Butebo radio station was once the glory of eastern Uganda. Constructed in 1969, the radio had a vast listenership and millions tuned in to listen to it. Today, the radio station is a shadow of its former self and little of its former glory still remains as Denis Kagino writes
“You are now tuned in to MW 729 Butebo Channel, the glory of eastern Uganda,” the voice of the radio presenter is still clear in my ears. Every day, my dad would wake up to tune to this station. But that was then. Today, Butebo radio station is a shadow of its former self and little of its previous glory still remains.
The concept of Butebo radio was developed by former president Dr. Apollo Milton Obote in his first term as president. Back then, Radio Uganda was the only local radio station in the country.
The challenge was that it majorly aired in English, since accommodating the variety of local languages in the country was impossible. It is then that the idea of having different channels for the different regions was developed. Butebo county in Pallisa district was chosen to accommodate the station, which explains the station’s name.
Construction of the station began in 1969 and ended in 1971 when Idi Amin had just taken over power. It was commissioned by President Idi Amin in November the same year.
The station was intended to cover the eastern and north-eastern regions of Uganda as the primary area of service. The secondary area extended beyond Uganda into parts of western Kenya and parts of southern Sudan and Zaire.
Down memory lane
Having visited the station as a child, I recently decided to refresh my memories with another visit. It was like coming back home after a long while to nothing. I came back to a dilapidated and abandoned home.
Long before you reach the station, its presence is announced by a high transmission mast that can be seen miles away. This mast is undoubtedly among the tallest in Uganda and still defiantly stands as one of the signs of the continued existence of the once popular radio.
The facility sits on over fifty acres of land that is fenced off. Eighty percent of the land is either idle or being used as farmland by the staff. Except for the football match being played today, the premises look deserted on most days.
At the gate, I am welcomed by a ramshackle of an askari’s cabin. A thick cloud of dark smoke is billowing out of the pathetic structure. Thinking the thing is on fire, I almost call out for help. But then the askari appears at the cabin door, smiling.
“I am sorry, I was cooking my lunch,” he says. “How may I help you?”
After explaining my intentions, he finally leads me to the office of the engineer-in-charge. Several old computer monitors lie scattered all over the room. You could see that the room badly needed painting. But then this is common to all the buildings at the premise; they are all in need of not just painting but refurbishment.
The engineer, a lean man probably in his early fifties, beckons me to a seat. On finding that I am a journalist, he beams with a smile that seems to say: “Finally, the world has remembered us!” He hands me a visitor’s book that he has been keeping like a treasure.
He explains that the book was first signed by President Idi Amin when he commissioned the station in 1971. I open the book as if to confirm, and indeed, the first page is signed Idi Amin, President of Uganda. The rest of the page is crossed out so that no one would sign on the same page with “The President”. For a moment, I feel great signing in the same book with “The Last King of Scotland”.
It is like signing my name into the pages of history.
I am then granted permission to tour the premises. The engineer, M.P.K Otim, offers to be my guide. First, he leads me out so I can view the exterior of the main building.
It could easily pass for a rich man’s old bungalow except for the mast rising up above it. You can see it is defying age. But after so many years of being forsaken, there are parts of the building that appear weak. Otim fears that with time, the whole building may give way.
“The Government has ignored this radio station. Very soon, everything will break down,” he says. To prove his point, he leads me back to the inside of the building, to a room with the inscriptions “STUDIO” on its door. As he opens it, I expect to see the best technology, but I am quickly disappointed. It is a very dark room with a bed in one corner and dysfunctional generator in the other. It is only the sound proofing that is still intact. It told of all the past glory of the studio.
Live studio presentations no longer take place. People now have to travel all the way to the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) premises in Kampala to have their programmes aired.
The staff houses nearby are another pathetic sight. They are literary decaying. Some houses have depreciated beyond use. The doorways are agape and all the windows missing. The pit-latrine nearby could go down with you any time.
In the distance is an open borehole that is their only source of water. A metallic can fastened to the end of a strong rope is thrown down the well. The person drawing the water has to stand about ten metres way and then pull the rope lest you are pulled down the well yourself. The whole experience looks fascinating to a person watching but certainly not to the one drawing the water.
The only things that give life to the station are the two huge 50KW transmitters which are almost impossible to find at any FM radio station today. Their transmissions were so powerful that they reached parts of western Kenya, Zaire and South Sudan.
But that was then. Today, only one of the transmitters is working, which is also intermittent due to power failures. The standby generator is long dead. The single transmitter also went idle for over a year. But thanks to the new management of UBC, the channel is back on air.
Walking a tight rope
In spite of all its problems, Otim has managed to keep the station running, for the last 12 years. He is optimistic that Butebo’s glory can be restored if the dilapidated buildings are renovated and the studio reinstated. This, he believes would give local leaders a platform to address their electorate directly from the studio, and the local musicians would get an opportunity to record their music as it was in the past.
To the listeners, I know you are preoccupied with FM, but tune to MW 729 Hz Butebo Channel and feel the power of the 50 KW transmitter.
The 50KW transmitter. This kind of transmitter cannot be easily found in other radio stations in the country