KAMPALA, UGANDA — Alex, "the King of Pop," is on the air at Capital Radio, 91.3 FM, in Kampala, Uganda. His voice travels over the latticed rooftops and mud-plastered walls of this East African city, urging listeners to "hold the beat" and keep listening to "the only station with soul."
Only two years ago, Capital Radio and the other three stations currently engaged in a ruthless competition for listeners in Kampala did not exist. The only station allowed to broadcast on the FM band was state-owned Radio Uganda.
Then came the decision, daring by African standards, to liberalize television and radio broadcasting. The FM band was suddenly up for grabs.
The first private station to broadcast from Kampala, Sanyu Radio, set fairly tight standards for itself when it started in 1995. News reports were generally friendly to the government, political matters not discussed. The station stuck mostly to music. People in Kampala (pop. 770,000) had never had such access to new releases from the United States and Europe.
The appearance of Capital Radio one year later pushed those limits. During the two-hour show "Capital Gang," callers and commentators criticized every government misstep.
Now a third 10-month-old station, Central Broadcasting Service (CBS), has broken new ground with a four-hour show called "Your Parliament," in which a skilled moderator fields calls from disgruntled citizens. "We listen to the people, and only the people," production manager Martin Semakula says.
The station's managers also ignore the "English only" policy of the other two stations. About 60 percent of CBS's broadcasts are in Luganda, the language spoken locally.
While presenters at Sanyu and Capital are often chosen for the clarity of their English - an American accent can land even a so-so DJ a job - the English at CBS is thick with African cadences.
Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda for more than a decade, has watched all of this without imposing constraints. Compare that with neighboring Kenya, where the only independent FM radio is a 24-hour music station without permission to read the news; or to many other African countries, where the FM band has been kept completely out of reach.
People in government are now waiting with some trepidation for the imminent opening of a fourth channel said to have solid financial backing and, according to Alex, the Capital DJ, "crazy new ideas."
"I've never had any problems with the government. In fact, I have a field day when a Cabinet minister or a [member of parliament] does something stupid," Alex says. "You go straight for the jugular."
The only problem Capital Radio has had is reining in one of its DJs, a Ugandan version of Howard Stern who, Alex says, "goes to the edge, to the point where he actually abuses people." But "the problem with him is libel suits, not government interference," Alex says.