Growing Movement of Community
Radio in Venezuela
by Sujatha Fernandes
www.zmag.org/, December 24, 2005
Four young people sit around a large table,
writing furiously amid piles of notes, cans of soda, and scrunched
up papers. They could be kids doing their homework or studying
for exams. But these young women from the shantytowns, aged between
17 and 22 years, are preparing for their hour-long program, "Public
Power," on air in ten minutes on community radio station
Radio Perola, 92.3FM, in the Caracas parish of Caricuao.
Caricuao is one of the outer western parishes
of Caracas. As the subway train from the center of Caracas approaches
the parish, we pass by precarious ranchos, or flimsy tin and board
houses, nestled in the sides of the looming hills and large project-like
buildings with bars across the windows. Radio Perola is located
on the ground floor of one of these "projects" or popular
blocks, known as Canagua. The broadcasting studio is a small room,
painted bright yellow and covered with posters from the social
justice movement and community radios. On one large corner table
there is a mixer, microphone and computer, and at a round table
in the center there are several mikes and chairs.
Like other community radio stations in
Venezuela, Radio Perola began as a clandestine station nearly
nine years ago, and activists have fought for it to be legally
authorized by the state. Under the hip-hop inspired slogan, "Maximum
Respect!," community journalists at Radio Perola are creating
spaces for new voices, such as those of the young women, to be
The young women divide their program "Public
Power," into distinct segments. These include an invited
guest to speak about a specific topic relevant to the community,
a news segment, a roundtable discussion about a particular current
event, and then a segment called, "Community Realities."
During this final segment, the women debate with each other, as
well as with listeners, who call in or send text messages via
their cell phones. Today the young women are addressing the theme,
"Living in the Barrio."
"A barrio is not just hills full
of stairways, the barrio is the community," says Lilibeth
Marcano, a 20 year-old member of the collective, who opens the
discussion during this segment of the program. "I live in
a barrio, Santa Cruz de Las Adjuntas. It's not like they've always
told us, that if you live in a barrio you don't have a future,
that if you live in a barrio you're nobody. It's not like that."
Young people, especially those from the
barrios, are realizing that they do have a future and they can
play important roles in their communities. All of the four young
women from the "Public Power" collective say that they
were inspired to become community journalists following the hijacking
of information by the private media during the right-wing coup
d'état against leftist President Hugo Chávez in
One member of the collective, Gladys Romero,
was 14 years old at the time of the coup. She recalls that, "There
was a lot of misinformation, they took the alternative media off
the air, and I as a student, as a young person, felt the need
to promote the real information to inform the community about
what was happening in the country."
The private media has accumulated a large
degree of power since the late seventies, due to the growing deregulation
and commercialization of media in Venezuela. In 1979, the Venezuelan
government sold Channel 5, a state-owned channel, to the private
sector. Through the eighties and nineties, successive governments
continued the expansion of concessions to media corporations,
leading to the centralization of the media in a small number of
conglomerates. Private television at a national level has been
monopolized by the Cisneros group (Venevisión) and the
1BC group of Phelps-Granier (Radio Caracas Televisión).
Out of 44 regional television networks, nearly all are linked
by chain to private networks Venevisión, Radio Caracas
Televisión, Televen, and Globovision. This small group
of corporations also control radio-electric spaces and the national
Since Chávez was elected president
in 1998, and especially in the tense days of the oil strikes by
business sectors in December 2001 and during the lead-up to the
coup in April 2002, this powerful private media has run a fierce
campaign to discredit him. A few hours after Chávez was
removed from office on April 11, 2002, opposition spokesperson
Napoleón Bravo came on the air and falsely broadcast that
Chávez had resigned. While opposition leaders were taking
over the presidential palace and dissolving democratic institutions,
the private media was running its regular broadcast of cooking
shows, soap operas, and cartoons. Members of the community were
deprived of access to information, as the government-owned television
station, Channel 8, and several community radio and television
stations were taken off the air.
During this time, it was mainly the alternative
print media that was able to get the message out to the people
about what was happening. According to Roberto, a worker at the
Caracas Municipal Press, activists came to the press and labored
to produce 100,000 copies of a bulletin, informing people about
what was happening. Radio Fe y Alegría also came back on
the air and began to make announcements about the coup. Through
the bulletins, alternative radio, and the exchange of text messages
through cell phones, people were able to pass on the news of the
coup and come out onto the streets in massive demonstrations that
would put Chávez back into power.
At the time of the coup, the alternative
and community media broke through the silence and misinformation
of the private media. The passing of information from mouth to
mouth was a revival of Radio Bemba, an age-old tradition of gossip
and communication in Caribbean countries, that has begun utilizing
electronic technology such as radio to multiply messages.
Since Chávez was reinstated as
President on April 13, 2002, two days after the coup, there has
been an explosion of community radio stations. Activists across
the country have sought to establish local control over the information
reaching their communities. While in 2002, there were 13 licensed
community radio stations nationally, as of June 2005, there are
170. In addition to these 170 legally recognized and funded stations,
there have emerged over 300 unsanctioned community radio stations.
These are created and operated by a range of local groups, including
indigenous people in the Amazonian south of Venezuela, peasants
in the Andean regions, Afro-Venezuelans in the coastal north of
the country, and residents of the barrios in the major urban centers.
Technological advances have made radio
broadcasting easy. For example, the community radio station Un
Nuevo Día, located in a very poor barrio in the hills above
the old highway out of Caracas, began in the bedroom of one of
the women residents. The community journalists put a borrowed
mixer, a cd player, and a microphone on the woman's dresser. They
transmitted through a small antenna. Invited guests would sit
on the woman's bed. Basic, accessible technology has allowed people
in shantytowns and poor communities across the country the possibility
to operate small-scale stations.
But community radio activists have had
to fight a hard battle with the government to have their stations
legalized. After Chávez was elected in 1998, community
media activists began to raise issues of the right to communication.
This led to the passing of a new law in 2000, entitled, "Regulation
of Community Radio and Television." This law gave communities
the right to set up a station, but in order to gain authorization,
or habilitación, the National Commission of Telecommunications
(CONATEL) proposed that the stations meet requirements in four
fields: social, legal, technical, and economic.
Carlos Carles, a journalist with Radio
Perola, was involved in the process of drafting the authorization
procedures. With his signature baseball cap, baggy clothing, and
goofy grin, he looks like just another one of the chamos, or kids,
at Radio Perola. But in several meetings with bureaucrats, Carles
emerged as a key leader of the community media movement. In contrast
to the bureaucrats, he put forth a strong, community based vision
of what validates an alternative radio station. "They proposed
techniques of demonstrating statistical data. Against this, we
proposed local knowledge, oral narrative, historical memory, and
the everyday work of the community," said Carles. "As
a result of this difference, we entered into a major debate, and
we completely rejected the legal component of the proposal made
by the Chávez government."
Media activists were able to have their
views incorporated into the authorization process. Nevertheless,
the process remains heavily biased against poor community stations
with few resources. During my visit to the CONATEL offices, in
the spacious middle class suburb of Las Mercedes, I was shown
a seventy page instructional guide that must be completed by community
stations who attempt to obtain authorization.
Given the difficulties of complying with
CONATEL's regulations, community media activists decided to create
a National Association of Alternative and Community Media, or
ANMCLA. Carlos Lugo, one of the founders of ANMCLA and a community
journalist with the station Radio Negro Primero in Pinto Salinas,
sees the organization as based on the principle of the right to
communication. "The community can themselves authorize a
station and when the community recognizes the station, it is legal.
There is no such thing as an illegal station - everyone has the
right to communication."
Ironically, the private media vilifies
the community radio stations as propaganda vehicles of the government.
An article published in the private daily, El Universal, on 26
June, 2005, refers to the community radio stations as "radio-electronic
media of the state," which are "employed for propaganda
and political proselytism." The writer laments what he sees
as the lack of quality and cultural homogeneity of the community
stations, and their bias towards the Chávez government.
But community radio stations have sought
to retain their autonomy from the state, which is apparent not
only in their struggles with state bureaucrats to ensure authorization,
but in their willingness to criticize the Chávez government
on important issues. In March 2005, activists of ANMCLA came together
with social organizations and indigenous groups to protest the
plan of the government to increase the extraction of coal in the
oil-rich state of Zulia. The protesters pointed out that the plans
would increase water contamination and health risks for the mostly
indigenous population of the region who depend on scarce water
supplies. They argued that the proposal violates the Kyoto Agreement
and several articles of the Bolivarian Constitution that guarantee
a clean and safe environment, and protection of indigenous resources.
Although the outcome is still uncertain, community media activists
have shown their willingness to criticize the government when
community interests are at stake.
One of the crucial bases of autonomy for
the radio stations is financing. The stations receive a limited
amount of financing from the state. For those stations who are
authorized, CONATEL or other state institutions such as the Ministry
of Information (MINCI) might give direct financing for purchase
of equipment or infrastructure. There is also some state publicity
in community radio, for which the stations receive a small payment
from the relevant institution.
However, what keeps the community stations
on the air are the contributions of small businesses in the neighborhood.
The state may give a one time contribution of 1 million bolivares
($US 470). But it is the regular monthly payments of one hundred
thousand bolivares ($US 47) from the auto repair shop or one hundred
and fifty thousand bolivares ($US 71) from the local bakery that
maintain the activities of the stations in the long term. In this
sense, community radio stations have become part of a vibrant
informal economy in the barrios that exists at the margins of
the formal economy.
"The idea is not that we should be
community media sustained by the state, but rather we have the
capacity to be self-sustaining," said Carles. "Because
if they give you money and they give you your daily bread, they
begin to ask, why are you doing this, why are you doing that?
We prefer autonomy in what we do."
The community media gives voice to a range of groups and members
of the community. There are talk shows, educational programs,
cultural shows, sports segments, local history programs, children's
shows, cooking shows, and a variety of music programs, including
salsa, bolero, hip-hop, rock, and llanero or country music. There
are also social and political programs, which attempt to make
visible certain issues such as race. Afro-Venezuelan radio journalist,
Madera, has a program on Radio Negro Primero, which he says is
"For black men and women." These kinds of programs do
not have space within the state-run media, and certainly have
never been a possibility in the private media.
Community media broadcasts are a stark
contrast to the stock fare of reality tv shows, soap operas, and
game shows continually churned out by the private media. This
latter programming nurtures a culture of consumerism that has
grown along with globalization. Middle class youth compare expensive
watches and brand name sneakers in the walkways of the prestigious
Centro Sambil shopping mall in the eastern zone of Chacao. Wealthy
parents hire companies to supply arcade video games to entertain
their kids at children's parties. Meanwhile, increasing numbers
of barrio youth in the west of Caracas are creating their own
forms of leisure that reflect much more closely the new community
activism that has become a part of their lives.
With a shy smile, Gladys, the young student
from Radio Perola, says that in the current political context,
youth should not be so pitiyanqui, a derogatory slang term used
to describe those who imitate Americans.
"With this revolution, we the young
people are beginning to mature, and we are beginning to see the
world from another point of view," says Gladys. "I think
that we are responsible people, we know where we're going and
we know that the future is in our hands." And with this statement,
Gladys packs her school books into her bag, and walks off giggling,
arm in arm with one of her schoolmates.
Sujatha Fernandes is a Wilson Cotsen fellow
in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at Princeton University.
She is currently working on a book, entitled, "In the Spirit
of Negro Primero: Historical Memory and Culture in the Making
of Urban Social Movements in Caracas."