UNCLE FRED OBACHI MACHOKA Kenya’s Legendary Radio Presenter

It takes innovation to survive and remain relevant in an ever-changing media industry. But Uncle Fred Obachi Machoka, Kenya’s veteran radio presenter, has mastered the art of survival too well. He carries with him a wealth of knowledge and experience running over four decades. He walks ESTHER KIRAGU down memory lane and shares some of the wisdom he has garnered over the years.

Fred Obachi Machoka describes his entry into the media as sheer chance. The year was 1975.  A youthful Fred was serving in the Northern Frontier as a General Service Unit (GSU) soldier and loved listening to radio. It was while listening to radio at one time that he heard of a competition branded “SANYO Juu SANYO talks” and decided to try his luck.

“To my amazement I won the competition, which came with a radio as the prize. This required me to travel to Nairobi to pick my prize. When I met the producer of the programme that ran the competition, he immediately noticed my voice and told me it would be a great voice for radio if I was interested in radio broadcasting,” Obachi explains his debut in media.

Although he was still serving in the forces as a signal controller, Obachi was open to new opportunities. Though he accepted the offer, he wasn’t sure how he would juggle being both a broadcaster and a soldier. At the time, the Sanyo brand of electronics was not doing too well in the market and Obachi was assigned to help popularise it through a five-minute pre-recorded advertisement, which aired on the then Voice of Kenya (VOK) radio, now Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). So successful was the campaign that in a span of three years, SANYO electronics had become the top electronic brand in the Kenyan market.

Entry into radio…

A year later, Obachi resigned from the forces to take on a full time broadcasting job. “Having worked in the forces for four years I felt I had served my time. In addition, the Northern frontier was an extremely harsh working environment and it was also traumatic to lose friends and colleagues daily as this was the time of the Shifta war,” he explains of his exit from the forces.

Despite broadcasting being a totally new field for Obachi, he took to it like a duck to water. So what was his secret to a seemingly smooth transition? “I got a really good induction by the former host of the programme, the late Said Amarika Sonko. He was very patient with me and helped me find my way in radio broadcasting. I also recognised my inexperience and went back to college to study public relations and advertising,” he explains.

Obachi carved his niche in commercial broadcasting where he would come up with concepts geared towards promoting products or services on radio and then get sponsors. “Unlike the popular belief that I was employed at the KBC, the truth is, I never did. However, a lot of the radio shows I hosted aired on KBC hence the misconception. Some of the most popular shows I broadcasted included: Sportsman Ni Sawa Hasa; Ugua Pole Na Lucozade; Senge’nge Ni Ngombe; Mchanganyiko Maalum Na Bitcham, among many others. My hands were so full, as I had more than 20 radio shows on KBC radio sponsored by different companies, most of which are still remembered by many Kenyans,” says the man who seems to have a midas touch.

Having done many shows and worked with several advertisers, Obachi wanted a larger part of the pie. He therefore began his own outfit in 1988, FM 35 (Fred Machoka at 35), where he continued with commercial broadcasting. It helped that two main clients he had worked with before were so loyal to him that they moved with him to his company, enabling him to get the boost he needed to get started.

A diverse media personality…

A man of many gifts, Obachi has impeccable masterly of the Swahili language and an unmatched repertoire for African music, particularly Rumba and Lingala. He says his love for music began in his younger days when he would listen to music from his dad’s radio. Then when he joined high school, he enjoyed listening to some of his classmates passionately singing to Lingala music. And over time these rubbed on to him. Over the years he has learnt the Congolese language in bits and pieces and admits wittily that he can get by in the streets of Kinshasha.

Obachi hosted two musical shows on KBC TV – Music Time and Talk of Time, which were both very popular. Having mastered the art of attracting and retaining audiences over the years, Royal Media Services approached him in 2002 to do a live radio musical show on Citizen radio.

“Despite my initial apprehension, I took a leap of faith and agreed to the deal. At the time Citizen radio was facing a lot of competition from Metro radio, which had a popular musical show dubbed Shaki Legi (shake your leg). I launched an African musical show, Rogaroga, and within three months was at per in ratings with Shaki Legi. By the time we were at six months my show was leading. Now, 15 years on, Rogaroga remains the number one radio show in its segment and has fans from all over the country,” he says.

Obachi adds that over the years he has learnt a lot from his audience and keenly listens to their feedback and strives to address their needs, hence gaining their loyalty and trust over the years. He still spends a lot of time preparing for his shows and travels widely in search of content. He has in the past also doubled up as a DJ with weekly music shows in different parts of the country.

While Obachi says over time he has tried to inject new blood through mentorship since he is aware at some point he will have to exit from radio, he admits this is still challenging and an on-going process. He advises the youth to be willing to be mentored and to be patient as nothing good in life comes easy.

Having worked in the media for over 40 years, Obachi has a wealth of knowledge to offer to media personalities who care to listen. He emphasises that there is still a whole world of unchartered territory in radio that one can tap into, and that ‘sex talks’ cannot be the only way to attract and retain audiences. “There is a place and time for sex talks, but that is not all there is to attracting audiences,” he says emphatically.

He unapologetically urges people in the media to believe in God and family, as this is the only way to remain standing during the highs and lows of the industry. In his experience the public will want to dictate who you date and marry, how you dress and your lifestyle, but when the chips come down the same public has the potential to really demonise you, and hence the need for a great support system that grounds you.

Marriage and handling fame…

Being a public figure, Obachi has learnt to deal with the fame that comes with it. While he agrees that when one is a public figure the public owns a piece of you as they have played a role in building you, he has gained wisdom to deal with that over the years. “It is very easy for this popularity to get to your head. I am grateful for my family as they always put me in check and often remind me that I am still a husband and a father, and these roles are very important to me,” he says.

Obachi’s wife, Sophie Machoka, has also learnt to deal with the attention her husband gets. “For instance, there will be times when my wife and I are out on a date and our peace is disrupted by enthusiastic fans demanding my attention. This really bothered her in her younger days, but now she is understanding and okay with it,” explains Obachi.

Obachi and Sophie have four grown up children, and two grandchildren. Although he is still active in the media, with his wife, a retired teacher, they do farming in Isinya, Kajiado County as well as run a ranch. Married for 37 years, Obachi says he is still madly in love with his wife. “I admit I am a spoilt man by my young girl,” he lovingly says of his wife who sat in throughout this interview.

The couple look youthful too, a sign that they are aging gracefully. Like any marriage they admit they have had their share of ups and down, but remain fully committed to each other and work on their marriage every day. They say that marriage is the most endangered institution today hence the need to preserve and guard it by creating time to spend time together despite busy schedules.

Obachi ends the interview with a word of advice to media practitioners, “Media personalities ought to be cautious as theirs is a powerful tool. There are many people looking up to them as an authority in disseminating news, information and entertainment, hence the need to take this responsibility seriously.”

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