or social practices through human rights education.

“I think the future of the program is very bright,” he says. “When people understand the importance of human rights, they will be able to fuse them into their daily activities or cultures.”

“In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you are from this tribe or from that tribe,” Kasakura continues.

“You are born with rights and no one can take them from you.”

Listen to the program’s second episode, aired last Sunday, where journalist Archibald Kasakura explores the topic of witchcraft in Malawi and current legislation surrounding the increasingly disputed practice.

(Visit the Malawi Institute of Journalism’s website every Monday to listen to the latest episode of Neighborhood Watch)

Malawian children from Nancholi district

See our World: Hear our Voice

I’m grateful. Simply put, I grew up in a world where opportunities to express myself, whether it be through sport, music, drama and or the written word, were endless. It was not natural for me to sit and look pretty as a child, or hold my emotions inside. On the contrary, if I was silent, there was something wrong. As a result, I (perhaps naively) thought a child’s curious nature and imaginary ideas were something to be cherished and accepted.

Malawian children from Nancholi district

In Malawi, a silent cultural norm envelops the country, placing children in a category where they should only to be seen and not heard. This type of belief system is hard to comprehend, as my privileged childhood was inclusive of classical repertoire, endless travel and copious amounts of books encouraging critical analysis.

It never occurred to me that kids in other parts of the world were being muted.

On the bright side, organizations like Plan International have been implementing programs designed to address child rights issues, specifically relating to health, access to education, food security and the silencing of youth. According to their website, “Plan Malawi seeks to support government efforts to bring about lasting improvements in the quality of life of disadvantaged children,” through awareness raising and capacity building.

Since 2007, the well-known non-governmental organization has used its extensive reach to bring child rights abuses to the forefront by providing youth with a platform where they can vocalize their concerns. Their solution: radio programs. Plan’s ultimate goal is to “enable [children] and show them their full potential.”

With funding provided by Plan Malawi, Timveni, or “hear us out” as the program is fittingly called, was started by a Canadian journalist named Tiferaji Aryee. Founders, along with Plan, outline that “an essential part of their work is to create spaces for children and young people to discuss together the issues which affect their lives, then ensure adults respect their views so that children may be involved in community decision-making.”

An intern at Capital FM conducting a radio interview

With Plan’s financial contributions, organizers tackled the situation by empowering youth with media skills, giving them the opportunity to create and produce radio programs throughout the country on child rights issues, like child trafficking, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS that negatively affect them. The thought behind the radio project was to have media produced that is by the children and for the children.

Each year, 25 deserving boys and girls across the country are nominated by their schools to partake in the radio project. “First, you have classes educating you on Plan Malawi’s initiatives, then you learn about human rights and child rights and then broadcasting skills,” says Beatrice Mfune, one of the first female participants, selected at the age of 14. “After two weeks, we record programs and we make programs completely about children,” she says.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the project “was receiving letters from kids who heard our programs and liked them,” says Mfune. Before this opportunity, she admits to her oblivion regarding what constituted children’s rights, what type of treatment is considered an infringement of their rights and where a child could voice their concerns without fear of retaliation.

According to Plan, some organizers recognized that there was still an educational gap on the ground. Children, particularly those living in rural areas, were not being actively engaged in the Timveni radio programs. As a solution to this problem, Timveni organizers got together and created what they call the “Listeners’ Clubs.”

Most Listeners’ Clubs consist of 15 to 20 children that meet every day to hear the youth designed programs. If they have any questions or concerns about the content, typically relating to child rights, they formulate letters with a Plan representative and mail them to presenters, who in turn read them on air.

Currently 18 years old, Mfune somberly reflects on her first excursion with the Timveni project. It was early morning when their bus pulled up to the front doors of Lilongwe Central Hospital. Silently, Mfune and her colleagues followed organizers down a long corridor leading to the children’s ward. They were completely unaware of how this experience would change their outlook forever. “There were kids with burns everywhere and some weren’t accidental,” she explains. “For some children, if they took K20 ($0.12 CDN) from their parents, they would burn them.”

After a thoughtful glance, Mfune turns to me and exclaims in a soft voice that it was in that moment at the hospital where “it made [her] feel like [she] could do something for people in need.”

Getting Where You’re Going

Sweat stung my eyes as I trudged down Roylat Castle Road searching in vain for the Amnesty International sign. It was noon and the sun was baking the pavement. I was dressed in my business casual best – dress shirt, black pants and leather shoes – not the greatest outfit in hot weather.

It seemed so simple on Google Maps. You just get off the bus at Ring Road, turn left, and walk up the road a little ways. This was early in my Accra experience and I hadn’t yet learned that finding something is never as simple as it seems on a map.

I needed to get to Amnesty to talk about some story ideas, but it began to look like my meeting wasn’t going to happen. I had no idea where to go and I was already late.

When in doubt, ask the locals. I stopped to get directions from fellow pedestrians but no one could tell me where to find my destination.

I was at the brink of giving up when I heard a voice calling out asking where I was going. A man about my age named Phillip came out of the shade and introduced himself. I told him where I wanted to go and he took me on a hunt for Amnesty International.

Phillip had no idea where to go either but he understood Ghanaian directions much better than I did. At one point he dropped me off at a café while he took off down the road. He came back having found the building.

Amnesty International has a very small sign, and I’m obviously not very observant. But anyway, I wouldn’t have found the place at all if it weren’t for a complete stranger taking the time out of his work day to help me.

That was a month ago. Earlier this week I was walking around in the same part of town when by complete coincidence I ran into Phillip. We talked a bit and he told me about his life. He was from the north, around Tamale, and worked as a cleaner in Accra. He told me he always dreamed of getting a job in radio, but he doesn’t have any training.

I invited him on a tour of CitiFM as a small way to repay one of the many Ghanaians who help me find restaurants, bars, offices, streets, and bus stops every day I live in this country.

Phillip met the news director and they talked about what it takes to get a job at a radio station. Phillip came to the station armed with story ideas and a lot of smart questions, but without a degree or diploma, he won’t get a radio job.

Money determines how far people go in Ghanaian academia. A semester at the Ghana Institute of Journalism costs 600 cedis, which is $435 Canadian, a lot of money for the average Ghanaian.

That’s too much for a manual labourer like Phillip. He plans to make more money by buying a taxi with the help of a money lending company.

As a university grad loaded with student debt, I was a bit skeptical of borrowing to afford school, but I respected his drive to start a career.

Good luck Phillip. I hope you reach your destination in life as sure as I found Amnesty International.