About 18 years ago something significant happened that completely altered the history of broadcasting in the country. In October 1998, the airwaves welcomed the first privately owned national radio station, Power 101 FM.
With a roster that had a blend of Malawian, British and Jamaican deejays, FM 101’s ebullient format rotated around hip-hop and reggae music and deeply endeared itself to a youthful audience.
In essence, FM 101 defined itself in opposition to the State-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC).
While MBC’s format, heavily influenced by the BBC, was layback, meticulous and conservative, FM 101 Power’s programming genre was unscripted, avant-garde and lively. The station’s music-centric and indifferent approach was literally unheard of and quite ground-breaking in the country.
With more than half of the country’s population being the youth, FM 101’s youthful audience helped the station to rake in some advertising revenue. From alcoholic beverage to social marketing advertising, FM 101 became the epicentre of all those who wanted to reach out to young people. However, there was an audience that FM 101 was ostensibly sidelined- the rural youth.
In addressing this, around 2000, FM 101 launched a mid-afternoon music programme strictly reserved for new Malawian music. Hosted by former MBC radio personality, Patrick Kamkwatira, Music Avenue also afforded musicians an opportunity to talk about Malawian music. This was a eureka moment.
This hit programme remarkably lured more advertisers and listeners, including local music aficionados. Crucially, it helped to awaken a dying passion for local music.
These were some defining and exciting moments for Malawi’s radio industry. Almost a year after FM 101 opened its doors, another radio station, Capital Radio 102.5 FM, went on air. The station’s format was different to MBC Radio One and Power 101’s programming styles.
Founded by veteran journalist and then presidential press secretary, Al Osman, Capital targeted at an urban contemporary audience and heavily revolved around news and phone-in programmes as well as rhythm and blues, rock and country music. It was quite new and exciting that listeners could now phone in and critique the policies as well as bungles of the political leadership. Radio had now taken a participatory approach to governance issues.
Capital Radio’s establishment inspired many other radio stations who emerged on the scene. However, their formats and programming were modeled on FM 101 and Capital Radio’s. The audiences for the new stations were also undefined and in a way the stations’ slack approach could be likened to shooting in the dark. This kind of programming created among some radio audiences some melancholic and nostalgic feelings for the old MBC format.
In retrospect, there was really some great artistry in MBC’s old format. The sometimes scripted programmes embodied perfection. Presented with emphasis on ambience, pronunciation and intonation in well built and cushioned studios in front of an army of editors, sound engineers and producers, the end product was work of art.
Zodiak Broadcasting Station founder and managing director Gospel Kazako, himself a former presenter and producer for MBC, might have noticed this deep longing for the past and yawning niche in the country’s radio industry when he launched his station in 2005.
ZBS introspective walk into the past might have befuddled some of the rather vacillating stations that succeeded it. It was now difficult to ascertain what audiences were looking for. Old or new format? What followed was stations incredulously having a cross breed of radio formats; somehow hoping that maybe one of them would work. Wavering between sports commentary and phone-in programmes, what filled the airwaves increasingly became rushed and inconsiderate of the needs of audiences. n