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  Number 316 | Noviembre 2007
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Latin America

Latin American Radio: Six Contributions to Development

In six decades Latin American radio has made six big contributions to the region’s development: taking its educational responsibility seriously, mobilizing the population, defending cultural identities, recovering people’s self-esteem by giving them back their words, empowering the citizenry to claim their rights, and democratizing its own content by exploiting the Internet.

José Ignacio López Vigil

Radio always has been and continues to be the mass medium with the greatest coverage and acceptance in Latin America. Even in the Altiplano or the depths of the Amazon rainforest it’s hard to find a home without at least a battery radio. Figures for 1999 show that 95% of households had a minimum of one radio, a figure that must be around 98% by now. A 1996 study done by the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile revealed that radio had greater receptivity levels than television among both sexes and in all socioeconomic sectors. The study also showed that the public considered radio more credible than other media. Research studies in other countries of the region would probably produce similar results.

From listeners to speakers and broadcasters

There are historical reasons for radio’s great popularity. In Latin America more than in other regions society hasn’t limited itself to being only a radio listener and has instead sought different ways of accessing the status of radio speaker. In our countries, there has been ongoing participation by broad sectors in the stations’ programming, ranging from musical pleasures to street interviews, and including “social services,” one of the formats that always gets more people tuning in, especially in rural and suburban zones. In these community announcements radio assumes a subsidiary role as a kind of grassroots telephone line.

This use is accentuated during emergencies or natural disasters. Radio Esperanza, in Aiquile, Bolivia, remained on air, guiding the population when the 1997 earthquake brought down three fifths of the area’s houses. Honduran radio stations played a decisive role during Hurricane Mitch in 1998, coordinating international aid and above all encouraging people in the midst of the disaster. Currently, with fewer silent zones, the stations have developed “citizens’ defense services” to process listeners’ denunciations and complaints. This serving role played by the radio, which is undoubtedly the greatest intercommunicator the region has ever had, is closely linked to the public’s preferences, with its high quotas of consumption and credibility.

In addition to all of this, many Latin American civil society organizations have pushed beyond just expressing their needs and concerns through the medium, whether in their own voices or through the presenter. More than either just radio listeners or radio speakers, these sectors have sought to become radio broadcasters, for which they require a frequency that would let them to have their own station. It’s not enough for them to participate in the programming of other radio stations; they want to run their own. That’s how what is known as “community radio” emerged. And it’s also how conflicts break out with the media power groups that try to the monopolize the radio band, violating the universal right to freedom of expression.

What kind of relationship has there been between Latin American radio and development? Six decades ago the first radio antenna was erected to do something that differed from the aims of most US radio. Since then radio has made notable contributions. We’ll offer you a sample here, one per decade.

First Contribution:
A school without walls

Colombia, 1947. In the small town of Sutatenza in the department of Boyacá, priest José Joaquín Salcedo experiments with amateur radio equipment and finds that he can reach more of his congregation from the microphone than the pulpit. The Hertz waves gallop more lightly than his horse Caliph ever could. On November 16, the young parish priest broadcasts the first musical and educational programs using a 90-watt transmitter. They are picked up by small battery-operated radio sets previously distributed among the 5,000 inhabitants of that Colombian village, most of them illiterate.

Salcedo would dedicate the rest of his life to radio communication. Grassroots Cultural Action (ACPO), better known as Radio Sutatenza, is the pioneer of the Latin American Catholic Church’s radiophonic experiences and “perhaps the biggest and most complex initiative of non-formal education for the rural masses in the world,” according to Luis Ramiro Beltrán.

The concept of educational radio or radiophonic schools, which is still important in Latin America, is largely due to Salcedo’s audacious initiative. It was the first time that radio’s educational potential had ever been systematically developed anywhere on the continent. The Sutatenza model combined primers explained page by page through radio-transmitted classes for groups of listeners with monitors in attendance. The students met every night at one neighbor’s house, ears at the ready for the explanations emitted by a radio set and eyes fixed on the blackboard while the monitor followed the instructions given by the presenters. Programs on health and nutrition, arithmetic and agriculture programs were all developed with the help of school primers given out to each participant in exchange for an egg. Even with their pre-Vatican II schemes, these evangelizing programs strengthened many communities and helped them discover that, as children of God, they all had the same rights as human beings.

ACPO also created a newspaper, El Campesino (the peasant), as well as countless publications to promote reading among locals who had recently learned to read and write. Meanwhile, the leaders’ schools—mobile ACPOs—provided a comprehensive communication strategy combining mass media with on-site actions. This novel experience helped the socio-cultural development of thousands of male and female peasants in the region of Boyacá and the rest of the country at a time when 70% of the Colombian population lived in rural areas.

The success of Radio Sutatenza just grew and grew. That small Boyacá station ended up with a 700-kilowatt antenna capacity distributed in four Colombian cities, plus three short wave frequencies, achieving national coverage and becoming the biggest school without walls in Latin America.

In the 1960s a new efficient and attractive model of radio education emerged in the Spanish Canary Isles. The Sutatenza-style on-the-spot, daily monitor was replaced by a corrector who reviewed the class plans every week. The students no longer had to go to a neighboring house to study in a group. All they had to do was tune into Radio ECCA, have the class materials at hand and let the announcer-teachers “teledirect” them. The students took exams at the end of each semester and received an official qualification at the end of their studies if they passed the course.

In 1971, Radio Santa María in the Dominican Republic imported the new Canary Isles model to thousands of students, many of them peasants, who wanted to migrate to the capital in search of the work being denied them by Cibao¿s big estate owners. The ECCA system rapidly spread to Costa Rica and Guatemala and was adopted by the Jesuits of Fe y Alegría in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

New experiences across
the continent... and the world

The most important thing about Sutatenza had been the model’s impact in other countries of the region. Many bishoprics and religious congregations were enthused by the possibility of a mass literacy effort. They obtained AM frequencies, fitted out radio stations and broadcast primary education programs. In the sixties, the Catholic Church had several hundred stations in practically every country in the region.

The Protestant churches took a different path. Rather than many local stations, they installed one very powerful one in Quito, Ecuador. In 1931, Homero Crisman and Carl Carlson started their missionary work and broadcast the first program of HCJB, “La Voz de los Andes.” Last year that station celebrated 75 years of community service and now operates with local, national and international stations and relay stations, offering varied informational and musical programming. La Voz de los Andes transmits 150 hours of programming in 13 languages via 25 international short wave stations with a combined total power of 1.2 million watts. They cover the whole of the Americas, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Russia, as well as north and central Africa, approximately 70% of the earth’s surface.

During the same years, a new form of educational radio broadcasting was launched: production centers. These included the Radiophonic Service for Latin America (SERPAL), which in just a few years achieved a surprising level of regional development. Sponsored by the Munich bishopric, with funds from German cooperation and in alliance with the UNDA-AL network of Catholic radios, they contracted the services of the Uruguayan Mario Kaplún, perhaps the best educational program producer and trainer Latin America has ever had. Kaplún incorporated dramatic language into his production and these radio plays were distributed free of charge to hundreds of Christian and commercial stations. They were used to promote a methodology based on audio debates, sometimes from the stations themselves, combining a mass audience with group interaction. SERPAL’s most successful productions include Jurado 13 and El Padre Vicente by Mario Kaplún and the controversial series Un Tal Jesús by the brother and sister team of María López Vigil and myself.

Second contribution:
Political mobilization

Bolivia, 1952. When the National Revolution nationalized the tin mines, the country’s great source of wealth, the unions requested and obtained radio frequencies to install their own stations in the mining centers. They wanted to communicate with mineworkers in distant towns, to strengthen the workers’ movement and its demands. They founded Radio 21 de Diciembre in the mining district of Catavi at an altitude of 4,000m.

There was a precedent for this idea. According to one version of events, La Voz del Minero had set up on the union premises of the Siglo XX encampment in 1947, making it the first working class station in Latin America. But the population had no radio sets, so the first transmissions were through loud speakers and the first announcers were union militants. Another version says that the first radio station appeared that same year under the name Radio Sucre, located in Cancañiri, which is next to the districts of both Catavi and Siglo XX.

From 1952 onwards, new radio stations appeared in various mining districts. By 1960, there was a total of 18, all set up by unions and maintained through voluntary contributions from the workers, who handed over half a day’s wage every month. The radios belonged to them and they could decide the programs and programming they wanted.

But why were the fiery leaders of the Federation of the Mine Workers of Bolivia (FSTMB) so interested in owning radio stations? Quite simply to extend their influence and strengthen their organizations with propaganda work through the station.

The first tryouts proved to the Bolivian miners that a microphone informed more people than a thousand flyers, that radio mobilized more than a town square rally. So with both AM and short wave frequencies, the tin miners were able to inter-communicate their unions, from Huanuni to Ánimas, from the encampments of Corocoro to the mine entrances of Potosí. During the successive military dicatorships, these stations transmitted in a hook-up, informing and encouraging the population. The transcription of those programs are a homage to the radio broadcasters who put their lives on the line to defend freedom of expression and human rights. During García Meza’s military coup in 1980, 25 mining radios formed the Chain of Democracy, which continued working for five days until the army finally subdued the communities and took over their stations.

Radio Pío XII, founded in 1959 in the Llallagua district by Canadian oblate missionaries, is a special case among the mining radio stations. Although this Catholic station was in confrontation with the unions for several years, it was sensitive to the dramatic exploitation suffered by the miners and actually joined their struggle and suffered the same repression. To mark its 25 years on the air, the Federation of Miners awarded it the Guardatojo de Plata, its highest honor.

The experience of the mining radio stations also grew and expanded, but only within Bolivia. The Federation kept its union stations in the districts of Potosí and Consejo Central Sud for years. Other Bolivian unions, particularly the manufacturing and rail unions, followed its example and obtained their own stations. But in other Latin American countries, the working class had no radios of its own, due partly to the control of the frequencies by governments that exclusively favored commercial private enterprise, and partly to the limited interest in audiovisual media shown by unions and other worker organizations, which preferred to communicate through bulletins and newspapers.

Struggles and mobilizations
throughout the continent

The use of radio for grassroots mobilization—not necessarily of a union nature—ran like a lit dynamite fuse from the Bolivian mines to other countries in the region. The example of the Cuban revolution and Liberation Theology and the experiences of insurrectional radios in Central America—Radio Venceremos and Farabundo Martí in El Salvador, Radio Voz Popular in Guatemala—inspired and committed many stations in the inevitable social struggles and political confrontations. We could mention dozens of heroic examples in practically all Latin American countries.

Radio Latacunga, next to the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador, came out in solidarity with the national indigenous strike of June 1994. It was razed to the ground by the military, which kicked down the doors and arrested its director. In Osorno, Chile, Pinochet’s troops brought down the antenna of La Voz de la Costa with their bombs. In Guatemala, La Voz de Atitlán was marked by martyrdom during the bloody dictatorship of General Ríos Montt and during the years of violence in El Salvador Radio YSAX was dynamited and its best presenter, Monsignor Oscar Romero, was assassinated.

In Paraguay, Radio Ñandutí was a bulwark against censorship during the long years of the Stroessner dictatorship, while Radio Trinidad was in the streets broadcasting live in the middle of shootouts in Paraguay during the bloody events that marked the government of President Raúl Cubas. In Fujimori’s Peru, many stations and the National Radio Coordinator (CNR), despite the economic blackmail and threats of all kinds, accompanied the people on the “March of the 4 Suyos” that preceded the dictator’s fall.

Many Latin American radio stations have assumed their social responsibility and mobilizing capacity in extreme situations that put democracy under serious attack. In more recent years, we have to mention three stations that have notably contributed to the stability of their respective countries. Radio Fe y Alegría was the only independent voice on the Venezuelan dial that exposed the supposed resignation of President Hugo Chávez on April 11, 2002. The coup d’état, plotted with the direct complicity of the major media, was turned around in just 48 hours thanks to valiant grassroots mobilization. Radio Pachamama in the city of El Alto, Bolivia, transmitted live with helicopters flying overhead and in the middle of shootouts, playing a leading role during the “Gas War” of October 2003, when the social movements expelled the genocidal President Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada. And most recently, in Abril 2005, Radio La Luna brought together and accompanied the population of Quito, outraged by the arbitrary acts of President Lucio Gutiérrez. The “outlaws”—as the government dubbed them—took to the streets and succeeded in overthrowing the discredited President after several days of resistance.

Third contribution:
The culture of the peoples

It is often believed that Latin America is a homogenous whole because most of the population speaks Spanish or Portuguese. However, 26 different languages are spoken in the small country of Guatemala alone and behind each language is a culture, a determined way of understanding the world and an original way in which human beings relate to nature and to each other.

There is little reading and even less writing in our countries. Our peoples’ cultures are fundamentally oral, passed on from parents to children and from generation to generation. For this reason, radio is the most appropriate medium for sharing that culture and making it known and recognized by a larger audience. The history of many Latin American stations, especially local ones, is closely linked to rescuing that cultural heritage, which is disappearing today in the face of the laws of the neoliberal market.

Let’s start with languages. More than any other medium, radio broadcasting has been helping to legitimize its audiences’ native languages. Almost since their creation, the radio stations of the Guatemalan Radiophonic Education Federation (FGER) have been transmitting in Quiché, Kekchí, Chortís, Nahualá and Mam, the sonorous languages of the wise Mayan culture. In Bolivia, Radio Pío XII began airing its first programs in Quechua—the Inca language still spoken by the majority of the peasant population—in the early sixties. And right from the start Radio Enriquillo had a program in Creole, the language of the Haitian laborers who harvest sugar cane in the Dominican Republic.

The Colombian station Radio Eucha in Tierradentro broadcasts in the Páez language, while there are community stations with programming in Mapuche in southern Chile. The network of radio stations in the National Indigenist Institute broadcast in different languages of Mayan and Aztec origin still spoken by 10% of the Mexican population. In Paraguay, numerous stations transmit in Guaraní, the majority language in that country. The satellite project of the Latin American Radiophonic Education Association (ALER) has created a specific network in the “Quiechua” language, linking stations from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Radio San Gabriel in La Paz, Bolivia, is now the station most listened to by the two million Aymaras on the Altiplano. And recently a good number of very small stations have appeared around Lake Titicaca, run by indigenous people with programming exclusively in Aymara.

Legends, music, songs and
recipes from the entire continent

Culture consists of languages, legends and myths, the way of cultivating the earth, genealogies, traditional medicine and all the ancestral customs that identify a particular people. Many Latin American radio stations have collected this memory, which has never been written in any book, recording it from the mouths of grandparents and returning the wisdom to the people through programs containing people’s testimonies.

Culture is also music. Countering the big transnationals, many stations promote the kind of national and regional music not found in the big record labels because the authors don’t have access to that market. They include such grassroots music in the programming alongside the big hits promoted by CBS or Polygram. On their anniversaries or other significant dates some stations hold open air song festivals which they broadcast live, as is the case with Radio Occidente in Mérida, Venezuela, or the Cusco women from the Warmikuna Ricmanchis program marking International Women’s Day. Meanwhile, the National Indigenist Institute has been collecting thousands of hours of Mexican indigenous music, which it uses for its stations’ programming.

Culture is also food. Radio Cutivalú, in the north of Peru takes its mobile unit to the market where food sellers are offering their typical dishes and has them explain to the audience how to prepare a seco de chavelo or chicha de jora. All of these programs seek to assert the identities of our peoples. It’s not about ignoring let alone rejecting other identities. Quite the contrary. But really knowing what’s yours allows you to enjoy other things all the more.

Fourth contribution:
Releasing kidnapped words

In the seventies, grassroots education initiatives flourished in almost all of Latin America. The experiences of Paulo Freire in northeastern Brazil, his proposal for a liberating pedagogy, inspired many progressive groups. “Education”—a broader concept than school instruction—had to be aimed at strengthening grassroots organization and the transfor-mation of society. That required a horizontal method without teachers or students, learning from practice with collective training. These new community principles were applied in an infinite number of workshops and grassroots groups.

The ideas of popular education also invaded many Latin American educational radio stations that had invested many years and great efforts in formal education with some success, but also certain limitations. New stations also emerged working on non-formal education in the heat of this new and committed grassroots education methodology, including Radio Cultural Campesina from Teocelo, Mexico, Radio Enriquillo from Tamayo, Dominican Republic, and many others that ended up abandoning the word “educational” with its school connotations and embraced the word “popular” or grass roots. This is the origin of “popular radio,” which later spread into many countries in the region, especially the Andean ones.

What kind of programs were produced and continue to be produced under this new concept of education? Agricultural radio magazine programs; health, hygiene and nutrition programs; programs in which listeners could consult about legal and labor matters; and programs aimed at helping families live better and transmit more humanist values to their children...

But in addition to these arenas of non-formal education, a new kind of program later appeared that was produced and directed by grassroots organizations (leagues, clubs, cooperatives, neighborhood committees). The key word for these current programs is “participation” and they see radio as an element that energizes social organization. This modality generates a fruitful combination between the mass public receiving the radio programs and the on-site groups visited by the station presenters and promoters to record and implement programs at the grassroots level.

On the informative level, networks of grassroots correspondents are starting to develop, with the station training a group of volunteers who send short written pieces or call in to report on what’s happening in their communities. In Guatemala, Radio Mam has been working for years with such reporters, who record their neighbors and send the audio in to the station, while Radio Latacunga in Ecuador, with the support of the International Center for Higher Communication Studies for Latin America, installed a network of booths in nearby towns where indigenous people can record their news and send the cassettes to the central station.

Those stations that set off down the path of grassroots education adopted audience participation as the basic profile of their programming. This option was logical given that Freire’s new pedagogy taught that “only the people educate the people.” So the microphones had to be opened up so people could come to the station and give their opinions. Furthermore, radio had to go into listeners’ daily lives by taking the microphones to the streets, markets, bus stops, neighborhood committee meetings and the like. There was a need to experiment with the two-way radio Brecht dreamed of, in which radio listeners were also radio speakers.

Many stations committed time, staff and a lot of gas to reaching communities and neighborhoods in all corners of their areas of coverage to do interviews, get the locals talking, gather myths and legends from the mouths of elderly inhabitants and perform improvised sociodramas with no scripts let alone any technical complications. Whether in recorded programs using tape recorders or live broadcasts with mobile units, these stations allowed the people’s voices to invade programming previously reserved for professional presenters and producers.

Those whose voice had been silenced

There were sometimes voices protesting and denouncing; there were football games and other local sports events broadcast to a large audience; there were songs that had been recorded recorded at grassroots festivals; there were competitions, indulgences, surveys, opinions of all social sectors about all subjects. It was the voice of those who had a voice but had never before been able to access the mass media to express it to a mass audience. In this process of returning speech to the people, the “participatory radios” discovered a more profound level of education: self-esteem.

I wrote about this a few years ago: “There she was speaking on the magic apparatus on which only President Balaguer spoke, Johnny Ventura sang and Bishop Rivas gave his blessing... She was talking! It was less important what she was saying than the fact that she was saying it, that she was talking in public. For many years, a lifetime, everybody—her father, teacher, husband, priest and even her children—had told her to keep quiet. As they say in this country, ‘Women speak when the hens are pissing.” For many years they convinced her that she was good for work, cooking and bed, but in silence, obedient. Now her voice was coming out of the radio and her best friend Hípolita, her neighbors and everyone close to her would be listening. She felt important, she felt like a real person.”

Perhaps this is the most important educational contribution that these stations have been providing: the value of one’s own, public words. Words are more liberating than any message, any advice or any literacy program. This is the first challenge assumed by grassroots radio stations: to amplify the voice of the people and therefore socially legitimate it.

And that is of particularly great value to women. They were once the ladies of the word, who at the beginning of the human adventure taught their silent partners to speak, invented articulated language—the greatest novelty and advantage created by the human species—but were later silenced in a patriarchal society, a profoundly sexist culture that ordered women to be quiet at home, at church, in the party, in public spaces.

These radios were not “the voice of the voiceless” because the people are not mute. But they did return to them words that had been kidnapped, stolen from them thousands of years ago.

Fifth contribution:
Citizens’ defense

Latin American radio stations are characterized by their utility. The social services were once the most listened-to programs, particularly in peasant areas where radio served as a mail, telegraph and telephone service: “The mule’s gone missing,” “Josefina’s just had a boy,” “Take the sacks of coffee to the highway.” Such family news has been gradually relegated in mainly urban populations with better communications, but the complexity of modern life has revealed new and more varied citizens’ needs. Too many people spend the day dodging, or trying to dodge, countless big or small violations of their human rights.

Who can they turn to? A good part of the population takes justice into its own hands. Others turn to the corresponding institutions, but too often get nowhere due to bureaucracy or corruption. The next step is to resort to the media, which are sometimes more respected and feared than the public bodies.

Where can citizens go if they weren’t given proper attention at a public hospital? Where can people protest if public servants are in cahoots with private offenders? In what arena can they accuse the justice system of not administering justice? The mass media have now become privileged spaces for negotiation and conflict resolution. Radio, television, the press, magazines are all both media and mediation arenas. Many stations are therefore implementing a “fifth form of journalism” in addition to the previously known ones: information, opinion, interpretation and investigation. This fifth form channels the denunciations made by the citizenry and facilitates the solution of the cases presented. We’ll call it “intermediation journalism.”

It’s all about opening up the microphones so that the citizenry’s complaints can get to the appropriate places, of making people’s voices heard by entities that have behaved irresponsibly. And if people can’t talk directly to the authorities, we lend our voices as journalists to ensure they are listened to, to lend weight to their denunciation and find a just solution.

These intermediation programs hear citizens who present their demands either by telephone or in the broadcasting booth. The journalists act as a bridge, questioning the corresponding authorities live. The culmination point of the intermediation consists of some kind of commitment that allows progress to be made toward solving the problem.

The best medium for acting locally

Intermediation journalism doesn’t seek to supplant the responsibility of either the state or the citizenry. On the contrary, it tries to urge them both. If Latin American radio has played a decisive part in devolving words to a secularly silenced population, this exercising of social intermediation seeks to return power to that same citizenry, which is the only true sovereign.

Many local radio stations are trying out this journalistic genre because they’ve discovered that it provides the possibility of competing with the big channels. What comparative advantage does a local radio station have? Precisely the fact that it’s local, which makes it as close to the potholes on the corner as the inhabitants themselves. It can denounce with full knowledge of the case, because it’s better positioned than any other medium to help resolve the thousand and one problems affecting its audience in daily life.

The conception of a citizens’ radio—which is gaining ground on previous concepts like educative, grassroots and community radio—permits global thinking, while exercising intermediation journalism leads to local action. And that’s what it’s all about: a glocal strategy.

Intermediation journalism also provides a way to denounce abuses of media power. The mass media have set themselves up as the guardians of civil liberties and rights, as a counterweight that oversees and criticizes the other state powers. Journalists, society’s watchdogs, are alert to any violation of human rights, especially those committed against freedom of expression. But who’s watching over the watchdogs? Who’s controlling the controllers? Social intermediation programs go hand in hand with initiatives to establish media observatories, which amount to a fifth branch of state according to Le Monde Diplomatique’s Ignacio Ramonet.

We could mention many examples of stations that have set off down the path of intermediation journalism—or have retaken that lost path—and have excellent ratings in their city or locality. As open-air citizens’ defense offices, these radio stations increase their audience and even improve their publicity income, but most importantly they gain credibility and achieve strong empathy with their audiences.

Sixth contribution:
A technological marriage

Many stations—particularly local ones—besieged by competition from the big networks and with an evident lack of personnel and income are currently producing less and less. They have resigned themselves to offering music plus a few informative segments with improvised dialogues and entertainment and very limited contents.

We frequently and urgently talk about the legal battle to democratize access to the radioelectric frequencies. This demand is now more essential than ever given the new opportunities offered by the digital bands. But it’s equally urgent to democratize access to the contents. There would be little or no use in having the medium if we don’t have a message to communicate. It would be like having a plough but no seeds to sow.

As we’ve already mentioned, a radio station can and must open up its microphones so the population can talk, express opinions and denounce. This direct audience participation refreshes and ennobles practically all programming formats, but we also need to have other, more elaborate programs produced by creative colleagues with the necessary time and resources.

To enrich the programming, we could take advantage of what certain international stations are producing. We could install a parabolic dish and pick up satellite information programs. For many local radio stations, however, such investment and subsequent maintenance are too expensive. There’s also another problem: you only receive but can’t send via satellite, unless you have an uplink, which is even more expensive, or send your audios over the phone, with all the limitations that involves.

In this sense, Internet is key. And the formula is quite simply encouraging a technological marriage between radio and the Internet. It is true that only a small segment of the population has access to Internet. In 2004, there was an enormous growth in Internet use (183%) in Latin America and the Caribbean, which have a total population of 542 million people. But despite this, only 9.4% of the population accesses the Internet, while radio is still the medium with the greatest social penetration. One is elitist and the other popular. And if we marry the two? If we fuse media the way they fuse musical styles?

Internet is any journalist’s
most ambitious dream

Like never before, the Internet allows the breaching of the blockade created by the information agencies and record labels, the overcoming of distances and monopolies, the exchange of radiophonic production in all its formats and subjects. The radio stations, for their part, can disseminate those contents received via Internet to their mass audiences.

Most stations, even the small ones, already have access to the Internet. In many broadcasting booths, journalists have a monitor connected to the web and directly read the information on the pages they are surfing without even having to print it out. This was previously beyond any journalist’s wildest dreams: monitoring newspapers, magazines and hot-off-the-press information from all corners of the earth with little effort.

Many of these sources are controlled by the media octopuses that make no effort to hide their conservative bias and aren’t worried about being discovered flagrantly lying and manipulating, as in the case of Fox News or even CNN during the US invasion of Iraq. But today it’s relatively easy to jump the fence and directly receive other altnerative news services via email: Indymedia, Adital, Altercom, Noticias Aliadas, Pacificar, Alai, Aler, Púlsar, Minga Informativa… There’s a very long list of progressive news agencies and services and almost all their information is free.

One thing’s for sure: the range of information we can access on the Internet provides us with a solid and very professional supply. These documents tend not to be audio or formatted for radio, but are rather in text form. But there they are, at the service of any journalist with initiative. There are also songs to give and take, providing an inexhaustible repertory accessible through the P2P system.

How to fill a still very empty niche

Things are slightly different in other areas. For example, the educational programs niche is practically empty. Where can we find a good radio report on the hole in the ozone layer? Where can we download a dramatized or narrated program that helps us understand the obscure intentions of the free trade agreements with the United States?

The following example demonstrates the immense possibilities that could open up to us through a technological marriage between radio and Internet, regarding both the production and the distribution and exchange of products. Since 2001, the Quito-based Association of Passionate Radio Workers has been dispatching scripts and audios every day by e-mail to a growing list of users. The Association is seeking to use these inputs to promote stations’ local production. They can be translated, recorded, downloaded from the web and broadcast to their audiences. There’s no copyright, just a shared right.

The Association produced the Raíces Vivas (Live Roots) series consisting of 14 programs on indigenous cultures of the Andean countries. When we were working on the script on the Aymara nation, we naturally found information on the Internet, particularly about the myth of the origin of Lake Titicaca, so we immediately emailed the director of Red-ADA, Elena Crespo, in La Paz to advise us on the authenticity of those materials. As we needed Aymara voices for some of the segments, we got in contact with Mauricio Rodríguez of Radio Pachamama, which transmits from Puno, and he sent us the recordings by FTP. And the music? We had some ancient cassettes that weren’t really usable, so Claudio Orós of the Pukllasunchis Association in Cusco sent us some suggestive panpipe music from the Altiplano, also by FTP. Another colleague, Joao Luiz de Castro from Radio Cidadania in Minas Gerais, Brazil, translated the script into Portuguese.

Once the program had been recorded and edited in Lima, we emailed it to a list of 4,000 users throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Latin American programs in North America and Europe. We sent the text by email, including a link for downloading the audio, compressed in MP3, from the web. The whole process of producing and distributing the program took just a couple of days. Who would have imagined something like that? The program is called A Orillas del Titicaca (On the Banks of Titicaca) and has been downloaded or listened to 2,432 times from the Association of Passionate Radio Workers’ web page.

Another kind of radio is possible

We obtain contents and send and receive programs over the Internet and we reach large audiences through the radio. And the best thing is that the Internet allows a two-way communication. We radio enthusiasts can exchange information and contents through the web, joining forces to make another kind of radio possible, based on solidarity and social responsibility. The technological marriage could be still more fruitful than we might now suspect.

There are already thousands and thousands of radio stations throughout the world, including Latin America, that channel their programming via the Internet and achieve worlwide coverage. Such transmissions are currently playing the role previously played by short wave, whose consumption has plummeted, particularly among the youth. Apparently, it is migrants that are making most use of this novel technology.

But perhaps the greatest originality offered by the Internet, other than leaping the spatial barrier to planetary coverage, is overcoming the time barrier that forced us to listen to a given program at the time it was broadcast. Radio is no longer gone with the wind. The Internet allows us to listen to the programs that interest us at any time, something known as “a la carte radio.” Just like in a restaurant, you look at a menu and choose the programs you want to hear, effectively establishing your own programming. You can opt for streaming (listening to the program while it’s down-loading) or podcasting (recording the sound file onto your hard disk to later listen whenever you want, without having to be connected to the Internet).

When we talk about a la carte radio, we’re always thinking about individual consumers. But what if the consumer were another radio? Why not imagine an audio collection center, a radio of radios that feeds the sometimes anemic programming of local and community stations? This is the new project on which UNESCO has embarked with a group of Latin American radiophonic networks and institutions. We’ve created an Internet portal with free and open access where radio workers from everywhere can find and offer the most varied inputs to energize their programming, from the most elaborated formats, to reports, chronicles, dramatizations, big Latin American radio series, in-depth interviews, non-commercial music and spots. We hope this initiative will stimulate local production and encourage the so-desired cultural diversity.

Leaving pessimism
for better times

Without in any way meaning to be exclusive, I’ve mentioned six of the contributions Latin American radio has made to our region’s development. During these six decades we have had radio stations that have taken their educational responsibility seriously, mobilizing the population, defending cultural identities, returning self-esteem by devolving words, empowering the citizenry to demand their rights and democratizing contents by exploiting new technologies, particularly the Internet. The vast majority of these examples come from the sphere of alternative, educational and community radios, which is the area I know best. But these contributions aren’t just limited to them. Many socially sensitive commercial radio stations have significantly contributed to the different facets of development and continue to do so.

Not everything is rosy colored in Latin American radio. Our stations are tempted by—and too often give in to—the temptation of dabbling in politics, sensationalism, selling to the highest bidder... Some would say that everybody has a price and so does every radio station. But it’s time to highlight the successes over the failures. As the graffiti on a Bogota wall put it, “Let’s leave the pessimism for better times.”

We trust that the new winds blowing through Latin America—the winds of a second independence—are accompanied by radio broadcasting with a nationalist vocation, that assumes its social responsibility and only uses words, as Martí once said, not to cover up the truth but to tell it.

José Ignacio López Vigil is coordinator of the Association of Passionate Radio Workers (Asociación de Radialistas Apasionadas y Apasionados) (www.radialistas.net).

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