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UCC Take on Bizindalo Gravely Mistaken

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An Opinion piece by DAVID RUPINY


Radio is still the most popular means of mass communication in Uganda
Radio is still the most popular means of mass communication in Uganda

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), which regulates the broadcasting industry, is cracking on outdoor ‘megaphone’ community broadcasters locally known as bizindalo. In a public statement last week, the UCC banned the operations of bizindalo “with immediate effect”.

Quoting the Uganda Communications Act, the UCC accused the bizindalo of contravening the law and promised a crackdown without further warning. Indeed the UCC, backed by the police, has since raided a number of Kampala suburbs and confiscated a number of bizindalo or megaphone speakers.

One wonders how a statutory entity whose stock-in-trade is communication could not communicate effectively with the operators of bizindalo. I stand corrected, but from the public notice it appears UCC got a complaint and hurriedly swung into action without meaningfully engaging the bizindalo operators and the audiences they serve.

Moreover, in terms of nuisance level, disco and video halls, bars, and Pentecostal Churches are in their own league. Bizindalo tend to operate akin to the call-to-prayer of mosques, although there are some wayward operators.

The fact that bizindalo have been growing by leaps and bounds means they are relevant in the contexts in which they operate. It also means they are filling a gap left by mainstream radio stations/media.

Apart from Kagadi-Kibaale Community Radio (KKCR) in Kagadi District, I can comfortably say Uganda does not have a community radio in a typical sense. If there are others, then we are talking just one or two. Many claim to be community radios, but in reality they are not; at worst they are commercial radios.

Community radio, also known as free radio, associative radio or local radio, have unique characteristics which distinguish them from public and commercial radio.

They are usually independent; they are non-profit; they are the voice of geographical communities or communities of interest; they are dedicated to pluralism and diversity of information; they actively involve individuals and social or cultural groups; they are radio by the people, of the people, for the people; and they are committed to supporting networks of similar stations as part of the democratisation process.

More importantly, community radio typically does public service broadcasting, although it is structurally independent from the institutions of public or state radio. They tend to provide content not receivable on commercial and public stations.

Within a broad mix of programming and content, community radios reflect the daily lives of the people they serve at a local level, enabling them to engage in dialogue on the issues which most concern them – neighbourhood security, crime, lost or found property, lost children, market information, community mobilisation, local employment opportunities, education, health information, social events, name it.

Doing community radio requires more than what commercial radios do. Community radios do experimental programming; experimental not that they keep trying things out but rather that they go out of their way to break and extend boundaries. A typical community radio takes radio to the people and brings people to the radio, doing simple yet vital things like including the voiceless, not overlooking the ordinary, being accessible and affordable, etc.

Although the Ugandan mediascape is dominated by radio, the country is yet to get real dividends from the radio sub-sector. With hundreds of radio stations across the country, one would have expected marked variations in programming and content. Sadly, the similarity in sound, content and programming is so striking that it is as if Uganda has just “one radio station” with different broadcasting channels in different parts of the country.

The sound and programming of Uganda’s first two FM radio stations, Sanyu FM and Capital Radio, have been replicated and/or adapted by literally all FM radio stations in Uganda. For instance, since radio stations in Kampala dedicate time for traffic or rush-hour programmes, many radio stations in rural centres with literally negligible traffic have, amazingly, hours of so-called drive-shows.

In the early days of the FM radio industry, the regulator used to license community radio stations separately from commercial radio stations. The import was that community radio stations would operate uniquely from commercial and public and/or state radio stations. Unfortunately, those who acquired community radio licenses instead of doing typical community radio went commercial; to the extent that you could not differentiate between community and commercial radio stations.

The licensing regime has since changed with the regulator now using distance from Kampala to determine licensing fees. As a consequence, radio stations in and around Kampala pay more than those 200 kilometers from Kampala which also pay more than those over 300 kilometers from Kampala.

While UCC, as a regulator, is doing a good job in many respects, it has failed to develop, promote and deepen community radio in Uganda. Many of the plus-or-minus 300 radio stations should have been community radio stations in a typical sense. That way, we would be getting more from the radio sub-sector than we are presently.

Riding on the emergence and success of bizindalo, UCC should have sensed the need to engage them and explore how to turn them into community radios instead of raiding and confiscating their equipment. This could have led to, for example, coming out with a licensing regime for bizindalo as well as policies and regulations for their operations.

Alternatively, the bizindalo could be transformed into operators of cheap low-power radio stations that cover just a few kilometers. With digital migration, low-power, low-range radio stations can be licensed to operate in localized areas alongside the long-range ones. That way, the bizindalo would keep filling the gap left by “mainstream” radio stations but in a more organized and regulated manner.

Moreover, it would mean more revenues thanks to the increased number of community radio stations. A typical kazindalo employs one or two people; community radio employs an estimated minimum of five people. Just imagine how many people would be employed in the bizindalo radio sub-sector alone.

Another opportunity missed is organizing the bizindalo into a platform that government, civil society and local people could use for community engagements. One of the biggest challenges in development is how to reach those in the last mile with crucial information.

Through such a platform it would have also become easy to build the capacity of the operators and impart some basic broadcasting knowledge, skills, practices, attitudes and ethos so that they appreciate the important role they are playing and the responsibility that comes with it.

Perhaps more importantly, they could be transformed into community radio stations owned by the very communities they serve. With Local Council 1 elections around the corner, what an opportunity UCC could have seized to demonstrate how communities can actually start owning and running their own radio stations.

The relevance of radio to the people is more pronounced in West and Central Africa because the policy makers realized much early the crucial role they play. It is not uncommon to see radio stations operated in kiosks. Early in the morning, the equipment, usually kept with the village chairman, is assembled, operated and then returned for safe keeping.

Community radios tend to be the only sources of alternative news and information. Decision makers and opinion formers who use them talk with, not at, the public. In the areas where they operate, community radios (read bizindalo) provide crucial life-saving information and the audiences pay attention especially because of the proximity and relevance of the messages and information disseminated. Community radios tend to have active listeners and allow communities to speak for themselves.

While radio stations are doing what they are doing, it is also true that they are not being relevant to sections of the population, particularly those at the base-of-the-pyramid. Radio stations are costly for many ordinary Ugandans. The minimum for a one-time personal announcement is UGX10,000.

As an example, without a kazindalo nearby, a resident of Abayita Ababiri in Entebbe who wants to send a personal announcement to residents of Greater Entebbe area has to travel to, say Central Broadcasting Service in Mengo, Kampala, to place the announcement.

S/he, in addition to the cost of the announcement, has to also factor in transport and other incidentals, meaning for the one-off announcement s/he needs at least Sh20,000. Via a kazindalo, s/he would most likely get 10-time announcement plus some bonus. The saved Sh10,000 could be used to buy food for the family, provide transport for children going to school or inject in a roadside business.

Ugandan radio professionals have created an exclusive club of sorts and do not have real connections with the audiences. Radio personalities have become so-called celebs drunk with “popularity”. Creativity and innovation is simply lacking, and that also explains why the sound of the Ugandan radio is the “same”.

The cultural connection between radio and the audiences is either weak or non-existent. The Ugandan radio is highly “westernized” in content, programming and style. Yet community radio, as typified by the bizindalo, has strong links with the cultural values of most Ugandans.

What’s more? The wide highly heterogeneous audience and broad programming of a long-range radio station excludes many people, especially those in “inner cities”, local communities and particularly those at the base-of-the-pyramid.

Writing in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, Volume 16, Issue 1 of 2003, Associate Professor Aaron Mushengyezi of Makerere University, argued that communication should rhyme with the culture of the targets in order to achieve the desired results.

In the article titled “Rethinking Indigenous Media: Rituals, ‘Talking’ Drums and Orality as Forms of Public Communication in Uganda”, Mushengyezi wrote thus: “African governments and their development partners often tend to extrapolate communication models from the developed world and apply them wholesale in local environments in Africa that are quite unique”.

According to Mushengyezi, “such communication strategies often do not impact on the rural masses for which they are meant because they are not ‘contextualized’ to the local settings, cultural dialectics and worldview of the people”.

The kazindalo is testimony to how modern forms of communication can be culturally contextualized. Unlike in olden times when the crier traversed the entire village shouting his message, the modern village crier now uses a megaphone or kazindalo. UCC should have appreciated this transformation and deepened it instead of using brute force like shown on television.

Like Mushengyezi notes, communication policy makers and planners should not overlook the significant role indigenous forms such as popular theatre, drumming, village criers, storytellers, orators, etc., have played – and continue to play – in communication among rural, poor communities. Instead of banning bizindalo the UCC should have engaged and transformed them. I am sure they have their side of the story too.

My argument also does not mean modern mass media are necessarily ineffective but rather that there is a need for a media mix in order to reach the greatest number, particularly those at the-base-of-the-pyramid and in rural settings.

Health communicators are realizing that using the megaphone (kazindalo), building on the village crier cultural concept, is successful in targeted rural communities because it strikes a chord with the communities’ traditional means of communication. Mixing it with other communication channels has the effect of reaching the targets and having impact especially in the last mile.

A non-profit human development organization last year released a report on a programme it is implementing – The Communication for Healthy Communities (CHC) – funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The programme uses strengthened health communications to help reduce high national rates of HIV infection, total fertility, maternal and child mortality, malnutrition, malaria and tuberculosis (TB) by increasing the adoption of healthy behaviours and uptake of critical health services.

The report titled “A 360 Degree Approach to Social and Behavior Change Communication” found out that culture, social norms, and networks all influence people’s behaviors. The report recommends that structural, cultural and other elements need to be addressed to change the status quo because people make meaning of information in their own context.

It should also be noted that literally all Ugandan radios are controlled by big businesses, individuals and organizations who are motivated by political and economic interests rather than social issues, or localized community problems, issues and needs (PINs).

The bizindalo have defied the “radio rule book” and proved that the mainstream radio stations are not yet “reaching everyone”. They provide a vital counterbalance to the increasing concentration of the media in the hands of a few people and institutions.

The UCC, therefore, needs to rethink its ban on bizindalo and instead of banning them it should engage the operators, the communities they serve, media experts, academics, other government agencies and other relevant stakeholders in order to transform the bizindalo “radio” segment.

The government also needs to intervene and ensure UCC not only suspends the ban but also engages the operators and local leaders on how to sanitize the bizindalo “radio broadcasting sub-sector”.

The local communities should also add their voice by offering evidence of how they are benefiting from the bizindalo compared to mainstream radio stations and/or media.

The bizindalo operators need to mobilise and form themselves into a one-platform-one-voice force that meaningfully engages UCC, government, parliament and other stakeholders with the aim of streamlining bizindalo operations.

If the UCC harnessed the bizandalo, Uganda would be creating, promoting and developing yet another “typically Ugandan product”, like the Rolex!

By summarily banning the bizindalo the UCC has missed a great opportunity to develop and promote community radios in Uganda. True the bizindalo in their current form are a little bit “crude and disorganised” but that should be looked at as an opportunity rather than a problem.

David Rupiny is a journalist with Uganda Radio Network; a student of Public Policy and Governance at Uganda Management Institute; and founder of Rainbow Community Knowledge Centre in Nebbi, West Nile. [email protected]

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