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Staff Spotlight: Dr. Joel Isabirye May be the Most Interesting Man in Ugandan Mass Media, and he is Proving to us that Anything is Possible


Dr. Joel Isabirye, PhD, is a Lecturer at Kampala International University. He is also an established media and business consultant whose services have been sought by over 90 media houses and hundreds of businesses and governmental organizations. He takes us through his life, and academic and career journey.

1)Tell us more about yourself?

I am a lecturer of communication and development. I teach mainly mass communication courses at Kampala International University, although I also have advanced degrees in development studies and development economics. I do academic work, specifically teaching, supervising students, research, and administrative work, in the area of coordinating research activities within one department at the university. I also do some community service.

As a person, I am a very simple Ugandan, who lives a very ordinary life with the belief that life should be simple.  I was born in Sierra Leone in West Africa where my parents were working at some point. So, I speak Creole fluently, a language most commonly used in Sierra Leone. I also cherish their food spanning from fufu to jollof rice to okra soup and more.

Apart from lecturing, I am a media and business consultant. As a consultant, I have the sometimes-difficult task to help set up, manage, turn-around, improve, and advise media houses and businesses, depending on what they need or what my assessment thinks they need. I usually come in as a last resort when a solution is desperately needed. I offer short-notice and long-notice consultancy. Meaning if your media house or business has a business challenge, I can provide a solution in thirty minutes time, if I get the facts or it can be a longer story if that is what you would like as a client.

Most of my work involves organizing media houses, developing products for them such as programmes and sales packages, and training everyone from the owners to the cleaners. I train in marketing, product development, programming, presenters, staff, and so on. I have served over 90 media houses in different capacities, in Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Kenya and Sri Lanka. I also consult for businesses and have been fortunate to serve many businesses including banks, restaurants, clothing stores, malls, shoemakers, boda-boda riders, mobile money agencies, forex bureaus, as well as some government agencies. 

Some of my projects as a consultant have been: Royal FM Kigali Rwanda, Next Radio (for NBS Television), NBS Television itself, Super FM turned around, Dembe FM turn around, Suubi FM, Success FM, Parliament Radio and Television (inception development), Uganda Catholic Television (the National Catholic Television) owned by the Uganda Episcopal Conference (inception development), Magic 100, Radio One South Sudan, Akaboozi Uganda, CBS Radio Uganda (advisory to management), Galaxy FM (support for license and training), Vision Group (all stations) (training), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Media Action, Standard Television (STV), HG-TV, Voice of Muhabura, Mbabule FM, and many more. 

Before I moved into consultancy, I managed Capital Radio and Beat FM for a number of years, overseeing the development of the two stations in programming and sales support. Prior to that, I had worked for Power FM and Sanyu FM. 

At an individual level, I am an end-of-year contributor to the Vision Group magazine Uganda in the Next Year. Back in the day, I was a review contributor for African Woman Magazine. I also wrote for Music Uganda, the first online entertainment publication Uganda ever had. Around that time, I set up the Center for African Music online publication and organization that attracted a lot of interest from outside the country and the continent. Having gained some depth in popular culture, which I started monitoring in high school, as a Masters Student at Makerere University, I also became the first popular Cultural Archivist at the Centre for Basic Research (CBR), a centre founded by Professor Mahmood Mamdani.

Currently, on the side, I own and manage Monday Times Online Newspaper, and Kawa FM Online Radio and Classic FM Uganda Online Radio, both can be obtained via apps and web links. They have full-time presenters and newsreaders offering a full broadcasting service for Ugandans in Uganda and in the diaspora, and anyone else interested in the affairs and entertainment of Uganda.

Before I concentrated online, I had gone through a difficult time with printed newspapers. I used to own three printed newspapers publishing each week. Weekly Mail (English), Ebbaluwa (Luganda) and Busoga Express (English but covering Busoga). Sales were decreasingly low and the menace of vendors renting out the papers became difficult to cope with. They suffered from the digital disruption and eventually I had to close them down to cut back losses. It is then that I understood that the future would be online as long as it was done properly.

2) Where did you go to school?

I was ‘unfortunate’ to have studied in various schools, institutions and universities in Sierra Leone, Uganda, Australia, Ireland, South Africa, Tanzania, Sudan, and the United States of America.

But this helped me to learn about different cultures in different countries, and at the end of it all, I obtained some certificates. These include a PLE Certificate, UCE Certificate, UACE Certificate, Bachelor’s Degree, a Post Graduate Diploma, Three Post Graduate Certificates, Two Masters Degrees, and PhD (Doctor of Philosophy).

3)What are your Academic highlights so far?

Teaching for some time has been a highlight for me. You accumulate a better understanding of what you teach when you frequently teach it. You gain more experience.

Over time, I have also had some publications in internationally peer-reviewed journals and books. My latest publications came out last year in the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia published by Bloomsbury Publishers in New York. I have published with Seagull (London and New York), and Routledge (London), as well as Equinox (London). For the most part, my articles and book contributions have been solicited. This means that the journal or the publishing house invites you to write for them with some paying you for writing. This has been a blessing, because it is very difficult to publish that way, considering how competitive the field of publishing is. I found out that if you demonstrate some basic authority in your area of specialization, some of this could happen. I keep praying that this keeps happening coupled with other work that I am trying to submit to other publishing houses. I am however way below the threshold that I would like to publish and hope to improve this year. You look at scholars from India or Nigeria and see people in the real work of publishing. I hope to get there.

Along the way, I presented papers at Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Mississippi State University in Starkville Mississippi, Jadavpur University in Kolkata (Calcutta) India, the British Institute in Eastern Africa, among other places.

Through time, I have also won a few grants from the Ford Foundation, the Belgian Technical Corporation (BTC), the Austrian Government, ENRECA (Enhancing Research Capacity) of the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) for a fellowship in India and other organizations.

Within this decade, I was appointed Assistant Professor at a Public University in the United States of America. It was a blessing going through a very arduous process of interviews, campus visits, trial lectures, presentations to co-faculty, a total of nine stages to go through and receive a contract from them for Assistant Professor of Broadcast Communications in the Department of Communication. 

I am a ‘graduate’ of the elite Radio Programme Director Graduate School that was operated by Senior Radio Consultant Dan O’Day, in Los Angeles California. My year was the last intake. It was a stroke of luck to go to it. Dan O’Day has been a legend in the radio business in the western world. Through that programme, I met radio seniors such as Mike McVay, current Vice President of Cumulus Media, the second-largest media group in the United States, after iHeart Media.

I also attended and graduated from the Australian Government Radio School (perhaps the best radio school in the world) during the tenure of radio legend Steve Ahern, who was the school director. By many accounts, Australia is the most competitive radio market in the world. It was supplied many of the world’s best radio programmers who have had illustrious carries in the global radio industry.

Currently, I am winding up a study with Dublin City University (DCU) in Ireland, that conducts a comparative analysis of commercial radio programming at KIIS FM 102.7 Los Angeles California, Capital Radio 95.8 London, and Nova 96.6 Sydney Australia. The three stations are the biggest contemporary hit radio stations in the world. That study might be the biggest highlight for me because it went to the heart of the global radio industry and opened up several insights into global standards of best practice in the radio industry. I hope to transform it into a book as soon as it is done, that can be published if I find a publisher.

4) What is your main objective in Life?

My objective is to transfer knowledge that I may achieve first before others get it. No one owns knowledge. Others simply get it before others do.

5)When did you start working for KIU?

I started working for KIU in 2018. I was brought partly to revive the radio project at the university and partly to teach. I talked to the then Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Affairs, Dr Annet Kezaabu who told me she was interested in me ensuring that the project takes off and also teach communication courses.

6)What does it feel like working for KIU?

KIU is a very good place to work in. First of all, it is a very purposeful and deterministic environment. The management and staff want it to progress. There is a sense of urgency to make it move to the next level. I like that kind of challenge.

Increasingly academic rigour that research students are being put to is making them become more grounded in research so that when they get to the field, they are doing well as researchers.

There is academic independence, meaning that you are able to think, write and do your work without any problem. In fact, if you are orderly and focus on your work, you are not likely to encounter any problem.

It is a very conducive environment. Students are quite disciplined in class. The facilities are growing, the library is well stocked and staff is available to lecture. I have never heard of a situation where there is no lecturer for any course offered at KIU.

The University's research profile is on the rise and this is commendable. The web rankings are shooting up. It is the leading private university in the country.

6)What do you hope to contribute during your stay at the university?

If possible, I would like to contribute to the growth of the University’s profile. It is the leading private university in Uganda and as it continues to rise, it can be consolidated. There are different ways of having the University profile rise, for instance, conducting more research and publications, attracting significant research projects, organizing groundbreaking conferences, innovations, participating in global conferences and carrying the banner of the university in the outside world space.

With the leadership at the department and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the overall university, we are cooperating on how to initiate projects and do more research.

Having a very strong foot in the media business sector, I am trying to see how I can use my networks to deploy alumni to places where they can cause significant change or even if they are working independently.

In terms of outreach, perhaps the university needs to get its radio station back and make sure it is among the top five. It will not only promote the university; it can make a good return on investment on its own. I already have the formula to do that and hope that if we get it off the ground it will compete even when it is a student-run radio station. With time we could launch a television station that still competes with Bukedde, NTV and NBS. We shall get there, one day at a time.

For now, I am also involved in the team that is organizing the Inclusive Information and Communication Technology Conference (IICT) that will take place on 25th March 2020 at the university.

7)What are your plans for research?

Research is time-consuming but I have some ongoing plans for research, I have a book titled Mass Media History of Contemporary East Africa, which should be published in June 2020 and perhaps four journal papers coming out this year.

Contemporary East Africa refers to East Africa that was revived in the 1990s and 2000s. It covers Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and South Sudan. Before we only had Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania which were colonized by the British. The community collapsed in 1977.

In that book, I am looking at how the media has evolved from the arrival of the missionaries, through the colonial era up to the digital telecommunications of the late 2010s. It is 300 pages long and might be of interest to people who like to know more about the mass media.

I am also finalizing two papers: one entitled ‘Efficacy of Social Media Marketing Influencers in Uganda’ for the coming IICT Conference and ‘International Broadcasting and Foreign Policy During the Libyan Civil War 2011’ which I am hoping to submit to the College of Humanities Journal of Social Sciences at KIU. If I am lucky and it is accepted then I will have it published. The first paper inquires if social media marketing influencers generate results for businesses that employ them in Uganda. In the second paper, I explore the media as a foreign policy instrument. I analyze the relationship between news coverage by CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and Voice of America (VOA) during the war against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the foreign policies of their home countries. It examines if that coverage influenced or was influenced by the foreign policies of United States, United Kingdom and Qatar and how the coverage helped mobilize consensus at the United Nations for military intervention in Libya through the NATO bombardment of Gaddafi and the implications for the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO).

8). What is your opinion regarding media freedom in Uganda?

Generally, the media environment is one that has mixed conditions. There are areas that journalists are able to report about and do well. However, the state feels that in certain areas such as politics, the journalists should not cross certain lines. But journalists are trying to engage the government and they are improving.,

Media freedom is most affected by the low pay for journalists. So what happens is journalists may leave the profession for greener pastures, for example, Joseph Sabiiti (of Next Media went to Action Aid), Samuel Apedel a very good journalist formerly of the New Vision headed to National Water, Chris Obore a star journalist ended up as Public Relations head at Parliament. 

In cases where they do not cross to other careers, the media is becoming increasingly corrupt. Simply because the wages are low. Today for every newspaper headline I see I think about who could have sponsored it by paying the writer or the editors. 

We have to find a way of making journalists make ends meet. Ethics does not always exist in a vacuum. It is conditioned.

9). What is your comparison of the media freedom in Uganda and the rest of the East African countries?

In Uganda, the media is free as compared to most of our neighbours. But there is a context or reason why this is so. For example, in South Sudan, sections of the military believe that media exposes too much that may compromise the security of the country. In Rwanda, the government has practical experience of how the media participated in fueling the genocide through Radio Milles Collines. They are very careful and pay close attention to what journalists and media houses are doing.

10) Where do you see print media five to ten years from now?

No one however tall can see the future. However, one of the courses I teach is media history. Media history demonstrates that through the years, media have emerged out of innovations and inventions. Humanity initially started writing on clay tablets, writing on papyrus, walls of caves, and so on. Eventually, the printing press emerged which facilitated mass printing, then radio followed. We then had television and at each point, a new medium came, it displaced the other.

Five years from now, the print media could have phased out because the digital disruption has greatly affected it. People cannot wait to read news they can get on digital platforms or social media. But as I said, no one can ever see the future, however tall.

11) What has been the most rewarding aspect of your academic career?

I have learnt a lot from colleagues, students, events, workshops and conferences. I have had an opportunity to network across time and space. I have published some little work that I believe will stand the test of time.

12) Describe your best Lecture?

Every lecture is an excellent lecture for me because it has so many things that happen sporadically and those that are out of how you planned it. Students are fun and I learn from them. They all bring unique experiences to the class.

However, if I was to have a very best lecture, it was the presentation I had at Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. It was a very exciting and memorable experience. Yet it went well. Harvard is a place with some of the most renowned academics in the world yet at the same time the most down to earth, who seem as eager to learn as we all are.

I also met Frederick Sumaye the former prime minister of Tanzania, who had just finished a course at the university and we had a long chat about African Development. I also met very many other interesting people who I had the opportunity to talk to at the sidelines.

13)Has a student ever taught you anything valuable?

Definitely. My lectures have many moments during which I have learnt a great deal from my students.

14) Would you change anything in the past?

Not really. Anything in my past has led me to where I am, including my first job where I had no pay. 

15) What is your favourite Sport?

Chess and Table Tennis

16) What is your advice to the fresh graduates?

They should always look at what is within them or what they already have to be able to make a future. "What one man can do, another man can" is what I believe. We learn so many things but we discard them expecting to find success elsewhere. Some of these courses we study have the keys to our future. But we simply pack the books home when we are done and start looking for another future.

I also encourage them to save. When graduates get the opportunity to make some money, they should not believe it can last forever. They should manage it efficiently.