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Crank up the volume! Salute to our unseen companions in life’s journeys

A man bursts into laughter at the back of a quiet matatu swooshing from Limuru to Nairobi. Mseiya amechizi, nini? With the piling pressures of life, you never know what exactly could be going on inside the heads of some people.

But, no, the passenger is quite fine. He chuckles again. The other passengers smile or grin quietly. The radio is on in the matatu. It is the animated chatter of the presenter and her guest in the Kikuyu-language station that has tickled everyone. If laughter is the best medicine, the passengers just got a free dose to keep them going for the day.

This week we celebrate World Radio Day on February 13 under the theme, “A century informing, educating and entertaining”. All roads lead to Kisii town, or Bosongo as many residents prefer, where Principal Secretary for Broadcasting and Telecommunications Edward Kisiang’ani will lead celebrations organised by the Media Council of Kenya.

What’s your experience of radio? Of course, everyone has their story. But we are convinced that the true power of radio lies in its ubiquity and easy access. Radio is everywhere. And most listening is not planned or even intentional.

You walk into a friend’s home or ride in a matatu where the radio is on and you get a quick lesson on why we need to plant trees. Or how femicide has become a national crisis requiring the attention and action of everyone to keep our women and girls safe. You had not intended to learn any of that. You spent zero effort to get that info.

At the kinyozi or salon, a bubbly radio DJ drops one of your favourite hits that throws you back in time, scatters your dark thoughts and momentarily gives you a fresh reason to live. You secretly smile. You are revived. You are at peace.

Or the calming and reassuring voice of a good preacher on the airwaves touches your sore nerves with a pithy reflection, sends your heart soaring, makes you relax and become a little more cheerful and hopeful. You might even decide to get ‘saved’ that instant. Or later.

Yet you never planned to listen to that. You happened to be present where a radio was on. The passengers on the Limuru matatu may never have had anything to laugh at or smile about their entire day. But radio changed their lives a little, a wee bit.

Media scholars and practitioners can fill a humongous library with documentation of radio’s immense and obvious contributions to civilisation. But by far the vast majority of benefits of radio for individuals and communities can only be guessed at and will never be fully counted and documented.

Every day in millions of little and secret instances around the world, the voice of the radio is the unseen companion in diverse individual journeys completely unknown to the rest of humanity.

The unseen companion inspires, encourages, reproaches, informs, educates, entertains, revives, transforms – touches someone in a way often only known to that person alone. And through these little, unremarkable events in the lives of individuals, entire societies are transformed.

If one person becomes happier, corrects course, makes a positive personal resolution or aspires to something better, ultimately the entire society benefits from that private choice: Because all human beings are interconnected in one way or another. And radio initiates or catalyses such transformations in millions of ways.

See, one of the biggest contributions of radio to democratisation in Kenya since the liberalisation of the airwaves nearly 30 years ago is through the rise of vernacular stations. Millions of Kenyans each day follow and participate in national conversations in their mother tongue. They become aware of what is going on around them. They get expert opinion. They reflect upon their own views and convictions. They disagree or are persuaded enough to take action. They are transformed, change their outlook. They themselves become agents of change. And our democracy grows.

Your favourite radio presenter is just a voice on the airwaves and a name you know so well. You’ve most likely never met that person, yet that presenter occupies a special place in your life. These unseen companions in life’s diverse journeys carry with them great transformative power for individuals and societies.

No one can claim to have never benefited from radio, directly or otherwise. You know the butterfly effect? The tiny waves created by a butterfly flapping its wings will grow to eventually cause typhoons and tsunamis. It’s how radio works.

On World Radio Day, we salute our unseen companions, the men and women on the airwaves and the technical teams supporting them. Crank up the volume!

See you next week!

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