When the BBC World Service, in partnership with the British Council, launched the 12th International Radio Playwriting Competition late last year, I couldn’t help to nostalgically reflect on the days gone when radio theatre was a part and parcel of our entertainment menu. It is radio theatre that enticed me to try my hand in radio years later after college and develop a deep interest in the arts.
The programmes were often well produced and the scripts covered a whole range of issues in our society. Growing up in the tenement yard, much of the drama that was captured by the radio pieces were often real life drama for me and capturing this and dramatizing it on radio really fascinated my young mind then. The dramatization was often powerful and one often wished that the piece would not come to an end. To get you back, the producers would ensure that the drama would be broken when tension was high and hearing the signature tune ending the drama was never pleasant.
“You know, the television was not such a big thing then, so the radio was instrumental in creating vivid pictures for the listener,” Gitura Kamau, a gifted actor and scriptwriter quipped while concurring with me. “It was very personable because it’s addressing you. Again, and this is personal, the stories were everyday stories, so when they said “Till next week, when we continue with……” it was a painful experience.”
“Radio theatre elicits memories of being able to enjoy a laugh at the comedy even when alone in the house,” Ingolo wa Keya, a leading screenwriter and film director pointed out. “The good old times and being able to engage listeners from the transistor box with a long aerial; sometimes it had to be literally shaken to get reception; well they said cockroaches infested them so shaking would move them away from the speakers to enjoy in the shamba weeding maize when we were young during school holidays; on the road driving or even while riding a bicycle with a radio strapped on the bike’s frame. In total it epitomizes portability of IEC.”
Most of the artists, who were interviewed, too reminisced their days in radio with gratification. The turbulent relationship between theatre and the establishment in the first and second regimes led to the shrinking of space for thespians. While theatre never died completely, there were limited opportunities and the programmes offered most of them a chance to hone their skills.
“Frankly it is a genre that has kind of been forgotten here in Kenya,” Bobby Buluma, an actor and theatre producer noted. “Many late bloomers in art wonder what this is all about! Ben Ateku, a leading Kenyan scriptwriter who immigrated to the USA went with the skills. This is a genre that actually made some of us believe that we could act, you know acting on radio is tricky owing to the fact since no one sees you and you have to make them visualize your character and the connecting part with the listener was the best.”
Gitura Kamau on his part added that besides honing the talents of many people, radio theatre also created desires for aspiring artists and he felt that that could be the reason that our Voice-Over (VO) industry is vibrant.
“It was useful for artists and even those in the production teams,” Ingolo wa Keya said. “It sharpened their skills of writing since radio theatre requires precision in writing. For the producers, since there are no visuals to augment the story, extra detail in using natural sounds, music and sound effects etc were therefore a requisite to enhance radio drama. And therefore this enhanced their skills at producing and editing, apart from directing the recording.”
Radio theatre programmes went out of fashion following the liberalization of the airwaves that ushered new things in the Kenyan media spectrum and consumers are treated to all sort of programmes. However, it also stifled some ingenious programmes and most of the people we interviewed felt that radio theatre falls in this category.
“It ended with the advent of FM stations, Ingolo wa Keya added. “We hardly hear of it anymore and I am even not sure if the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation still runs them. Nonetheless it is a very cost effective platform for social transformation if well written and produced.”
The medium’s usefulness cannot be gainsaid since radio continues to be one of the most widely available communication tools. Transistors are now widely available in the rural and urban settings and the explosion of mobile telephony with handsets that come with radio enabled has increased accessibility. Everyone who was interviewed was convinced that radio still remains the most accessible media hence it should be given a serious approach, even though it is a business, there is a reason why radio came into being.
“It is an industry with great potential, for education, entertainment, and the works,” Gitura Kamau added. “How do we tell the mkulima about Diprothenol without shouting the brand name a thousand times? Let’s create artistic pieces that reflect his environment and conjure for him that space. He will plant better. Creating relationships even in marketing is what wins even for products.”
Ingolo on his parted noted: “Radio stations that will embrace radio theatre as part of their menu will attract a big discerning audience that will be a break from the endless hours of music and banter/promotions/gambling?. For a start KBC could set the example by reverting to serious radio. There is also need to have more producers properly trained from our institutions, who can seriously go out to produce/direct programmes (serious programmes). I may be taken for calling for a revival of the dark ages, but honestly, without serious programmes on air like radio theatre, creativity on radio has been killed.”
Besides training, proponents of radio theatre argue that more awareness for the radio managers and program producers to look at Radio Theater positively and as an ingredient in today’s radio programming. The BBC has continued this and the following at the global level is massive.
“It can be good, you see like what we hear internationally isn’t bad,” opined Waudo wa Munyasa, an actor and a founder member of Heartstrings Ensemble. “I think Capital FM tried it with Makmende— but it must be clean creative and all that, it can happen. It’s just that the guys who are charged or have the opportunities to do it mess up.