The ‘peculiar’ radio habits of Kenyans
a The Africa Annual feature by Carole Kimutai (@CaroleKimutai) Radio is one of the most powerful media in Africa — it is relatively inexpensive to set up, it can be customised for regions in terms of language, and it is ubiquitous.
Michael Joseph, the first chief executive officer of Kenya’s largest mobile phone company, Safaricom, described Kenyans as having ‘peculiar’ habits. One of the many peculiar habits we Kenyans pride ourselves in, is listening to the radio.
Radio is an obsession. It competes for space with books, garments, cutlery, penholders and diaries on desks and cupboards in many Kenyan offices, homes, shops, markets and restaurants. In a remote part of the country like Turkana County in Northern Kenya, three out of every five Turkana men trekking through the wild are likely to have a radio tucked under their armpit.
FM radio in Kenya has become one of the avenues through which contemporary society tells stories, a means to both complement and compete with the traditional fireside storyteller. A sulking spouse in the passenger seat does not even have to pretend to be reading the paper: there is enough ‘filler’ coming from the car’s FM stereo. In streets, homes and offices, it is increasingly common to find people wearing earplugs, listening to the FM radio stations on their cell phones.
So obsessed with radio are Kenyans that The Daily Nation, a Kenyan daily newspaper with the highest circulation in East Africa, published an editorial cartoon on Monday 17th June 2013 describing what a typical morning in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, looks like. Motorists in their personal vehicles and passengers in Public Service vehicles are all shown tuned in to FM radio.
Facts and numbers
Radio is the leading source of news, current affairs and gossip. According to the Kenya Audience Research Foundation 2012 report, on average 93% of the Kenyan population listens to radio at least once in seven days, while the average time spent listening per day is 6 hours. The popularity of the radio medium is followed by television and newspapers respectively.
According to the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), in the last quarter of 2013, the average monthly audience for radio broadcasts was 16.9 million, while television recorded only 2.13 million viewers. “Radio has a lower barrier to entry plus there are a many radio stations, including vernacular [stations], people can listen to,” explains Joe Otin, Managing Director MediaCT at Ipsos Pan-Africa.
A 2010 National ICT survey showed that 78.1% of rural and 83.1% of the urban population own radio sets compared to 29.2% of rural and 66.1% of the urban population that own television sets. “Although more people in urban areas own radio sets, in Nairobi people watch more television. This trend has a lot [more] to do with access to electricity than the ability to purchase a television set,” says Otin. Many parts of rural Kenya are yet to join the national power grid, which makes radio a preferred medium because it can run on battery or solar power.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) seems to have noticed the peculiar radio listening habits in Kenya. Radio journalist Joshua arap Sang became the first journalist in Kenya to face charges at the ICC for using his morning radio show, Lene Emet (which means ‘What is the world saying?’) to gain support and also communicate by code to members of the network about when and where to commit attacks, during the 2007/8 post-election violence. Sang was a presenter at a Kalenjin vernacular radio station, KASS FM.
History of radio in Kenya
The love for radio in Kenya goes back half a century. Prior to independence, radio was a key medium in keeping the British settlers and local citizens informed about what was happening around the world. Through Kiswahili broadcasts, ‘natives’ were instructed on how to be good subjects by dutifully paying taxes. After independence, radio, and specifically the state broadcaster, remained the most trusted source of information. People tuned in to find out the latest on cabinet reshuffles, what the President had been up to, and events across the borders. Every day, Kenyans would engage in the ritual of switching on the gadget at 9am, 1pm and 7pm.
Liberalisation of the Kenyan airwaves in the 1990s allowed more media players to set up radio and television stations. The radio ‘mediascape’ has since then seen a growth of radio stations, including vernacular, targeting people from various ethnic groups. FM radio suddenly became an alternative to the state radio broadcaster which was seen as a mouthpiece of the then ruling political party KANU. These FM stations distinguished themselves by the genre of music and content they broadcast, in the process munching away portions of the large audience share that the state radio broadcaster enjoyed.
Understanding the radio market
The new FM radio stations have continued to grow, further segmenting the audience landscape. There are currently 163 radio stations in Kenya serving a population of 40 million. This growth has also fuelled the popularity of talk radio across the country allowing Kenyans to call directly and get their voices heard. Radio has united Kenyans separated by distance and natural geography allowing them to publicly share information, experiences and opinions.
Without a doubt, Kenya is a country of radio listeners. This is the reason why, compared to other media, radio enjoys a significantly large portion of the advertising spend. Many media buyers and advertisers in Kenya prefer spending on radio because it is much cheaper than television and print, yet it has significant reach. That has forced FM radio stations to aggressively compete for audiences so as to win advertising. In the last seven years, media advertising in Kenya has been growing steadily, especially for radio. The only hiccup in ad-spend happens during an election year. “This is because of the jitters around the elections. Business activity reduces due to lack of confidence of improved economic indicators, and advertising is affected,” explains Otin.
Any media manager will tell you that a media organisation is first and foremost considered as a commercial operation.Secondly, even if they claim not to be in the business of generating profit, their success is measured by their capacity to deliver large or well-defined audiences to advertisers or sponsors.
The social composition of the audience reached, as sold to advertisers, is important because of differences in purchasing power and in type of goods advertised. There is a logic in the advertising-based mass media that favours a convergence of media tastes and consumption patterns (i.e. less diversity.) The argument is that homogenous audiences are usually more cost-effective for advertisers than heterogeneous and dispersed audiences (unless they are very large mass markets for mass products.) The only time that diversity is considered to work (from a commercial perspective) is when a medium is able to accurately deliver a small but profitable niche market. This is one factor that has worked very well for radio because of how it has segmented radio audiences in Kenya.
Kenya is still highly rural. Literacy levels are low and poverty levels high compared to urban areas where people have some form of income, can read and have a television set at home (because they have a power connection.) This makes radio an excellent way of reaching both urban and rural audiences.
It is worth learning lessons from the Royal Media Services (RMS,) the largest private national broadcaster in Kenya with 14 radio stations, 2 of which broadcast in English and Swahili respectively. The rest are vernacular stations spread across Kenya, targeting ethnic groups based on regions. For example, Inooro FM broadcasts in the Kikuyu language, targeting Kikuyu listeners who mainly live in Central Kenya. Another station is Ramogi FM that broadcasts in Dholuo and targets the people living around Lake Victoria.
In Kenya it is said that if you want to touch the heart of a person, speak to them in their own language. RMS identified this gap in the market: a big part of the population of Kenya does not converse fluently in English or Swahili, and the best way to reach them is through vernacular radio.
The RMS commercial model involved heavily investing in communication masts, broadcast frequencies and state-of-the-art broadcast equipment. With the internet and mobile technology, journalists broadcasting for the various vernacular stations in the counties do not have to be based in Nairobi.
There is a lot of room for growth in Kenya’s radio space. Neighbouring Uganda, for example, with a population of 33 million, has 192 operational radio stations. A lot of radio stations in Uganda are located outside the capital, Kampala. In Kenya, many radio stations are concentrated in Nairobi and other major cities like Mombasa, Kisumu and Eldoret. This will make the radio market highly competitive, as radio stations fight for advertising spend.
We are most likely going to see more radio stations being set up in the 47 counties around Kenya. This will attract both local and international investors. Already, South African Times Media Group has bought a 49% stake in Radio Africa Group Ltd, which owns highly successful urban FM radio stations – Kiss 100 and Classic FM, and a few others.
The single biggest business opportunity in Africa, says McKinsey, is the continent’s rising consumer market. McKinsey’s Rise of the African Consumer report cites several attributes of the African consumer: they are brand conscious and demand quality, plus they also spend more on food than their counterparts in Brazil, India or China. This presents a major opportunity for Kenyan radio. The Ministry of Finance projects Kenya’s economy to grow by 5.8 per cent in 2014. This is happening as the government implements devolution. Urbanisation will be a central feature of this new landscape, and will influence how goods and services are marketed to audiences. Considering the role radio plays in the lives of Kenyans, my bet is we have not seen anything yet!
Carole Kimutai is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya with over 10 years of experience. She currently heads the Publishing and Creative Services Division of the Kenya Institute of Management. She has a BSc Journalism and Communication from Moi University Kenya, and an MA New Media and Society from the University of Leicester, UK.
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