From Radio Presenter/ Manager to Radio Entrepreneur- The Rebirth of James Onen a.k.a FatBoy, Uganda’s maverick ‘King of Radio’ – CEO East Africa

James Onen is the proprietor and CEO of Creative Radio Solutions, which owns the internet radio service, RX Radio.

Most of the world thinks James Onen started RX Radio in response to being fired from Sanyu FM during the COVID 19 lockdown in 2020, for allegedly leading a strike over planned pay cuts, but he says that Creative Radio Solutions had existed for a while before that, as a platform that offers customized solutions for radio, like radio ads, radio concepts, graphics work and video.

A talented audio editor and producer, a skilled video editor and as a more than competent graphics designer, he has essentially always been an ad agency on feet of sorts. He is also an effective communicator, and a dab hand at the Public Relations game.

Speculation was rife about where he would end up after Sanyu FM. There were rumours about Capital FM and XFM. Instead, James decided to launch his very own Reckless Radio. When he eventually showed up at the Uganda Communications Commission for a license, the Reckless Radio name was rejected. James switched tack seamlessly, offering the name RX Radio, which was accepted– thus RX Radio was born. The fun part? James had anticipated that the name Reckless Radio would be rejected, but the name alone, and the buzz around its rejection was PR on a plate for him and his new brand.

Don’t be deceived by his seemingly maverick approach to doing things, but behind that nonconformism is a methodical approach. He insists, he is meticulous about his work: he researches, quite a lot, which is why he can sustain conversations and on-air arguments, even on unfamiliar topics. This approach to his work as a presenter at Sanyu FM and now at RX Radio, also ensures that he is a ruthless debater and an effective internet troll. And even when he espouses a view that can at best be described as absurd, he will sound rational doing so.

In this interview with CEO East Africa’s Dennis Asiimwe held at RX Radio’s offices, James Onen shares some insights into his new world as an entrepreneur and the world of internet radio.   

How are things? It’s been a while since we last ‘saw’ you from a work perspective. How are you doing, and how is RX Radio doing?

I am doing great, and RX Radio is moving along just fine, growing into the footprint that we created for it in the marketplace. A lot of things are happening quickly…

You guys have moved house…

We were growing bigger, we needed more people, so we needed a place that could enable us to do what we wanted to do, so we got a bigger place.

Well, you probably get asked this a lot these days…what would you say is the difference between being a proprietor of a business and being an employee on a salary?

Obviously, when you are a salaried person, you are a lot more relaxed. You do your work and then go home, you are not really responsible for anyone besides yourself, even when you are a manager. When you are a proprietor, even though you might take joy in what you are doing, and watching your business grow, there is significantly more responsibility placed on your shoulders. You are essentially responsible for the people that are working with you, and for you. These responsibilities are inescapable – the month is going to end, and everyone will be looking at you. You also have to open up channels of communication, to ensure work goes smoothly, which is something that needed some adaptation from me because as an employee, I often kept to myself. That is also not an option when you are a proprietor with employees. I have had to polish up my social skills.

What do you feel RX Radio is doing differently from other radio stations?

We are focused on setting the bar high. The demands of the market have forced many radio stations to adjust to what they believe is of interest to the wider public, which can be a good thing, and a bad thing. It is great to be able to serve your audience what they are looking for, but quite often, when your audience is in control of what you are producing, depending on how your audience is, it can skew your content into areas you may not even be comfortable with. That’s when you find yourself compromising on your standards and your values. Because of social media, everyone s looking to the titillating, the scandalous, the scintillating…if you throw yourself into that black hole, you can very quickly find yourself channelling mostly shallow content. We try to keep ourselves above that, we like to focus on information and content that is engaging, that is inspiring, that is uplifting. We cover issues that are important not just for entertainment but also information that is good for people to contemplate outside what they might be used to. We have created a space for Ugandans who have an appetite for slightly more high-brow information and content, which was actually in demand, especially since everyone is trying to be the next viral sensation.

This particular content approach shouldn’t come as a surprise from James, who has a degree in philosophy and used to chair an online society called Free Thought Kampala. He has also been a Key Note Speaker at a Thought Convention in Wales on Humanism.

Does this mean your presenters don’t do Tik Tok videos where they are dancing haphazardly?

(Laughing) When I think of media, I think of a restaurant where there is something for everyone. So while our presenters won’t do those videos, sometimes people simply have an appetite for something slightly different. I am not going to criticize my peers who entertain their audiences using those methods, but we are trying to do things differently, and there’s enough space for everybody. Ours is more substance over form.

James has an annoying capacity to be diplomatic; probably a trait he picked up from his father. So on this question, he seemed to have let slide the chance to throw barbs at Lucky and Gaetano of Capital FM (yes, that’s whom we were hinting at).

How do you pitch your station to advertisers? Who listens to RX Radio?

I would say we channel our content to cater to the tastes of adults. Their age ranges between 20 to 45; they are educated and interested in current and global affairs, and who have slightly more sophisticated tastes…people interested in international trends, and some form of deeper level analysis.

How does Internet Radio compare to its terrestrial partners?

The cost of setting up an internet radio is much lower than the cost of setting up a terrestrial radio, but I wouldn’t say the cost of running one is any different. That is because, well, with the terrestrial radios, the set-up involves transmitters and a lot of pricey tech gobble gook, while with internet radio, what you need is a stable server and a good internet connection. I say the cost of running them is the same because while we didn’t invest as much in hardware, our investment is in HR or talent, and actual systems that work in terms of business operations, which helps us maintain a significant level of quality in our output. The people we hire are highly educated, and on the tech side, they are proficient in what they do, especially in terms of digital technology, and therefore we will have similar or even higher running costs. I speak from experience since I have worked at 2 terrestrial stations and had management positions in them. We are also a lot more specialized in terms of our labour force – the nature of our product means this is somewhat inevitable, and this doesn’t happen a lot at terrestrial radio stations. Radio businesses tend to avoid specialization, with most positions about multitasking.

From Radio Presenter/ Manager to Radio Entrepreneur- The Rebirth of James Onen a.k.a FatBoy, Uganda’s maverick ‘King of Radio’

Do you think it’s a good thing that you are considered a maverick of sorts?

JO: I don’t think of myself as a maverick, but I find myself being a maverick – I get excited by challenges, doing things differently, so I am guessing that is how by default I am sometimes referred to as a maverick. It is exciting to venture into uncharted territory, to try things that haven’t been done before, and seeing them work. And I find that enjoy it, and as I see myself enjoying a degree of success, I am encouraged to try even newer things, which I am guessing, further reinforces the title of a maverick.

Maverick or just doing things differently?

They say the internet “killed newspapers, and social media killed radio”. How would you respond to this?

I would say that is partially true – I wouldn’t say social media has killed radio, but it has forced radio to evolve. Think of what the purpose of radio was – to inform and to entertain. If you were an ordinary person going through the day and looking for some humorous content to listen to, or for some information, or even music, radio was it. The internet, and indeed, social media, have, in many ways, supplanted radio in this role. People now get their music from the internet, and heck, even the existence of phones, with their access to the internet and internal memory of say 64GB, has completely changed the way people listen to music. You can essentially put all your favourite music there, meaning you don’t need to tune in to the radio and request a song anymore. So yes, things have changed. So, yes, radio is suddenly faced with the task of remaining relevant. One particular way it does this is by being an arena where issues and information put forward on platforms like social media, can be discussed and for various perspectives to be explored. It is also important that radio stations have interesting, compelling personalities to discuss these matters because then for that, people will tune in. The times when people simply tuned in because there was nothing else to do are decades behind us – radio has received a loud wake-up call from social media.

On our part, we have a strong social media presence – our listeners will typically hover between us and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, and we ensure they find us there also.

How does RX Radio make money? Does it make money? I mean, you guys have bills to pay, what with rent and staff – or is it a vanity project of sorts?

Just like any ordinary terrestrial station or FM station – we create content (what you heathens call ‘radio shows’), play music, all in the name of entertaining our listeners, and sell advertising and sponsorship slots to our clients.

And (I have to ask this) are you making money?

JO: I can pay salaries and the rent on time, and pay my taxes and things like that – so, I am not complaining…

How many employees do you have working for you at RX Radio?

I have 21 employees.

You seem to employ only girls…apart from the askaris, and Daniel Omara, the only other male here is you (Daniel Omara doesn’t really count). Is this a deliberate strategy or is it happenstance? Are there men working behind the scenes, techs installing wires, hidden within walls where we can’t see them?

I would say I have a 2:3 ratio between men and women at RX Radio. There are more women. I think women are more attractive to employers, because they are risk-averse, so employers will tend to go in that direction, so I am not surprised I did, though it was not a deliberate strategy. Also, I want to help to empower women with employment opportunities.

He said this with a grin on his face. We were not buying this explanation, of course.

Are you able to measure the traffic to RX Radio? I am sure you sometimes need those figures when pitching to clients…

It is a pretty straightforward process for internet radio, because those mechanisms are actually built into websites, and apps, and in fact, always were. It’s actually gotten more sophisticated as more and more businesses go online, especially with the social media context. You are able to see who tuned in, from what country, and certain demographics as well. Alongside this, we can also be monitored by certified monitoring firms in the country.

DA: Do you feel like you have an advantage in the new paradigm of the digital age?

Certainly. People listen to terrestrial radio stations in their cars, on the way to work, or on their way home. But the minute they hit their desks, or their sofas, they turn to their computers or their phones. Increasingly, the phone is almost an extension of humans now, especially of our target audience, and then people turn to their phones, they find us there. So we certainly have an edge of sorts, because we are primarily accessed online, which you access via computer or via your phone. Today, increasingly, smartphones don’t bother with FM Radio apps like they used to.

In the radio sphere, if there is such a thing, there is quite a bit of discussion as to the quality of the ‘RX Radio sound’. This discussion is pretty diverse, which seems to suggest you guys are doing something right in that regard. Why is the RX Radio sound often referenced by radio-heads?

We pay very special attention to our sound. We apply very modern sound processing tools because we strive to ‘sweeten’ the quality of our sound. It is a deliberate ploy on our part and the data reflects this – people respond to the quality of our sound, listening for 6 hours at a time, or 12 hours or so.

Your playlist has been described as ‘eclectic’. How do you guys come up with your playlist?

I have worked as a Program Director at a major terrestrial radio station, and so I have some understanding of the criteria that is used to select music for an audience. A lot of the people that listen to RX Radio are urban dwellers, and these are people that follow pop culture trends, and so they pay close attention to the latest releases from the biggest artistes. So We pay a lot of attention to that, we look at the charts, we keep a close eye on what people are talking about, and we also keep an eye on social media. A lot of musicians are using it to launch their music, and it certainly defines musical trends today. Our music is also very vibe oriented – we look for music that has a ‘good vibe’, a sort of feel-good factor. You listen to RX Radio, the music gives you a complete and enriching experience.

Whom would you say has influenced you the most, in terms of your career?

When it comes to radio, I would say Rick Dees. Loved his presentation style – every time he opened his mouth, he always had something specific to say. I tried to emulate that.

What do you do when you are not behind your desk, playing at CEO, or behind a mic, being Fatboy?

Unfortunately, the time to enjoy my hobbies has sort of vanished, but when I get the time, I do enjoy listening to music, which may sound odd, but I do. I also play the guitar when I am home, play video games, and hang out with my dog, Rukia.

What would you say to young people out there, who have a dream of starting with their own thing? What advice would you have for them?

It is simple, really – you have to put in the work, to earn it. It won’t come to you on a silver platter – I put in all those years as a radio personality, honed my craft, defined myself as a brand. Then, when you do have a product to sell, a niche to examine, you can go for that dream.