Kenya's Royal Media Services Group Rides Vernacular Radio Growth

Posted by: admin on Wed, 2010-07-07 15:34

By Dinfin Mulupi

(Nairobi, Kenya)--In a remote village in Bungoma in Kenya’s Western Province, Cosmas Simiyu Wafukho listens to the radio as he tends to his farm. He inspects the progress of his maize plantation while laughing at jokes and singing along to music played on the Luhya-language Mulembe FM station.

The radio plays constantly from under the shade of a nearby tree. To the illiterate Wafukho and his age mates (he is in is 40s), vernacular radio stations offer an opportunity to keep up with what is happening around the country as well as send the occasional salaams [greetings] by radio to family and friends.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometers away, a group of youthful 20-something hawkers on the outskirts of Nairobi listen to Inooro FM, a Kikuyu station, as they implore passersby to purchase their assorted goods for sale. Unlike Wafukho, these street salesmen have had some education and are literate.

The two scenes underline the success of vernacular radio stations in attracting strong listenership among many elements of Kenyan society. Vernacular radio stations have become popular among both urban and rural listeners. According to a survey published last year by Consumer Insight, two vernacular outlets -- Inooro FM and Mulembe  FM -- ranked among the top 10 stations in the country in terms of listenership.

Development organizations planning communication programs in Kenya would also do well to consider the vernacular network as a conduit for reaching people, particularly in rural areas.

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The history of vernacular stations in Kenya dates back to 1999, with the launch of Kameme 101.1 FM, a community radio station that broadcasts in Kikuyu. The majority of the country’s 90-plus radio stations now broadcast in vernacular languages.

Royal Media Services Group, has carved out a particular niche in this area. The company began in 1999 with its flagship station, the very popular Radio Citizen, which transmits in Kenya’s national language Swahili and targets the “common man.” The group’s current stable of 11 stations includes nine vernacular outlets: Inooro (Kikuyu),  Ramogi (Luo), Mulembe (Luhya), Musyi (Kamba), Muuga (Meru), Chamgei (Kalenjin ), Egesa (Kisii),  Wimwaro (Embu) and Bahari FM (Swahili and Mijikenda) .

According to information posted on its website, Royal Media Services Group is planning to unveil more stations as wells as establish a Pan–African vernacular footprint. Officials from the media house could not be reached to elaborate on the foreign expansion plans. Royal Media Services (popularly refereed to as RMS) is owned by media mogul S.K Macharia, who is also the chairman of the Kenya Media Owners Association.

Advertisers Buy Vernacular
The increasing popularity of vernacular radio has caught the attention of media buyers.  Previously, advertisers focused on stations or other media segments that targeted the 5 percent of Kenyans classified as upper income and the 17 percent who constitute the middle class. But vernacular radio has widened advertisers' horizons, particularly in rural areas, prompting them to buy airtime in multiple formats.

Charles Njoroga, director general of the Communications Commission of Kenya -- the body in charge of licensing and regulating broadcasters -- said the growing number of vernacular radio stations is driven by demand from listeners. He said it all started in the early 1990s, when national broadcaster KBC Radio would air programs in different languages at different times.

“Media owners discovered there was demand for vernacular radio stations, owing to the popularity of the select programs aired in vernacular languages,” Njoroga said. 

The CCK director general dismissed concerns that the proliferation of vernacular stations indicated a failure by Kenyans to unite around common language or languages. Building a sense of national unity is a political priority in the wake of widespread post-election violence in 2008-2009 that was driven largely by ethnic divisions.

Rather, Njoroga argued that vernacular stations are a way to preserve local cultures and traditions which are being diluted by Western influences.  “Vernacular radio stations are one of the platforms to protect Kenya’s diverse languages and cultures,” he said.


Dinfin Mulupi is a journalist based in Kenya



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