A good radio voice can work magic, especially in the west African nation of Ghana. Kojo Yankson, visiting our journalism department for the week, has that voice. His father is a biology professor. Kojo had spent about 12 years in England when he returned to Ghana to help his father build a community hospital. He had some business at JOY-FM radio station, and somehow ended up getting interviewed on the Morning show, since the subject was how to attract educated Ghanaian expats back home. With nothing better to do, he returned each morning for more interviews. Eventually, he became the host, and watched his audience grow from two million to more than six million, the biggest audience of any English-language radio show in Ghana.
Kojo is now 35. He not only has an elegant British-African voice. He also has a solid belief in the power of public-affairs journalism to check government corruption and secrecy. Apparently, a lot of his listeners share that belief. When they have a problem with infrastructure, he says, they don’t call city government, but call his “Super Morning Show” at JOY-FM radio. And his show, on air, will jump on the case and get the government to do its job. If there’s a crime, the victim won’t call police, but will call Kojo’s radio show, and he’ll call the police and make them respond.
That’s watchdog journalism at its most basic.
Radio is a big deal in an African country like Ghana because 60 to 70 percent of the population there is illiterate. Kojo has a few other theories on why radio is the most popular and powerful medium in his country. The people are very religious – or rather, “superstitious,” he says. And this, he theorizes, is a mindset that responds more deeply to the auditory, to the spoken word, as having authority. Outside the cities like Cape Coast and Accra, it’s also a nation of tribal villages. There, storytelling reigns. As the day fades, the people gather and the storytellers hold forth. Radio news reports, at least in the tribal languages unfettered by libel laws, follow the native story form, he says.
The Ghanaian story form may be relevant to understanding what we mean by “storytelling,” a mystery we’re trying to get at in the class of mine that Kojo visited, “J318 The Literature of Journalism.” It’s journalism; nonfiction; fact-based. But one of the elements that makes it “literature” or creative is story form. Kojo described story form in his country as following a formula that begins with some variation of a statement that is like our “Once upon a time.”
“Kodi Kodi nsio.” It means something like “Can you believe this?,” not so much in skepticism but as an invitation to let yourself believe what the storyteller is about to tell you. Then the storyteller introduces all of the characters in the story – for instance, This is about a fetish priest, a little girl, a black rabbit and a magic tree. . .or whatever. At the end of the story, there’s another ritual line that goes “Asem yi se oye dew o, se onnye wo dew o, mna osii nyen.” And that means something like, “Whether you enjoyed this or not, it’s true.”
That last statement, I realized, is the legend over the license of literary journalism, as John Hersey argued in a famous Yale Review essay about the form, “The Legend Over the License.” I’m not making this up, as Dave Barry likes to say. This really happened. Or Kurt Vonnegut: Listen.