Community Radio as a Tool for Social Justice
by Mina Ramos
They say you can’t understand resistance until you actually connect with it; the moment it hits your heart. When it resonates with you. My moment of connection began while studying abroad in Guatemala in 2011. I’d been travelling to Central America since I was little to visit my dad’s side of the family (I am mixed white European and Latina). But this time was different I was older, understood the world a bit more and was craving to know my people; to understand the significance of where I come from. Although my family is actually from El Salvador, I jumped on the opportunity to go. Guatemala shares a border with El Salvador.
While there are differences (big and small), both countries hold similar histories and share Indigenous Mayan lineages. Throughout my semester abroad, as a class we took trips to learn firsthand about the history of the country and current political struggles. We met with indigenous communities resisting mining companies, former guerillas who had started intentional communities, different communities suing the IMF (International Monetary Fund) for fucking them over, Mayan people investing in permaculture without all the stupid entitlement and bullshit environmental rhetoric we see so often in North America.
It was so beautiful. It was urgent. Something I had never encountered before. It was also painful. I cried a lot. I remember the feelings I had as I learnt more about the atrocities that had occurred in the Guatemalan civil war. Taking in that during the war 200,000 Guatemalan people had been “disappeared”. 1
After my semester was over, I got in touch with the organization that had taken us on a few of the trips on my semester abroad. They are/were called Rights Action (to this day they do some incredible solidarity work). My ticket was for May but I didn’t feel like touristing around. I had gotten a group together who wanted to learn more about resistance movements and support in any way they could.
1 They called the civil wars that happened across Latin America the dirty wars because of the ways that people disappeared without a trace. Many people ended up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To this day mass graves continue to be discovered across Latin America.
One of the members, Grahame Russell, asked if we would be willing to go to Honduras. Manuel Zelaya, a left leaning president had just been ousted in a military coup and Porfirio Lobo (a right wing extremist) had been put in his place. He told us that if we were willing to write articles once we returned, he would make sure someone could connect us to different resistance movements that were going on in the country.
When we got there, the country was in chaos. Under Lobo, corporations had been given permission to swoop in and essentially steal large portions of land. At that point, almost seventy percent of the land titles “officially” held in Honduras were under Canadian corporations. They were investing in the palm oil business and opening up, taking over or expanding mining companies. Building cruise ports and resorts for tourists.
I began to notice that everywhere we went communities had two things in common. The first thing I noticed was the amount of networking that was going on. Desperation had forced people to work with each other in ways that I had never seen before. It was unbelievable. Everyone had a role to play in the struggle down to the taxi drivers. I remember sitting in awe as I listened to a taxi driver recount how he had dropped out of the army and was now driving taxi by day and smuggling political leaders earmarked for death out of the country by night.
The second thing I noticed was that every single community we went to visit had a community radio station. At that point mainstream media was (and is still) highly controlled. Although there were alternative newspapers in the city, in the country, many communities could not read. I understood that community radio was essential to the functioning of all of the different movements I had witnessed.
It was used to inform, educate and keep people involved in the day to day activities of different movements. Radios were cheap to buy and radio stations were cheap to run. They always looked the same. A small room somewhere with one old computer, a two channel switch board, one microphone and a pair of headphones. So simple but so effective. There were general news shows, women’s rights shows, shows about unionizing, shows for the youth, shows explaining indigenous history, public health shows and of course incredible music shows run by community DJs.
I was impressed.
It sunk in that with all the technology in the world, community radio continues to be the only media technology that (after you buy the radio), is free. Anybody can tune in. Even though people have their own independent shows, I realized that community radio allowed these people to be part of something together. To have all of their different voices come together on one platform with the goal of speaking the truth. To have their experiences and stories heard. A true media for the people by the people.
I realized that for all the actions, struggles and stories that take place in the world; without a way to get them out, to connect them to each other, to bring them together; they disappear or are forgotten. Media gives us the opportunity to remember. Community media forces us to remember directly from the source.
After this experience, I grew such a big appreciation for community radio and all other grassroots media alternatives. Although I find that community radio here is whitewashed with way too many indie-music hipsters, my experience in Central America helps me to stay grounded in the idea of the importance of media to resist.
That although it is important to get news out to the masses; when the platforms are owned by the people we are fighting against, we will always have to appeal to their discourse, frame it to their narrative, respond to their backlash; always worry how they will change the narrative and if they want to, shut us down.
We must never forget about the grassroots options we have and how to make use of them, especially in these times.
As I got the idea to write this article, I remembered that when my dad came to Canada he too became involved in community radio and used it as a platform to speak out about the war in El Salvador. It’s funny how things come full circle. I decided to interview my dad and end this piece with his thoughts about community radio and the role it plays in waging social justice and creating space to express our truths.
Mina Ramos: What was your first introduction to community radio?
Hugo Ramos: I came to Canada in the summer of 1983. By 1984, I found some friends in Quebec City. They were friends that I knew from the old country. So I quit my job and moved there. I had done some solidarity work for El Salvador in Toronto and Kitchener. Once I got to Quebec City, I got involved in a radio program that my friend Miguel and others had going in a community radio, Radio Basse ville in lower Quebec. This radio operated from a basement at an old building near a mall. In a very, very small place. The program was on Mondays for an hour about real news from El Salvador. The program was done within an hour in three languages: French, Spanish, English. It was therapy for all of us, we could talk reality over the pile of mostly fake news about the war of our little country.
Mina: How has community radio played a role in your life?
Hugo: Over the years at one point or another I have been in contact with community radio. Nowadays people call it alternative news; same thing. To me it is real news; news that can for the most part can go on the air unfiltered and raw. I’d rather tell people the truth, so does community radio…most of the time.
Almost 30 years after the little Quebec City project, I still keep in contact with community radio in El Salvador. Telling people the truth as much as it might hurt is important to me. Public radio like the CBC does not come close as to the truth that community radio has the potential to deliver.
Mina: From your perspective, why is community radio used as a tool for social change?
Hugo: Well, you as my daughter know that well enough. Community radio doesn’t need to kiss anybody’s ass! We as a social whole walk a very fine line of political correctness; it drives me nuts! The truth shouldn’t be painted pretty! The truth hurts, but then again so does a lie.
Social change can only be understood if the reality of it is put raw to the masses. We aren’t that naïve, and if we are, let the truth smack the shit of our fake reality. Community radio can do that. Community radio has a very big burden if it takes its responsibility seriously.
Mina: You have been involved in community radio both in North America and Central America. What are the similarities and differences in community radio between the two regions?
Hugo: None. People who want to give real news, will give it. People who want real news seek it. Community radio offers that platform. This is why Amy Goodman is successful with the program “Democracy now” It is a good thing to know that most people who want real news are somewhat intellectual, they want to understand beyond what is fakely given in the ordinary rich everyday media. The big conglomerate media spends millions understanding the populace ignorance because by understanding it, they can will it.
Mina: In your experience, has the face of community radio changed over time? In what ways has it changed/not changed?
Hugo: Very glad to have seen it changed! it has gotten bolder! Thumbs up for that!
Lets not forget that in the not so democratic countries sponsored by the g7 countries an average of 50 daring journalist are assassinated every year to say, or rather report the truth. Just in the little isthmus of the center of our “democratic” continent an average of 35 journalist are assassinated by systems that are deemed conveniently democratic even by our present barbie male prime minister.
Mina: In your eyes, how does community radio maintain its significance in the digital age?
Hugo: It is totally imperative that the voiceless have a voice! Bishop Romero, now saint of El Salvador, had a saying “la culebra solo pica al descalso” (“a snake only bites those who are shoeless”).
Mina: Who are the shoeless?
Hugo: The populace that can easily be manipulated. Ignorance isn’t bliss. ignorance is the ticket Baystreet exploits. The challenge of community radio is not to be intimidated. Community radio has to keep up with the latest technology, not easy as their budget aren’t in the billions. But be very much aware, community radio is badly needed by the hungry everyday joe who knows that all kind of caca is given at all hours of our lives by the millionaire mainstream media.
This is the reason why I sponsor as much community radio as I can. Real news must get to those who are lied to in a convenient way, just to make them another consumer of products that are made in countries that might not have as easy of an opportunity to voice their discontent.