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Zimbabwe launches new FM station weighted with music programs, ending 3-decade state monopoly

HARARE, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe’s first licensed commercial radio station went live Monday, ending a 32-year monopoly by the state-controlled broadcaster and meeting some demands to free up the nation’s airwaves ahead of proposed elections.

Star FM radio claimed Monday that it is the first independent broadcaster since President Robert Mugabe led the nation to independence in 1980. But that claim is offset by the fact that the station is owned by Zimbabwe Newspapers, publishers of newspaper titles loyal to Mugabe.

The broadcasting authority was criticized for licensing a station closely linked to the main Herald daily newspaper.

Star FM said Monday it will broadcast hourly news bulletins and 50-second headline summaries. The station said its news bulletins will be aired 15 minutes past the hour. The state broadcaster’s bulletins are at the top of the hour. Its first bulletin on Monday reflected headlines in recent days from The Herald’s stable of newspapers.

The 24-hour station announced a schedule strongly weighted with music programs. When licensed last year by the Broadcasting Authority appointed by Mugabe, it was billed as Zimbabwe Talk Radio. No reasons were given for the change.

An announcer who gave his name only as “DJ Munya” said it was “a long story” why listeners would not be hearing mostly talk radio. He did not elaborate, but station executives are known to have been debating how to handle the content of live talk programs and searching for experienced commentators beyond those regularly used by the radio and television service.

Former state broadcaster Admire Taderera, the head of the station, said at Monday’s launch at a converted former printing works owned by the newspaper group that Star FM will use traditional news sources including The Herald and other media organizations.

“We are not a state broadcaster and we don’t envisage being one. We make our own money from advertising, we are not state-funded,” he said.

A second broadcast license has been issued to a former state television personality with strong links to Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. His station is scheduled to go on air by August. At least three other license applications by independent journalists and music presenters were turned down.

Two short-lived independent stations were shut down in 2000 over allegations they were operating illegally. They had started broadcasting after the Supreme Court struck down the state Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp.’s monopoly control of four radio stations and two television channels on grounds it breached constitutional rights to free expression.

In the past, Mugabe’s party has relied on state radio to reach its rural strongholds. A power-sharing agreement with the former opposition of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai after violent and disputed elections in 2008 called for reforms for free broadcasting and the repeal of sweeping media laws ahead of fresh elections. Tsvangirai’s party says the two new radio licenses do not meet conditions set under the coalition government agreement.

Mugabe’s party insists what it calls “pirate radio stations” beaming into Zimbabwe from outside the borders favour its rivals. It has jammed their signals that are not widely received anyway.

Four of those stations say they would willingly broadcast locally if given licenses.