Remembering the Lost Art of Radio Theatre

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.


13 thoughts on “Remembering the Lost Art of Radio Theatre


  2. Radio theatre is indeed amazing art. It remains an ingenious piece of creativity that is in itself a powerful visual force in a psychological facet. I grew up on a staple diet of radio theatre both form BBC and our own KBC. I religiously tuned up my father’s old stereo, and the love of it sent me into a short stint as a radio theatre actor-I used to combine stage theatre and the former, and it was fulfilling. But let’s face it, the great art is on it’s death bed. Not only in Kenya-perhaps the better part of the world. Not unless we rise up and take heed to the spirit of Thespis that used to haunt us. Radio drama has continued to ‘die’ from the airwaves and by 2006 for instance, the terrestrial radio in the US had already confined itself to broadcasting radio drama from the archives-long, old recorded pieces.

    Of course the biggest setback to our good old radio programming is the entry of visual media. When John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer invented the world’s first working television system in Hastings, England in 1923, the radio was long in existence, but televised signal stretched the sense of sight beyond its natural limits while at the same time transmitting sound associated with the scene. This naturally excited the audience more than the audio signal did. And the trend has taken even a greater root in our contemporary society.

    But I still refuse to imagine that today’s TV drama can be more powerful as the creative vocal force behind well-knit radio play masterpieces. Thing of the room a radio play allows the listener to put an imagination of their liking to a particular scene. The visual media will feed you with the whole picture therefore rendering one more of a ‘controlled’ audience person. The radio is therefore more effective in provoking the listener to form imagination of their choice and attach an emotion of their liking to it.

    I have heard my hand on Radio, TV and Film but I’d encourage us (we the producers-and it doesn’t matter whether we are in TV or radio) to borrow a leaf from United Kingdom. BBC has kept the radio drama tradition to-date by producing and transmitting new radio plays in their hundreds. Radio 4 for instance airs daily afternoon plays, on Friday evenings, Saturdays and they even have Sunday classics! Radio 3 has a special slot reserved for ‘The Wire’-experimental drama. BBC radio 7 is trying too, although it broadcasts radio plays from the last decade. The huge loyal following of these radio plays can attest to the fact that radio drama is still relevant in our contemporary society. Let’s roll our sleeves and rub the match stick once again.

  3. It is such a stimulating post. You accurately trace the demise of Radio theatre to the proliferation of FM stations and attendant competition. Once the promise of a free media (as provided by the new constitution)becomes a reality radio theatre would truly be a portent tool for social transformation; a weapon through which societal/national values and principles can be protected. I think while i buy into the idea that KBC should read from the front in revamping the genre, i would suggest that its proponents seek to establish a radio station to exclusively deal with it. It is not very difficult you know, inspite of the ‘damnable cost’

  4. Nadhani jukumu ni letu sisi. Ukweli wa mambo ni kwamba radio za jamii,pamoja na hizi za lugha za makabila yetu ndizo zenye uwezo wa kuleta mwamko mpya endapo zitazingatia umuhimu wa kuirudisha tasnia hii kama msingi wa elimu jamii na elimu umma.

  5. kim twaomba ma producer wajitokezee warudishe hii tasnia hewani maaanake kuna wasanii kibao wengi sana ambao wapo tayari kufanya hii kazi nasi waelekezi tutawasaidia kuboresha kazi yao.kwa ku fanya hivi tutakua tuna kuza vipaji na pia kuwapa kazi wengi wasio na bahati ya kisanaa..naona kwangu tasnia hii yaweza kua bora zaidi..lakini pia tujiulize nini kafanya uigizaji redioni kufa?????

  6. muhando you are spot on…see i performed some radio theatre plays in the 90s and hell it was to get my pay it could take as much as 3 months to get paid..the issue of financers is paramount but equally we can fail to rope in writers and producers who are well conversant with this genre thats the core..personally i wont hesitate to return as long as all is in based in dar es salaam and here they dont pay much but suprisingly its a hit!!!!

  7. I agree with you guys– Muhando and Otieno. I was telling someone who was a bit skeptical on radio theatre that Kenyans still need to hear a good story and they will follow the intrigues of a good story which gives radio theatre some hope. The creators need to be as creative as possible and there will be room.

  8. In response to Ingolo wa Keya,KBC still airs the famed radio theatre.I also agree that whoever embraces drama in any form,as a medium of product promotiom stands to gain a lot of mileage because rather than state facts,drama entertains as it informs.Many developed countries still embrace radio theatre &hail it as a powerful medium of communication. I work for both Deustche Welle &KBC in the production of radio drama &I can tell you, as compared to other countries,radio theatre has been neglected in Kenya,while it is yet one of the most effective ways to communicate.Even thespians &writers have yet ignored it &I think this is due to the fact that,in Kenya,it does not pay to be an actor,let alone a radio actor.
    That said,there’s need to consolidate those who share a love for this,financiers &perfomers alike, to bring their heads together &revive this powerful way of reaching the masses

  9. Great post! I personally stopped listening to much of radio when the current FM stations started blossoming, they all offer the same thing. I have always argued that there is indeed a lot of creativity that can be brought on board, such as radio theatre, instead of the endless banter and same music that they spew at you daily. A few months ago, one of the radio stations told us that they could not take in our 30 minutes drama series unless they edited it into clips of 3 to 5 mins! We politely declined

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