Turn it up: Radio still rules the airwaves

Wednesday March 18 2020

Johanna Karanja, who is 100-years-old, still has great love for his radio. PHOTO | COURTESY


Johanna Karanja considers himself spoilt.

He is 101 years old, and over the century he has collected plenty of items — chairs, pictures and old newspaper cuttings.

He has lost several of these items in his itinerant existence, but no matter where he has been, a transistor radio has always accompanied him.

His tiny radio perches atop an old table, and on this Sunday morning there are voices of encouragement — every turn of the knob yields a preacher, or some uplifting music. Karanja smiles through a gap in his front teeth.

“Now, before I go to church I must listen to this,” he says as the knob settles on a Kikuyu-language frequency where a chirpy female presenter is exulting the morning.

“In the past, I could hardly find anything but Swahili; but now I can’t choose where to stop because there are so many (that) speak to me.”



There are thousands of listeners around the country with an affinity similar to Karanja’s, and it is as much about an emotional attachment to the radio as it is about practicality.

Analysts suggest that the radio remains the most bankable and preferred medium for disseminating information.

In 2011, Unesco announced February 13 as World Radio Day — a day marked to celebrate the radio and the role it continues to play in supplying the masses, even in the remotest corners of the world, with information.

The dialling knob has evolved over the years since the radio appeared on the scene over a century ago.

The 20th century saw the explosion of the radio from a luxury and primarily entertainment item to one with enormous commercial potential and appeal, particularly with paid advertisements.


There was concern, especially at the turn of the 21st century that radio had surely seen the best of its days, as the world galloped into the so-called digital age where the future flickered with brave new channels and the phenomena of the internet.

The winds of change only bent trees and moved on, and radio is still as popular — if not more — than ever.

Statistics from the Media Council of Kenya put the number of radio stations in Kenya today at 179, a majority of them broadcasting in vernacular languages.

After the malnourished days of a single, stiff broadcaster (KBC General Service and its Swahili sister punctuated by a scattering of specific-hour vernacular service), starved Kenyans craved a new diet and voice. Soon Kiss FM, Capital FM, Nation FM filled once scratchy frequencies.

But radio had always been in service even in the stark landscape of single-party rule and boilerplate delivery.


The BBC, Voice of America (VOA) and Deutsche Welle served nectar, openly criticising the political atmosphere in Kenya and other places where despots crushed free voice.

Even during those lean times of patronage and dreary news announcing where President Daniel arap Moi had attended church, the listener could count on a curiously entertaining, and arguably peculiar (Michael Joseph’s memorable endorsement was years away) segment — the radio greetings hour.

Throughout the changing landscape, the greetings slot — which has since grown to include on-air discussions from marital blues to the economy and politics — has retained its mystic aura.

“There is something that is both exhilarating and strange about listening to your own voice on air,” says Moses Khisa, an ardent disciple of talk radio calling, and a fan of rhumba music from Kinoo on the outskirts of Nairobi.

“After some time, you find out that you want to talk more. Imagine speaking to (Obachi) Machoka on air!”


On December 29, 2018, a man named Titus Wanjohi wed his fetching bride at PCEA church in Kigogo-ini village in Tetu, Nyeri.

Wedding ceremonies occur all the time, and this one was no exception, but for one thing — the groom is perhaps the most prolific, tireless talk radio caller in the modern age of radio, at least in the vernacular radio circuits, probably in all of Kenyan radio.

Nearly every one of those stations had sent over a crew to cover the event.

Popularly known by listeners of Kikuyu-language radio as Wanjohi wa Kigogo-ini, Wanjohi has in the past 10 years made at least three calls to a radio station daily.

His persistent voice is a source of great derision for many listeners, who feel he hogs the limelight, even as it has given him some celebrity status in his home village.

Back when the habit came about and later spiralled to addiction, there were three Kikuyu-dialect stations.


That number has spiked to about seven, and with the expansion, Wanjohi’s ardour.

He confessed that his average daily expenditure on his hobby is in the neighbourhood of Sh200 — all on his monthly pay as a farmhand.

These simple attachments and loyalty to the competing voices of broadcasters are factors that marketers latch onto while rolling out strategy.

“There is trust that comes with certain figures — call them celebrities — and it is a sure bet with listeners when selling a service,” says Karen Mukabane, a marketer working with a local bank.

“Even without the familiarity of a face, the market is able to identify with a person they trust. The voice on the radio works well every time, and especially so with community radio stations.”

Before the magic and drizzly light of a tiny black-and-white television set flooded our “table room” in 1994, an old Sanyo radio and record player accompanied every sunrise.

Scratchy songs about nationhood, and the joys of farming, comic programmes about careful driving filled the room.


And on some weekends, my uncles sat in the shade as the soul of radio, Leonard Mambo Mbotela, came on the air, breathlessly shouting a live football match and urging the ball onto the back of the net.

On some select days, the same owl-grey Sanyo was carried into the classroom for the “broadcast lesson”, or the “broad” and the teacher on the other end of wherever she spoke from asked that notes be taken.

A repairman fled with that radio set in 2003; you don’t recover from such loss, and I still listen out for the people who spoke to our childhood.

One evening, about four years ago, Karanja — the 101-year-old radio fan — heard his own very voice on the radio.

Several days before, he had hosted a crew from a vernacular radio station who had sought him out for a recital of his old poetry and also for some counsel about rapidly receding traditions.

“Now, I loved it and people told me they had heard my voice too,” he says laughing. “But the girls who interviewed me had said there would be some money. Well, I didn’t get it.”

Not that he begrudges the station, he had been on air and he had recited his poetry. Who knows how many people were listening?