Community Radios: Freedom of Antenna!
By José Ignacio López Vigil, Latin American Coordinator for the World Association of Community Radios (AMARC). This article compiles extracts from the first and last chapters of his book, Manual urgente para radialistas apasionados, published by the Group of Eight, Quito, 1997.
José Ignacio López Vigil
WHEN YOUNG JOURNALISTS INTERVIEW ME, THEY NEVER FAIL TO ASK A KEY QUESTION: "AND RADIO... DOES IT STILL HAVE A FUTURE? How does it defend itself against television?" I have to laugh at these suspicions that radio's days are coming to an end. In an international edition of Radio World I read: "A study done by the Pontifical Catholic University in Chile, one of the country's most respected centers of higher education, has shown radio to be on a good footing: the study demonstrated that radio pulls higher audience levels than television, across sexes and all socioeconomic sectors; 62.1% of Chileans dedicate more hours to listening to radio than to watching television. The study also demonstrated that the public believes radio has more credibility than television."
The data from the investigation, carried out in 1996, are eloquent: on average, Chileans listen to radio close to four hours a day at home, one and a half hours at work and almost half an hour in the car or collective transport. 97% of the population listen to radio, 84.1% listen daily and only 2.9% say they never listen to it. In terms of preferred programs, music takes first place with 98%. News received 75.1%, beating sports at 43.5%. The spaces with live announcers received 51.7%.
All Latin Americans Listen to RadioIf the same poll were done in other Latin American countries, I suspect we would obtain similar results. The doomsayers must be shown the data: the radio dial was never more saturated, there were never more radio stations and receivers in our countries. Ecuador, with 12 million inhabitants, has 700 radio stations. The number of FMs grew in 1996 by 345% with respect to 1994. No communications medium has as much penetration as radio, reaching almost the entire Latin American and Caribbean population. The media inventory done by the International Center of Higher Studies in Communication for Latin America (CIESPAL) in 1993 shows that there are 315 radios and 142 televisions for every 1,000 Latin Americans, and these numbers have already increased.
Radio is listened to more today than it was in the 1950s. The change now is that people also watch more television. More movies are seen—though not in movie theaters—and people speak more by telephone, surf Internet more, consume more hours than ever accessing all the media available to them. Each medium is unique and has its own space in daily life, with its advantages and limitations, its fans and its critics. But they all exist together.
Know What's Happening, Forget Your Own Troubles
Rather than being supplanted, the communications media will readjust themselves. It's like when a late visitor arrives; we look for one more chair and the circle of friends grows. No one leaves; everyone accommodates themselves in the room. When radio was born, the written press was full of jealousy, worried that the new media would offer more immediate information. The newspapers were so indignant that they prohibited radio from using them as an information source. They prohibited press agencies from selling information to radio stations. Desperate, they tried to pass laws preventing radio from transmitting news. Naturally, these intolerant actions were unsuccessful.
World War II was what manifested radio's informational importance. The public was desperate to know what was happening and didn't want to wait until the next day to read about it in the newspapers. The radio gave hot news, and took over informational primacy forever. Given this, the newspapers readjusted their functions, discovering a new responsibility for more analysis, confirmation of facts, and interpretation of a confusing and complex world.
In the same way, when television appeared, radio readjusted, changing from a family event to individual company. "Why do you like to listen to radio so much, Ma'am?" I ask. "Because it brings the neighborhood into my home," she answers.
To accompany loneliness and enliven company, to find out what is happening right away and put one's own weighty problems aside for awhile; that is radio, like those all-terrain vehicles, for every situation.
Radio, already rejuvenated by the mobility offered by transistors, was embellished even more with the development of the FM dial—a new band on the spectrum, covering less distance but with better quality, especially for music stations—and with stereo. Radio is enjoying excellent health today. Broadcasting through new digital frequencies (DIB), transmitting not only over hertzian waves, but also via fiber optics and satellites, high fidelity reception with digitalized stereo systems, means that radio is fully participating in the revolution of new technologies and the multimedia universe. More and more stations are offering complete 24 hour programming on Internet.
With a small battery-powered receiver, dozens of multimedia channels can be captured via satellite. Digital recordings eliminate all spurious noise and allow the making of copies, and copies of copies, without losing quality from one generation to another. DAT, minidiscs and direct taping to the computer hard drive are rapidly substituting magnetophonics.
Never has Bertolt Brecht's prediction been so fulfilled as today: "Suddenly, he had the possibility of saying everything to everybody..." Hopefully the second part will not be fulfilled: "... but looking at it carefully, he had nothing to say."
Latin Americans Believe in the MediaRadio changed the role of the press. Television changed the role of radio. And today, the globalization of culture and the technological revolution has changed all the mass communications media. It is clear that communications media were always in the middle of life. The people gathered around a storybook, a movie screen, or a radio.
What's different now? What role do the media have, especially the mass media? Let's look at the significant 1996 poll carried out by ICP/Research titled "Who do Latin Americans believe?" With respect to parliaments, opinion is horrible: only 9% of Guatemalans and 11% of Ecuadorans trust their parliaments. Venezuelans and Colombians give them a little bit more credit (17%).
In terms of political parties, Mexicans and Costa Ricans (27%) are the most benevolent. Peruvians and Bolivians have very low percentages (13%). The same thing happens with judges, unions, police, businesspeople, presidents, and the political and economic system in general. The gap is filled by churches, which continue to earn a good score: 61% of Latin Americans believe in them. And the communications media: two of every three citizens of our countries are convinced that the press, radio and television tell the truth.
What does this mean? At the very least, it necessitates three new roles for social communications media. It is worth looking at the significance of each one.
They Legitimize What They TransmitAt the end of 1996, then Ecuadorian Minister of Education Sandra Correa, with a political trial pending for having plagiarized her doctoral thesis, took a plane and—with plenty of press coverage—traveled to Calcutta to be blessed by the dying Mother Teresa. In this coarse way the minister hoped to legitimize herself with the religious Ecuadorian public.
What does legitimizing mean? Guaranteeing the authenticity of something or someone, their conformity to law. The legitimate child is recognized as such by his or her parents. When someone legitimizes someone else, they give it value and importance.
Traditionally, different institutions legitimized people: school, university, church, army, state... and the most powerful gentleman, Mr. Money. If you had a diploma or a public post, you could rise socially. The problem was that studies and ranks can't be seen in one's face. So what purpose do they serve? That is why uniforms and all the other paraphernalia of authority were invented, so that everyone would recognize the social categories of others, legitimized by such and such an institution...or by money.
The problem is that these legitimizing institutions have themselves lost legitimacy, especially the political institutions. It is difficult for them to credit to a third party what they themselves do not possess. The communications media do legitimize, because the public believes what it hears and sees through them. People trust in the words and images presented. The media confirm events, situations, opinions and people. Appearing on radio or television dresses one in a uniform more noticeable than that of Cardinals and Colonels, gives one more appearance than the representative's mansion or the ambassador's limousine, because the screen and the microphone make one visible and audible to thousands, millions of people. As the world gets bigger and more removed, as society gets more anonymous, the media offer more prestige. The word fame comes from a Greek root that means to shine. The communications media, like King Midas, make everything they touch turn brilliant.
They Establish RealityWhat the media bring to public light and to the public ear retains value. What is published has value. And now comes the corollary: only what is published exists.
Isaac Asimov explains how, in remote times, the majority of human beings, dedicated to agriculture or tending flocks, had no idea what happened over the next hill, and many didn't even know what empire they belonged to. They were content to simply live and die on their plot of land and, on special occasions, go from their community to a neighboring one. Merchants and soldiers were the only ones who knew about other towns, who visited lands with no name, who went beyond the horizon. When these travelers returned, they related amazing tales, adventures with giant cyclops and marine monsters. Only they had seen and heard, and they had to be believed. What Marco Polo told about his travels was true. And what he didn't tell did not exist.
Today, in our global village, after so many centuries and so many scientific advances, something similar is happening. The communications media are the new merchants of reality. If it isn't on the screen or the microphones it's as if it never happened. What the media affirms remains affirmed. What it ignores does not exist. We're accustomed to saying that the media tell us what is happening in our country and in the world. But we have to go farther; not only do they tell us, but they decide on and establish reality. "What the press keeps quiet about has simply not happened," a TV announcer on Teleamazonas, in Quito, states euphorically. In other words, facts are consumed in the news. We live a virtual reality as seen through the media.
In smaller societies, other spaces prevail to exchange information, from the canteen to the town square, from the market to Sunday mass. In Bolivia, La Paz residents found everything and found out about everything in the Prado, walking up and down Santa Cruz Avenue. Not now. Now the television set and the radio are the new plaza. Before, journalists ran behind the politicians. Now it's the reverse. Politicians present themselves to the stations, beg for an interview, and are always available even for a second-string reporter. The media create the scenery for the world and its ups and downs to make sense. Those who rise in the charts stay in focus and in front of the lights. Those who don't remain in the darkness.
What is termed the political scene has been built on that structure: the media choose the actors (assigning roles, who is the protagonist and who the antagonist); they write the script (setting the agenda, what is told and what to offer opinions about); and they provoke the outcome (determining public opinion).
Broaden the scenario, present the most varied points of view. Pluralism of opinions within the media, and media pluralism within society, guarantee democracy and human intelligence itself. The monopoly of communication would reduce us to a situation worse than that of Asimov's peasants. We would end up like mules, with reins and blinders.
They Represent CitizensWho appears once, has value. Who appears many times, has great value. And with so much accumulated value, announcers and journalists now not only speak in public, but also speak in the name of the public. No one elected them to be representatives, but there they are, smiling and accepted, filling the empty seat left by politicians and union leaders, hierarchies and governors reduced in stature for having taken part in the easy booty of corruption. The people have deposited in the media the confidence they lost in those leaders.
As representatives of the people, the media become mediators between the people and power. Taking on noble causes or supporting those who pay them the most, radio, television and the press put themselves, almost without exception, in the midst of social conflicts. The media uncover scandals, investigate authorities, remind them of campaign promises, defend consumer rights, resolve daily problems ranging from the neighborhood left without electricity to the talkathon promoting Christmas for poor children.
The government meets with the opposition in the media, which presents the most varied political tendencies. On the democratic radio and television stations, the mayor dialogues with neighbors, and businesspeople and workers face each other as do functionaries and taxpayers. All sectors speak to each other; friends and enemies, from on top and from below, from the right, left and center. What other social space convokes so many people and with such plurality? Not even the temple. Where can we join so many contrary interests and different points of view without an explosion, without one side withdrawing or not showing up? The media have become the clearing house and meeting place, an obligatory meeting place for all those who want to live in a civilized form. On the sets and in the booths debates take place about every issue, negotiations are carried out, alliances are made and consensus is built. Public opinion gravitates around these social mediation spaces. For years the press has been spoken of as the fourth estate. The way things are going, maybe it is already the first. Or the trampoline for the first.
The truth is that if you want to build a political career in Latin America, your best bet is to become an announcer or a singer. If you want a public post, begin by making listeners and television viewers familiar with you. This is no joke. Remember how many people have entered political life through art or sports, from Johnny Ventura to Palito Ortega, including Pelé and Rubén Blades. Add up how many radio and television announcers ran for and won legislative seats, from Susy Díaz who arrived at the Peruvian parliament showing her rear end, to Compadre Palenque who won the mayorship of La Paz by exploiting popular tears, without forgetting Silvio Santos, the photogenic Brazilian showman who, had his candidacy for the presidency not been invalidated, would have made it straight to the Planalto Palace. The road goes both ways; politicians become artists and athletes to win points in a political system ever more like show business. Carlitos Menem flirts with Xuxa and clowns with Tinelli. Antanas Mockus, mayor of Bogotá, celebrates his wedding in a circus, riding on an elephant with his bride. The most picturesque example was that of Abdala Bucaram who, despite a speech impediment, recorded a CD with Los Iracundos and played soccer with the Barcelona club, until the Ecuadorian people tired of his foolery and kicked him out of power with massive civic demonstrations that culminated on February 6, 1997.
Do those who say they represent us actually do so? How do we distinguish, beyond the theater lights, the masks from the faces or the voices reciting memorized scripts from those who speak sincerely? It is not easy for the public, often dazzled by what they see and hear. It is also not the best solution for the actors themselves, who have to go on stage whether they want to or not. Both humanists and opportunists are convinced that no leadership can be consolidated today without the mediation of the media.
Democratize the WordThe first task in our communications media is to democratize the word. Before any message, before any advice or literacy program, the greatest liberator is the word. Barthes said that language is used to think. And Kant said that we learn to reason by speaking. Thinking is the child of the word, not the reverse. We become women and men through dialogue, through communication. We are when we say that we are.
We must offer the floor in our media. Or rather, to return it. Because in these 500 years the sacking and pillaging has been multiple: gold, silver, bananas, petroleum...and the word. The early colonizers and the colonizers of today have wanted to convince us of our inferiority and reduce us to mute recipients of their discourses. It is not a coincidence that dictators demand silence. It is the best way to divide people and dehumanize them.
The Latin American popular radio stations have not been stingy in making people talk. For five decades they have promoted audience participation as the basic profile of their programs. With enormous costs and sacrifices, they have taken microphones to the most remote home, the most isolated neighborhood, to the depths of the jungle and the heights of the mountains.
The public word. Because women talk a lot, but in private, with neighbors, in the kitchen and back patio. And the peasant is eloquent, but not in front of the boss. An unemployed person lowers his or her head and murmurs, supplicating, for a chance to work. Who will make the voices of the poor resonate—the 4 of every 5 Latin Americans and Caribbeans? We don't want to be the voice of those without a voice, because the people are not mute. They know much better than we do what they want and what they need. They only lack the channel of expression, the new technological conch shell, the radio.
This is the first challenge of a station with social responsibility: to amplify the people's voice and thereby socially legitimize it. What if the people are not well enough informed, if they sometimes speak nonsense? The Constitutions of our countries refer to the free expression of ideas, but do not say they have to be correct. Or have the more educated never stuck their foot in their mouth? Everyone has the right to make mistakes in public.
The people should talk on our radios, whether to protest an abuse or request a romantic song. They should participate in debates on genetic cloning or in tongue twister contests. There are two winners: the announcer learns to listen and the listener learns to talk. Nothing humanizes us more than dialogue, the word. Even God, when giving a self-definition, chose to be called The Word.
Reflections and HorizonsVinny Mohr, director of Radio Coop in Vancouver, was asked to explain the difference between a local and a national station. "Local radio is like a mirror," noted the experienced Canadian, "while national radio is like a window."
I never had heard such an accurate comparison. Local stations, in effect, look at their problems and try to imagine solutions among themselves, they listen to favorite music, they exchange opinions and they get together to improve their quality of life. Intense communication is achieved through a small radio. The community listens and, listening to itself, its individual and collective self-esteem grows. The neighbors get to know and recognize each other better. Local radio builds identity.
National or regional radios are like windows to see what's happening in the country, to learn about other worlds. We human beings are varied, the hills are different from the coasts, the coast is very different from the jungle; a variety of cultures, customs and beliefs coexists in our territory. Learning about this diversity, we increase respect for others. Ordinarily one criticizes what one doesn't know. Radio makes us learn about others, even if we only know about them by listening. We are not identical—luckily—but we all have the same value. National radio builds solidarity.
We need both types of radio: mirrors and windows, reflections and horizons. Local radio teaches you that you are not of less value than anyone else. National radio teaches you that you are not of more value than anyone else either. The radio-mirror, alone, tires one out: there comes a moment when hearing the same story over and over again about the godmother and her seven children gets boring. Even Narcissus, if he hadn't drowned, would have gotten bored with his own reflection. One has to get some distance to relativize local problems and discover that the world is bigger than the town plaza. It's not good for families to mix blood, nor is it good for neighbors to spend all their time listening to neighborhood opinions. The house must be ventilated, the windows opened.
It is also not good to spend one's life on the balcony, looking to the far horizon. No matter how broad the horizon is, it is always diffuse. One can end up losing focus and thinking that everything that comes from outside is better. Moctezuma saw a band of adventurers who had come out of Andalusian jails as if they were a group of gods. And Malinche sold out her own for some not so courteous bearded foreigners. Charity begins at home, and radio does as well. We need both: mirrors of self-esteem, windows of diversity. Even more: we need both dimensions to be present in the programming. With a little bit of audacity, we can establish alliances with large stations if we are small, and with local stations if we have great power. Like any well-administered house, our radio will have mirrors to see ourselves and open windows to see out. To appreciate ourselves and to appreciate others.
The Word ItselfOn June 28, 1996, the Popular Radios Coordinating Body of Ecuador (CORAPE) challenged the Law Reforming Radio and Television Distribution. This law and its regulations limit the power of so-called communal radios, prohibit advertising on them, and put them under the national security statute. It is not a law to promote radios, but to prevent civil society, especially the indigenous, from having their own frequencies. The challenge was not accepted by Ecuador's Constitutional Tribunal or, rather, by the businesspeople in the Ecuadoran Radio Broadcasters Association who pressured the Tribunal. Everything continued as it was before.
When we were defending the challenge before the Tribunal, a businessman stood up and said: "What's the problem, anyway? You all want to talk? The unions want to talk, the women, the indigenous want to say what they think? Then come to my station. In my business, we are open to all opinions." My business, my station. And if you don't like what we say, boss? He who pays runs the show, says local wisdom. If you rent space on a commercial radio, it's like a renter with an owner. When the house is yours, you sleep calmly. But if you are renting, the owner can put you in the street whenever he feels like it or when he wants to give the house to someone else.
The public word. A second phrase is missing: our/your own. We can only guarantee full freedom of expression to civil society when civil society has its own radio and television frequencies, through which it can speak its own word and project an independent image.
In May 1994, UNESCO and the UNDP convoked an audacious seminar in Santiago, Chile. The issue was provocative: communications media and democracy. The invited guests were even more provocative: the Inter-American Radio Broadcasters Association, Inter-American Press Association and other large business associations; the International Journalists Federation and other journalist unions and federations; CIESPAL and other academic training centers; AMARC and other alternative networks. It was an unprecedented event. For the first time in the history of Latin American communication, commercial and community media sat down at the same table. The conclusions put forward in the Declaration of Santiago were equally stimulating, especially the Action Plan from the seminar, which recognizes community media's contribution to democracy.
Who Owns the Radio Waves?The democratization of communications is directly related to ownership of media. The following question is inevitable: who and how many are the owners of the word and image in Latin America and the Caribbean? The concentration jumps out at the eye and ear; according to CIESPAL data in 1993, 85% of all radio stations, 67% of television stations and 92% of written media belong to private enterprise. Cultural and educational radios are barely 7% of the total, and television stations set up for this purpose are only 10% of the region's total channels.
If this situation looks bad, the trend is worse; if it continues, from five to ten giant corporations will control the majority of the principal newspapers, magazines, books, radio and television stations, film, recording and data networks by the end of the century. Ever fewer opinion makers and ever more opinionated, concluded Eduardo Galeano in the meeting "With our feet on the ground and our voices on the air," held in Montevideo in 1996.
If we talk about property, the primordial question is the following: who do the radio waves belong to, who owns their bands and frequencies? A common response in many telecommunications laws is to attribute ownership to the state, making them the equivalent of national territory or subsoils. Argentine lawyer Damian Loreti lucidly rejects this dangerous idea, which confuses the goals of radio (public service) with the nature of the activity itself (the exercise of free expression). The technological means is changed (paper, waves, bits) but not the right. "The difference," says Loreti, "is that public service, by definition, belongs to the state, while human rights belong to all men [sic]."
The radioelectric spectrum, then, belongs to all of us. It is a patrimony of humanity administered by states, a natural resource like air or the ozone layer. What would we say about the privatization of oxygen or a business trying to monopolize fresh water? What belongs to everyone cannot be put into the hands of a few. What belongs to society should not be under the wing of the state or its bureaucracy.
What is at stake here is "freedom of expression, the cornerstone of our democracies," as stated in the first article of the Declaration of Santiago, which was signed and applauded even by the attending businesspeople. It is a freedom that is for everyone or for no one, if we don't want to live in Orwell's Animal Farm, where all the animals were equal, but some were more equal than others.
Community media guarantee the exercise of this liberty without economic or political conditions. Thus, democratic governments should reserve a quota of frequencies for community initiatives on both the AM and FM bands and on television channels and the new numerical bands. How many frequencies? In strict justice, there would have to be equal percentages for non-profit as well as for-profit enterprises.
In January 1997, I attended the III Congress of the National Groupings of Popular Radios (ANARAP) in Santiago, Chile. I arrived and greeted my radio friends. "How are you, what have you been up to?" I asked John Maulen, one of the ANARAP leaders. "The same as always," he responded; "conspiring." I was surprised by the response. I thought I had misunderstood him. "You understood correctly, brother," John said without losing his Franciscan smile. "Conspiring. Sharing the air, that's what the word means. Fighting as always to share the radio waves."
ANARAP has been fighting since 1992 for a law that favors community radios. After great effort, Chile's legislators agreed to modify some articles from Law 18.168 to include "minimum coverage radio service." The name itself was suspicious. What is the maximum potency authorized for non-profit radios? One watt! Although it seems incredible, Chilean civil society, surrounded by commercial radios of thousands of watts of power, can only amplify its voice through one-watt stations in the cities. To this absurd limitation is added the prohibition on broadcast advertising, which violates freedom of trade.
"Don't push, we all fit on the dial," was the slogan in Peru. "An agrarian reform of the air waves," proclaimed the Brazilians. "A conspiracy," now say Chilean colleagues, with bitter wisdom.
We are already hearing the eternal pretext: there's no room for more stations, there's no room on the dial. Are you sure?
It's not true that the radio spectrum is saturated. And it's even less true in the immense rural zones of our countries, in mid-size and small cities, where the FM band is barely used. But even the big cities are not really saturated. The best proof of this is that, before elections, new radio frequencies appear as if by magic and are distributed to members of the governing party.
Some dials are saturated. Others are just disordered. In many, the frequencies are separated by 800 kilohertz (88.1 jumps to 88.9, etc.). If equipment is well calibrated, so much space is not needed on the bands; a separation of 400 kilos is enough (interstitial channels). In Brazil, community radios are asking the state to give them two interstitial channels. For example, 88.5 and 106.1. In such a large country, many stations can run from the same frequency without interference.
In El Salvador, the smallest country in America, ANTEL, the state telecommunications company, said the same, that not even a grain of corn, much less another frequency would fit on the dial. A Dutch technician arrived and showed them how there's more than enough space for all the ARPAS community radios, without interference problems. ARPAS, the Association of Participatory Radios and Programs of El Salvador, currently includes 20 stations throughout the country. Many of them do not have licenses, despite having requested them for years.
Why don't they give out frequencies if there's room? For two reasons, both easy to imagine. The first, economics. Plenty of broadcasters are buzzing around the publicity pie. Why add more? Market freedom is invoked as long as they are the marketers. The second reason is political. Money gets votes and votes get more money. How to condition the electors' intention? The best path is to have a television channel or a radio station. And make sure that the other side doesn't.
A Seed of MetalWhen speaking about owners and ownership, some people might imagine investments inaccessible to a group of neighbors or a cooperative.
That's not so. When I'm invited to a training workshop, I usually travel with a radio that is not in the region's station handbook. It's so portable that it fits in hand luggage, and so inexpensive that its components only cost US$150, including the antenna. It is so insignificant that airport security confuses it with a toy. But it's no toy. It works. It broadcasts on the 89.3 FM band and covers one square kilometer.
I also take the design manual. Anyone can follow those circuits and make a similar radio. To avoid problems with the fair technical demands of the organizations that assign the frequencies, the engineers in Ecuador's Coordinating Body of Popular Radios designed a more complete model. This model has an oscillator of one watt and projection of ten, includes a stereo codifier and a one-year guarantee. It covers 8 kilometers in rural areas, and less, obviously, in the city. The components, all purchased in Ecuador, cost less than $800. Then there is a need for more money for the audio booth. But these are not unreachable amounts for a group that decides to begin a radio project. Some years ago, in Lima, we held a course with 10 peasants interested in electronics. At the end of two weeks, guided by a professional, each one fabricated a transmitter and took it to his respective community, ready to plug in. Some of the transmitters built at that course are still working. For example, Radio San Viator has been transmitting since then in Collique, a peripheral neighborhood in Lima.
If they are so wonderful and inexpensive, then why aren't there more community radios installed in poor Bolivian neighborhoods, in young Peruvian communities, in Venezuelan neighborhoods, in Brazilian shantytowns, amidst Haitian poverty? Perhaps because of lack of knowledge on the part of citizen's organizations. Or because the interests of private business groups are fewer competitors, and more profits.
Let's look at numbers. How many communications centers have not paid more monthly rent for a radio space than it would cost to have their own station? I'm not denying the importance of alternative programs on commercial stations, especially in the big cities. But it's better to own our own house, even though it's small.
We talk about small stations. We don't say that because we love diminutives, but out of realism, because they are within reach of the grassroots hand. "Small is beautiful," some idealists said years ago. But big, in terms of radio, is even more beautiful. Getting a one or ten watt transmitter on the air is the first step. It is a seed of metal and cables, destined to grow. The community and the radio producers gain experience, improve the quality of programs and equipment, incorporate new technologies, broaden the power of their signal, and imprint an aggressive business criteria on the radio project.
A surprising graffiti appeared on a Quito street: WE DON'T WANT COMMUNICATION MEDIA BY HALVES, WE WANT WHOLES!* I don't know who wrote it or with what intention, but immediately became a slogan for the World Community Radio Association (AMARC). It got stamped on shirts and stickers, and put on Internet to be seen by all those who fight to democratize the radio spectrum. We don't want communication by halves, we won't settle for having other people give their opinions about us or receiving the occasional invitation from some other station to say a couple of words for ourselves just because of the owner's commercial or political commitments. We want our own frequency. We want freedom of antennas. We want the full media.
What Is Community Radio?In Canada they are known as community radios. In Europe they prefer to call themselves associative radios. In Africa, rural radios. In Australia, public radios. And in our Latin America, the variety of names illustrates the richness of experiences: educational in Bolivia, free in Brazil, participatory in El Salvador, popular in Ecuador, indigenous in Mexico, community here and citizens' there... Ventarrón FM of Manabí, in Ecuador, prefers to call itself an interactive radio. You can change the habit, but not the monk. The challenge for all these stations is similar: improve the world we live in. Democratize the word to make this exclusionary society more democratic than the one to which those neoliberal gentlemen want to accustom us.
Community Radio. To whom are we referring with this term? Why not leave the adjective out and simply call ourselves radio? Is there a dividing line between community stations and those we call commercial? Where is that line drawn? And we have an even more urgent question: what is community? To respond, we must first clarify what is not community. Let's try.
Low Power?Community radio is not defined by the power of the signal. If so, we would be condemning these projects to stay forever small: as they grew they would lose their identity. Or is it that they shouldn't grow? Some people think—and with all good intentions—that this issue of community communication is for the rural areas, for populations isolated from urban centers, where real radios haven't yet penetrated.
Neither peripheral nor provisional, community radio develops the same way in a large capital city or in an isolated community. Where there are people, there can and should be community. What happens is that the word is deceiving: community sounds small, territorially limited. In Bolivia, community means peasant. The concept, then, must be redefined and understood more as common interests than as geographical limits. For example, if in Mexico City, the most populated city in the world, women decide to have their own radio station—and I hope they do—we would be dealing with a community of interests that touches ten million women.
When a group of neighbors decides to begin a radio project, what matters is not the neighborhood boundaries, but common concerns, shared challenges to improve the quality of life for the residents. When an indigenous nationality thinks about having a station, they want to reach, whether by direct signal or by links, their countrymen and those who have emigrated to the city. Family members who are far away, the youth who are studying in other languages, should get information in their own language and have a public memory of their traditions. The land unites them, the culture reunites them.
I think about prisoners at the Olmos prison in Buenos Aires. They have their own internal radio station and through the programs they share forced common interests as well as dreams that transcend prison bars.
Conclusion: local radio is not the same as community radio. Community radio is not defined by the territory it covers, but by the interests it addresses, in the same way that one talks of the European Community or the international economic community.
Specific Frequencies?Community radio is also not defined by the point a station occupies on the radio spectrum. Many community projects have used the FM band simply because the transmission equipment and antennas are more economical. But social communication can take place from any frequency, including the numerical ones that civil society has every right to access, whether or not covered in the agenda of the International Telecommunications Union.
In the IV AMARC World Assembly, celebrated in Dublin in 1990, a group of radicals wanted to disqualify Radio Peace International, based in Costa Rica, because it transmits on short wave. What does that matter? Don't we live in a global village, hasn't the planet gotten smaller and isn't cyberspace ever-present? Democratic messages can travel on any waves. If some day we receive a radio-astronomic signal—extra-terrestrial communication—we would have no reason to automatically distrust its community intentions.
In Latin America, in addition to hundreds of community radios, commercial stations carry an impressive number of community programs. And other audiovisual production centers offer excellent reporting and dramatization series, as well as informative material with a democratic perspective. These experiences have an equal right to be considered community. And what should we say about megaphones, which play such a mobilizing role in markets and fairs, and about the loudspeakers located in the settlements of the Landless Movement in Brazil? All voices, independent of how they are distributed, can enrich public opinion and build citizenship.
Licensed or Unlicensed?The borders of community radio also do not depend on having or not having a broadcast license. Certainly, these radios do not have a clandestine vocation nor do they like going to court to be accused of disturbing public order. Why, then, exclude from the community movement hundreds of radio experiences that have not received permission to transmit even though they have filed their papers? Or haven't even been able to file their papers because of the expense or the "payoffs" required.
They are said to be illegal radios. Where does that accusation come from? Illegal is outside the framework of the law. Or against the law. But freedom of expression and the right of all citizens to distribute their ideas through any communications media, without border limitations, is recognized in our countries' Constitutions. That is the first law. The illegal and the unconstitutional ones are actually those that don't grant frequencies to civil organizations when they are requested.
They are said to be pirate radios. Pirates of what? A pirate is one who boards a ship to steal a treasure that belongs to someone else. The radio spectrum is a treasure, that's true. We communicate across distances through its waves. But this valuable treasure is collective, humanity's patrimony. Thus, it cannot be kept under lock and key and used only by a few. The pirates and privateers are actually those who govern and distribute frequencies among political friends and functionaries who distribute them to the highest bidder.
What is the bidding process in reality? At least as applied in our countries, it is nothing more than giving radio and television frequencies to the business that offers the most money. Who gives more? Freedom of expression is auctioned as if it were antique furniture or a famous painting. But the universal right to the public word cannot depend on political interests or economic possibilities.
Instead of ghosthunting against community media, our governments would be better off reviewing the current obsolete and discriminatory legal frameworks so we would all have equal opportunities on the dial. They should modernize telecommunications laws as has been done in Canada, France, Australia, Holland, Sweden, in the most developed countries.
Artisans or Professionals?Some people might be thinking that the difference between some radios and others lies in the mode of production. Community radios are cottage industries, spontaneous and amateur, while the others are professional and of high technical quality. This commonly held concept represents an announced suicide. To avoid the competition, community radios would have to get off the court, and thus, sooner rather than later, would be benched forever.
Perhaps because of our lack of resources, we begin with second-hand equipment and improvised announcers. But we won't make a virtue of shortages. Bit by bit, if the project is well administered, we will consolidate the endeavor, improving the production and the producers.
Precisely because we are community—because "the people deserve the best"—we are challenged to be at least as professional as commercial radio. And to pay good salaries that are a least as good as those of commercial radio. Many community stations produce more or less broad segments of their programming with volunteer personnel. This demonstrates the attraction of the media and the vocation of service among many people. But it does not guarantee program quality. Ingenuousness aside: technique is as important as choice, knowing how to do it is as important as wanting to do it. The radio administration must demand good preparation and program development, which is to say professionalization, from both those who receive paychecks and those who are volunteers.
This clarification may or may not be needed, but being a professional is not the same as having a university degree. In terms of journalism and communication, one can be a brilliant professional with or without an academic title. A good mason is one who builds straight walls, not one who has a masonry degree. Radio professionalism is acquired with lots of practice and critique.
And Ownership of the Media?I have frequently heard this statement: "State radios cannot be community radios." And this one: "A private station, with a commercial license, which belongs to the business association, cannot be admitted to a network of community radios." I ask myself if these statements, apparently coherent, don't place those who make them as judges of life and death. Who has the power to separate the pure from the impure? Considering these obsessively privatizing times, a state or municipal institution can actually be alternative. If we exclude state radios, wouldn't we also have to exclude the Catholic Church, which responds to its state, the Vatican? And in terms of commercial radios, one must first look at the kind of work it does. There are commercial stations, especially in the provinces, that open their microphones to the people, collaborate on civic campaigns, have educational and social services spaces, and defend community interests.
I prefer Chinese wisdom: "It doesn't matter what color the cat is as long as it catches mice." Radio station owners obviously place conditions on the project, we can't deny that. But no ownership structure should be disqualified a priori. Private radio can be as community-oriented as public radio, religious as much as lay, and so can university, union, cooperative, popular, and NGO radio, or even three crazy youth who together make their own transmitter and enter the informal economy with their neighborhood station. Whatever the ownership mode, what is key is that the journalism be independent and not a spokesperson for a party or government.
Money should not condition freedom of expression or pluralism of ideas. Programming should be democratic and democratizing. Community is not a property title or a good conduct certificate. Personally, I have yet to see a radio station that could be considered 100% community. At times ownership is very cooperative, but programming is no more than an oral pamphlet. Other times, the programming is very participatory while the administration is authoritarian. Radio doesn't hop on one foot, it hops on two. And this is natural, because constructing a community project is an arduous process that matures slowly, zigzagging, and takes a lifetime. We have to leave Manicheaisms aside and work with a much more flexible and realistic definition. Let whoever is free of contradictions throw the first stone.
I think that the degree to which the audience takes ownership of a station is more important than legal ownership. Do they feel it is theirs, that they can participate on it, that they are represented in its messages? If listeners come out to defend the station when there are problems, that's the best proof that the radio has taken on flesh and blood in the people's lives, that it is fulfilling its mission and has hit the bull's eye. I don't ask where the arrow comes from—I see if it hits the mark.
And Commercial Publicity?We finally come to advertising. If a community radio sells commercial publicity, has it become commercialized? Some people jump to this conclusion: commercial radio has advertising. Given this premise, the inverse is also concluded: community radio does not have advertising.
Aren't we cutting off the future of community radios with this set-up? How will they live, how will they pay electric bills and music and salaries? With subsidies from cooperation agencies? And for how long? The international aid flow indicates that the era of projects is coming to an end. And even if that were not the case, isn't it time now to at least produce the money we need? Won't we be able to cover the operating costs of our enterprises with good economic initiatives? As Mariano Valderrama, a Peruvian communicator, noted astutely, "One thing is non-profit and another is non-productive."
It is unjustifiable that some Latin American governments prohibit community radios from carrying advertising. They say our enterprises are "non-profit," but the concept of "profit" is not equivalent to the "private appropriation of benefits." A social enterprise can and should have "profits;" it should generate income and be profitable. The difference consists of whether the surplsu income goes to private pockets, or is all reinvested to improve the communications medium itself.
The possibilities of earning income through commercial advertising have not all been used up. In our countries, television takes the largest slice and radio has to fight over smaller percentages. Despite this, and without excluding parallel endeavors that fill out the budget, advertising and sponsorships continue to represent a significant economic income. A community radio can—without being corrupted or prostituted—get commercial publicity and transmit it. Not all those who need blood are vampires, just those who live for blood.
Three Functioning LogicsSo how can one definitively say that a station is a community radio? The response is not really very complex: it's enough to look at the radio's objectives. What is it seeking, what are its goals? Rafael Roncagliolo speaks of three functioning logics that determine the true difference among mass media:
-The logic of economic profitability, unique to commercial media.
-The logic of political profitability, typical of state or party media.
-A third logic, of socio-cultural profitability, which defines community media.
Commercial radios are defined as profit-making institutions. Their final objective and goal is to make money. As communications media, they should take on the social and cultural responsibility typical of all good journalism, and should orient their programming to the service and development of society. But in case of conflict, when they have to choose between God and manna, businesspeople always choose the latter.
Although they shouldn't, state radios often work as propaganda apparatuses for the government in office. They try to win votes, persuade future voters and calm down detractors. Stations belonging to political parties or proselytizing religions use this same logic of winning supporters to their cause.
The role of a community radio is quite distinct. There we find the precious pearl, the nonnegotiable characteristic of these projects: service to the community, the social objectives we are fighting for. That is the essence of community radio.
When a radio promotes citizens' participation and defends their interests; when it responds to the tastes of the majority and uses humor and hope as basic proposals; when it truly informs; when it helps resolve the thousand and one problems of daily life; when all ideas are debated on its programs and all opinions are respected; when cultural diversity is stimulated rather than commercial homogeneity; when women are protagonists of communication and not simply a decorative voice or publicity tool; when no dictatorship is tolerated, not even musical dictatorships imposed by disc jockeys; when all words flow without discrimination or censorship—that is community radio.
True community radios do not submit to market logic or to propaganda. Their goal is different; their best energies are put at the service of civil society. A highly political service, of course: trying to participate in public opinion, foster debate, create consensus, and broaden democracy. Definitely—and thus the name—building community.
Why Speak of Civil Society?We said that community radios are at the service of civil society. To understand this concept we don't have to refer to Hegel or Gramsci or consult a lot of sociology books. We say that civil society is made up of common citizens, those who are not part of the established power. Better said in plural: powers. Which are they? Four have a long history: economic, political, military and religious. And one more: the mass social communications media.
Civil society does not participate in the constituted power, but it has plenty of power. It is a dispersed power that joins noble causes as the moment indicates. A power that is channeled, more or less organically, through the so-called social movements with ecological, gender, human rights, indigenous nationality, quality of life and consumer issues.
Why not speak directly of grassroots sectors? Because the majority of community radios speak to mixed audiences, where there are also sectors of the middle class, students, professionals, small businesspeople, citizens with higher incomes but who are not part of the sectors of power.
Signed and sealed: we are not neutral. The priority and the sense of our work is determined by the marginalized and impoverished majorities in our countries. But we need to join all sectors of civil society into a great national project.
Are we leftwing or rightwing? With so many paradigms destroyed, the question itself—not the answer anymore—is hard to understand. As in the subatomic world, wouldn't it make sense to apply the quantum uncertainty principle? Particle or wave, spin to the right or spin to the left? It depends on the position of the observer. Where is the left in Peru today, or Colombia, or so many other Latin American countries? Was Eastern Europe leftwing? Maybe it would be more specific to say that community radios have been and continue to be opposed to any system that puts things above beings, that discriminates against people because of race, sex or creed, that permits a few to have too much while so many have too little. Although it seems obsolete in postmodern times, we want to continue to feel—as Ché stated biblically—any injustice committed against any human being in any part of the world as our own.
The Public Makes Us Community RadiosJust as love transforms people, objectives transform institutions. A station that is committed to the community will become popular sooner or later. The elitist or ideologized attitudes of some communicators only reflect insensitivity and create radios in their own image, with programming according to their taste, not the public's tastes.
In contrast, if you open yourself to the real listeners, make yourself vulnerable to the audience, they will seduce you. In a two-way process between stations and listeners, we are modeling the radio profile we want and need. And in that exchange, when everything is added up, it is the public that makes us feel its tastes, tells us its expectations and needs, notes its preferred schedule and teaches us to speak its language. In so doing, it educates directors and producers, making a community radio out of what, perhaps, began as a micro-enterprise formed by some unemployed people, or as an apostolic dream in the head of some missionaries, or as an experiment by a group of dissatisfied youth. Even if it clearly began as a community project, the community itself will discover, bit by bit, the potential and the limitations of radio.
Being a community radio is not a declaration of principles signed on the first day of production and then put in a drawer. It is a way of life, of thinking, of relating to the public. A scale of values. Those who work with community radio have to respond with their hand on the Bible, the Koran, Capital or their mother's photo: do I work primarily for my own benefit or to help improve the quality of life of my neighbors? That is the question that should be burned into their soul.
Primarily. But we have to be realistic. The community option is generous, but not angelical. Even Saint Paul taught that preachers had to live by what they preached. Passionate radio workers have to learn to make their station self-sufficient. They will make a decent income—as any well-administered enterprise—to reinvest and make the radio grow. Being a community radio does not mean it can't be profitable. Paying decent salaries for work well done does not conspire against social objectives.
However—and this is el hoyo del meollo, as the Nicaraguans say, the heart of the matter—we are not in this field for the money. Many, perhaps the majority, of our colleagues in community radio could be earning much more in other jobs. Earning more and working less. But there they are, in their radio trenches, defending the popular word, risking comfort, helping build citizenship.
Even more than a profession, community communication is a social vocation. We don't work with this type of radio to experiment with a new transmitter-receiver model or to test out certain formats or to have a good time in the booth—although we have a good time producing radio. If we've gotten involved in this community work it's because we want to contribute to our people's development. Our communications media conceive of communication as a medium. Society and its improvement are the goal.
Speaking of social objectives can be very ethereal. What do we concretely intend by giving citizens access to project their own words in public? Why are we committed to the democratization of the radio waves? Let's make at least four of the community radio movement's commitments concrete.
Contribute to DevelopmentCommunication and development are two inseparable concepts, like the soul and the body. Even better, communication for development. A communication that is not conceived of as merely technical or distributional, but as a space for dialogue and interaction between subjects. And a development that is not measured only by the population's improved income level, but by how much the quality of life has been improved.
What does communication contribute to development? It supports the subjective element. Let's take a vaccination campaign. What do we need to implement it? Vaccines, needles, medical posts, nurses, mobility...and children who come to be vaccinated. This last one is supposedly resolved with a few local radio announcements saying when the campaign will begin and where parents should take their children. For the best impact, say some people, the spots should be repeated 15 times for two weeks.
Many health, family planning, soil conservation and environmental clean-up projects have been planned that way, and the results are generally frustrating. People don't move. Mothers don't take their children to the vaccination centers. Women don't take the birth control pills. Farmers go on cutting down the forest and passers-by continue littering the streets. What's wrong? The subjective, people's motivation. No development project will be successful if the target population does not take ownership of it.
Well-recorded announcements are obviously needed. But there's also a need to research customs and prejudices as well as to begin a dialogue with listeners so they will understand the reasons for the project. Many cultural factors come into play, the first of which is that no one likes to be pushed to do things or to feel like a laboratory rat.
The campaign failed; it didn't have the desired impact. This little word, taken from ballistics, may perhaps give us a clue to the failure. During the war in Nicaragua, radios were compared with the artillery that softens enemy positions. Such a conception, in addition to monstrous, is inefficacious. Because war is won by bullet wounds. In war, one conquers. But in the battle for consciences, one convinces. The only valid development, in the long run, is self-development. We are talking about people playing a lead role in development plans. Strengthening their will and ability to play that role is the best contribution we can make from our community radios.
Take Democracy SeriouslyWhat is the participation of the immense majority of citizens reduced to in their country's political life? Every four or five years they toss a piece of paper into a ballot box. And then? They wait four or five years more.
Between elections, the politicians govern. And who governs the politicians? Who controls whether they do what they shouldn't do, or don't do what they promised to do? There is a lack of ongoing monitoring mechanisms, the fourth estate of journalism, to serve as a counterweight to the other three. But it has to be a journalism exercised by all, a public space where civil society can consent or dissent with official voices.
Our stations, independent of political and commercial interests, can and should fashion themselves into open air parliaments, as meeting places for citizens. Community radio lives in a constant electoral state. Through it, people on the street can express opinions about the work of their governing officials, give or withhold support, question and demand political and economic transparency. We are talking about taking democracy seriously, and making sure that sovereignty rests with the people.
Democracy, not governability. That is the swindle they want us to fall for now, the political slogan to contain the explosive situations in our countries. They tell us repeatedly that "we're bad off right now, but we're on the right track." In reality, we're getting worse. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing at an accelerated pace: in the 1960s, inequality between the 20% richest and the 20% poorest on the planet was 30 to 1. Today it is 60 to 1. And if we consider domestic social differences within countries, the gap grows to 150 to 1. This distance also refers to the concentration of knowledge: the info-rich and the info-poor.
This is a governable world, according to them. An avaricious world where 80% of the population shares barely 6% of the income. A humanity with billions of illiterate members and other billions who survive on a miserable dollar a day. An absurd world that has figured out how to hear the imperceptible rumor of the Big Bang, which took place 15 billion years ago, but is incapable of hearing the desperate cry of the 40,000 children who die of hunger daily.
Faced with this unjust panorama, no sensible person can remain indifferent. Community radios cannot either. It is time to join all of our efforts, all of our creativity, to help change this situation. Sometimes we have been called alternative media. We prefer alterative, causing change.
Defending Human RightsWe need platforms and grandstands to expand democracy. We also need courts to defend human rights, places where civil society can go to denounce the thousand and one violations that are committed daily.
Both litigation formats and investigative journalism allow us to make common cause with listeners who call to tell of abuses they have suffered, to register a complaint or request support. Stations with a spirit of justice can play a decisive role if they act as intermediaries in these difficult situations.
Mediate. The verb can be used in two senses. To act as an arbitrator, at the request of those involved, to negotiate a friendly agreement. And to act as godparents, involved in the issue, using our influence to defend the weak and support their cause. Both functions are valid and both are journalistic responsibilities.
The agenda, sadly, is very broad: the rights of the Universal Declaration, both individual and social; labor and consumer rights; women's rights against machista husbands and other specimens who go free on the streets; children's rights, which include all the other rights as well as the right to play; rights of the elderly and retired; rights of the indigenous nationalities and black populations; rights to sexual preference; rights of Nature, mortally wounded by short-term ambitions. Everything that worsens the quality of life of the citizenry belongs on this agenda, and so do the rights to communication and to install community radios.
Protect Cultural DiversityWe are witnessing an accelerated globalization process. The economy of the huge corporations does not respect the policies of small states. At the same time, never has so much separatist zeal flourished. Europe and Asia are dividing and subdividing. Map makers are going bankrupt.
In reality, the neoliberal system is not inconvenienced by this outbreak of nationalism. Serbs and Croatians both buy the same Coca Cola. Ukrainians and Russians can be persuaded to eat the same hamburgers. And on the hot streets of Asunción, Paraguay, Guaranís and Castillians wear the same Adidas on their feet, because that's what the fashion in cold countries dictates.
National borders are of no concern because the market is transnational. The problem is cultural borders, the different tastes that put sales in danger. How to increase the production of blue jeans if Bolivian indigenous women insist on wearing skirts? How to resolve the overproduction of Columbia and Warner Brothers if the Europeans insist on watching their own films? The market has become a god. And it has just one commandment: make money above all things. To do this, the transnationals need to universalize consumer preferences. Just as they do with nature, they try to tear down our peoples' cultural biodiversity. They try to homogenize tastes through publicity pressure. Homogenize in order to sell more and have more political control. Although it sounds like a tongue twister: homogenize to hegemonize.
Haven't you ever begun to watch a film and had the feeling you'd seen it before? The scenes are too similar: the frenetic car chase, the victim in the shower, the policeman and the psychopath fighting it out to the death on the edge of a skyscraper... Even the titles are interchangeable: fatal attraction, mortal seduction, total obsession. Similar forms, identical content. The culture industry exalts the values of violent power, individual pleasure, the perfect silhouette, easy money. It is the pragmatism that tortured Dostoyevski's characters: "The person who is right doesn't win; the person who wins is right."
Faced with this process to make everything uniform and destroy our identities, the telecommunications ministries should design—and carry out—national communication policies. It's not enough to have two isolated positions on pornographic films or blood in children's programs. There's a need for a norm that gives incentives to national production in every country and slows down the foreign cultural invasion. Such regulations do not go against freedom of expression. On the contrary, they guarantee it. Where there are no laws, there is only the law of the jungle.
Complementary to this responsibility of governments, community media are reserves of nationalism and national values. The first thing to protect are languages; our microphones transmit Spanish and Quechua, Mixteco and Guaraní, Miskito and Quiché, all the languages of our land Abya Yala.
Community radios promote the right to be different, from natural medicine to cooking recipes, from traditional celebrations of our grandparents to youth music that doesn't classify in the big Iberoamerican music competitions and news that doesn't get on CNN.
To be different, to think with our own heads. And to have our own tastes. Toborm Krogh, president of the UNESCO General Conference, sent a significant message to the seminar on "Democratizing the Radio Spectrum," organized by the alternative communitarian Group of Eight and held in Caracas in November 1996: "Community media are the base of democratic participation, the creation of a multilateral discourse where everyone has a place, and at the same time they are the ideal technical support to communicate the opinions of the most diverse sectors. In fact, community radios are building the links for an interactive and responsible society that represents itself."
Colombian government decrees from 1995 classify community radios as Class D. If they did it to offend, in fact they have honored us. D is the first letter in such significant words as Development, Democracy and cultural Diversity, which are three of our stations' four strategic objectives (the fourth is human rights).