The Evolution Of Talk Radio In Nigeria: Full Text Of Paper Presentation By Nelly Kalu ( @nellylaoni ) At Radio Days Africa

The Evolution Of Talk Radio In Nigeria: Full Text Of Paper Presentation By Nelly Kalu ( @nellylaoni ) At Radio Days Africa

August 14, 2018 Lecture Notes 1648


I want to tell you the story of the evolution of talk radio in Nigeria. Its challenges, it’s future. And why it is relevant today.


I am a pain in the neck. I am the only talk radio host in Nigeria today, who provoked the maximum penalty for our version of a broadcast misdemeanour by the National Broadcasting Commission for doing my job.  I take pride in this.

I hope that at the end of our conversation you understand the peculiarities of Nigerian talk radio; why it is necessary for the rural poor with no electricity and important for the urban (poor and) middle class with no electricity. Yes, the one factor that keeps urban dwellers humble in my dynamic country.


Having worked in both music and talk radio formats I can say that talk radio is my preferred format. Its ability to set the tone of conversation, bravely challenge status quo and form the opinion of an entire generation is mesmerizing.

Talk radio in Nigeria is yet to become all of these. It is too early to know if generations are being formed , if we are challenging status quo or just going along screaming.

The relevance of this format of radio lies in its impact on society. Its potential in Nigeria is endless in terms of content and programming but extremely bleak in marketing and financing.

The very nature of talk radio is socio-culturally shocking, provoking and politically threatening. The Nigerian listener has always been told what to think, how to behave, how to act, basically, how to exist by her media.

This very listener is being nudged by same media to debate and argue and challenge different views and beliefs; in conversation question all they’ve ever known.

This is quite disrupting, with interesting outcomes such as hostility from government administrators who are used to a subservient media, a regulator still functioning under out-dated methods and listeners in constant conflict.

With about 190 million people, Nigeria is the most populous African nation with about 75 million uneducated or poorly educated, six Nigerians becoming poor every minute according to data from the World Poverty Clock; conversations on radio have to be delicately conducted. The skill required for effective communication on Nigerian talk radio is the ability to communicate properly knowing you may not be understood.

This is a major concern for regulators as ignorance can be very combustible. Most talents on radio are neither trained nor equipped to deal with this peculiarity. Not many media owners care to invest in training talents or even pay adequately for the welfare of the few who train themselves, so these already scarce talents are burnt out.

The lack of professionalism among talent is one problem.

There is also risk of elitism in professional on-air talent which in turn isolates the masses. This problem has been solved by establishing talk radio stations in indigenous languages.

Operating talk radio in the manner in which radio is today in Nigeria, where the on-air talent is presenter, producer and engineer, applied in talk format is even less productive.

In Nigeria, debates are sometimes misunderstood as a predicate to a combustible situation; dialoguing becomes all passion and no logic.

The major challenge for a talk format in Nigeria is not, surprisingly, the National Broadcasting Commission, it’s the ability to facilitate dialogue in a people so passionate they are most likely to provoke an argument; yet you have to keep it within logic and reason.

The talk format in Nigerian media suffers an identity crisis. Listeners no longer know what they represent. It is easy to respond with a by-line.

For instance: We are a news, talk and sports station.

What does that mean?

It is most important for a talk radio station to be able to answer the question.

Who are we?


Independent talk radio stations were established by investor- owners when they discovered that Nigerians loved to talk and wanted to talk more. The impact of talk format to society was not the main focus. If it was, it shifted in time.

Perhaps, they figured the talk would be entertaining and talk radio is entertaining. But it does not exist just for the pleasure of careless speaking.

This profit oriented focus is the reason for the loss of identity. The impatience to break even and make profit forces the owner- investors to change elements sporadically, different hosts every quarter, the cancellation of programmes and reintroduction of new ones, whatever they believe the advertisers want.

A study by students of communication and media studies in Rivers State on listenership of the two privately owned talk radio stations Nigeria Info FM and Today FM in the state, revealed that young people found talk radio boring. This is a result of business men owners of media meddling in programming.

Embracing niche and identity is seen as embracing a small market, which translates to small profit. This is misguided obviously.

The media is one industry where consistency pays off heavily and sticking to one format guarantees listenership which in turn gives you the market.

Radio Broadcasting in Nigeria is evolving; it has come a long way from 1933 when it was just a colonial distribution system for the British. A radio diffusion system, which was a method of distributing programs by wire to those who subscribe. The first one was established in Lagos city, the headquarters of radio in Nigeria.

By 1951, with over 74 thousand receivers, the National Broadcasting Service (NBS) was created to replace RDS.  Just 3 years before independence in 1960; by an act of parliament; NBS became the NBC, The National Broadcasting Commission.

As Nigeria grew more independent minded, her idea of media also changed.

Free from British dominance she wanted her media to reflect her freedom. Freedom, an idea we all seek and fight for only to deprive others of the privilege.

It is easy to see talk radio as a resurgent media format in Nigeria but it never left. It was controlled by state and federal governments. Government had all the power and the money and they wielded their economic and political influence on the media constantly. The media of that era could not claim to be neutral neither was it a medium for transmitting and interpreting events of societal significance.

Three academics Akashoro, Okidu and Ajaga from the Lagos state university and Caleb university discuss this era. Breaking it down to three regimes, that of Gowon, Mohammed and Obasanjo.

Yakubu Gowon, the head of state during and after the Nigerian civil war was burdened with fixing a post war country. Torn apart by the experience, Nigeria was barely a nation, he used the media, radio specifically as a tool to rehabilitate, reconstruct, reinvent the image of “One Nigeria”.

This was achieved with a dose of propaganda.

Murtala Mohammed,(the Lagos international airport is named after him) overthrew Gowon and became the head of state in 1975. He created 7 more states thereby creating 7 more state owned radio stations.

He subordinated the media, gave them rules and the media followed it. His regime was short lived as he was assassinated in a coup in 1976.

Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded Mohammed after the coup of 1976.

Talk radio was right there. Saying exactly what was required. The media became a tool for whatever the government wanted. Obasanjo was interested in Agriculture so programmes encouraging Agriculture flooded the radio. You could say that it’s not altogether terrible for the government to use the media if it is for good and the benefit of the people. Let’s not forget who we are; the media is an unbiased observer, a free agent, a voice for the masses. And a free agent gets to choose.

The media is supposed to be a voice for the people,  but the history of the Nigerian media is that of a voice for the government.

It wasn’t until 1994, 55 years later, when another military Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida decided to deregulate the media that it welcomed private ownership.

I strongly believe that Nigeria’s hybrid media is a reflection of her hybrid democracy. When military leaders return to power as democratic leaders. One wonders the psyche of such a transition. Here is a man who had the media in his command to do as he pleased now in a position where he has to contend with a supposedly free press. Where talk radio is boldly calling him out at every turn.

Talk radio was never lost. It remained in state and federal authority in some form or another. However, Talk radio as we know it, today, is a product of democracy, resulting in the revision of the NBC code, the freedom of information bill and an emerging middle class.

It would be hubristic to talk about the past years of talk radio as if I witnessed them. it is with great pleasure that I share Mr. Oyetunde’s experience with you, a 30 year veteran of radio Nigeria who served from 1968 (a year into the civil war) to 1998, rising from the ranks as a trainee reporter to Manager news and current affairs.

He was kind enough to share his story with me. He described working in radio in those years as “an amazing experience” and considered the uncertainty of the military years as the “hazard of the job”.  In narrating the sudden yet familiar coup announcements of new military governments in those years, he says, any time the soldiers came, their first stop was the news room then the live studio to interrupt the service and ask the announcer at gun point to play “martial music”. This is the music that heralded the announcement; this was how the masses knew that there’s been a regime change.

Mr Oyetunde witnessed an interruption of this nature in 1976. This was the coup executed by Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka. Oyetunde says he wasn’t sure if it was fortunate or unfortunate for him but that morning he had to run the news desk as he’s boss who was editor – on – duty, was late.

Dimka, dressed in civilian clothing, walked into the newsroom alone, no one at the time, knew who Dimka was, but he commanded in that tone soldiers employ

“where is the studio?

” where is the studio”.

Oyetunde asked “what is the matter”?.

Sensing the situation he appointed a junior staff to take Dimka to the studio and handover the news script to the presenter. On the way, Dimka sends him back with the news script and in a few minutes they notice an interruption to the live broadcast.

Martial music.

Despite the chaos outside, these broadcasters did their jobs even at gunpoint, they held on and assisted in the broadcast.

Dimka unfamiliar with radio broadcast operations and announcement speak said something Oyetunde described as “funny” and they all laughed.

As you know, those unfamiliar with the radio microphone get nervous the first time, even coup plotters and assassins.

Oyteunde tells me that as he headed home after the announcement to check on his family he saw this man who had just invaded the studio trying to escape Radio Nigeria’s immense compound through the back way. It surprised him. Then he saw Nigerian soldiers armed to the teeth at the gate in pursuit.

Needless to say, this was a failed coup. Although the coup plotters assassinated Murtala Mohammed, the Head of State and a regime change announced on radio, Dimka and his fellow coup plotters were executed and the government continued with Mohammed’s deputy, General Olusegun Obasanjo.

With a history such as this, Mr Oyetunde tells me that was no interference by the military government in news broadcast. Radio Nigeria was given free hand to broadcast as they liked because they knew their “limitations and mandate”, what to do and what not to do, all within the code of conduct.

Need I mention that this code was provided by the military government?

Radio Nigeria had a by-line: “to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done”

It prevented broadcast that endangered Nigeria’s unity. I do not believe that the media’s focus of keeping Nigeria unified as changed today ,though the methods applied by a freer media in achieving this has changed and talk radio’s position in questioning the status quo is to be credited.

The media cannot keep Nigeria one in an age of so much distrust by remaining a subservient tool for the government.

We are ready for talk radio. There is an audience. The current political, economic and social climate in Nigeria has given it value.

Where there’s an audience there is potential for marketing and profit making. Yet, the existing privately owned talk stations especially have proven this to be a difficult achievement.

The problem facing Nigerian talk radio currently is enormous. Most broadcasters will like to tell you that the NBC, the National broadcast commission, license issuer and regulator of the broadcast industry. is the main problem. I beg to differ.

In the first week of October 2017, I aired a live interview on the 50th anniversary of the Asaba massacre. This got the NBC on edge and they pulled the programme off the air right in the middle of a live broadcast.

My boss ran in and whispered in my ear, “end the show now. NBC is threatening to shut down the station”.

A few weeks after that I was slapped with a 500,000 naira fine that is approximately 20,000 rand.

Why did this happen?

In October 1967, during the Nigerian civil war, Nigerian troops led by the late Murtala Mohammed began ransacking homes and killing civilians in Asaba, claiming they were Biafran sympathizers.

You see, south eastern Nigeria where you find a majority the Igbos, the region that claimed Biafra is separated from south-western Nigeria by the Niger River , some Igbos are settled on land just around the banks of the western end of the river. Asaba is one of those.  A major igbo town on the southwest. This meant that they did not the have the assumed protection of the Niger bridge making them easily accessible to the Nigerian army.

Reports reached the elders of the land of people being killed by Nigerian soldiers in pockets of the town, in their homes. So, the traditional leaders summoned the people to an assembly chanting “One Nigeria” as they matched, showing support for the Nigerian cause, hoping this would end the killing.

At point, they were stopped by Nigerian soldiers; children and women were separated from the men and boys of fighting age. There the massacre happened claiming at least 1000 lives.

It became a town of women. The women buried their dead after the soldiers left.

These soldiers were under the command of Murtala Mohammed who became one of Nigeria’s head of states.

50 years later, the people of Asaba only ask to be acknowledged in history.

Many listeners wrote in saying they had never of this, the story of the civil war is told with a clear omission. But the story is never told.

They have felt neglected for 50 years. I invited a grandson of one of the victims of the massacre. His mother lost her father and brothers, one of them was never buried. They couldn’t find a body.

The focus of our conversation was simple; Are we ready to discuss our history?

It’s been 50 years, are we too fragile to discuss this wound that never seems to heal?

No matter how we gloss over it, it’s there.


Propaganda didn’t work until the 70s; erasing history by not teaching it in schools, didn’t work either. It’s time for the media to do its job .

The NBC says that I did not provide balance. I did not tell the other side of the story.

The soldier’s side I’m guessing, since they did not specify.

They said that it was not the right time for such conversations; old wounds and such, but you will agree with me South Africa, that there is never a good time to face history.

Then there was something about disturbing the peace.

I live in Lagos the perfect cosmopolitan arrangement Nigeria could claim. Talk radio was flooded all year long with listeners wanting to know about our past.

They’d ask why we were avoiding the obvious. It was on social media, print, everywhere else. It is an embarrassing state of affairs when Instagram is having a conversation that talk radio seemed to dodge.

I remember being told by a senior NBC official that it was “wrong timing” and to quote him, “this is not the time to be a good journalist, it is the time to do as you are told”.

He meant well.

I neither got a chance to explain nor defend my decision.

The program was harmless, in fact the only chaos created was people assuming on social media that I had been arrested and detained. After the sudden disruption of my program, I did not return on the air for 2 days.

Oh, I was never detained nor arrested.

I was attending meetings. The radio station never gave me a chance to explain why I made that editorial decision; if I did due diligence before airing.

Instead I was slammed the entire fine, all 20,000 rand and fired for a few hours.

They hung me out to dry. I suffered more from my bosses than I did from the NBC.

I often wonder if the NBC ever listened to the program while it was airing. I know that they panicked when they saw it advertised on social media .

As a broadcast commission whose sole purpose is to monitor broadcast and protect Nigeria’s fragile state from falling apart through unbridled use and exploitation of the power of mass media; one who’s only known one way to do this, a method greatly influenced by autocratic governments of the past. You can almost empathize with the peculiar role they aim to fulfil in a democracy.

A free NBC, free from government control will be more of an asset to Nigeria than it is now.

Program managers who have worked successfully with the NBC will tell you that negotiating with the NBC, stating your case while having a superior argument will avoid its punishments which could range from a maximum fine of 500,000 naira which is approximately 20,000 rand, to revoking licences for major infractions.


A good programmes manager knows that a good relationship with the NBC requires

  • A good knowledge of the code
  • An ability to ‘respectfully’ argue your case
  • Confidence in the quality and ability of your on-air- talent
  • Patience
  • Recognising their authority
  • Having a sound knowledge of broadcast ethics


Basically, a perfect African blend of both commendation and critique. I argue that the talk radio format in Nigeria needs to gain confidence and win over the NBC’s trust if we cannot change their method of operation.

Chimamamda Adichie said: “Be astute about when you need balance, sometimes seeking balance gets in the way of telling the truth”…

However, The NBC seeks balance in broadcast media:

“…Programmes devoted to the discussion of a matter of public interest shall ensure fairness and balance”..

As balance is the focus, perhaps talk radio stations can consider this style by the LBC; Leading Britain’s Conversation.

LBC is a talk radio station in The UK. It is my favourite talk station really. They employ balance in a style that I admire. Not always in the old and true fashion where two people of opposing views sit must together to balance the dialogue.

Rather each belt is driven by a host of particular leaning. Take Nick Ferrarri, a conservative host who leads the 7am to 10am belt while James O’brien a liberal leads the 10am to 1pm belt.

This is a station that until recently had Kate Hopkins on its dial. There’s a host for every point of view, in that way the entire station creates balance, never really leans in any one direction, truly leading Britain’s conversation.

Is there a talk radio station in Nigeria willing to adopt a different style? Will the NBC be willing to negotiate a different kind of balance that encourages the future of talk radio?

Whenever I suggest the LBC style I am told of the unique peculiarities of Nigeria and the Nigerian listener. How the thing that works ‘over there’ cannot work in Naija.

Nigeria has her peculiarities a great many of us are either uneducated or poorly educated and we have to design a talk format that is unique to those peculiarities.

I understand such reservations, after all OFCOM, the UK broadcast monitor allows within the code the “transmitting of provocative material- even if some people consider it offensive- as long as it is editorially justified and the audience is given appropriate information.”

I would have gotten away with the Asaba massacre anniversary broadcast under such code.

I do understand but I disagree.


Have the Nigerian listener stopped desiring the unbiased truth, the freedom to express themselves, to hear and be heard?

Have they stopped challenging status quo and seeking representation in the media; just like all listeners in the world?

If all these haven’t changed then talk radio has to stop pretending to reach for the inevitable and just do its absolute best to encourage dialogue that informs, inspires , educate and entertains Nigerians.

Talk radio in Nigeria today is mercurial, but talk radio can find success despite the current challenges. It will involve taking these few steps:

  • Employ experienced broadcast talents.
  • Train broadcast talents
  • Consistency and a narrow focus on format is the key to talk radio’s survival in Nigeria
  • Dedication to a chosen format ensures listenership. Professionalism increases listenership; listenership brings market. Market brings profit.
  • Talk radio cannot survive its infantile stage as a profit driven venture.
  • Investors have to focus on content and societal impact before profit.
  • Advertisers cannot call the shots in commercialization of talk radio.
  • NBC needs to be regarded as a partner not an adversary, no matter how long it will take to achieve some kind of synergy.
  • NBC’s history is the reason for most of its knee-jerk reaction to controversial broadcast but an independent NBC is an asset to Nigeria.
  • Nigeria is fertile ground for the talk format; current talk radio stations need the competition.
  • Investor- owners of talk radio stations need to accept that it will challenge the norm and must be prepared to be a support system to the on-air talent.


The future of talk radio in Nigeria depends on this. Dedication to the chosen format. Pick one, stick to it. There’s no need for a format we don’t understand, so simplify it.

Let us avoid making the news, talk and sports format a cover for being masters of nothing in an industry where mastering and specificity is everything.




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