Getting radio airplay a mammoth task

Daniel Ngwira, a Chartered Certified Accountant based in Egypt, is a fine musician who sings, plays the guitar and composes his own songs.

in the groove:with Fred Zindi

I have listened to some of his music through social media over the last few years and was pleasantly surprised at how much talent this young man has.

On October 23, he did his own rendition of James Chimombe’s Muchiti Mugere to commemorate Chimombe’s birthday. This was well-executed.

Over the years I have been asking myself why I have never heard Ngwira’s music being played over the radio. As if to answer my question, last week Ngwira himself wrote: “A lot of people do not know how difficult it is to receive airplay on radio stations in Zimbabwe as a local musician. The DJs behave like kings, queens and God. They will not give you airplay unless you literally kneel down and ask for their support. I have seen this over my 20 years’ experience in the music industry.”

If it is any consolation, Ngwira, you will be surprised to hear that you are not alone with this experience. In the 1980s I had the same struggle with local DJs in trying to get airplay for my music. One DJ on the then Radio 2 (now Radio Zimbabwe) told me bluntly: “Your music is not African enough, so we can’t play it on our station as we are focused on playing the likes of Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, Simon Chimbetu, Four Brothers, Lovemore Majaivana and Khiama Boys. You can try Radio 3. The DJs there are fond of American and British music, maybe your music will fit in there.” Disappointed, I made a loud utterance at him: “How can you say that my music is not African enough when it is coming from an African’s head?”

However, following his advice, I went to Radio 3 (now Power FM) where John Matinde, Josh Makawa and Peter Johns ruled the roost. I struggled to convince them to play my music until I complained through a newspaper article headlined, Local DJs ignoring music from local artistes.

The next day after the appearance of that article, I was surprised to see Matinde outside my house asking me to give him all the material I had released so that he could select what to play on Radio 3. I obliged and within days, people were talking about my music. Sales in record shops went up immediately. I was happy.

However, after a few months, the situation came back to square one. No airplay. They had played enough of me. I went into the studio, so that I could give the DJs newer material, but in vain.

I then decided to take the bull by the horns in order to solve the problem without any further delay. I asked Ishmael Kadungure, who was head of Radio 3 at the time, if I could become a DJ on his station. He agreed and I was given the reggae session slot on Thursdays and Saturdays. This was not because I wanted to play my music on the station, but I wanted to be closer to the DJs on the station to try and influence them to play music by local artistes.

In no time at all, I became friends with Johns, who was obsessed with Western RnB and other Western pop music only. I persuaded him to play some of my music and he soon slotted African Child, Stop Your Crying and later Serious Man on his Top 40 Hits. When I formed the Frontline Kids band in 1989, Johns surprised his fans by uncharacteristically introducing a Shona song, Yarira Ngoma, on his usually Western-oriented programme.

I also became Makawa and Matinde’s friend with the idea of persuading them to play local artistes’ music. That is what I called thinking out of the box. How many artistes would do that just to get their music played on air?

Last week I was also listening to Britain-based Zimbabwean singer Shingai Elizabeth Maria Shoniwa, best known as the vocalist and bassist for the Noisettes band. She released a solo album titled Too Bold last month. She was also complaining about the lack of airplay by Zimbabwean radio stations for her music.

Shoniwa claims that she sent copies of the album to radio stations, but has not received any feedback from anybody in the country. As she put it: “I am Zimbabwean, first and foremost. In Britain they play my music. In America, the radio stations have endorsed my music. In Europe, almost every radio station has played my music. Why then is it that I don’t hear my uncles and nephews in Zimbabwe telling me that they have heard any of my tunes on radio?”

In her stage persona, Shingai looks like what the New Yorker Magazine called “an African supermodel”. She frequently performs in bare feet while wearing face paint or fur hats on stage.

Shingai made an appearance on Annie Lennox’s 2007 album titled, Songs of Mass Destruction, and teamed-up with 22 other renowned female artistes who include Madonna, Gladys Knight and Celine Dion to collaborate on a song on HIV and Aids.

In 2016, Shingai and her band, the Noisettes, came to Harare to give a performance at the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa). She gave a brilliant and exhilarating show which sent everyone present into ecstacy. After Hifa, she even took time off to visit radio stations and give away her latest CDs.

ZiFM even invited her to give a performance at Pablo’s Night Club in Borrowdale, but it seems after her departure from Zimbabwe, that was the end of Shingai in Zimbabwe as far as airplay is concerned.

There are so many up-and-coming artistes who have recorded music, given it to radio stations and the music then dies a natural death. Magdalene Mhuriro tells me that she has given her new CD titled Mwaka Mutsva to every radio station after spending over $3 000 to record it, but she is still yet to hear it being played.

How then, can we motivate our local DJs to play music by Zimbabwean artistes? It looks like many DJs make judgements about what they play or not play before the public gets to hear the music they play. In my opinion, one person’s decision on what to play or not play is not sufficient. Play it and let the public decide on whether it is a good song or not.

However, this is not always the case as DJs have got a reputation to protect. Some will say: “I don’t want to be associated with Sungura music because people will begin to think that I grew up at growth points or in the rural areas where that kind of music is popular.” That is unbecoming of someone who wants to be perceived as the trendiest person in town.

I remember my friend, the late Prince Tendai Mupfurutsa, fighting DJs to play his tune Character without success. It was not until the song was nominated for a Kora Music award in South Africa in 1997 that Zimbabwean DJs began to take an interest in playing it. Despite this, some DJs demanded payment in order to give his hit tune airplay.

To persuade DJs to play one’s music, the artiste sometimes resorts to bribing the DJs through putting them on a payroll. That phenomenon is known in music circles as payola.

According to Musavengana Nyasha in his book titled To Entertain and Influence, payola is quid pro quo (just like bribery and kickbacks given to DJs) in compensation for playing certain artistes’ music. At the moment, there is one prominent musician who is said to have paid several DJs a total of RTGS $5 000 to get airplay for his music.

Just like Mono Mukundu’s 2018 book, Poor and Famous, which also contains a section on payola, an honest description on how payola works is given. Nyasha, who spent 13 years working at ZBC, gives an eyewitness account of payola from his own experiences at the broadcasting centre.

A society that promotes a culture of kickbacks tends to retard progress.

On the musical front, when some artistes are promoted at the expense of others, the whole industry and consumers suffer. Such practices mean that some music that is good and worthy of promotion such as Daniel Ngwira’s, may fail to be heard because the artistes either can’t afford to pay “incentives” or choose not to play the game.

Now you know how difficult it is to get airplay from local radio stations.

I am flabbergasted!
l Feedback: frezindi@gmail.com

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