Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 307 | Febrero 2007


Latin America

Chakana Guides for Community Radio

The Latin American Left’s progress is a hot topic of political analysis all over the world. Are community radio stations, people’s radio stations, leftist stations also moving forward? They appear to have been stalled for some years now. The four stars of the Incan Chakana, that heavenly compass also known as the Southern Cross, show us how to get back on track, and how to find true North, which is South.

José Ignacio López Vigil

The Aymara call it Pusi Wara, four stars, but it’s more commonly called Chakana, which means the stair way, the bridge to the higher world. People in all the Andean countries have honored it for millenia. It was represented in the center of the Sun Temple in Cuzco, the umbilical core of the world.

Chakana, in recent times known as the Southern Cross, is the sacred constellation that ordered the existence of our original people. These stars, which always point towards the South Pole, show Andean men and women their place, their horizon and that of their ancestors.

Chakana is the cosmic compass that guides their lives, a shining clock that marks the rhythm of planting and harvest, the arrival of winter and summer, the times for festivals.

Seeking the four cardinal points in the sky

What does this indigenous symbol have to do with Latin American community radio? I ask myself if we can’t look to starry Chakana, rise up using its stairs, and find some guidance in its four cardinal points.

It’s enough just to open your eyes. Or even better, your ears. It’s enough to visit some of the popular radio stations that ranked top in listenership and impact a few years ago to discover that they no longer do; that they’re wandering lost in the dark night.

What happened? When, where and why did the wind break the stem of our rose? Have we lost our perspective on radio work? I know that some stations, dissatisfied with their current ratings, have written logical frameworks, tried out the SWOT analytical methodology, implemented strategic planning, run the problems up the flagpole and are now retooling their organizations. But they’re still not out of the mud. They haven’t been able to transcend their program-ming’s unbearable superficiality.

Far be it from me to question the utility of these evaluative tools if one knows how to use them and then apply the results. In this conversation I prefer to look to Chakana and use its four stars as an inspiration to rethink our radio work. To regain the path that leads South.

Chakana’s first star could be love:
Go out and be with your audience

Have we regressed? Where’s the announcer who returns smiling and dusty from that remote community to bring in a couple of interviews on the tape recorder? Where’s the reporter who travels by motorcycle, by bicycle, by whatever means to get the voices of the neighborhoods? In the 1970s and 1980s the feature editors and the youth program hosts left the station, broadcast from the market, gathered people in the plazas, entered homes to do surveys, raised their antennas in mothers’ groups and in cooperatives, walking to the furthest corner of their station’s coverage.

Not anymore. Now we don’t get out much, or maybe never. The broadcasting booth has become a cold, air-conditioned womb, where we feel comfortable and settled. The telephone is the umbilical cord that lets us hear what we want to hear. Ten pals call us and we congratulate ourselves thinking that the whole city is listening. A mirage for the ears.

Why did we leave the street and hide out in the office? Was it lack of personnel, lack of money to pay for gas, a driver, the connection? Or was it just inconvenient? Thanks to cell phones we can broadcast immediately from anywhere, yet we spend less time in the streets than ever.

Modern radio is an external medium that makes direct contact with listeners and nourishes its segments with fresh words, taken from the heat of events. Let’s not think just about reporters who cover Congress and the police. Let’s go further. Feature stories can be debated from street corners and schools. Contests can happen at bus stops and movie exits. Skits can be recorded right in the community. Sports straight from the field. It’s time to break the chains and take the microphones out into the open air. The street is the natural place for radio production.

Augusto Boal said that theater can be made anywhere… even inside theaters! We can extrapolate and say that radio can be made anywhere… even in the broadcast booths!

Street programming. Radio that doesn’t wait for listeners to come to it, but goes out to meet them. Broadcast booths that are no longer the only broadcasting point but become a crossroads, a confluence of many voices from different places. An itinerant transmitter, as Cebrián Herreros described. Mobile radio becomes, because of that very quality, a mobilizing tool.

This isn’t anything new. Direct participation was the flag, the permanent slogan, of popular Latin American radio for decades. It’s about returning to first love. When you’re in love, you’re open to seeing new things, you jump the wall, ignore time and live on the edge, like Cantar’s lover with his head wet from the morning dew. Chakana’s first star shows you the way: fall in love with your audience. Go out to find it.

Impartial in this unjust world?
Return to editorial radio

When I begin a journalism workshop I often ask, “How many files have been opened against this radio station, how many windows broken, how many midnight calls to say ‘don’t get involved in something that doesn’t concern you,’ how many times have they tried to bribe you or silence you by defamation threats? Never? That’s wierd.”

One opinion can’t make everyone happy. If you give an opinion, you’ll have enemies. If you investigate corruption, you’ll have more enemies. If the radio commits itself to popular fights, it will harvest both hate and love.

If a station hasn’t been harassed and accused, if it isn’t receiving threats from the powerful, if it doesn’t anger the rich and the politicians, if no one’s trying to get it off the air… then it isn’t having much impact. Impact on citizens, that is.

Let’s look at our news shows. What are they about, what do they include, what do they offer the audience? News, news, news and more news.

When do they give an opinion? Never. Or almost never. When do they take a stand against human rights violations? Only when others have already done so and it has become politically correct. Don’t these radio stations say in their mission and vision statements that they want to be public opinion leaders? How will they achieve that goal if they don’t give an opinion?

Of course, we’re referring to a responsible opinion, not a false and opportunistic one. An opinion based on verifiable evidence, backed up by facts and logic, open to other possible interpretations, respectful of the opposite position. But opinion, after all’s said and done. Clear and strong opinion confronting injustice and corruption.

Even the newspaper sellers in the streets know that news and only news doesn’t impact public opinion. These days the wealth of information on the internet is inexhaustible. Google alone has 700 sources for news in Spanish. What does your news show have that everyone else’s doesn’t?

Community radio broadcasting that’s empty of editorial deserves reflection. Why don’t they give opinions? Sometimes I’ve heard this surprising response: “because we’re impartial.”

Impartial? Who said that good journalism should be impartial? Inclusive, yes, because we’re open to all voices and respect all opinions. Independent as well, because our politics shouldn’t be about slanting an honest retelling of facts.

But we’re not, nor can we be, nor should we ever be impartial. The world we live in is insultingly discriminating and exclusive, with half of humanity living under the poverty level and forty thousand children dying of hunger every day. One year’s worth of a rich country’s military budget would be enough to build schools and hospitals and decent housing for all the countries of the badly-named Third World.

Impartiality is worthless. A station with guts, with social conscience, will take sides, and sides doesn’t mean “the party line.” It will put its best energy at the service of citizen’s causes, even with the risks that implies.

Chakana’s second star could be courage:
Take a stand, promote debate

“But ours is Christian radio and…” Even more reason, then. Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t at all impartial. He blessed the poor and cursed the rich. The one who washed his hands of responsibility was Pontius Pilate, the governor assassin.

Is it possible that our broadcasters have abandoned the responsibility of giving an opinion about what happens in society? Sometimes I wonder if a poor understanding of popular education is what put us on that course. With excessive respect we defined ourselves as bricklayers. We said our mission wasn’t to design the house, but to provide materials for listeners to design their own. For people to think with their own heads. This is still a great truth, but only half of it. Journalists are also citizens and we have brains, too.

Who is better situated and informed than news desk chiefs and media directors to analyze what’s happening? The Free Trade Area of the Americas is presented to us as something new, when it’s nothing more than the rancid law of the jungle. They disguise mass hunger as “social cost” and the extermination of civilians in imperial wars like the one the US and British governments are waging against the people of Iraq as “collateral damage.” Who better than us to unmask these euphemisms? Fear of imposing our viewpoint doesn’t exempt us from the responsibility of giving it. Bricklayers, yes, but also architects of thought. Creators of opinion.

Broadcasters who don’t give opinions also don’t let others give theirs. They’re spoilers: they don’t play but they also don’t lend the ball. They’re stations that practice false self-censorship, presented as adherence to institutional principles. In Catholic radio there’s no talk about condoms or abortions. In feminist radio there aren’t any macho guys. Leftist radio doesn’t invite the Right because the Right, they argue, doesn’t invite them. Sectarianism meets sectarianism.

These radio channels, which claim to be educational, don’t use debates, the most educational format of all. In a debate, positions are defended and listeners can form their own opinions. That’s how the mind’s muscles get trained.
We need free radio with well-defined editorial lines that, confident in its own convictions, not only tolerates but encourages the expression of all points of view, including the opposite to its own. Chakana’s second star fills you with the courage you need to get involved, commit yourself, take a stand. And promote the culture of debate.

Daily life is complex:
Return to mediation radio

Years ago popular Latin American radio proposed, and managed, to bring back the voice of the people, which had long been silenced. Many stations throughout the continent took microphones to the most remote places so common people could express their problems, their frustrations, and also their joys. This effort was very “educational” in the Socratic sense of birthing ideas through words. Our ancestors became men and women thanks to language. By speaking we became. By speaking in public we became citizens.

People taking back the airwaves continues to be a goal and methodology of all broadcasters with social conscience. But we also have to take back something more definitive: power. We won’t build participatory democracy as long as citizens have little control over public entities that should be subordinate to them, but aren’t even accountable to them and don’t let themselves be evaluated publicly.

Where can a citizen appeal when the public hospital doesn’t provide required attention? Where can a citizen protest if the public servants are in collusion with the private transgressors? Where can denunciations be made when the legal system is unjust? Mass media has now become an extraordinary space for accusations and conflict resolution.

Can a broadcaster make the daily burdens lighter? Latin American radio has traditionally been characterized by its utility. Listeners tuned in most often for social service programming, especially in rural agricultural areas. There, radio took the place of mail, telegraph and telephone. My mule is lost. Josefina had a little boy. Move the sacks of coffee to the other area. Prayers for granddad will be held tomorrow at noon… This family bulletin service became even more essential during emergencies and disasters.

With fewer isolated zones in the region, social services have been gaining new ground. Nevertheless, the complexity of urban life reveals new and different needs. Most people spend the day dodging, or trying to dodge, the countless large, small and medium-sized violations of their human rights.

Chakana’s third star could be impact:
Practice mediation journalism

The so-called “fifth journalism,” that of mediation, practiced by the “fifth power,” that of citizens, tries to help solve the thousand and one problems of daily life.

Mediation journalism. What’s it about? Both popular and commercial broadcasters have always had people come to protest. Through letters and open phone lines, Latin American radio stations have been, together with the mail and public telephone, loudspeakers against abuses of power and even sounding boards for crying over spilt milk. But afterwards? The accusation isn’t enough if it isn’t heard by the responsible authorities. And the authorities’ involvement isn’t enough if there’s no follow-up on the case, using the mosquito’s effective strategy of buzzing around one’s ear, until it’s resolved.

Mediation is usually defined as supported negotiation. In that sense, it requires a neutral element to help the parties in conflict reach mutual agreement.

This isn’t exactly the meaning we’re proposing, because we’re not neutral. We stand with citizens, we align ourselves clearly, passionately in favor of human rights. We aren’t judges, after all; we can’t sentence anyone. We’re also not the state and are not trying to replace the public servants’ mandate.

We’re journalists. As such, we offer microphones, cameras or paper so citizens’ voices can reach where they should. We make people’s voices heard in public institutions when the latter have acted irresponsibly. If people can’t speak directly, we add our voice and weight so that authorities listen and find a just solution. We’re bridges in the literal meaning of the word: we join the two sides. We also cross the bridge, together with people moving forward.

Mediation journalism isn’t about resolving a particular case, or even twenty cases. Individual solutions clearly have great value, as much for the direct beneficiaries as for those who listen to the results over the radio. But we can multiply the effectiveness if we pressure to transform those conflict resolution processes into policies that keep the problems from reoccurring. If the problem affects many, the solution has to be a longer-term one.

Chakana’s third star asks if you want to see change. Do you want to have impact and your radio to be considered an informative source? Practice mediation journalism.

Chakana’s fourth star could be esthetics:
Return meaning, color and warmth

I have here a radio mystery that’s hard to explain. These days we have all the comforts for production: internet for research, computers for writing scripts, multitracks for editing. Yet we produce less and of less quality. Has the new technology hypnotized us and made us forget that the most essential “software” is our brain, especially the creative right hemisphere?

The US empire tries to impose its conformist message, as its cultural industry imposes conformist taste. The “American way of life” we’ve heard too much about is being globalized, making it urgent to affirm cultural diversity and recover a Latin American esthetic in the communication media. In our case, in radio broadcasting.

Radio is voice. A triple voice. There are our human voices; nature’s voices, which we hear as sound effects; and music, the voice of the heart. Three voices that give meaning, color and warmth to radio production. Three voices to achieve harmony and beauty in radio language.

We now tend to produce radio with only two voices, music and words. Where did the effects go, the auditory images, those that Mario Kaplún always demanded? How do we stimulate the audience’s imagination without sound scenes? Sound effects have practically disappeared from our productions.

Why? Once I heard a brainy Colombian journalist saying that those are childish tools. Professional radio doesn’t waste time in trifles; the content’s the important part. Really? I’d like to give my illustrious colleague some boiled meat to eat. Just plain, no sauce, no pepper, without salad or anything else. Let’s see what it tastes like, how inspiring it is. The beauty of radio production demands good use of sound effects, not only in dramatic programming but also in informative programs, features, testimonies, announcements and throughout the programming.

Recover the magic

We’ve cut away radio language and its variety. When did we abandon the dramatic genre that gave radio its debut and that is so characteristic of our countries’ expressive culture, so in keeping with the magical realism we live? Who invented the useless definition of radio as “music and news”? We impoverished radio by eliminating the dramatic genre, its most dynamic and original vein. Radio is art. There’s a reason all the letters of “artist” are found in the word radialista, or radio worker.

I’m not thinking nostalgically about the radio soap operas of the 1950s, a format that some brave producers are bringing back. I’m thinking of the thousand adventures of narrative language, theater, stories, unexpected characters, funny dialogue, sketches, imitators, skits, the formal broadcasting booth turned into a hot street corner. An unending collection of forms within the marvelous world of fiction.

I can already hear the excuse: we lack writers, actors and a production budget... Maybe what we lack is imagination. What’s needed to make a dinosaur enter the broadcasting booth? A trick of the voice is enough, sound effects of big steps and a roar, “I’m Tyrannosaurus Rex!” Much easier and cheaper than television, isn’t it? Radio is imagination, as Orson Welles knew when he terrified half the world with his fantasy Martians.

We need our own productions and we need to share them with each other. Earlier I spoke of the urgent need to recover street radio. But we have to drive the new virtual roads with equal enthusiasm. Thanks to multidirectionality, the internet permits us to receive and send voices and production formats to the four corners of the continent and the world. We enrich our programming with these resources. The quality of the products we receive will be the best stimulus for improving our own. A good example can be contagious.

I work for “Radialistas Apasionadas y Apasionados” (Passionate Radio Workers), a small Lima-based production center that has principles of gender and civil society equality. In the beginning, we only sent scripts to a small list of users, but the list grew and so did our resources. Now we can record clips and post them to the web. An average of a thousand audio clips is downloaded daily from our site (www.radialistas.net). One of the reasons for this growing success is that radio is saturated with news, while dramatic, educational programming is sorely lacking.

Under the auspices of UNESCO, we’ve inaugurated Radioteca, a wiki portal among groups for exchanging audio clips (www.radioteca.net). We won’t upload time-sensitive programs because, as those wise salsa lyrics ask, “Why read yesterday’s newspaper?” Radioteca will be stocked with more enduring programs, from great Latin American radio series like Serpal, for example, to new productions by stations and networks that want to share what they do with other colleagues. This initiative’s future is bright. The reason’s the same: the need for other high-quality material with a long shelf life to strengthen programming. Many radio workers aren’t satisfied with “music and news.”

Rediscovering sound effects and drama will embellish the programming and fill it with emotion. It will also ward off the routine of too much talk. Chakana’s fourth and most brilliant star proposes a more esthetic radio, and therefore, a more ethical one. As José Martí said, “The truth goes further when it’s said nicely.”

What should community radio be?

Four stars and four challenges. Get out of the booth and make street radio. Give opinions and take stands opposing injustice. Mediate between citizens and authorities to help resolve these same injustices. Embellish programming by recovering the integrity of radio language and its varied formats.

Without naïveté and without presumption, I dare to challenge community radios that participate in networks to try out these proposals, if they aren’t already doing so. They won’t have to wait years or even months to regain first place in listenership and be among those with the most impact, which is, in the end, what we’re looking for.

Radio is much more than a station transmitting programs. It is a space for building civil society principles. It’s an open-air defender of the people. A nonpartisan political project that takes the side of national majorities. A two-way bridge for all cultural expression. A power representative that returns sovereign power to its only holder: the citizens. Community radio is a commitment to freedom and the union of all people of Latin America and the Caribbean. The ancient and always luminous Chakana shows us the path. Following the direction of this heavenly compass, we’ll find our true North, which is South.

José Ignacio López Vigil is the coordinator of Radialistas Apasionados y Apasionadas. This text was presented on the 50th anniversary of Radio Santa María, Dominican Republic, November 2006.

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Chakana Guides for Community Radio
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