Zeitgeister On Air Radio Around the World #2 with John Masuku
John Masuku has been a radio broadcaster in Zimbabwe for more than 40 years. And he has experienced many changes in his country’s radio scene over the decades. He talks to Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson about the turbulent times during Zimbabwe’s independence movement, and about the huge importance radio came to have in his country.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Welcome to Radio Around the World, brought to you by Goethe-Institut. I’m your host, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson of Common Ground Berlin. Africa is a place where radio is still a, if not the primary communication tool, because it’s tough to find decent internet on the continent. Even we experienced African internet difficulties and ended up having to postpone our interview with veteran broadcaster John Masuku because of the terrible connection in the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital. John, who is a media consultant, was UNESCO’s campaign coordinator for World Radio Day earlier this year. I asked the 67-year-old what role radio played in his early life.
John Masuku: It was very important. I grew up in a radio family. My father worked at a broadcasting station – the then South Rhodesia Broadcasting Cooperation, which became the Rhodesia Broadcasting Cooperation and then later, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation. He was not an announcer. He was a non-microphone member of staff, as a commissioner. But he brought a lot of stories about radio. And he generally loved to open the radio for us and would listen to many programs: News, bulletins, book reading, dramas, music shows, storytelling, you know, all those programs. And back then, he would come home and tell us about these personalities whom we heard on radio. And then tell us about what that person is like in day-to-day life because he worked with them. And I also had two uncles, who were radio broadcasters, my father’s young brothers. Again, they inspired me in particular to be a broadcaster, and they did a variety of programs. And when I joined in 1974, it was like I was following in their footsteps.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Now, radio was segregated back then. I mean, there was black radio and there was white radio, just like there was segregation in society.
John Masuku: Yes, Rhodesia was a colony until 1980, a colony of the British. But of course, back in 1965, a party in then Rhodesia, unilaterally declared independence from the UK. They felt that the British were getting closer to the African nationalists in granting their independence, like what was happening in other neighboring countries. So they broke away and they sort of stuck to a white supremacist type of government, where most of the things were separated between blacks and whites. So that happened again in radio, whereby you had the general service, which was also called the European service. And it was only broadcasting in English and all the announcers who worked there were English speaking and all white. And then on the African service, the management was white, but all the announcers were black, broadcasting in the local black languages. So that was the structure at that time until our independence in 1980.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So then when you went into radio, were you working for a black radio station or network?
John Masuku: I was working for the African service of the Rhodesia broadcasting corporation, which was broadcasting programs for blacks. But like I said, our management was white. Those people who held senior positions, even at the African service, the director was white, the assistant director was white and the secretaries of staff were white. We had also a few technical operators who were white and then others were black and then the majority of the announcers were black. At one time, they also had white people who could speak local languages. Also broadcasting on the channel where [unintelligible] we used to do women’s programs until they employed the black women. So yes, I worked for the African service, which was dominantly black in terms of programming. Although there were also some English programs, which we broadcast, but the main programs were in the local languages of Shona and Develet.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So what role did radio play in Zimbabwe’s fight for independence?
John Masuku: Radio played a very, very important role in the fight for independence. Luckily radio avoided a lot of programs about nationalism or [the] mention[ing] of those who were fighting to change the system, who were fighting for black majority rule. Do they Zimbabweans or neighboring South Africa? For instance, many people did not know that was a person called Nelson Mandela, who was languishing in jail because he was hardly mentioned in most broadcasts. So much that even broadcasters like myself knew very, very little about him. So that was locally and there were also programs that were propaganda programs produced by the Ministry of Information, which would have discussions and interviews just to discourage people from supporting those who were fighting in the push, who they called terrorists. So that was the situation inside the country, but those who were running the nationalist movements set up radio stations in different parts of the world and the world supported the nationalist movements of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique by providing frequencies on shortwave and medium wave for them to broadcast programs that would be listened to inside their countries. So in Zimbabwe, you had a radio station in Russia, you know, run by the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union led by Joshua Nkomo, which people would listen to in many parts of Zimbabwe on shortwave coming out very clearly. Then you had one running from Ethiopia again, run by Zimbabweans who were now in exile broadcasting into the country about the message of mobilizing, to fight the regime that was ruling them. Then Tanzania again gave transmitters to the liberation movement to do the same. But as the war intensified after the mid-70s, most of the broadcasts were coming now from Lusaka, neighboring Lusaka in Zambia from the ZAPU side [e.g. Zimbabwe African People’s Union] and then from Mozambique in Maputo from the ZANU side [e.g. Zimbabwe African National Union]. Those mobilized a lot of people who crossed en mass to join the liberation war across the border. So, radio played a very, very important role. And those people by the way were running those stations, particularly those of ZANU who later won the elections, as the ones who came back home to run radio and television and the media in Zimbabwe. And those people who were outside running radio, especially from Maputo and from Lusaka, Zambia, got their training from the Yugoslavs and also the Germans, especially the GDR, the German Democratic Republic, which then was led by Erich Honnecker and so forth. They got that kind of moral support, and these are the guys who then came to transform radio in Zimbabwe.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: You mentioned the GDR’s help with radio during the fight for independence, John. But has Germany been involved with radio in Zimbabwe in other ways?
John Masuku: Right. I have to mention that the Germans through its foundations played important roles – technically in bringing equipment, recording equipment, setting up studios, training announcers. I’m a product of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, because after television news, I moved to Radio 4, which had lots of support from the Germans. We had so many German trainers coming into Zimbabwe, with German broadcast as being seconded to work with us and we formed committees that even travelled to other countries. supported by the Germans in order to enhance our broadcasting. I trained at the Deutsche Welle after BBC, I did my radio management at the Deutsche Welle – and so many people were trained in Germany. So both Germany, the West Germany and the GDR before, the two were joined together. And even the Goethe-Institut that we are talking about in the 80 years of independence, we had some relationship where we were even used to record some of their content in order to broadcast it on Radio 4 because the Germans became very interested in Radio 4, which they were supporting through the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: We’ve discussed how powerful radio is in Africa. [Are] our governments helping or hurting radio on the African continent?
John Masuku: Well, they do help the development of radio, the installation of transmitters. Like in Zimbabwe, they have opened up the Airwaves, we now have private radio stations, we now have community radio stations. Just the last week I was going around the country and I was able to pick most of the community radio stations very, very clearly. In fact, even the national radio stations that belong to ZBC and those that belong to Simplepa. So, yeah, and the ZBC ones and the Simplepa ones are a government stations and then we have the private ones that…not many stay in the sense of the word private but they also have a wide reach around the country. But of course, government is a world on the public media. The public media is not all that free, most of the messages are pro-government, very little dissenting voices there. So, that’s where their involvement becomes more pronounced. Like right now during the election season, most of the sports announcements, most of the promotions, most of the jingles are those of the ruling party. Very rarely would you hear those of the opposition parties. So, that way they’ve got the good as far as I can see.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: You were UNESCO’s international campaign coordinator for World Radio Day this year. The theme was radio and peace, especially the role independent radio plays in conflict resolution. Can you give me an example of how radio has helped bring peace or resolve conflicts?
John Masuku: Yes, radio has played a very pivotal role in that area by bringing different voices together to talk peace, bringing messages of peace. They may not be mentioned specifically as peace, but the nature and the way they are coined, the way they are put together is in such a way that different people who otherwise can help each other or can do harm to each other, are brought together to discuss how they can live in harmony. Radio also brings examples of how other nations and how other communities have lived peacefully, they have had peaceful coexistence. And by sharing such discussions, such messages on radio, people learn that it is not always necessary to be at each other’s throat. And also, messages are generally about peace – especially with us here in Zimbabwe, like I said, in election season, that is preached that when you differ, it’s not necessary to differ physically by fighting. You can differ in opinions, but that should not lead to fights. And different people from different nationalities also come and share their experience about elections. Again, on radio, which is a motivator to Zimbabweans who will be listening that they can promote peace. Even those tribes within the country who are not all that close, they are brought closer to each other through different radio programs where they also hear about stories from other countries how they peacefully coexisted. And also giving them a bit of history that we were once one, there are other things that may have divided us along the way, but we are one, even if we now speak different languages. And so forth. So, radio plays that important role because it can do so in different languages. It can do so in the language of those people who cannot even read and write and they can enjoy even the music that is played on radio, playing music that is a positive message again, it contributes towards peace.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Recent studies show that radio is still more important to people in Africa than the internet. Why is that?
John Masuku: Yes, it’s because of connectivity. Yesterday, you and I and someone in the studio were joking about how difficult it was for me in Harari connected to you. What more 30 kilometers outside Harari? That is the problem. We have some areas, for many years, which have never received the internet signal – ever since it started, they have not received it. But of course, even radio had challenges in the past that it should not be received until they introduced community radio. But here, coming to the internet, the main problem is connectivity. It is very, very difficult, and also very expensive, to listen to radio on the internet. It becomes expensive. So even if you are sending a voice note or you are sending a video, people would warn you against that. No, please don’t send me that because it means they have to buy bandwidth and then download that, they don’t have enough money. So it’s still very expensive for the ordinary person in Africa to be able to have that luxury. Normally, when I am in Europe, I am just being on the internet on high speed internet all the time. So that is the major problem.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: There are so many languages spoken in Africa. How do you overcome that challenge to make sure radio reaches a wide enough audience?
John Masuku: Well, fortunately, we have 16 official languages which is not as much as compared to other African countries. So there are programs, news bulletins in those languages and I think by and large that is still manageable in terms of scheduling the different programs for those language groups. But they become more clearly focused when they are on the local commercial or on the community radio stations because they will be focusing on a region or on a community.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: That was John Masuku, whom we reached at his home in Harari, Zimbabwe. I’m Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson of Common Ground Berlin and thank you for listening.
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