Radio occupies a special place in the collective imagination of Malawians. Come to think of it, television in Malawi hit the airwaves 35 years after independence.
So, for so long, radio was everything for Malawians. Radio was our vision. We saw our world through radio’s powerful ability to paint pictures through words.
However, till 1998 Malawi’s radio listenership choices were still limited. The country only had one local broadcaster, the State-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Radio One and Two. Apart from MBC, Malawians relied on the Christian student radio station, African Bible College (ABC), broadcasting within a small radius in the city of Lilongwe, a relay feed from TransWorld Radio which was broadcasting from Manzini, Swaziland and Chinyanja news bulletins from the International Service of the Radio of South Africa now South African Broadcasting Corporation (Sabc).
So the coming in of FM 101 Power in October 1998 was a breath of fresh air to the Malawian airwaves.
The broadcaster was the country’s first independent commercial radio station in the country. It was a radio station that defined itself in opposition to MBC.
In a format where MBC was conservative, layback, and almost meticulous, FM 101 Power was avant-garde and lively.
The new kid on the block was to completely alter the broadcasting landscape in Malawi.
The station’s music-centric programming won the hearts of a youthful audience and reignited great passion in radio listenership.
With an impressive roster boasting of international and local deejays, FM 101 rewrote the rules on radio presentation and lured a string of advertisers to pitch their products and services to Malawian youths.
From alcoholic beverages to social marketing campaigns, everyone wanted to be part of FM 101’s newly found niche in Malawian broadcasting.
If a chapter is to be written about Malawian music, FM 101 Power has a great stake in the influence it exerted in commercialising the country’s local music.
Circa 1999, the station introduced a mid afternoon local music programme named Music Avenue. Malawian music had finally found a place it could call home. It was an avenue that reinvigorated a passion in local music and propelled local stars such as Joseph Nkasa and San B to great commercial success.
First presented by Thoko Tembo and later Patrick Kamkwatira, Music Avenue was the first port of call for any artist worth his or her salt who wanted to sell music to a new vibrant market of local music. The programme created an insatiable thirst for Malawian music and great pride in local productions.
In terms of presentation, Kamkwatira reinvented the art of presentation. His carefree and humour-filled style endeared him to millions of Malawian listeners and inspired many other presenters and of course copycats. Kamkwatira chronicled what could be described as a watershed moment for music in Malawian broadcasting. Through him we saw the rise and tragic death of Evison Matafale as well as the comics of Che Chule and the emergence of Black Missionaries.
Even when it came to the birth of what has now come to be known as “Malawian urban music”, FM 101 can lay claim to being behind the opening up of space for local youths to create their own versions of hip hop, soul, dancehall and rhythm and blues.
The station provided a platform for the local youths to dig deep down their creative side and lay bare through music issues that touched their lives.
The broadcaster also boasted Caribbean radio presenters, such as the great Michael Ibo Cooper, who rallied Malawian listeners behind Pan Africanism and black consciousness. Programmes such as Clarity helped listeners to do some self introspection and revisit what it means to be black and free in Africa.
But of course the station could have done more beyond the music. The station did not invest much in its news and current affairs programming. In fact, in its nascent stages, the station chose an editorial policy that ignored political news.
At the time it might have been a smart move for the owner, Oscar Thomson, to distance the station from the political posturing of his Cabinet minister father, Harry. But it was also an opportunity lost.
Soon FM 101 audiences would go through what I call “music fatigue”, when some listeners wanted to lie down and digest the political events and social reality taking shape around them. Broadcasting is a market other news-centred stations such as Capital Radio capitalised on. By the time FM 101 Power was redirecting its resources to news programming, some of such audiences were long gone.
Any station needs to hold on to star deejays. They are the voices that lure listeners. For instance, thousands tuned in everyday to listen to PK, as Patrick Kamkwatira was fondly known. He was a brand on his own. FM 101 Power lost listeners when they lost such a star. So by the end of the first decade, the FM 101 Power bubble began to burst.
The first to go were the top international deejays. The station’s local marquee deejays such as Kamkwatira and another popular deejay Sister Fire followed.
Malawian airwaves had also completely opened up. From just four stations in 1998, by 2008 listeners had a choice of over 40 stations. Competition was stiff in broadcast sector.
In the face of electricity outages in Malawi, operation costs for radio can be very high. To keep transmitters running, a station has to dig deeper into its coffers. Perhaps this was all too overwhelming for FM 101 Power.
The final straw was earlier this year when the tax authorities came knocking on FM 101’s door. The station couldn’t cope anymore and almost 20 years after its majestic entrance on the local broadcasting scene, FM 101 went off air for a few months.
The good news is that, the station—which has been in service to Malawi for past 20 years in back on air.
Time will only tell if it will ever reach the heights of its embryonic stage in 1998 when the station carved for itself a special place in the recess of our collective memories.
But as the station’s tagline brags; FM 101 Power is the listener’s choice. Keep it locked.