Changes have swept across the Malawi airwaves. From what can be referred to as the first generation of Malawi’s radio presenters such as the late Phillip Mwala Moyo, Prescot Gonani, Davis Mussa and Mercy Chipeta, the country has seen it all.
The dawn of democracy and resultant liberalisation of the airwaves gave birth to a new crop of radio presenters.
When MBC Radio 2 was established in 1997, several voices found their way onto the airwaves. One such voice was that of Gift Mabeya Mbeya, whose generation of presenters included the likes of Chakuchanya Harawa, Kondwani Chisasa and the late Mayeso Chirwa.
Born Gift William Mbeya and hailing from Dunduzu, Mzimba, the former radio presenter has an interesting reason as to why he changed his name.
“When my brother came back from England with his wife, she could not pronounce Mbeya as she had difficulties mixing the m and b. So, I prefixed my father’s name with Ma to come up with Mabeya. Since then, it has been my brand as it has remained in the minds of many,” he said.
He is a marketer by professional trained at the Malawi Polytechnic. But while studying at the constituent college of the University of Malawi, an opportunity for stage drama gave birth to another, opening him doors to a different world altogether.
“It is interesting as to how I found myself in radio. I half found myself there because of the late Du Chisiza and former MBC goddess Mercy Chipeta. I had worked with Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre for a short period of time. I was fully involved in the production of the play Black Blawizo, where I played the role of a reverend.
“At the same time, I was doing a marketing course at Polytechnic where the money for my studies came from acting. I remember Du telling me that I could be a good presenter and Mercy Chipeta said the same thing. I decided to give it a try,” recollects Mbeya.
Coincidentally, around that time, MBC Radio 2 was recruiting for presenters.
He joined the State broadcaster in 1998, together with Phillip Kalindawalo, Kondwani Chisasa who is still at Radio 2 and Chakuchanya Harawa who is now with the BBC.
His newly found life was different and exciting, but not short of challenges.
Recollects Mbeya: “The job was good and exciting. You know, when you go on air, it’s like a different world altogether. It was fascinating to get ready for the shifts, choose what music to play and prepare for it. But there were others trying to pull me down. So, it was bumpy, as times I could get on air frustrated.”
Mbeya is known for his powerful voice and bubbly personality. He had a unique way of corresponding with his listeners, making them feel attached, not only to himself, but to the topic at hand.
It was not just in his voice, but also his character; the way he carried himself over the airwaves.
He did not go to any special radio training or media school, but his willingness and ability to learn new skills led him to be a successful, popular and loved personality.
“I learnt the art as days went by. I used to present Reggae Sessions at some point apart from my usual Drive Time. I remember when Evison Matafale died, I presented a 30-minute programme Straight from Chileka, detailing his journey, music and all that made him to be the reggae maestro he is today.
“Then there was the Saturday show, the Masese Happy Hour, a programme that interacts with Chibuku revellers. For you to fit in with the people in the shabeens at that particular time is not easy,” he says.
Another thing that sold out Mbeya to fans were his two famous teasers. Those who were fans of radio, especially MBC, attest to the fact that they did hear a promo saying: “Gift Mabeya Mbeya, amdala bambo.”
The two famous teasers were done by music legend Lucius Banda and promoter Jai Banda.
“That was more than a brand, where listeners would know who was behind the mic at that particular time. It was as a result of an interview I had with the two that gave birth to one of radio’s famous teasers,” he said.
As Nelly Furtado sung All Good Things Come To An End, for Mbeya, the end came fast and it was brutal in a way.
“I left a sad person in 2001 because of frustrations,” he says with a tad of emotions without shedding more light. “I needed a breather so I went to England to do some studies. I used to come every year so I could go back on radio and present the Masese Happy Hour until I came back for good. I wanted to continue with the programme, but it never worked. I have always wanted to be back on radio and if given a chance, I can do that on part-time basis,” he added.
His close to four years stint with MBC was worth the while as Mbeya believes he significantly contributed towards the growth of Malawi music through his radio programme.
He explains: “I was dealing in music and this was a period during which we promoted a lot of Malawian music though programmes we had. We had better quality of music as we used to criticise musicians a lot. Not every noise can be music. So we could advise the musicians and they would go back [to the studios] to polish it up. I am proud that I did contribute to the growth of Malawi music.”
For Mbeya, Geoffrey Kazembe and Chakuchanya are his inspirations.
Today, the former broadcaster is still in the media, but with a special focus on marketing.
“Once in media, it’s always difficult to leave. I am now into advertising and branding, doing production of documentaries and jingles. This is the little thing that brings bread on my table. The name of my company is Ma-witech,” he says.
Mbeya says he wants to be remembered as someone who contributed to the local music industry and someone who made people laugh.
For Mbeya, radio presenters are the voice of a station or programme, whether they work in speech-based or music radio stations. They create the tone and style of radio output and establish a relationship with listeners.
“However, it has often been argued that radio presentations, back in the day, were perfect. Most members from the older generations will always cherish the good old days, while in most instances they rubbish the new crop of presenters.”
“Many presenters of today are copying a lot. They are not being original. Everyone is unique in their own right. We need to change that.”
The former broadcaster also worked with Nation Publications Limited and Rab Processors in the marketing departments before joining MBC.