Tune in to the positive power of community radio
Radio has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember, in the UK and the US. But in recent years, I’ve struggled to find stations that made me want to stay tuned; I no longer felt part of a listening community. It was in this state of mind that I moved to El Salvador – a country that has renewed my faith in the unique intimacy and social power of the medium.
In the wealthy parts of the world, where most people have daily domestic access to computers, broadband internet or digital radio, competition for a listening community has become increasingly fierce and fractured. Many listeners have turned to specialist and non-local digital stations, or personalise their stations using websites such as Yahoo!’s LAUNCH cast radio and Last.fm. The local has been replaced by the ‘global’, and radio has forfeited its special intimacy and power.
In El Salvador, a country with an estimated average annual income of $2,540 (according to UNICEF) –perhaps just over double the cost of a PC with broadband connection for a UK home – the state of local radio is very different. Here, a small group of stations, including Radio YSUCA Radio Cadena Mi Gente and Radio Maya Vision, broadcast important social messages and are supported by a politically outspoken, socially aware community of listeners.
This is no surprise given the important role radio played during the civil war, when the FMLN broadcast their revolutionary message from high in the mountains on RadioVenceremos and Radio Farabundo. These days, there are numerous stations playing U.S. soft rock ballads or aggressively sexist Reggaeton, a proliferating group of extreme evangelical stations, and others with a strong government voice. But even now, despite 20 years of ARENA government, messages calling for social justice still permeate the airwaves.
The strength of a station like YSUCA– my favourite – is its ability to connect with communities of people, and to show rather than tell. Broadcast from the University of Central America in San Salvador, its stated mission is to foster a culture of democracy and human dignity, emphasising the voice of ordinary citizens rather than the elite. Some of the most memorable and diverse programmes include live interviews and debate with a community affected by lead poisoning from a local factory; literacy and social criticism from the work of revolutionary writer Roque Dalton; and an interview with a San Salvador-based heavy metal band struggling to get a record deal.
Listeners to alternative radio stations expect direct participation as well as hearing opinions from people in the streets and villages. In a recent show on child labour, YSUCA presented a series of fascinating interviews with children, some working in the streets and fields, and some from a school in a wealthier suburb of San Salvador. The contrast between the two sets of voices not only emphasised the growing division between the rich and the poor, but also offered a glimpse of hope. The schoolchildren insisted it was unfair their peers had to work while they had the chance to learn, and should be given support.
Many depressing and apparently inexplicable things happen in El Salvador on a daily basis, but it’s heartening to know there is a well-informed community of people all over the country listening, discussing and searching for explanations. Listening to YSUCA reminds me of what is unique and so powerful about radio: its ability to draw people together, to make people think and, at its very best, to encourage people to take action to create a better world.
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Mark is from the UK, and is currently doing voluntary work and studying Spanish in El Salvador.