Micro-Powered Radio in Haiti

by Edit M. Penchina

Marin Interfaith Task Force, September 1998

[Ed. Note: This report is based on excerpts from Penchina's article, "Free Speech, Neo-Colonialism and Micropowered Broadcasting in Haiti, " July 1998.]


In the days of slavery, before the slave revolt transformed Haiti into the first independent Black nation in our hemisphere, the primary emergency organizing tool was a conch shell. "We call it in Haiti, 'Lum-Bee.' Whenever you have to cry for help you blow out this instrument and everybody come," explained Joseph Philipee, coordinator of the Peasant Association of Fondwa.

Today, the Lum-Bee is a micro-powered radio. Thanks to Stephen Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley (FRB), micro-radio stations are popping up all over Haiti. In May, FRB's Mathew Dodt, Joe Williams and Govinda Dulton spent three weeks in Haiti. The project was funded by the Tides Foundation, the Parish Twinning Project, the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, members of the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship, and various private donors in the Bay Area

The activists traveled across Haiti by foot, bus, and even donkey. From Portau-Prince to Fondwa to Jacmel to Balimbe and back to Port-au-Prince, then on to Les Cayes and Riviere de Nippes, they hauled transmitters, converters, soldering irons and a body of technical knowledge to be distributed to the newest voices of Haitian radio.

There is something importantly educational and inherently political about broadcasting over Haitian radio. The illiteracy rate is 80%. Mainstream newspapers, which circulate on a scale of eight to every 1,000 people, are almost exclusively written in French. Creole is the language of "le peuple." French is the language of colonial rule, the language of the 5% mulatto elite, of the educated few. Less than 5% of children are in school and of those, only 20% complete the primary grades. There is one television set per 265 people. In the entire country, only about 600 people have e-mail. One out of 79 people has a telephone. Yet one out of every 2.2 people has a radio. Radio is the most democratic medium in Haiti.

Despite the tortures of daily life and neo-liberal, neocolonial world politics, according to Dalton, "the enthusiasm of young people for radio is just phenomenal." Williams says, remarking on the change in posture when a kid gets a microphone in his hand, "There's a social standing with respect to radio. It gives a sense of empowerment in a milieu of bone-crushing poverty."

In response to requests for microradio equipment before Aristide's return to power in '94, Dunifer sent shipments of transmitters clandestinely. He has since traveled to Haiti twice, hoping to help develop a system not all that different from that of the free radio movement in the U.S. If Haiti can insure that its radio band is divided into three distinct classes-commercial, community, and public-with 50% or more reserved for the last two, community radio will never lose its autonomy.

According to Dunifer, "the emphasis on grassroots radio is a form of coup insurance." Wattage is low, around 15, 30, or 75 watts, but there is power in numbers. The more stations there are, and the less centralized and fixed their locales, the harder it will be for multinational corporations, dictators, and military juntas to silence them.

When FRB finishes its task of setting up a network of community radio stations throughout the country so that broadcasters can acquire, construct, and maintain the technology without outside assistance, then the micro-radio transmitter will take its place as an instrument of empowerment.

The radio project is still $1,500 in debt from its last trip.

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