‘I Thought the BBC Was Just for Africa’

“We can see our breath!”

It was not the first observation I was expecting to hear, as eight South Sudanese broadcasters stepped out of Manchester International Terminal 2 into a chilly April morning, but it seems entirely reasonable. All but one of them had never left Africa before, and the drop in temperature from 34C to 4C had caught them out a little.

A group of journalists from South Sudan on the street in London
Clement Wani, Lasuba Memo, James Keer Noon, Daniel Danis, Chuol Jany, Hattie Pearson (trainer), Lakoyo Shakira and Tethluach Yong, outside BBC New Broadcasting House in London, as Memo reports live on Eye Radio about the UK Election result. Credit: Internews

They had come from Eye Radio, and The Radio Community, a network of stations in South Sudan, the world’s newest country. Supported by USAID through Internews, these stations give a voice to local people in one of the most troubled countries in Africa. I am proud to be their Lead Radio Trainer, and my company 2ZY was asked to provide a ten-day training tour across in the United Kingdom. This is the story of what they learned.

‘‘The greatest city I’ve ever seen”

Journalists stand in a semi-circle listening to a man speak
Paul Newman, Director of Communications for Peel Holdings, the developer of MediaCity UK welcomes the South Sudanese. Credit: Internews

We picked Manchester as our base thanks to Media City UK, a massive development in the former Salford docks. Media City UK is home to five national BBC departments, commercial television and the University of Salford media department, or as Eye Radio’s breakfast presenter, Tethluach Yong puts it, “Media City UK is the greatest city I have ever seen, where there is only TVs, radios, studios .. everything to do with media, man!”

The aim of the trip was to expose the group to different ideas, formats, techniques and styles to grow their own presentation experience when they return to South Sudan; and to inspire the team by meeting other radio people, in situ on their radio stations. To listen, question and learn.

A woman sits at a radio console in a studio
Hattie Pearson in the Xfm studio. Lakoyo Shakira looks on. Credit: Internews

“The main memory that has helped me so so much was a visit at Xfm. Watching Hattie do that show gave me an impression that I can be better. The fact that we are ladies of the same age. I loved her pace and the way she linked jingles with the songs was awesome.” — Lakoyo Shakira

At MediaCity UK, we shadowed shows on Radio 4 and the rock station Real XS. It is also the home of the University of Salford Media Department. We used the university studios at the end of a practical production day, our broadcasters putting their new-found skills to the test with two as-live radio programs.

A group of journalists pose for a picture
Paddy O’Connell of BBC Radio 2/4, at center, with the study tour group. Credit: Internews

“The way that Paddy [O’Connell] presents, to be the eyes of the people, you have to look around then tell people what you see. I could not imagine people in the UK listening to the radio because of all the technology they have. I thought the BBC was just for Africa or other places. But even people in the UK with their smartphones — they all still listen to the radio! Why? Because of the quality of the presenters. People are attached to the radio.” — Clement Wani

A man with headphones sits at a mic in a studio
“I could stay in those studios for two days doing work without coming out, they were so good!” – Clement Wani (DJ Lomisak on Eye Radio)

Radio as historical preservation

At the Daniel Libeskind-designed Imperial War Museum North, it was some military hardware that inspired Eye Radio’s Daniel Danis.

4 men look out a window
Enjoying the view from the Air Shard of the Imperial War Museum North in Trafford. Credit: Internews

“In South Sudan, our country has been exposed to several wars, but we’ve not known how richly you can preserve your history through museums. Actually, some of us have almost thought ‘why don’t we open a museum as Eye Radio?’ to preserve our history so that future generations can have this. I stood next to a tank, which I can never do here in South Sudan, and this tank actually exposed me to the dangers to which a tank machine can have on human beings. We’ve seen attires from people of 1914 and these things have really made me feel like we have a history that we need to uphold in this country. South Sudan is not the only country that has wars, but what’s important is how they get out of that, preserve history and take pride (in their country.)” — Daniel Danis

Finding a unique voice

We were welcomed into thirteen radio stations with a broad range of formats. From the high octane breakfast show on Bauer’s Hits network to The People, Radio Manchester’s African Caribbean show with the laid-back soulful Mr V and Karen Gabay. In London for Europe’s most listened-to current affairs radio program, Jeremy Vine on BBC Radio 2, and some familiar figures from back home — the Focus on Africa team at the BBC World Service. And from the converted Kwik Save that’s home to Bradford’s extraordinary community radio station BCB to the breath-taking Radio City tower, 138m above Liverpool.

Two men stand in a hallway
Lasuba Memo, right, with trainer Simon Ritchie. Credit: Internews

“I have got a lot to learn. That experience is what I will be using in my day to day work to evolve and grow. I might become what I want. To be one of the respected presenters. But not just a presenter. But how I can really communicate with people, that’s very important. When you go out there, there are people who want you to talk to them, not just on the radio. If you have learnt the skills of communicating with people, in any function, on any occasion, and how you present yourself matters a lot.” — Lasuba Memo

Authenticity in presentation was a recurring theme from our trainers. Voice coach Elspeth Morrison told Nile FM’s Chuol Jany that he should be himself “plus ten per-cent”.

Group of journalists in a radio studio
Chuol Jany (third from left) with colleagues in the Your and Yours studio at BBC Radio 4. Credit: Internews

“If I am going on air at 7, then I should go to the studio and sit there at the desk maybe 15 minutes before time, to get prepared, to relax and make the temperature of my body calm down. When I was (at home) I was trying to change my voice, to sound like a whole man, an elder person. But at the UK I was taught on the way I can present as Chuol. The voice can remain as I am. So people can identify that the person on the radio is Chuol.”
— Chuol Jany

Broadcasting in times of conflict

Radio people love to talk about radio. Discussing the craft is a shared experience between professionals, continents and lives apart. BBC Radio Manchester’s Allan Beswick was reflective after meeting the delegation. “They probably do far more important radio than any of us ever have or ever will.”

Coming from a country where broadcasting anti-government messages can have you taken to National Security for questioning, there was also an important journalistic message. Our trip coincided with the UK general election.

A group of people sit around a table
A masterclass in connecting with your listener. In Liverpool with the senior team at BBC Radio Merseyside, one of the most popular radio stations in the UK. Credit: Internews

“We have seen how important it is to have an environment where the media is free to give the information that the people want. You could really see some aspect of transparency, with the election, how the media covered it was very extensive.”
— Lasuba Memo

“I had been hearing ‘democracy, democracy’ and it was just like a joke on my mind. I did not even know how democracy was fully practised. At the election when the people voted, the media was very serious to make sure that there’s no side taken. Radio is to educate and inform. If the listeners are not informed, then they cannot know what democracy is about. I’m sure in this country of ours there is going to be a day for it to become a democratic country, and it will come through the media.” — Joseph Deng

Radio in South Sudan will sound different after this trip

After thirteen station visits, twenty-four trainers/guests, twelve hours of classroom training, five museum visits and three interviews on British radio, it was time to go home. I am writing this in Juba, one week later.

And on Eye Radio, the impact of the training is already being heard on the air across South Sudan. Since the team left for the UK, three new repeater transmitters have been turned on, adding hundreds of thousands of potential new listeners.

Five journalists pose in front of a tower
Under one of the most architecturally-striking radio stations in the World — the Radio City Tower in Liverpool. Credit: Internews

“This has been an experience that I will never forget and I am really trying to put this into my radio and my journalism and my program presentation. I’ve started making very good use of music. I use music now to make sure I revise the questions I want to ask my guest, the things I have to say at this specific time.” — Tethluach Yong

“We have learned a lot. A lot has been given to us on our plates. Approaching my role differently is going to be in bits. I believe with time, almost everything I learned will be applied. Learning is a process.” — Lakoyo Shakira

As a trainer working with these broadcasters since August 2014, it was fascinating to watch their observations reinforce the work we had done together in Juba. A classroom or workshop environment can only go so far.

Concepts like program planning, relationships between presenter and producer, and how to image a station through audio production all come alive when you observe them at close quarters in successful radio stations.

And for Eye Radio’s Daniel Danis, something very special has been created.

A man and woman sit at a table in a cafe smiling for the camera
Finding mutual ground as programmers in Juba and Manchester. Daniel Danis meets Kate Cocker, the Content Director of Manchester’s most listened-to radio station, Key 103. Credit: Internews

“We’ve been thinking within the box, the borders of South Sudan — this is our style of presentation, this is how things are in South Sudan. But this trip has exposed us to how we should be doing things differently. Now our aim is to make Eye Radio sound very different to other radio stations.” — Daniel Danis

John Ryan is a British radio programmer and consultant, media trainer and mentor working with Internews in South Sudan. Internews’ work in South Sudan is funded by USAID.

Banner photo: Nhomlauu FM’s James Keer Noon and Tethluach Yong get to grips with an unfamiliar studio at the University of Salford for their practical radio exercise. Credit: Internews

Banner photo: Nhomlauu FM’s James Keer Noon and Tethluach Yong get to grips with an unfamiliar studio at the University of Salford for their practical radio exercise. Credit: Internews

(This story originally ran in Medium)