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Radio Simba: How 1998 World Cup laid groundwork for station

Radio Simba may not have pioneered football commentary - that honour belongs to Radio Uganda - but a fortuitous timing in 1998 helped catapult the new FM into the mainstream, writes HASSAN BADRU ZZIWA.

The early success of FM stations in the mid-nineties triggered a frantic scramble for frequencies. Around February 1998, I was interviewing Gordon Wavamunno at his Spear Motors headquarters in Nakawa when he hinted on a joint effort to start a radio station.

Alex Mukulu in studio

Not being one to be left out, he had partnered with the Sekalala family [in particular Aga Sekalala Jr] to have a radio in place. Two months later, the radio equipment arrived but Wavamunno and Sekalala faced the challenge of assembling a team to take radio by storm. That is when they identified Alex Mukulu to spearhead the headhunting process since he was well-versed with the industry as an artiste, producer as well as a presenter.

These developments had been kept under wraps from the media to avoid preempting their strategy. During the preparations, Sekalala came up with the name Radio Simba while Mukulu coined the slogan Ffe Mwe, Mwe Ffe as a way of identifying with the listeners.

STRONG FOUNDATION

By May, the station had acquired the 97.3 frequency as well as establish its offices in Bukoto. The sole remaining challenge left was entering the industry with a bang. Wavamunno as chairman, Sekalala became managing director while Mukulu the creative director. Isaac Mulindwa Jr, who had just returned from the US, handled the sales.

Presenters of Radio Simba’s flagship programme Binsangawano. (L-R) Leila Kalanzi, Andrew Benon Kibuuka, Charles James Senkubuge, Charles ‘Zonto’ Muvawala and Peter ‘Ndausi’ Ndaula

Meanwhile, they poached Collin Mutambo from Capital FM, who used to be known on air as Collin Mark, to become the programmes director. Management was cautious not to try and test and, instead, went for experience.

Established radio presenters such as Mike Kakande, Rev Peter Bakaluba Mukasa and Lawrence Kyagera Musisi from Radio Uganda were the first to be snapped as well as theatre giants Charles James Senkubuge and Andrew Benon Kibuuka.

The new faces were Peter ‘Ndausi’ Ndaula, Yusuf Kato ‘Kayanga’ and Fred Ibanda. In the production, renowned musician Tony Sengo came on board to handle sound and was assisted by his Big Five band mate Ekodelele Akongu.

GOING ON AIR

In May 1998, the station started testing the signal but had to wait until June 15, 1998 to start relaying programmes. In order to start in a big way, Simba targeted the 1998 World Cup which was held in France from June 10.

However, by the time Brazil took on Scotland in the opening game, the station was not ready due to technical problems and had to wait until July 15, 1998 when they relayed the Germany versus USA game.

What made Simba’s commentary stand out was the dramatization that had never been heard before. Led by Mukulu as the lead commentator alongside Ndausi, Kato Kayanga and Chiwa, they created a tension-packed movie-like atmosphere that gripped listeners. Oftentimes, the commentators would turn against each other on contentious issues and at times openly took sides.

George Mulindwa presented the first reggae show on Radio Simba

This spiced commentary quickly spread to other stations but Simba stood out because they were the originators. With each passing day, the Simba commentary gained momentum and thus huge listenership. The month-long duration of the World Cup helped the station to organize itself before starting regular programming.

The post-World Cup season would test Simba’s real mettle. In keeping with the unconventional style of presenting, the station adopted to dramatize shows as much as they could.  

The station designed its programmes by emphasizing a lot of humour as well as feedback from listeners. That perhaps explains why many of the station’s original crew had a background in theatre or comedy and music. Connie Nalugwa and Winnie Namuwonge kicked off the day with early morning show Maliiri Special from 5am to 6:30am before Fred Ibanda’s Nawankya. Ibanda had the special talent of mimicking local languages.

However, the show didn’t last long and was replaced with Binsangawano which featured Senkubuge, Ndausi, Muvawala and Kibuuka. It soon became one of the hottest shows. At lunch time, Juliet Sessanga, another Big Five member, came up with her Musanyusa before Kakande and Dembe Herbert came on air with the afternoon show.

Mukulu came in at 5pm with Kawooza Bazaana, which he later changed to Agawano Newali. A political talk show Olutindo would start at 8pm in which Bakaluba Mukasa hosted politicians to debate on topical issues.

Kooti Lutikko, a drama-filled show aimed at striking a balance between two evenly-matched contentious issues, followed at 9pm. The skit used to be done by mainly upcoming actors led by Jimmy ‘Jimex’ Semanda and John Bosco Mukiibi. They were later joined by Martin Oscar Kintu and Hadijah Kinobe (both now at CBS) and Michael Kisenyi (now at Akaboozi Ku Bbiri).

Esther Tina Bwango would wind up the day with Muwumuza. Her sweet voice pulled many listeners, especially men. The arrival of journalists like Kisuule Magala Katende, Joshua Kyalimpa, Abu Ssemwogerere and later Peter Kibazo beefed up the editorial team. Veteran Francis Kyeyune arrived a few months later to energize the sports commentary

Ali Ndaula Wowoto, Kisule Waguma, Denis Katongole ‘Omutongole’, Betty Katana, Moses Nsubuga, Joseph Mbazira, Mujuni aka Amooti and Sam Gombya also came on board.

The big staff helped Simba to be more creative with one of the biggest fan base. The station cemented its fast rise in 1999 with the show Ekiggunda, which attracted thousands to Nakivubo stadium. They never looked back. More interactive programmes like Engule ya Simba further endeared it to the listeners.

By 2004, Simba had solidified its position among the mainstream stations and has never looked back since. At the moment, Mutambo is the managing director and the station plans to celebrate 18 years on September 4, 2016 at Kavumba recreation centre.

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