Man who made vernacular radio popular

Fred Afune, programmes director, Royal Media Services. Photo/DIANA NGILA
Fred Afune, programmes director, Royal Media Services. Photo/DIANA NGILA  Nation Media Group

It’s no secret that before Fred Afune came onto the scene, vernacular radio was as dead as a dodo. He turned FM radio local at a time when the hullabaloo of radio was for, as he calls it, “the wanna-be city dwellers.” Now he boasts of running 14 local radio stations, with the 15th (for Turkana County) in the pipeline.

The irony, however, is that for the dynamics of radio to change, it had to take someone - not from mainstream media – but from advertising.

A copywriter to be precise, because that’s what he was before he got into radio. And before that he was an accountant with an auditing firm, a job he laboured in as he nursed his dream to be a writer.

Meet Afune in person, and his success in radio is quickly explained by the fact that he’s a simple and regular guy.


An accountant. What was that all about?

Oh yes, pressure from parents. But in my hearts of hearts, I always wanted to write. I wanted a by-line. I found journalists really cool.

One day, I saw an ad in the newspaper that was looking for copywriters at Century Grey Advertising, I applied, got the job and the rest, as they say, is history. Plus the whole suit and tie thing just wasn’t my thing, man. (Smiles).

How did you make vernacular radio sexy, or is that a secret for the vaults?

No. Being in advertising helped. There was a way we would profile consumers that I didn’t quite agree with because I remember that back in the day, I’d spend a lot of time at Kengeles ABC, a happening place back then.

I would see guys dunda-ing there until morning, and realised they were staying until morning in order to catch a matatu to town yet this was supposed to be a high-end joint.

Then on a loose Sunday, I would go eat nyama choma at Dagoretti, and there I’d see guys park luxury cars, drink soup from tin cups and sit on stools. And yet this was supposed to be a joint for the C1s etc.

I realised that we were getting the profiling all wrong. It taught me one thing; that money is a generational thing, in Kenya, we might acquire more but essentially, we still remain who we are.

Ah, so you are saying if you used to go to Choices Bar then you run into some money, you’d still be that guy who goes to “Choi”, yes?

(Smiles) Yeah. Habits really don’t change much. Most Kenyans live in the estates, talk about the economy, football, land prices, school fees etc. That’s the daily conversation, I decided to take those conversations onto radio by taking normal guys and training them to talk to people in the same way they would talk in their respective areas.

This was borne from the question, how do you connect with Kenyans beyond broadcasting? Because really, anyone can play music. So apart from the music, Mulembe FM will sponsor bull-fighting in Luhyaland as Musyi FM sinks bore holes in Eastern province.

How do you monitor what is being said, in say Chemgei FM, or are you also multi-lingual?

I have a monitoring group who transcribes each and every thing said in those channels. Word for word. These I read frequently and they help me in our regular reviews of sessions. Also I have a small radio that I carry wherever I travel, to help me monitor stuff on the road. Most of my pals say it’s a very lunje thing. (Laughs)

So to tap into these local consumers, did you have to change your habits?
Because of the nature of my job, I have to know what’s going on, but I have not had to change anything. I’m a regular guy. I mean like I mentioned before, the suited guys who sit in air conditioned offices, the ones who go to Blankets and Wine, Mercury, the account managers who used to send us briefs are all out of touch because they don’t have an idea of what’s really going on in Kenya.

So are you an A or B according to the way a consumer is profiled?

I’m a Kenyan. I have a problem with being boxed. I repeat, I’m a regular guy, I mean I could be in Buru Buru on a loose weekend having beer with my friends at Tents Bar, or at the shopping centre in Komarock and you’ll also find me having my single malt whisky at Mercury where I watch soccer. I’m a big Barcelona and AFC Leopards fan.

No doubt, you’re still smarting from the hiding K’Ogalo handed you guys recently.

But I’m happier that they didn’t win the league! (Laughs)

What defines a guy like you?

I refuse to be defined by material things; it’s dangerous and unsustainable. Besides, people really don’t even care what you own. I have driven a Toyota and now a Mercedes but only because it’s a better car and I can afford it now, otherwise, I have never taken a loan to buy a car, and never will.

The extra coins I get, I throw to some church or school in shags. And imagine I’m an atheist.

Whoa! Hang on, you are an atheist? Is that on the record?

Yes, since high school. Of course my parents (now deceased) had a problem with it. But it’s a choice I made.

I go to church, say on Christmas because I’m not an island and I have people who believe, so I would go. But arguments about religion and politics are very divisive because everybody thinks they are right.

Surely, Afune, you must believe in something.

I believe in myself.

Let me rephrase it; what do you submit to?

Biko, to win in this world you have to defeat yourself. The biggest weakness is yourself; if you don’t have discipline, or vision, imagination or if you don’t challenge yourself or say you have “arrived”, you perish. So I submit to myself.