It comes as a bit of shock to realise that Sanyu FM turned 15 years old on December 18.James Onen (better known as Fatboy) one of that station’s presenters puts those years in perspective when he says, “You have to remember that I am from the first generation that grew up listening to Sanyu FM when it first came on air in 1993.”
Sanyu holds quite a number of records that can never be challenged. They can successfully claim to be the first privately owned FM station not only in Uganda but in East Africa as media liberalisation swept across Africa. Sanyu FM also boasts the accolade of having launched the careers of some of the best known radio presenters and musicians.
How many people for example remember that veterans like Rasta Rob or Master Robbo started out at Sanyu FM? What about Christine Mawadri who has retreated from the limelight? RS Elvis who now seems synonymous with Radio One’s Evening Drive? Don’t burst out laughing but there was a time Emperor Orlando was behind the mic at Sanyu FM too. Ragga Dee also gave it a shot before his blossoming musical career demanded he concentrate more on it.
Capital FM and Beat FM’s love programmes might arguably be better known but Sanyu FM pioneered in this department on the Ugandan airwaves. She might be out of the country now but few female presenters have come up to rival Gloria Kamba, one of the original female FM radio stars.
Love of jazz might just be taking off in the Ugandan musical mainstream but through the late Allan ‘Cantankerous’ Mugisa, Sanyu FM introduced this genre of music way back. What about the oldies music fanatic, the late great DJ Bangi spinning away and introducing some of the greatest 1980s music to new music listeners and inspiring theme nights?
It is been an amazing 15 years and there were moments when many sceptics thought Sanyu FM might be on its last legs.
Founded in 1993 by the Katto family and first based in Naguru, Sanyu FM’s survival was threatened by the emergence of Capital FM in 1994, CBS radio in 1995, and Radio One in 1997.
1996 is a year that went down in Sanyu FM as the year of the great exodus. It was the year that nearly all the experienced Sanyu FM staff walked out to join the newer stations that promised better pay and perhaps working conditions.
It did not seem like Sanyu FM would survive when almost at a go Rasta Rob, Christine Mawadri, Gloria Kamba, Samson Bill, RS Elvis, and Yusuf E. E all quit the station, the majority ending up at the then Peter Ssematimba-controlled CBS radio. Nash Kiwanuka, now an established presenter at Sanyu FM remembers that dire time: “That was when we came in. We used to be like emergency staff and were not staff members. John Miles, Allan Kasujja and I came in at that time to fill in. That was the time also Ragga Dee and Emperor Orlando came in.”
Fatboy notes that something else significant also changed at around this time though it was not so obvious then.
“At that time Sanyu FM started to go through a transformation from club jockeys to university students like Roger Mugisha who joined around this time. This group of people were working part time in radio as they studied. They were enthusiastic about radio and easier to manage because they were educated. Their quality started to change radio and the way people listen to radio presenters as people who might have something serious to say.”
The changes also came in another form as Sanyu FM looked towards the 21st Century in terms of technology to achieve an edge on its emerging rivals. One of the victims of the change was Bangi who Sanyu’s Music Programmer Timothy Lwanga saw struggle with the changes.
“DJ Bangi had joined Sanyu FM in 1994. He used to come to the station on weekends with his turntable to play oldies music. Bangi would insist that he was playing vintage music but after some time, management demanded that he has to adapt. He was told that Sanyu FM was now a CD station and all the music should be on CDs. That’s when he hired me to transfer all his music to CD format but in 1996 he also crossed to Capital FM. He would not come back to Sanyu FM until 2004.”
Perhaps the most serious challenge to Sanyu FM’s existence came between 1999-2000 as the station struggled to stay financially afloat and was eventually sold to the Ruparelia Group of Companies headed by property mogul Sudhir Ruparelia. It was when the station moved to its present location at Crane Chambers on Kampala road and some of the voices that seem to define Sanyu FM also joined. Fatboy and Crystal Newman Kavulu joined then. Big Ben had joined in April 1998.
It was also at this time that Sanyu FM also decided to focus on the 18-40 age group of listeners as an urban radio station in a determined bid to claim a niche of the market and regain market leadership that had slipped away.
Fifteen years down the road, Sanyu FM can still rightfully claim to play, “Today’s Best Music.”