The colourful message: for the African Diaspora in the UK, there is really only one radio station that is reliably delivering a relevant and varied offering of news, opinion and music. Henry Bonsu (pictured), its star presenter and Kofi Kusitor, Colourful Radio's chief executive, talked to Stephen Williams about the station's pioneering work.
HAVING BEEN IN BUSINESS FOR nearly six years, targeting the music-loving community and adding to the mix an intelligent and entertaining dose of lively discussion, Colourful Radio has clearly been a trendsetter. Henry Bonsu, the station's chief presenter, is clear that the station's approach, especially with its speech content, is easily a match for the BBC and all the other rivals.
"In recent months, say the last year or so, radio stations here in the UK have become increasingly aware of just how exciting Africa is," Bonsu explains. In fact, he makes a strong argument that this mirrors the increasing interest that is being taken in the continent in an economic sense.
"Every week I hear of three or four conferences about Africa's investment potential, we have Presidents and Heads of State come calling, and of course the various IC events taking place such as the African Business Awards, and the African Banker Awards which I host. So we are reflecting this in our programming."
Colourful Radio is also doing its best to reach out and channel efforts to improve the investment flows that are being made into Africa by Africans living overseas. The logic behind this, according to Bonsu, is the size of the market: "We will have to wait for the next census for an exact figure but if you look at the African population in the UK as well as those of African heritage who are resident here, that could easily top three million people."
Not only do many Africans living in the UK, like Bonsu, return regularly to Africa for holidays, there has also been a clear trend of returning to the mother continent as the economic crisis impacts in the West. Bonsu usually goes to Ghana, where his family originated (although he was born in the UK), and there he spends time both on work projects and leisure pursuits. "Yeah, I do hang out on the beach for some of the time and check out the night clubs and other interesting retreats," he says with a laugh.
"But, more seriously, I also take the opportunity to visit my relatives, which I love doing, and do some work. For example, I was a delegate at the African Football Executive Conference on one trip last year, and in November I attended the Commonwealth Association's meeting. The Commonwealth Association's meeting had a number of interesting workshops that I reported on for Colourful Radio and broadcast when I got back here."
Perhaps the best-known African broadcaster in the country, Bonsu was keen to make an interesting observation about the "going back to Africa" trend. "What I have noticed is a lot of Africans who have taken the plunge [to return to live and work in Africa], who have made the decision on the basis that they do not want to become a lower middle-manager for this or that public sector in the UK, or within the private sector for that matter. After serving for 35 years, they do not want to retire with little more than a pension that is barely adequate.
"They actually make the conscious decision of wanting to do something in and for their country of origin, if possible. It's brain gain--not brain drain. It's very exciting, and I want that to be reflected in what we are doing in the UK so that people who are born and raised in the UK are encouraged to keep in contact with Africa. We want to be the portal for that."
That raised the question of whether Colourful Radio was reaching the rest of Europe, and of possible linkages with other radio stations there. It seems there is no reliable way of gauging the response from these different countries, but Bonsu says Colourful receives e-mails from people who tune in online, especially from Ghana and Nigeria, as well as Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Italy.
They are not just from Africans living in those countries but also those that know the continent, to a greater or lesser extent, and care about Africa.
Yet it is still the African Diaspora that is the target audience. "People are very hungry for African media when they go to countries where the African heritage population is not as big or as politically active and mobilised as it is here in the UK," Bonsu says, adding, "in this country, the African population is the European leader, without a doubt, culturally, economically and politically for the continent. So people look to us to deliver, whether they are living in Milan, in Hamburg or in Paris."
I asked Bonsu whether this was all part of the plan, to establish an international audience when Colourful Radio was first established, or whether it had simply evolved that way?
"It was always part of the plan, I think, because at that time, the idea for us when we first started was to set up a general media house, specifically targeted towards Africans everywhere, and for Colourful Radio to be a truly commercial radio station rather than a community radio station and to be the best-known radio station in the country."
But to be a commercial radio station you need to have a viable business plan. Responding to this point, Bonsu's colleague and Colourful Radio's business manager, Kofi Kusitor was refreshingly candid.
"Our business plan and performance has taken a bit of a battering for the last few years," he told me. "Back in 2006, when we launched as a commercial radio station, we gave ourselves two years to prove the concept was sound. Then we planned to go back to the investors for more money.
"But as you know, by the end of 2007, the recession was beginning to bite and that made things much more difficult. Nevertheless, the audience is still growing far faster than the revenues."
So it seems that Colourful Radio, like most media concerns in the West (and many other companies for that matter) is finding the current financial climate extremely challenging. This is because advertising revenues, the station's life-blood, have declined during the recession. However, by leveraging the relations with African and Caribbean companies, it is now beginning to buck that trend. Meanwhile, Bonsu continues to promote the station and find other means of both generating revenue and finding other ways to move the station forward.
"One of the things I do try and do when I am in Ghana is go onto the local radio and then talk about issues in the UK, talk about my relationship with Ghana and obviously try and get the Colourful Radio message across. What I want is for Ghanaians in Ghana to be aware that there are Ghanaians, West Africans--in fact, Africans from across the continent--living in the UK who are thinking about them. We have our own story and our own way of telling it. We do not need to rely on Western media. We are trying to promote the African brand!
"It is really great stuff that we connect with Ghana and the African Union and African leaders, both political and cultural. These people, who really have vision and are dynamic, have to get together. We have the Colorful brand and we inspire people to think maybe about the community back home."
Bonsu adds: "But you see examples of African-led businesses in Britain reaching out and getting their investment, funding, sponsorship, sometimes platinum investments of six figures from Africa, as opposed to sourcing the investment they need from the UK. So it shows there is money in Africa, and we are looking to work with potential partners and investors to extend our brand." The station is providing a unique opportunity for new investors to get on board.