The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Tuesday, April 22, 2003
THE PARTS LEFT OUT OF THE RADIO BOOK: The most important part of writing is probably erasing, and when I wrote
Rebels on the Air I left a lot on the cutting-room floor. The section that lost the most text was the chapter on broadcasting abroad. The book's focus was American radio, after all; what's more, that chapter relied heavily on secondary sources, and I preferred to highlight my original research.

Still, I ended up cutting some interesting stuff. I figure I might as well recycle some of it here, with the caveat that it's a few years out of date. And so, for your reading enjoyment: my account of the locally owned, self-managed stations of Bolivia's mining districts, plus some similar operations in El Salvador.

The first of the Bolivian outlets, La Voz del Minero, was apparently born shortly after the nationalist quasi-revolution of 1952, though some accounts claim it actually dates back to 1945. Back then, the story goes, a handful of miners with a homemade transmitter started broadcasting radical messages via loudspeakers to workers as they emerged from the mines. In this version of the tale, the station came to a violent end in the civil war of 1949, but was resurrected after the events of 1952. Whatever its origins, others soon joined La Voz on the air, transmitting an initially primitive mix of music and unionism. As the years passed, the programming grew more sophisticated, as news, poetry readings, radio drama, and local talk shows blossomed in the Bolivian ether.

By the mid-'70s, nearly every mining district in the country had its own station. Most were operated by unions, though two were municipal cooperatives. (This means the townspeople were all shareholders, and that the stations were formally independent of state control -- a useful technicality in times of hostile military governments.) Another station, Pio XII, is owned and run by the Catholic Church. Sympathetic to the miners, it is often classified with the community stations, though it really shouldn't be. Besides the fact that it's run by outsiders, its competition has led some miners' stations to professionalize, hiring outsiders as on-air personalities for as much as three times the miners' wages.

What was really interesting about the mining stations was their willingness to go underground during times of civil strife. "In 'normal' times of democracy," writes scholar Alan O'Connor, "the radios link the miners' union and its members, and the everyday culture of the miners and campesinos. In times of emergency, when the country and the workers face a military coup, the stations form a network of resistance against the approaching armed forces, broadcast decisions made at public and organizational meetings, and allow union leaders and members, women, and students to offer advice, encouragement, or criticism. Finally, in times of military control, when the stations are closed, they are a focus of underground organizing, and the people demand their return to the airwaves" ("Miners' Radio Stations in Bolivia: A Culture of Resistance," Journal of Communication 40:1). Some would keep broadcasting even then, and damn the laws. After one coup -- General García Meza's summer putsch of 1980, if anyone feels compelled to keep track -- the state threatened to jail even those who merely listened to the miners' broadcasts. Some stations kept transmitting nonetheless, pirates for a season.

In El Salvador, by contrast, some formerly clandestine stations turned into legal outlets. When that nation's long civil war ended, the peace accords of 1992 legalized the guerrillas' Radio Venceremos and Radio Farabundo Martí; the former triumphantly moved its transmitter from a covert mountain base to the roof of San Salvador's Metropolitan Cathedral.

At the same time, 11 community radio stations that had emerged in rural areas remained illegal, or at most semi-legal. They continued their broadcasts -- announcing community meetings, relaying emergency messages, reading the news, playing popular music -- despite the opposition of ARENA, the reigning right-wing party. Desperate for an excuse to close the stations, ARENA accused them of being fronts for the ex-guerrillas (who, you will recall, already had their own legal outlets).

The police shut down ten of the stations in 1995. (The eleventh successfully fended off the authorities, with over a thousand loyal listeners building stone barricades to keep the cops at bay.) In early 1996, the Supreme Court tentatively ruled that the stations should be allowed back on the air, but the political fight over their future did not abate. On July 25, 1997, the Salvadoran legislature passed Decree #56. In debate, the law was billed as a minor move to streamline the nation's broadcast regulations. Once it was passed, people started reading the fine print, and discovered that the government had essentially banned the community stations. Loud protests followed, and several politicians claimed not to have realized what they'd voted for.

In August, the president of the Legislative Assembly found a loophole: the deputies who had voted for the new measure had not affirmed their support in writing. So Decree #56 was "inapplicable," and when re-introduced it failed to pass.

Back and forth, back and forth. The stations were spared the axe, but still weren't properly legalized. And even as the legal battle continued, an extralegal war began, with vandals sabotaging the community outlets.

So in El Salvador, the actively revolutionary guerrilla stations were legalized, while the merely populist community stations continued to be harassed. Evidently, the Salvadoran state finds it easier to deal with fellow would-be rulers than with ordinary people who merely want to govern themselves.

posted by Jesse 12:02 PM
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