Kenya: Joseph Warungu, the Media Guru With Gift of Identifying and Nurturing Talent

On April 30, just 10 days after Mr Joseph Warungu was appointed Nation Media Group's managing editor for broadcasting, he held a live-streamed interactive session, in which he responded to viewers' questions on various topics touching on NTV.

One viewer wanted to know how NTV guarantees its journalists' security especially when they do investigative stories stepping on the toes of the untouchables.

Mr Warungu, in his trademark clean-shaven look, laid-back demeanour and sonorous voice, looked at the cameras as he explained what happens behind the scenes.

"They go through specialised training for what they do," he replied.

"Secondly, a lot of the security comes from the work that they actually do. In other words, because the work is out there, and because it has already gained traction from audiences and from ordinary Kenyans, that in itself gives them some kind of cover."

He, however, revealed that there is an NTV journalist who used to be trailed.

Challenge

"He used to be followed quite a bit at night; someone just trailing them in their car. These are intimidation tactics. We look after them (journalists) as an employer to make sure that they are safe. There are certain precautions we take when we are working on projects," he said.

He also noted that Dennis Okari, NTV's editor for special projects and investigations, who has done a number of explosive exposés, has never been harmed, mostly because his stories are factual.

"We thank God so far," said Mr Warungu. "Regarding 'Covid Millionaires', for example, we've had people who have complained, but no one has come to dispute the facts that we put on the table; same thing as 'Red Alert.'"

However, he noted, Mr Okari has been facing an interesting challenge whenever he goes shopping - due to previous projects he has done exposing the contamination of some foodstuff sold in supermarkets.

"The only trouble that my friend Dennis reports getting into is that every time he walks into a supermarket to buy something, people rush. The people working in that supermarket just go into panic: 'What has he spotted? What is he about to report on?' And the man just wants to pick up a packet of sausages to take home," said Mr Warungu, laughing.

Four days after that debut of a weekly interactive session dubbed NTV Chats, Lifestyle sat with the man who has been in the news field since the late 1980s when he started off as a radio reporter at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).

From KBC to KTN then later BBC and now a role at Nation Media Group, Mr Warungu has had an illustrious career that has seen him travel the world and, since leaving the BBC in 2011, train thousands of aspiring journalists. A man who confesses his passion for Africa and telling the African story, he has also been a consultant with media houses not just in Kenya but also in Tanzania, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

News anchors

So, who writes those pun-packed NTV news tags? Why does he always speak so strongly about news anchors dressing reasonably and not being "extra"? And why doesn't his age show on his face? We had an hour, squeezed between meetings and planning for that Tuesday's bulletins, to discuss those and more.

Mr Warungu's story starts in Ndumberi, Kiambu County, where he was born. He went to Ndumberi Primary School, then joined Starehe Boys Centre, where he went up to A-levels.

He had a burning ambition to become a broadcaster, but in those times, getting a slot to train to be a journalist was not easy.

"There was only one college at that time -- Kenya Institute of Mass Communication. And it was really difficult to get in. So, I decided to detour a little bit and went into teaching," Mr Warungu told Chams Media in 2018.

He attended Kisii Training College and got a diploma in education in December 1987. He trained as a teacher of English and Kiswahili. He was soon hired by the government as a secondary school teacher, but his passion for journalism never waned.

Times without number, he approached the KBC offices in Nairobi for voice tests and he kept getting one excuse after another for not being taken in.

"That journey went on for so long," he said.

But there was a change of guard at KBC and a new director, Cornelius Nyamboki, was moved by the number of KBC response letters Mr Warungu showed him.

"He called the head of radio and said, 'Test this young man. If he's got anything to offer, we'll take him in especially since he says he wants to do it without any payment,'" Mr Warungu said.

That is how Mr Warungu joined KBC. He would teach from Monday to Friday then take a bus to Nairobi to be a radio news presenter over the weekend, finishing his news shift on Sunday afternoons, then returning to school.

Best names

"I used to teach in Nyeri and would take a matatu to Nairobi each weekend for shifts. I worked for KBC for free for about three years. Not even a taxi to go home after reading TV news at night. It's passion!" he said.

That went on until KTN opened its doors in 1990. The first private TV station in Kenya, it began with a bang, recruiting some of the best names in journalism and paying them quite handsomely. Mr Warungu was hired alongside the likes of Catherine Kasavuli, Kathleen Openda and Njoroge Mwaura.

With the KTN job, he quit teaching and has never looked back.

"Those were very busy days. You know, the death of Robert Ouko - a lot of stuff that was happening around that time: The arrest and detention of so many people like Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and so on," Mr Warungu told Lifestyle of his stint at KTN.

He was a KTN reporter and presenter for only two years. In 1992, he joined the BBC, based in London, and was a producer and presenter at the BBC Swahili service until 1996.

For the next four years, he was involved in the 'BBC Focus on Africa' project. He did that until 2000 when he was appointed the editor of the BBC East Africa bureau. In 2003, he became the first head of the BBC African News and Current Affairs Service. He held that role until 2011, when he returned to Kenya.

Humility

Despite all the achievements, it is hard to pinpoint Mr Warungu in a crowd. Former Daily Nation news editor Eric Shimoli, a long-time friend of Mr Warungu's, attributes this to his humility.

"If ever there was or there is a gentleman in journalism in Kenya today, it is Joseph Warungu," Mr Shimoli, a media consultant, told Lifestyle.

"But that is not to say that he cannot be hard-hitting in his interviews. He will still ask a source the most challenging question, but his tone will appear almost apologetic. You can still see that in the humility of the man even today, despite his achievements in journalism locally and abroad," added Mr Shimoli.

Between 2011 when he left BBC and now, he has been engaged in various projects and consultancies, including some projects with the BBC. He left a legacy at BBC. BBC broadcast journalist Tony Irungu told Lifestyle that he has always heard people praise Mr Warungu in the BBC circles.

Investigative and crime reporter Francis Ontomwa, who left KTN for BBC in 2019, holds Mr Warungu in high regard.

"I consider him among the finest and most exceptional journalists of our time," he told Lifestyle.

He added: "I have benefited immensely from his media training. He is always practical and hands-on in every aspect. I first contacted him when I was still in college over a media project and he gladly came through in a great way. He's always ready to help whenever called upon."

That transition from local to international media, like the one Mr Ontomwa made, sometimes poses challenges. A journalist who is a well-known brand locally sometimes fizzles out after joining global networks like the BBC, CNN, CGTN and CNBC.

Mr Warungu says he had to counsel journalists moving to international media on that issue.

"At the BBC, I recruited a number of presenters, including Komla Dumor from Ghana, and also Sophie Ikenye, even Bernard Otieno, who came over briefly and then left, among others," said Mr Warungu.

"One thing I told them from my experience is that 'You come in and you have this huge following. You come to a place where nobody knows you and nobody actually cares too much.' So, you almost have to start afresh," he added. "I've had instances of two or three people who really, really struggled. In fact, one of them chose to go back home; because there, the celebrity status you enjoy, at the BBC you don't really quite feel it because it's dispersed in various countries."

Larry Madowo

Still going global, Mr Warungu hailed former NTV journalist Larry Madowo, formerly a US-based BBC reporter who was appointed the Nairobi-based CNN correspondent a few days ago, for the strides he has made.

"I think he's done extremely well," said Mr Warungu. "He reminds me of Zain Verjee, who came from KTN and shot up to a place of international prominence. He's doing us proud."

Among the training projects Mr Warungu has been involved in since 2011 is the Top Story contest, an initiative he founded where journalism students from universities are taken through a mentorship programme as they compete in the production of stories.

Ms Cece Siago, a Nation correspondent in Kwale, is a finalist in the third season of Top Story. She is part of a team from the Technical University of Mombasa.

"Mr Warungu is one passionate journalist who has a gift of identifying and nurturing talents," Ms Siago said.

"Throughout the more than one-year period we were involved in the Top Story mentorship programme that was aired on NTV and in which he was the principal, I rarely felt like this was a competition. It was more of an opportunity for me and the rest of us as young journalists to explore this career, having real-life experiences and working on real-time stories he had helped assign," she added.

Mr Warungu said what makes him most proud about Top Story is the impact it has created.

"During my time, there were no mentorship schemes. There were no formal mentors; it was all about stumbling along," he said, adding that one of his biggest achievements was bringing Ghanaian investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas to mentor trainees.

Whenever he gets a chance to talk to journalists, there are points Mr Warungu makes sure to pass across. One of them is that a journalist should be a people's person. "I don't understand people who say they want to be journalists and they don't like people," he said.

His idea of a good journalist is someone who mingles freely with the lowly.

"Journalism, as much as people are now going into it for money, is a calling. You want to tell stories. You are troubled by injustices against weaker people," he said. "I believe that journalists are not very special people. You know, sometimes we put such a huge ego in our heads."

The ego, he says, comes partly because of the adoration journalists might receive. He remembers receiving postcards in his days at KBC from women who even sent their photos. He remembers a time at KTN when he would get a free ticket to almost any club; where just showing up in a club invited people to buy someone alcohol.

"Had I lost focus, I would have got lost long ago," he says. "I've seen a number of colleagues whom we've lost to alcohol, to drug addiction, because of the good life."

Mr Warungu also likes to emphasise the need for news anchors to avoid being distractions to the message they are delivering.

"In TV presentation, if there's anything that you're wearing or how you speak or how you stand and how you walk that is distracting us from listening to the news, that for me is a no-go area; you have failed as a presenter," he said.

"I always give the example of CNN. A lot of people watch Christiane Amanpour. You do not even remember what she was wearing because you went there for the content," he said. "You are not the main message. I didn't tune in for you."

He admitted that while at NTV, where he was a consulting editor since 2019 before landing the managing editor role, there are times he has asked a presenter to change their clothes.

"Yes; I've had to ask people, 'We can't put you on air; please change.' But obviously, we do it gently, in a humane way," he said.

Speaking of news presentation, the station has been creating a buzz on social media for the tags that run at the bottom of news items, which are often full of puns.

"Some of them go too close to the edge. But interesting enough, we have an audience just for tags," Mr Warungu said. "It also took me a while to get used to that."

As for who writes them, he says a decision was long taken not to reveal the people who create them. On just two occasions, he remembered, he has recalled tags he felt were not portraying the seriousness of the subject matter.

"There was a very serious issue and it would have been misconceived to mean that we were trivialising it," he said.

Quit alcohol

Mr Warungu is a father of three and a grandfather of a five-year-old who is half Kenyan and half Congolese. He got saved in 2011 as soon as he left the BBC.

"I think also at that time I took the decision to quit alcohol. Not that I was a heavy drinker, but I quit completely. I have never tasted a drop of alcohol since April 2011," he said.

He is also keen on his diet and exercising, which is one of the reasons he looks young for his age.

"I don't do junk. I stopped taking sodas a long time ago; or fruit juice. So, I'm left on ngwaci (sweet potatoes), nduma (arrow roots). And obviously, kukaa na Yesu kunasaidia sana (being close to Jesus helps a lot)," he said.

Being easygoing is also another factor he credits for his youthfulness. For leisure, he fancies theatre (he produced plays in his teaching days) and swimming.

In his new role, which places him in charge of the TV and radio segments of Nation Media Group, he has a number of plans. For NTV and Nation FM, he plans to spruce up their programming for current affairs programmes.

"We have a number of shows that are coming up. One of them is called With all Due Respect. It's a TV show that will hold people to account," he revealed. "There is also a move to pay special attention to our younger viewers."

With the 2022 General Election nearing, among other emerging issues, he said, there are grand plans in line.

"We want to be the number one station when it comes to coverage," said Mr Warungu.

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