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Kenya's leading audio-visual radio, Spice FM, turns four

 GM of Radio Products at The Standard Group, Tom Japanni (right), and a section of Spice FM staff cut a cake to celebrate the station's fourth-year anniversary. [File, Standard]

Radio is a tricky and unforgiving business. You don’t even have to cast your mind that far back to come up with a list of once-popular radio stations that died on the vine.

Throw into the mix the vagaries of a fiercely competitive media ecosystem in which you have to compete for audience attention, advertising revenue, and market share with nimble digital start-ups in the midst of economic turmoil spurred on by a once-in-a-century global pandemic and the odds of survival, let alone thriving, grow even thinner. 

Despite such headwinds, Spice FM, Kenya’s leading audio-visual radio station which was launched on this day in August 2019 has made a sizable dent in the market through a potent mix of nostalgia-infused music, high-brow content, and daring to tread where few other media start-ups would.

As the station marks its 4th anniversary, conversations with team members have given us rare insights into how Spice FM conquered the airwaves and what the next chapter holds for one of Kenya’s most exciting media prospects. 

At the cutting edge 

According to Tom Japanni, the man in whose head it all started, it’s all science, not voodoo. In his telling, the first thing they had to get right is the technology that underpins the operation. So they scoured the globe to find the most cutting-edge radio technology, combined it with world-class studio facilities, and harnessed both effectively to convert listeners:  

“As you know, Spice FM is audio-visual, an innovation in itself and that's how we were able to bring people in through technology and interlink them across the globe. That’s what has anchored us not only locally but also in the diaspora,” says the GM of Radio Products at The Standard Group.   

 The former President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, on Spice FM's lead show 'The Situation Room', in September 2021. [File, Standard]

From the very beginning, they were cautiously optimistic that the station would gain more than just a toehold in the market because they had identified a clear gap:  

“Spice FM was born out of the need to clean the radio space and bring something that is very compelling, journalistically and entertainment-wise. We thought the Kenyan radio space was flooded with many stations but there were very few niche ones. Capital FM and a handful of religious or vernacular stations were as niche as you got at the time. Other than that you had a lot of stations targeting the mass market,” says Japanni.  

The Situation Room  

One of the things that set Spice FM apart is its focus on in-depth journalism. The station's flagship show, The Situation Room, features four hours of daily conversation with a who's who of local policymakers, subject experts, a smattering of leading lights from across the continent, and occasionally, a President or two. The show has been praised for its tough but fair interviews and its willingness to tackle difficult topics.  

According to Japanni, this didn’t happen by accident:  

“We set out to turn the usual morning offering on Kenyan radio, which is having a presenter and a comedian in the studio, on its head. Instead, we wanted to do serious, top-shelf journalism. That's how The Situation Room came up. We were seeking to influence policy and speak truth to power,” he explains.  

It’s safe to say the bet has paid off. The Situation Room has achieved appointment listening status in a crowded field. Kenyans have grown accustomed to tuning in to the show on the radio, on TV, and via streaming to benefit from the banter of hosts Eric Latiff, Ndu Okoh, and CT Muga. The show’s illustrious guests often comment about how they are honored to finally be in the “hot seat”.  

 'The Situation Room' hosts CT Muga, Ndu Okoh and Eric Latiff. [File, Standard]

Why this is so; The hosts have their take:

“I think one thing that we've been able to develop over time is giving people an opportunity to share an authentic opinion and then being able to ask questions that many people would be too shy to ask. Oftentimes our motto has been to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted and ask questions along those lines,” says Ndu.  

“I think what makes TSR stand out is the effort we put into researching the many topics that we cover and our approach of being firm with the questions to our guests whilst maintaining a very conversational tone. We have figured out that one doesn’t need to be confrontational and adversarial to extract answers - one needs to be knowledgeable, strategic and to remain firm in seeking answers,” explains Latiff.

CT meanwhile believes the show’s success has largely been anchored on the mind-meld among the hosts:

“I think it has a lot to do with our ability to get along. There is an understanding between the three of us and it is exemplified by the way we speak about and to each other. We've gotten to a point where you more or less know what someone else is going to say on a certain topic,” he says, adding:  

“That can only happen when somebody has gotten to understand you and how you think and approach subjects.” 

 GM of Radio Products at The Standard Group, Tom Japanni. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Given the inherent newsworthiness of its guests every morning, The Situation Room often breaks national news, much to the delight of the station’s dynamic news-reading team made up of the talented duo of Leah Ubaga and Dennis Aseto: 

“Unlike many other radio stations, the news is read live on Spice FM, making it the perfect platform to break news on, especially for developing stories,” says Leah.  

Teamwork makes the dream work  

In addition to its news and current affairs programming, Spice FM also features a variety of other shows that appeal to a wide range of listeners with a unique blend of charismatic and engaging hosts and DJs with a knack for old-school hits with their fingers on the pulse for new releases that have a taste of the old.  

Japanni says this offering was also very deliberately thought out:   

“On the mid-morning show, Sugar & Spice, you have the 90s sound and a lot of comic relief. On The Spice Drive where we brought back the likes of Edward Kwach with his baritone and really good presentation skills. And of course, on Saturday afternoons we have the great Jimmi Gathu doing his thing as only he can,” he elaborates.  

Yolanda Mulwa, co-host of Sugar & Spice (weekdays, 11 AM - 3 PM), attributes the show's triumph to the power of teamwork:

“I know it sounds like a terrible cliché’ but teamwork definitely makes the dream work,” says Yolanda.

 'Sugar & Spice' co-host  Yolanda Mulwa and Dj Abstrakt. [File, Standard]

Dj Absolute, her co-host, echoes this sentiment, emphasizing good vibes and teamwork as key elements. He praises Yolanda's presenting skills and the prowess of their producer Mumbi Njoroge. Looking ahead, both hosts are excited about what the future portends for Spice FM. Yolanda & Absolute believe that the station has only scratched the surface of its potential. They promise listeners bigger and better things ahead.  

Meanwhile on The Spice Drive (weekdays, 3 PM - 7 PM), co-hosts Edward Kwach and Dj Abstrakt are full of gratitude to Spice FM’s loyal fan base:  

“Thank you for tuning in for these four years and interacting with us via social media and phone calls. We look forward to keeping the banter and entertainment coming for many more years.”  

emphasise the unique blend of a great team and their chemistry as co-hosts. Dj Abstrakt highlights the impact of being the first audio-visual radio station, allowing listeners to see the faces behind the voices. This innovation has set Spice FM apart and facilitated engagement through various platforms.

 Behind the scenes 

Behind the scenes, the producers of the shows play a pivotal role in bringing the magic of audio-visual radio to life. Miriam Angil, who produces The Spice Drive, relishes the competitiveness of the modern radio landscape and emphasises the importance of putting out the best show possible every day. She embraces the “you are only as good as your last show” ethos:

“Content is King so it's important to understand your listeners and know who you are talking to, their age, and their needs.  That’s what you need to come up with the best content.”

If you have bumped into Spice FM’s content online at any point then you are familiar with the work of Bryan Amulyoto, who has been steering the station’s social media engagement since 2019. He puts the allure of the station's content down to Spice FM consistently pushing the envelope of what's possible on radio.

 The Spice Drive co-host Edward Kwach. [File, Standard]

"It's the unique selling point of presenting content that most people can't find anywhere else. It's about conversations that people want to have but probably don't have the platform for," he asserts.

Amulyoto, who is also a fixture on Sugar & Spice and on Jimmi Gathu Live,  is grateful to the multitudes that have jumped on the Spice FM’s wagon online because he remembers a time when things were different:

“We've moved from zero followers and zero subscribers to almost 900K followers and subscribers across all our social media platforms. Thank you for your support and keep sharing your feedback because that’s how we grow” he says.

Spice FM’s success is also evident on the monetary side of things, as the GM explains:

“We've done very well also on the revenue side. Spice FM has been able to break even,” he says.  

This was no mean feat. Sharleen Maloba, one of the Business Executives who helped Spice FM cross over the financial milestone, explains what it took to do it:  

“It was not easy at first to sell to clients the concept of an audio-visual radio station but we kept at it and we were very persistent. The clients finally gave us one chance and we delivered,” says Sharleen.  

The beat goes on

In a world of monotonous radio playlists, Spice FM has also made a name for itself by upending the expectations of its loyal listeners. This is something that Brian Evusa, the station's acting Programme Controller, is very proud of:

"We looked in the market and saw a gap in terms of music because the thing that a lot of stations do is repeat their playlists over and over again. We try to keep it very fresh while still tapping into the nostalgia by playing Billboard hits from 1976 all the way to 2000. That is very unique,” he explains.

 'Jimmi Gathu Live' host, Jimmi Gathu. [File, Standard]

So what do the listeners think? The feedback from the Spice FM fanbase was overwhelmingly positive but space and time could only allow us to quote two listeners whose responses were edited for brevity:

“I can't believe it's already been four years. I've been a listener of Spice FM from the beginning. I wake up every morning to your morning show. It is informative, funny, witty, and sassy. I especially love it when you guys grill the guests and get the truth out of them. I also enjoy your newspaper reviews a lot. It's like we are all in one room and we are discussing the papers. I have recommended Spice FM to all my friends and family here in Kenya and abroad. Keep up the great work guys. Salama to all the staff,” said Cynthia Wanjiru Muniu.  

“Spice FM is great. I start my day with The Situation Room where I get updated on the political and economic situation of the country. Then I get very nice entertainment from 11 am to 6.30 pm. Kindly keep it up. I am very proud of your station. Congratulations on your Anniversary. We celebrate you. Thank you, ” said Daphine Caroline.  

High praise. And it’s mirrored back from the Spice FM team says Latiff:  

“We have benefited from their call-ins, comments on social media, and in other spaces. We run the show together with them by incorporating their ideas and suggestions for topics to explore,” he says.  

 Cheplelachbei Primary School pupils during a past tour of Spice FM studios. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

Japanni is happy with how the station has become a permanent part of the media landscape and hopes to continue rewarding the trust and loyalty of the listeners:  

“Spice FM has become part of society. I am very sure if you took away Spice FM today there's a huge chunk of society that will actually go up in arms. It's gained a lot of ownership through our audiences and even the guests that we host. Therefore, the only way to proceed is by doing good for society.”

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