Music media in Liberia | Music In Africa

Music media in Liberia | Music In Africa

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Historical context

The Liberian music industry and the media have had a complicated relationship, ever since the Liberian Herald, a four-page monthly newspaper, made its debut in 1826. This situation stems from the fact that the media, during its early days, did little to promote Liberian music.[1] 

After 36 years of existence, the Liberian Herald closed its doors in 1862. Additionally, none of the other newspapers that followed the Herald survived to reach the 19th century due to low circulation and advertisement buy-in, combined with high printing costs. Then, in 1946, about four decades after the last newspaper ceased its operations, the Liberian Age hit the newsstands. Four years later came the Daily Listener, which, like the Independent, was pro-government.

Between 1946 and 1970, Liberia only had about 12 newspapers, due to the suppression of freedom of speech and the press during the administration of President William Tubman. These newspapers had to become increasingly pro-government to survive, paying less attention to critical national issues as a result. 

But when Tubman died in 1971, his successor William Tolbert undertook a series of measures to free the media from suppressive policies, which led to its expansion. This saw the burgeoning of several newspapers that were critical of the government. Some of these papers were The Bentol Times, Sunday Express, The Scope, Liberian Inaugural and New Liberian.[2]

The reforms pursued by Tolbert had their shortcomings and were not perfect. However, the push towards greater press freedom suffered a major setback when Samuel Doe took control of the government in a bloody military coup d’état on April 12, 1980, when Tolbert was assassinated. Footprints Today, The Sun-Times, The Daily Star and other newspapers in the 1980s managed to stay afloat for a while before also being forced to close.[3]

The history of music coverage in Liberian media

None of the newspapers from 1826 up to Tolbert’s assassination had a page dedicated to music.[4] Things began to change later in the 1980s when Liberia’s oldest-surviving newspaper, Daily Observer, was the first to feature a page dedicated to music.

Fast-forward to the present day, the situation has improved, as more newspapers now promote Liberian arts and culture, particularly music, although none of them do so as regularly as the Observer. 

The Sun, Sunday Observer, The New Liberian and The Bong Crier were some of the papers in circulation the 1980s. The New Liberian and The Bong Crier were owned by the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT), as government communication projects. 

Finally, almost all of the papers that came out during the war years of Charles Taylor (1990-2004) have not survived. As in the past, the dominant sources of news about music in Liberia remain press releases, handouts and press conferences.[5]

Radio 

The history of radio in Liberia dates back to Dr John West’s small private radio station that he built in the 1940s. However, after a few years of operation, West shut down the station in the 1950s because of accruing expenses.[6] Following the closure of the station, another medium-wave radio station was built and named ELRS. The station came into being through the work of local communications experts Samuel Watkins and Sewell Brewer in 1956. Then, in 1960, the government of Liberia, after years of planning, launched the country’s first national radio station, the ELBC, which was powered by two medium- and short-wave transmitters.[7] 

However, before the coming of the ELBC, there was already another radio station in the region named Radio ELWA, which was built by the Sudan Interior Mission, an evangelical organisation, in 1954. ELWA was the first Christian radio station in Africa and became well known beyond Liberia, in North and East Africa.[8]

During their formative years, both radio stations paid little or no attention to Liberian music. The cause of this, according to Dr Timothy Nevin, was because of local disc jockeys’ obsession with foreign music, particularly music from the US and other African countries, including Nigeria and Ghana. However, by the mid-1980s, things began to change after music producer Faisal Helwani and a radio programmer Doughba Caranda began programming more local music.[9] 

Although there are limited stats available, airplay given to Liberian music has increased in recent years. According to a report by PeacebuildingData.org, the most popular programmess on radio stations in Liberia are news broadcasts, reportedly listened to by 72% of respondents, followed by music and entertainment (49%) and religious programmes (38%).[10] 

Among the 50-plus radio stations across the country, only Big FM, owned by the Liberian Music Awards Foundation, currently plays more Liberian music than foreign music.[11] The rest of the stations air a mix of Liberian and foreign music, most especially Nigerian and Ghanaian compositions. According to a report by Geopoll, ELBC radio listenership stands at an average share of 23%, followed by Truth FM, ECOWAS Radio and Radio Gbarnga.[12]

Television

Liberia got its first television station in 1964 when the government established the Liberia National Television (LNTV) service. After its founding, LNTV held a monopoly on television broadcasting until the 2000s. During its early years, the TV station focused solely on promoting and propagating the government’s political agenda, thereby paying little attention to local music.[13] 

Currently, there are 12 television stations in Liberia, none of which have a studio that can accommodate a live audience. Generally speaking, the daily programming of these stations includes news, sport, music and other entertainment-related content. Despite its heavy focus on politics, almost all of these stations have separate entertainment programmes, which feature more local music than was the case in the past.[14] 

The Shizo Entertainment Show on KMTV, an online station, is currently the most popular entertainment show in Liberia. According to GeoPoll, the most-watched TV channels in Liberia include Sky TV, Power TV and LNTV. LNTV leads with an average audience share of 49%, followed by Sky TV with an 18% share.[15] 

Magazines 

In the past, the coverage of music magazines in Liberia was devoted not only to music but to all sectors of the country’s entertainment industry, as well as politics. Some of the popular magazines that are no longer in operation include Gossip Magazine, Shizo Magazine, Palm Magazine and Day Na Break Magazine.

The lack of patronage and the advent of social media and online music blogs have made it difficult for contemporary Liberian magazines to survive for more than a year. Many music magazines have not been able to survive even four months because of limited original content. The lack of a specific market position and the belated coverage of stories are two main reasons for their failure to keep operations going.[16] 

Online media 

Due to technological advancements, affordable mobile handsets and relatively cheap data, Liberia has experienced a surge in music blogs in the past few years. According to Digital 2020: Liberia, the country’s internet penetration stood at 12% and 4.13 million internet connections as of January 2020.[17]

Music blogs have made it easy for Liberian artists to reach their target market and measure their reach. However, most digital platforms do not exclusively promote particular entertainment sectors but all of them at once. 

Among the many blogs in Liberia, the most popular are Tunes Liberia, Plus Liberia, Gossip Liberia, Day Na Break and Diamond Online. Peer-to-peer sharing and word-of-mouth marketing have enabled these platforms to overtake print media as the home of breaking entertainment news.[17] Among the top five, Tunes Liberia, which organises the annual TunesLiberia Music Awards, leads the online market in terms of monthly visitors, in part due to its large music catalogue. However, Tunes Liberia, like all other blogs, is not monetised, thereby denying artists the opportunity to make money from their streams.[18]  

Despite this shortcoming, these online platforms have been able to help artists grow their fan bases, which has led to more business opportunities and partnerships. Moreover, the influence of these platforms has enabled a good number of upcoming artists to launch their careers. Some of the artists who have benefited from these platforms’ influence are Stunna, Jaredo, Mr Parbai and Cjay.

Regulation and censorship  

In general, Liberia enjoys a relatively free media landscape, one in which music plays a central role. In the past few years, no musicians have had their songs taken off air for vulgar lyrics or strong socio-political content.[19] Nevertheless, there have been a few instances where journalists have been jailed, and newspapers fined or shut down on defamation grounds.[20] 

In 2018, producer and rapper A.Fo4doe was allegedly assaulted and arrested by security personnel for the song ‘Bring Our Container Back’. The song in question criticises the government over a missing shipping container said to have contained €90m ($105m) worth of newly printed Liberian banknotes.[21]  

Before this particular incident, former Liberian Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism Minister Laurence Bropleh in 2008 threatened to shut down radio stations that played “vulgar music”, arguing that “such music is not good for Liberian society.”[22] 

However, after many years, media censorship laws were relaxed on 3 July 2018 when President George Weah signed into law the Kamara Abdullai Kamara (KAK) Press Freedom Act. The act amended Chapter 11 of the Penal Law of 1978, repealing Section 11.11 on criminal libel against the president; 11.12 on sedition; and 11.14 on criminal malevolence. This act came a few years after the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the Table Mountain Declaration and several other legal instruments on freedom of expression and the press.[23]

The music industry in Liberia remains regulated by MICAT, which was established through a law voted by the National Legislature in 1965 with the statutory responsibility to develop and disseminate factual information about the government at home and abroad. MICAT is also charged with the statutory responsibility to promote cultural and tourism activities, as well as to regulate and control the broadcasting industry.[24] 

Part of MICAT’s directive is to monitor the content disseminated by the boradcasting industry. However, the ministry is not in the habit of censoring songs with political, religious and moral undertones, which in the past were regarded as offensive and capable of corrupting the youth.

Resources and citations:

[1] Gweh, D. (2019, March 10). Director of Culture at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism. (J. Robin Dopoe, interviewer).
[2] Popline.org. (n.d.). Popline.org. Retrieved December 24, 2018, from Popline.org: https://www.popline.org/node/420745 
[3] Best, K. Y. (2019, August 27). Founder and Publisher of the Daily Observer Newspaper. (J. Robin Dopoe, interviewer)
[4] ibid.
[5]  Popline.org. (n.d.). Popline.org. Retrieved December 24, 2018, from Popline.org: https://www.popline.org/node/420745
[6] Liberia Broadcasting System . (n.d.). LBS Online. Retrieved August 27, 2019, from LBS Online: https://elbcradio.com/2content_detail.php?sub=61&lang=1
[7] ibid.
[8] Ministries, E. (n.d.). elwaministries.com. Retrieved December 24, 2018, from elwaministries.com: https://www.elwaministries.com/radio/
[9] Nevin, D. T. (2010). UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA. Retrieved August 27, 2019, from UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA: https://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/UF/E0/04/23/31/00001/nevin_t.pdf
[10] PeacebuildingData.org. (n.d.). peacebuildingdata.org. Retrieved August 27, 2019, from peacebuildingdata.org: http://www.peacebuildingdata.org/research/liberia/results/mass-media-access
[11] Gweh, D. (2019, March 10). Director of Culture at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism. (J. Robin Dopoe, interviewer). 
[12] GeoPoll. (n.d.). geopoll.com. Retrieved August 27, 2019, from .geopoll.com: https://www.geopoll.com/blog/audience-data-liberia-media-market-day/
[13] Best, K. Y. (2019, August 27). Founder and Publisher of the Daily Observer Newspaper. (J. Robin Dopoe, interviewer). 
[14] Gweh, D. (2019, March 10). Director of Culture at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism. (J. Robin Dopoe, Interviewer). 
[15] GeoPoll. (n.d.). geopoll.com. Retrieved August 27, 2019, from geopoll.com: https://www.geopoll.com/blog/audience-data-liberia-media-market-day/
[16] Gweh, D. (2019, March 10). Director of Culture at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism. (J. Robin Dopoe, interviewer). 
[17] Digital 2020: Liberia. from datareportal.com: https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-liberia
[18] Observer, T. L. (n.d.). The Liberian Observer. Retrieved 5 September, 2019, from The Liberian Observer: https://www.liberianobserver.com/business/meet-the-guy-who-is-exporting-liberian-music-to-the-world/
[19] Gweh, D. (2019, March 10). Director of Culture at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism. (J. Robin Dopoe, interviewer). 
[20] Africa, M. F. (n.d.). mfwa.org. Retrieved August 30, 2019, from mfwa.org: www.mfwa.org/issues-in-focus/decriminalise-libel-mfwa-urges-new-liberian-president/
[21] Freemuse.org. (n.d.). Freemuse.org. Retrieved 30 2019, August , from Freemuse.org: https://freemuse.org/news/liberia-protest-song-producer-arrested-and-allegedly-assaulted-freemuse/
[22] cemesp-liberia.org. (n.d.). cemesp-liberia.org. Retrieved August 30, 2019, from cemesp-liberia.org: http://cemesp-liberia.org/ ‘Information minister threatens to close media outlets, punish others for playing ‘vulgar music’.
[23] Africa, M. F. (n.d.). mfwa.org. Retrieved August 30, 2019, from mfwa.org: www.mfwa.org/issues-in-focus/decriminalise-libel-mfwa-urges-new-liberian-president/
[24] Ministry of Information, C. A. (n.d.). micat.gov.lr. Retrieved from micat.gov.lr: http://micat.gov.lr/index.php/micat/about-the-ministry-of-information.html

Disclaimer: Music In Africa’s Overviews provide broad information about the music scenes in African countries. Music In Africa understands that the information in some of these texts could become outdated with time. If you would like to provide updated information or corrections to any of our Overview texts, please contact us at info@musicinafrica.net.

Editing by David Cornwell



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