This piece was first published by Music in Africa, on July 6, 2023. It is written by Moses Abeka. An edited version is republished here, under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial CC BY-NC licence.
Sudan has an active, resilient media landscape that has been heavily shaped by the country’s political context. Since independence in 1956, the country has had only two democratically elected presidents who were quickly overthrown by the military. Successive military governments have been known to exercise firm control over the media, often stifling alternative voices while creating hegemonic narratives.
Political control over the media has also been strengthened through legislation, rendering existing media laws weak and largely ineffective when advocating for a free press. Despite the challenges, the media has played a key role in supporting the arts and, dating back to the pre-independence era, has greatly contributed to the development of Sudanese music.
Sudan’s radio’s impact then and now
Historically, radio is the most influential media in Sudan. Launched in May 1940 by the British colonial administration during the Second World War to broadcast information about the conflict, the Sudan National Radio Corporation, better known as Radio Omdurman, was a major driving force in the growth and dissemination of early Sudanese music. Broadcasting news, music and cultural programmes daily, the radio service began predominantly airing music after the end of the Second World War. The service featured a weekly music programme dedicated to folk and regional music.
It also formed a live studio band, the Radio Omdurman Orchestra, that included violin, cello, flute, oud and guitar players. They produced a hybrid sound with European, Egyptian and Sudanese influences. Consequently, Radio Omdurman launched the careers of many Sudanese musicians in the 1960s, with the station organizing regular recording sessions featuring talented artists backed by its orchestra.
Earning airplay was a competitive affair, as the station’s music programming department subjected artists to a four-tier audition process assessing vocal talent, instrumentation and lyrical composition, among other criteria.
Popular artists from this ‘Golden Age of Sudanese Music’ included Tayeb Abdalla, also known as the ‘Sudanese Elvis Presley’, who recorded more than 40 songs at the Radio Omdurman studios, including the famous ‘Ya Fathati’ composed by poet Tayeb Mohammed Said el Abbasi.
Other names include Sayed Khalifa, popular for nationalistic songs like ‘El Mambo el Sudani’, and Mohammed Ahmed Awad, the ‘King of Sudanese Chaabi’, who featured prominently on the radio station’s weekly folk music shows.
Due to political repression and hardline Islamic regimes that introduced Sharia law, the Radio Omdurman Orchestra went out of business in 1995.
Today, there are several radio stations in Sudan with considerably high rotation of music and entertainment shows. Stations that air music and entertainment programming include Mango 96 FM, Capital 91.6 FM, Alrabaa 94 FM, Vision FM and 106.6 PRO FM. Radio stations that concentrate on news and politics include Radio Dabanga, Miraya FM, Radio Sawa Sudan, Hala 96 Radio and Radio Tamazuj.
As a standout example, Capital Radio 91.6 FM, founded by celebrated disc jockey Taha Elroubi, boasts a variety of music shows in its daily programming. It hosts local celebrities as presenters and predominantly employs the English language. The station features weekly music shows from Sunday to Thursday, which mostly share contemporary ‘feel-good jams’ from all over the world. Among the topics discussed on the shows are celebrity gossip and global music news, among others. The station is also known for giving airplay to emerging talent and underground artists.
Sudan's television landscape
State-owned television stations in Sudan, like Sudan TV, are heavily controlled by the government. Sudan TV, which includes two channels, falls under the ambit of the Sudan National Broadcasting Corporation (SNBC) and is the main purveyor of government messaging. Its programming includes news, prayers, Quran recitation and a variety of entertainment, such as children's programmes, talent contests, dramas and documentaries. A military censor works with Sudan TV to ensure the programmes reflect the government's policies.
There are, however, a number of other television stations in the country using the Nilesat satellite, a free-to-air analogue service. Some viewers who own satellite receivers are currently migrating to the digital video broadcasting satellite second generation (DVB-S2) system.
Sudania 24 TV, a private station, hosts entertainment shows and live interviews with musicians. Blue Nile TV, Omdurman TV and Al-Shuruq, meanwhile, are other popular stations but with more political and current affairs content.
More recently, channels like Sudan Bukra have become a staple in many households for providing quality programming around the clock that is generally regarded as unbiased and uncensored. Amid the internet and cellular network shutdowns that have occurred since the April 2023 conflict in Sudan, people have turned to the channel for unbiased information. Aside from news, the work of young Sudanese creators and artists is aired. Cultural programming includes music from different parts of Sudan, and the channel is known for promoting shared values and democratic principles.
The Internet age in Sudan
According to DatalReportal, as of January 2022, Sudan's population stood at some 45 million people. The internet penetration rate in the country is 30.9 percent, which translates to about 14 million internet users.
Online media is popular in Sudan as an alternative medium to the restricted traditional media. There are a number of online newspapers like Sudan Tribune and Sudanese Online, but they carry limited music and entertainment content.
Andariya is an online magazine, now a cultural platform, that amplifies stories from the Horn of Africa. It has facilitated tours, mini festivals and cultural events in the capital Khartoum and other cities. It is a bilingual digital platform operating from Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda. Andariya strives to be a pioneering, innovative, multimedia digital platform for contemporary issues and edutainment by creating and curating cultural stories.
Additionally, several artists have their own personal websites and also publish music on digital service providers like ReverbNation and Audiomack. The use of social media and streaming platforms like X (formerly known as Twitter), YouTube, and Facebook is also a popular option for artists who have opted to bypass conventional media channels in Sudan.
The struggles of print media in Sudan
Print media in Sudan is generally heavily restricted, with several cases of the government confiscating equipment and closing down news outlets. There is little attention to music and entertainment content in Sudan’s newspapers. Alintibaha and Sudan Vision are pro-government papers, meaning that they are rarely targeted and receive the most advertisement revenues.
Sudanese Communist Party affiliates Almidan and Alayaam, meanwhile, have been targeted by the National Intelligence and Security Service, with their papers regularly confiscated.
Sudan has endured decades of political interests targeting the media. It has been profoundly influenced by political dynamics and censorship throughout its history. From radio's historic role in promoting Sudanese music to state-controlled television, the rise of online platforms, and challenges faced by print media, government control has been a dominant theme. Nonetheless, there are signs of progress with the emergence of private radio stations like Capital 91.6 FM and platforms like Andariya, providing alternative voices.