CARACAS,Venezuela—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, we pass by 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.” The broadcasting studio is a small room, painted bright yellow and covered with movement posters. 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 almost 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 heard.
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 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 April 2002.
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.
The number of licensed community radio stations has increased from 13 in 2002 to 170 by June of 2005. Over 300 more unsanctioned community radio stations have also emerged.
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.
However, 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 that gave communities the right to set up a station, but in order to gain authorization, the National Commission of Telecommunications (Conatel) proposed that the stations meet complex requirements. During my visit to the Conatel office, in a spacious middle-class suburb, I was shown a 70-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 ANMCLA’s founders and a community journalist with the station Radio Negro Primero, 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.”
PAYING THE BILLS
Community radio stations receive a limited amount of financing from the state. For authorized stations, there is the possibility of financing for equipment or infrastructure from Conatel or other government agencies such as the Ministry of Information. There is also some paid government advertising
in community radio.
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, but it is the regular monthly payments from the auto repair shop and from the local bakery that maintain the activities of the stations in the long term. “The idea is that we should… have the capacity to be self-sustaining,” said Carlos Carles of Radio Perola, “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.”
Sujatha Fernandes is working on a history of Venezuelan social movements. A longer version of this article appeared on zmag.org