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What happened to radio dramas?

Jimmy Ssemanda (R), John Bosco Mukiibi (C) & Michael Kisenyi in 2002

Growing up in an era where TV was a luxury, radio was such a big tool of communication.

At that time, there was only one TV station, which operated for barely six hours. There were only two known newspapers that were inaccessible, and let’s face it, only bits of the country had electricity. Almost everything started and ended on Radio Uganda, the only radio station then.

The government radio, which was started in 1963 together with the Uganda Television, had to cater for everyone’s needs; music, news, company adverts and death announcements. And so were the radio dramas that kept Ugandans glued to the station.

There was a vast repertoire of them, among which was Muduuma Kwekwafe, Lugejja, Obwavu Musolo starring the late Dan Zirimwenya, and Muserebende starring Kalailai, Sungula and Kadiidi, who was loved for his infectious smile.

At the time, these plays and many more were known by most Ugandans because there was only one radio. Even with the arrival of FM stations in the 90s, Radio Uganda still enjoyed its niche of radio dramas – as the first three stations: Sanyu, Capital and CBS were yet to prove their power. Yes CBS had Kaliisoliiso, but it was more of a satire of sorts.

It is the arrival of Radio Simba with Kooti Lutikko in 1999 that revolutionalised radio dramas in Uganda. A product of a group of eight Makerere University graduates of Music, Dance and Drama (MDD), Kooti Lutikko won people’s hearts presenting political, social and economic issues of the day through a court setting.

Starring Jimmy Ssemanda as Muzei Mutini, John Bosco Mukiibi as Kaswigiri, Michael Kisenyi (now with Akaboozi) as Kasambula, Evans Walusimbi as Luboyera, Henry Mpinga Ssempijja (now with CBS), Hadijjah Kinobe (now with CBS), Hope Turyasingura (RIP) and Herbert Kabanda (now with Bukedde radio), it was a people’s court that dramatised even serious cases before courts of law.

The one-hour drama that aired between 9pm and 10pm would set the background to the conflict, get to hear from both the accuser and the accused before opening it to the listeners, who would assume the role of lawyers. The last caller would pass the judgment and fine the loser.

Kooti Lutikko became so popular that it was emulated by other radio stations. According to Ssemanda, who is currently Radio Simba’s creative director, the drama was copied by almost all Luganda radio stations, including CBS, which started Akiika Embuga in 2000.

Others, according to Ssemanda, went short versions of the drama where they would end up by posing a question “Ki Ekikunyiizizza?”

“You evaluate the strength of a radio programme by the number of copycats it gets,” Ssemanda says.
“We stopped airing Kooti Lutikko in 2006 but because of its popularity, it is one of the highly- demanded shows to-date.”

Ssemanda, who was one of the script writers together with Mukiibi under the guidance of Alex Mukulu, the station creative director at the time, says they shelved the drama because the dynamics of the market had changed.

“In the beginning, people were loyal and would listen to one radio station, but they started listening to particular programmes on different radios,” Ssemanda notes.

So, it became increasingly hard to keep listeners tuned in to a one-hour radio drama. The new trend demanded short programmes, which they went for. But above all, it was costly and labour-intensive to produce such a long drama daily, Ssemanda says.

“Writing a script for a one-hour show isn’t a simple task. You see, writing a 15-minute radio drama takes a good writer four to six hours – about eight handwritten pages,” Ssemanda notes.

“You would have a riot in the city in the morning, and people would expect it to be the drama of the day.”

John Bosco Mukiibi (L) receives a gift from Gordon Wavamunno at the radio station’s end-of-year party at Club Silk in 2005

As a result, Ssemanda says, there was need for the station to upgrade to short bits of drama that are more suitable to the time available to listeners. This gave rise to Bonna Baseke, which is a one-minute drama that is spread across the day at different intervals.

Julius Lugaaya, a radio critic who has featured in one of the radios dramas, says commercialism has won over radios – in that radio today find it easy to play music all the time than hiring a cast to do a production.

Theatre Factory’s Philip Luswata, who has written a number of radio plays for stations in South Sudan, says radio dramas have died because radios are today run by “young boys” who are more profit-oriented.

He says that unlike before when radios had trained content managers, today, the story is different. Some radios don’t even have content managers. This has resulted in poor programming with no creativity at all as every station resorts to playing music as the easiest way out.

Of recent, there has been growing concern over the declining standards in radio programming. Luswata attributes this to the ‘gamblers’, who have taken over radio, and working towards filling up the time slots than have well-thought programmes.

“Many of these guys have failed to distinguish themselves from the crowd. They have failed to develop a niche for themselves,” Luswata says.
Joseph Ssemukuye, once a big fan of Kooti Lutikko, blames the death of radio dramas on Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), which has failed to play its role of enforcing laws on local content.

“If the body can order TV to have 70 per cent local content, it would be wise if they reined in audio too,” Ssemukuye says.
“We have radio stations that don’t even have a news bulletin of five minutes, and worse still, all the music they play is foreign.”

Ssemukuye argues that if UCC could demand that radios broadcast 40 per cent local content, dramas would find their way back on radio.

Many theories suggest that radio dramas may have been failed by the emergence of TV and social media. However, Lugaaya and Luswata dismiss the claim.

“More Ugandans have access to radio than TV. Almost all handsets can grab at least ten stations, and no one can watch TV while they are in traffic,” Luswata says.

Much as TV applications for android phones have been released, Luswata notes that indeed very few people ever use them since internet is not really cheap.

A radio producer that requested anonymity notes that radio today is highly run by accountants, who are more concerned with how the station bank account turns out at the end of the month. They are afraid of taking risks or innovating new things because such new ideas take time to be appreciated and for them that is losing money.

Lugaaya says the few radio dramas left are funded by nongovernmental organizations. Well, CBS has kept its Akiika Embuga running 15 years down the road, but Banadda Twegande, which was added to its drama list, was a brainchild of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Uganda Population Secretariat.

Started in 2005, Banadda Twegande is a serialized drama, addressing population issues and reproductive health amongst adolescents. Though UNFPA only funded the initial episodes of the drama for the first three years, CBS has kept the production on air.

“The company decided that the play was too good to be buried like the likes of Rock Point 256 that ended once donor funding was cut off,” explains Martin Oscar Kintu.

L-R: Jimmy Ssemanda, with a colleague Paul Kiwa Katama, who was a sports presenter, at Kiwatule Recreational Centre in 2003

Echoing Luswata’s views, Kintu says that they have managed to sustain their plays because they understand the audience they serve.

“We serve a Luganda-speaking audience or an audience that loves listening to plays in Luganda. So, the language used is in sync with the intended audience,” Kintu says, adding that other radio stations that failed to sustain their dramas did not understand the basics.

“Some radio stations simply tried to emulate what we were doing but they did not have the know-how. They failed to sustain them because they did not know the principles of a good radio play,” he adds.

Their winning formula, Kintu says, lies in the fact that the actors are actually interested in the dramas. CBS is also lucky to have employees like Kato Lubwama and Abbey Mukiibi who have backgrounds in drama.

“Sometimes they even act when they know that they are not going to be paid because they are simply people who really love drama, and that has kept us going,” he says.

Kintu says that radio dramas attract big audiences.

“The biggest portion of CBS’ audience is attracted by the dramas, which is why the company funds the dramas itself,” Kintu says.

He notes that there is a lot of untapped ground as far as radio broadcasting is concerned, though, it can only take a brave person to take on the challenge.

But whether radios will revive dramas or not, audio dramas have since found a new home on Sound Cloud, with majority of their actors like Jaffer Amin, Esther Tebandekke, Anne Kansiime and Veronica Tindi capitalizing on stage and TV.

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