Capital Radio’s establishment inspired many other radio stations who emerged on the scene. However, their formats and programming were modelled 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.
Founder and managing director of Zodiak Broadcasting Station, 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. With a format and presentation style that mirrored MBC’s old precision-based broadcasting, ZBS took audiences on a walk down memory lane. The station had a roster boasting of administrators, news readers and presenters that once plied their trade with MBC. ZBS, in a nutshell, would define itself based on MBC’s golden ages. It was a valiant move that worked wonders for ZBS in the years that followed. The station would go on to position itself as a competitor for MBC, which was still enjoying a lion’s share of the advertising market despite the mushrooming of a number of radio stations.
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 and win over audiences. Wavering between sports commentary and phone-in programmes, what filled the airwaves increasingly became more rash and inconsiderate of the needs of audiences.
So what are the lessons from Malawi’s short broadcasting history? Considering Malawi’s low levels of income and illiteracy levels, radio’s affordability will help it continue to be the number one source of information for millions of Malawians. However, the broadcasting industry has reached a crossroad where it needs to take a reflective look on itself and head into a new brave direction.
Most Malawian radio stations have difficulties identifying their audience. Going by where they first plant transmitters, most of the stations are blinded by the allure of urban audiences and overlook rural audiences who are the real heart of radio listenership. Rural audiences look up to radio on a daily basis to make informed decisions on their livelihood as well as matters of public interest.
Audiences are the best judges of content and going by recent listenership ratings, they are now growing weary of broadcasters’ experimentation with formats. Audience tastes are quite ephemeral and radio stations have a duty to constantly keep on moving with the ever changing discernment of their listeners.
It is time station managers became bold enough to involve audiences in as far as radio formats are concerned. Astonishingly, most of the country’s radio stations do not conduct audience research to assess the needs of their listeners. In an era when audience-generated content is garnering eminence across the world, some broadcasters continue to throw their arrows in the dark hoping for the best. n