[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]
Sending Clear Signals: Radio Populares
Radios Populares is a Chicago-based collective that formed in the spring of 2002, when they sent radio equipment to The National Center for Rural Workers (cntc) in Honduras. Since then, the group has traveled to Nicaragua, Ecuador, Mexico, and Honduras to help build radio stations and train individuals in those communities to run and maintain the stations. The collective currently consists of three members: Allan Gomez (AG), Erin Raether (ER) and Leslie Fiedler (LF).
How was the group initially formed?
The group formed with the idea of working with progressive movements in Latin America. I was involved in pirate and community radio work in Chicago and was also doing Latin American solidarity work. One of the groups I had been working with, La Voz de Los Abajo (The Voice of Those Below), was working with a group called the cntc, The National Center for Rural Workers in Honduras. They are a campesino organization that works on land take-over and agrarian reform struggles. They are trying to change the dynamic between large landowners and small landowners, as well as physically taking over land. That group La Voz de Los Abajo had asked me if I knew a way to get some radio equipment to cntc. That started the ball rolling with the idea of having a specialized goal of solidarity work instead of sending down generators or being a jack-of-all-trades.
Allan did some work with La Voz to get the initial equipment down there and realized how much work it was, and that’s when he started talking with other people—Erin being the first one—about whether or not other people would be interested in working together as a collective.
I was talking with Allan about various projects in Chicago that he had worked on and movements in Latin America that were inspiring and gave us a lot of motivation. We both were working with a solidarity model and looking for support that was needed. I was working as a community organizer on the West Side of Chicago, and becoming more involved in popular education. That was what really brought me to the radio project. I was interested in learning more about radio myself, and I figured that if I could learn more, then I could teach other people who didn’t have the same skills.
Like Erin, I was taking a break from solidarity work that I was doing in Mexico, and I was in the States for a while, so I had time and interest (laughs). They sort of convinced me that the radio part wasn’t that hard. I had a background in popular education; that’s what I thought I would be able to bring to the group. I began to study the basic material that was available on setting up Low Power fm (lpfm) stations, and it was really powerful for me to realize that it is pretty simple. Someone like me who didn’t have any formal studies in engineering—or even any experience in community radio in the United States—was able to understand and put together a lpfm station. Realizing just how simple it was made me feel that radio is a powerful tool that makes sense for communities that are organizing and looking for a tool for communication in their struggles.
Can you define solidarity and how that informs the internal workings of Radios Populares?
I think of solidarity as referring to a relationship we have with communities we’re working with or collaborating with because we’re not from those communities. You can compare or contrast this with other models like humanitarian aid, charity, or development work—those are other types of relationships. One of the keys is what we perceive our role to be and what they perceive their role to be. It’s based on a fundamental recognition that they’re the ones struggling for their goals. They set their goals and make the decisions about how they want to reach them, and we don’t try to impose any kind of decisions on them.
A concrete example of this is with the stations. We go through a process of dialoguing with the group and making sure that relationship is clear. Once we set up the station, it’s in their hands, and we don’t try to exert any control over their programming decisions. For example, we try to set up the station in a way that if something breaks, they don’t have to come to us. Or if they have a question, they don’t have to come to us because we have all the information. I think that with charity work, you perceive the other group as sort of having deficits and barriers. They’re poor; they’re illiterate; they have all these challenges. What I see is the strengths they have and the struggle that they are waging. We’re inspired by that and feel we have a lot to learn from them as well, and that’s part of the relationship. It also has implications for how we organize ourselves, how we make decisions, how we get funding for the projects, and how we relate to other organizations in the United States.
I was exposed to a lot of groups that didn’t work with a solidarity model, and in some ways I learned what I didn’t like. A lot of community organizations view outreach workers or organizers as those who have the answers for a community. We only provide radio stations to communities that ask for them; we don’t go out trying to promote that a community should have a radio station if that’s not something that fits within their plan. Communities have come to us by friends of ours, or they’ve already been looking into getting a radio station in their community for years and they just happen to find out that we exist. That to me is fundamentally different than spreading some idea that you have about what a community should have.
You expect that you can learn something from the communities you’re working with. You need to be open to criticism and that you might be working with a community that eventually doesn’t want to work with you. That’s hard for a lot of groups, particularly based in the first world countries. If you offer something that the community doesn’t need or doesn’t want, then you need to be open to the fact that they’re going to tell you that. You need to listen to that.
The way that we reflect on our relationship with communities is also rooted in that solidarity. To maintain an ongoing critique of what the dynamic of this relationship means … The way that we’ve raised funds, we primarily look at it as grassroots fundraising. Most of the fundraising we’ve done for stations is where we’ve set up presentations or workshops to have our local community become aware of the struggles going on in these pockets of resistance. We’ve been fortunate to have representatives from most of the stations come to Chicago to tell their own stories.
To find out more about Radios Populares, visit them on the web at: http://www.radiospopulares.org/