Uganda Broadcasting Service (UBS) was the first radio station to be established in Uganda in 1954. It was established by the British government to accelerate colonial administration in the country.
The television branch of UBS was established the following decade in 1963, a year after Uganda attained her independence.
The two branches monopolized airwaves for about four decades. Over these years, the subject of media viability was never a serious issue since the only two broadcasting houses were state owned and all their employees were civil servants operating under the ministry of Information.
Funds running the service majorly came from government, with little income from the a few commercials running on air according to a research titled Public broadcasting in Africa series by George W. Lugalambi, a media development specialist in Uganda.
The broadcasting industry dramatically changed after the liberalization of the airwaves in 1993 which gave private entrepreneurs an opportunity to establish commercial radio and television stations. Currently, Uganda has about 250 licenced radio stations and more than 40 television stations, most privately owned.
The liberalization which was largely influenced by the structural adjustments of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, introduced new dynamics in the broadcasting industry. Media organizations and journalists had to reinvent themselves to remain viable.
This sometimes affected the quality of content available to the public. Media houses adjusted their formats from serious talk programmes to music and live chat shows that the audience preferred. Yet before, the knowledge value in a radio or television programme was as important as the audience interests.
The profit maximization motive of media owners also compelled broadcasters to neglect investigative and field-based programmes. In their 2007 study on development journalism in Uganda, Gavin Anderson and Rob Hitchins discovered that Ugandan media managers were unwilling to authorise out-of-studio expenses in order to minimize costs of production.
Prior to liberalization, the state broadcaster prioritized field-based programmes. In a 1990 study on educational broadcasting in Africa, Prof Kiwanuka Tondo revealed that the state broadcaster in Uganda aired regular field-based programmes on agriculture between the 1950s and 1980s.
As practitioners struggled to negotiate a delicate balance between economic viability and professionalism occasioned by the liberalization, a new phenomenon arrived, disrupting the entire old media order. This was the explosion of new media technology with its attendant challenges.
In a concept note for the 10th conference of the East African Communication Association (EACA), Dr. Emilly Comfort Maractho of Uganda Christian University’s journalism department aptly outlined a myriad of challenges that have emerged as a result of the rapid technological advancement.
The emerging problems for broadcast media listed by Maractho include the “elusive quest for meaningful media diversity and independence, rapid technological changes which are too costly to invest in, inadequate regulatory measures to cope with the changes, declining advertising revenue, the rise of citizen journalism and fake news, the multiplicity of social media platforms presenting challenges for news culture, poor human resource management in newsrooms, and the absence of affordable enablers like cheap internet and electricity in the region, among others.”
This already precarious situation was worsened by the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown measures. Media houses were forced to suspend all outdoor income generating activities, while advertisers either halved their advertising budgets or cancelled them altogether.
This huge revenue loss compelled media managers to lay off some employees and cut the salaries of the remaining staff. This consequently affected the quality of content produced, given that many employees were overloaded with the duties of their sacked colleagues on top of the meagre pay.
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, however more people resorted to traditional media as their main source of information regarding the spread and prevention of the pandemic. Therefore, legacy media ought to leverage on this prospect by being factual to remain viable.
In a recent article published in the Daily Monitor on 11th December 2020 under the title “social media disruption comes to radio doorstep,” Odoobo Bichachi quotes veteran journalist Timothy Kalyegira opining that with the explosion of new media that provides 24-hour silliness and light chatter, broadcast media have “no choice, even from a marketing point of view,” but to position themselves as serious channels of communication. I believe this is an important prospect that would make legacy media more viable in this new world order.
The pandemic has also forced media houses to adapt to the latest technology, which helps to cut down costs of production. Until March 2020, few media houses in Uganda had made good use of Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc.
The author is a broadcaster and journalism lecturer Uganda Christian University