Malawi radio stations lack diversity in programming and content, a development that renders the proliferation of radio stations somewhat meaningless. In part, this owes it to the fact that most people in charge of radio stations in Malawi cut their teeth at Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) – a state owned radio stations, which was the only radio station in Malawi until 1998.
This means most makers of radio programmes have similar ideas and somewhat lack the capacity to innovate. For 31 years MBC worked for Hastings Kamuzu Banda and his regime. Its programming reflected Banda’s four corner stones – unity, loyalty, obedient and discipline that were curated to protect the regime.
Now called MBC Radio 1, after launching its second channel that target urban youths, the programming on the radio reflects Malawi’s conservatism despite the new political dispensation that provides for freedoms of press and expression. Malawi airwaves were liberalised in the mid 1990s even though to this date issuing of broadcasting licenses remain at the discretion of the powers that be.
The ‘liberalisation’ of airwaves coincided with intensification of global market liberalisation orchestrated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. World Trade Organisation is was founded with a mandate to ensure liberalisation of the global trade.
Dismantling of trade barriers forced countries like Malawi that until then were inwardlooking to open up their markets for international trade, which is dominated by western cultural products, particularly American. Though hard to measure, American popular culture has since dominated Malawi’s urban scene. Youths, particularly those from ‘middle class’ backgrounds found it trendy to dress and speak ‘the American way’.
Today it is much easy to live ‘the American way’, or any way one chooses, thanks to the fast shrinking world that is epitomised by low cost of travel and cheap cross-boarder communications. More than ever before, a lot of people are in touch with the outside world. Scholar and academics have called this process is called globalisation.
The term may be new but globalisation as a process is perhaps older than voyage of discovery, which paved way for slavery and enabled colonialism. Today globalisation has been intensified by advanced computer technologies, free trade policies and proliferation of multinational corporations.
In his thesis for “the no-nonsense guide to globalisation” series Wayne Ellwood argued that the term globalisation is rooted in the history of colonialism. He observed that Cecil Rhodes, A British colonial administrator, made a case for it in the 1980s:
“We must find new lands … from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies [will] also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.”
Today critics argue that globalisation is in fact ‘Americanisation’ in disguise – given the worldwide dominance of American cultural products. This argument resonates well with Malawi. Local radio stations have resorted to mimicking American style; disc jockeys speak with American accent in order to attract urban youths who associate themselves with American way of life – the culture of ‘cool’.
Unlike the surplus goods that Rhodes sought to export to the “dumping ground”,cultural products are not damaged in consumption – they’re re-used and very cheap to duplicate. It is only the first product that is expensive. This has allowed America, particularly via Hollywood to export their way of life across the world easily.
While financially beneficial to America and capitalism by extension, the exporting of cultural products has brought the fears of cultural homogenisation whereby all the indignant cultures resemble America’s.
The merits and demerits of homogenisation remains a hot debate among academics. What is undeniable however is that American way of life resonates powerfully with urban youths in Malawi, and elsewhere. France, a developed, democratic European nation has had implement a law that forces local radio stations to play at least 40% of local content as a way protecting its cultural traditions and values from American imports.
Maybe the French know something Malawians don’t?