Welcome back to the final article in our three-part series, Radio de Acción. Special thanks to you, our readers, and to editors Jennifer Stoever and Neil Verma at Sounding Out! for hosting this addition to a burgeoning field of Latin American critics and producers who are changing the way we hear radio as history, as theory, and in practice.
Over the past several weeks we have tried to bring you into the multiple worlds made possible by radio in Latin America. If you missed our previous posts, please find Alejandra Bronfman’s stunning history of radio in the Caribbean here, and Karl Swinehart’s fascinating study of Aymaran-Spanish radio here.
Both of these critical approaches set the stage for Carolina Guerrero’s extraordinary work with radio in the Americas. An executive director and co-founder of Radio Ambulante—a program that fellow co-founder and novelist Daniel Alarcón calls “This American Life, but in Spanish, and transnational”—Guerrero’s post takes us behind the scenes of her show to consider how the sounds on radio come to life for us as listeners, and the significance of hearing someone’s words in her or his own voice and language. For more Radio Ambulante after you finish reading and listening to Carolina’s post, please visit their website and download their podcasts.
–Guest editor Tom McEnaney
In late 2007, novelist Daniel Alarcón was hired by the BBC to produce a radio documentary about Andean migration in his native Peru. He spent 10 days traveling around the country, from the highlands to Lima, conducting interviews in both English and Spanish, talking to a wide range of people with very personal stories about migration. But when Daniel received the final mix from London, he was disappointed to find that the editor had privileged the English language voices, and left out many of the most compelling Spanish language storytellers. Daniel was left with a question: what if there was a space for those voices on the radio waves? What would it sound like?
Over coffee in San Francisco in January 2011, Alarcón and I decided to create that space, inspired by US public radio shows like This American Life and Radiolab, which had no Spanish counterpart. We knew that poignant, fun, surprising, unique, sometimes sordid, sometimes romantic, absurd and incredible stories we often heard in Latin America were out there, just waiting to be reported. We knew that they would make great radio. And we knew there was an audience—in Latin America and the US—that wanted to hear it. The result became Radio Ambulante.
We began by asking many of our print journalist friends in Latin America to share stories with us. We sent them links to stories from some of our favorite American radio programs, and then contacted a few bilingual independent radio producers here in the US, and asked them for advice on the basics of radio production. Many directed us to Transom.org, which was an absolutely essential resource.
In March of 2012, we launched a Kickstarter campaign. All we had was an idea and a sampler with less than 45 minutes of audio—and still, we managed to raise $46,000 with the support of 600 backers. The success of this campaign was a huge confidence boost, and we knew we were on to something. We used this money to produce our pilot season.
Since then, we’ve worked with more than twenty different producers in more than a dozen countries. These are the characters that emerge from Radio Ambulante stories: a transgender Nicaraguan woman living with her Mexican wife in San Francisco’s Mission District; a Peruvian stowaway telling his harrowing tale of coming to New York in 1959, hidden in the hold of a tanker ship; the Chilean soccer player who dared challenge the authority of General Pinochet; a young Argentine immigrant to North Carolina, trying to find his way through the racially charged environment of an American high school. Taken together these voices create a nuanced portrait of Latino and Latin American life:
PERSONAL STORIES FOR ALL EARS
Now in our third season, we’ve been working hard to create a group of trusted producers and editors across Latin America; people we can turn to with an idea, people we know we can trust with our limited time and resources; reporters we can send to Cuba, send to Honduras, send to Venezuela, and be certain they’ll come back with usable tape, and a good story. We want these first time producers to become long-term contributors.
That’s the case of Camila Segura, Radio Ambulante’s current Senior Editor. She had no prior experience as a radio producer when she reported her first story for us in 2012. That piece, El otro, el mismo (The Other, The Same) is about two men, one Colombian, one Argentinian, who not only share the same name, but who look almost identical. From this coincidence, the story becomes something much stranger, funnier, more subtle, and ultimately quite moving:
We want the listener to be able to relate and identify with the characters, to feel what they feel. A good Radio Ambulante story should be universal and shouldn’t have an expiration date.
One story from our first season captures this universal quality. In 2011, River Plate, one of the most famous soccer clubs in South America, was relegated to the Argentine Second Division. This event shook the entire nation, and anyone who listens to this story could relate to the sadness and pain that the protagonist is feeling. Two years later, the story still has that raw power:
HOW WE SOUND
Martina Castro, Senior Producer, has designed most of Radio Ambulante’s sound, finding the balance between music and sound effects in order to support the voice of the main characters. As she explains,
There are many kinds of pieces that make it to Radio Ambulante. Sometimes the story is focused on one person and their experience: something that happened long ago. Like with Mayer Olórtegui in Polizones (The Stowaways), and the story of how he and his friend Mario jumped aboard a ship headed to the United States. There is no substitute for a dynamic storyteller like Mayer. He not only recreates moments, sometimes even imitating the sounds of what he heard, but he remembers the emotion of what happened, and really feels deeply what he is talking about, like when his voice breaks up at the mention of saying goodbye to his friend Mario.
Other, more symphonic, multi-voiced pieces provide a different kind of production challenge. The script must showcase the many characters, while giving the listener enough grounding so as not to get lost. A particularly successful example is our award-winning piece “N.N.”, about Puerto Berrio, Colombia, by reporter Nadja Drost. Nadja gathered recordings of this river town, and conducted interviews with many locals, always focused on the issue of the floating, anonymous dead and the town’s strange relationship with these bodies. The music in a piece like this is only meant to support those real-life sounds and characters, and a repeated melody serves as a ghost-like echo of the dead, those voices we never hear.
We use music carefully to shift the mood, to mark the end of a section, and to alert the listener that something new is coming. The music is also meant to break up chapters of a story, give us a moment to reflect on what we just heard, or to indicate when something is about to change. There are examples in Yuri Herrera’s “Postcard from Juárez,” produced by Daniel Alarcón. It tells the story of Diana la Cazadora, or Diana the Hunter, a vigilante who set about killing bus drivers in one of the world’s most violent cities, allegedly as revenge for years of misogyny and sexism.
In this particular story, we were able to do something that the English version (produced for This American Life) could not: read in the original Spanish the letter that the supposed killer sent the local Ciudad Juárez newspaper explaining her actions. We had this read by Lizzy Cantú, a Mexican journalist who’d worked with us before, and then distorted her voice, to give it that dark ambience. The listener is supposed to feel the grim violence in those words: the desperation.
In three seasons producing the show, we’ve learned that the craft of radio comes from listening, and that the most challenging aspect of producing radio is not in the technical details of recording those voices or sounds, but in the story itself.
The most basic building block of a good radio story is a good interview. The technical aspects of gathering sound are less important than phrasing the questions to get vivid, almost filmic answers, full of details that set the scene.. As Executive Producer Daniel Alarcón explains,
We ask our reporters to push interviewees to describe scenes in great detail, to unpack moments. Our interviews can last two hours or more, and many are surprised that we go so in depth. We like our reporters to circle back, and then circle back again, so that we’re sure we’re getting the most vivid version possible of a given story’s crucial moments.
We ask our reporters to write colloquially, to imagine they’re telling the story to a friend at a bar. It’s important to have immediacy in the language, an expressive tone that can seem almost improvised, even when it isn’t. The emotional impact of radio is that it feels as though a secret is being shared. The script and the production should always be in service of this intimacy.
Before a script is final, it’s shared with other editors on the team around the globe (California, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Chile), mixed, edited, soundtracked, and refined through hours of collective work online.
While creating our own sound and storytelling style, Radio Ambulante is constantly experiment with different formats and looking for new ways to interact with our listeners. We’ve done three live radio shows, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. In addition, we’ve produced two English Language specials, and partnered with writers and animators on hybrid multimedia storytelling. With our partners at PRI, we’re developing a new interview series, and are working with Latin American universities and media outlets to teach more journalists to use radio. Our hope is that Radio Ambulante’s success will mean more innovative radio work in Spanish, and more experiments in the possibilities of bilingual radio.
Carolina Guerrero is the Executive Director of Radio Ambulante. Before getting into journalism, she was a promoter for cultural and social projects, creating a bridge between organizations in three different continents. She has worked with public and private institutions in several countries, for which she has designed and overseen festivals, art exhibits, teaching workshops and fundraising events. Carolina is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University 2014-15. She is the proud mother of León and Eliseo. (@nuncaduermo)
All images courtesy @radioambulante on Twitter
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“Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms”-Monica De La Torre
Welcome back to our continuing series on radio in the Caribbean and Latin America: Radio de Acción. A consideration of the multilingual history of radio from Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti to the Southern Cone and beyond, Radio de Acción turns this week to the Aymara in Peru, Chile, and especially Bolivia in a fascinating piece from anthropologist Karl Swinehart.
If you missed our first post, Alejandra Bronfman’s stunning history of radio and violence in the Caribbean, you can find it here. In the meantime, keep your dials tuned to Karl Swinehart’s study of the micropolitics of language and power on Aymaran radio.
– Guest Editor Tom McEnaney
“What do you like most about working at this radio station?” was a simple question I had asked Celia Colque Quispe, an Aymara language radio broadcaster on Radio San Gabriel in El Alto, Bolivia during an interview I conducted in 2007 as part of my dissertation research on Aymara-language media. Her response was simple, but profound.
“Clearly, here, being Aymara. I like to be Aymara.”
Quispe came to Radio San Gabriel from a small, rural community on the shores of Lake Titicaca. One day, she had heard an announcement on the radio that Radio San Gabriel would be hiring personnel through an open selection process involving an Aymara language fluency assessment. Competing against university-trained linguists and graduates of communications programs, Quispe stood out for her eloquent Aymara speech and was hired, beginning a career in radio where she came to not only to work as an announcer, but as a member of the Aymara Language Department where she wrote and approved scripts for the station’s programs. Stories like this are not unusual at Radio San Gabriel, but are otherwise rare in this multilingual Andean republic, still profoundly marked by anti-Indian racism. What “being Aymara” means in Bolivia remains highly contested. One thing was clear from my conversation with Quispe, however—her work at the radio allows her “to be Aymara.”
The presence of the Aymara language on Bolivian airwaves contrasts sharply with its general absence within other Bolivian media. There are some notable exceptions: Bolivian state television occasionally runs Aymara language programming on programs like Entre Culturas (‘Between Cultures’), and, famously, the neorealist director Jorge Sanjinés’ work has dramatized the struggles of highland Aymara and Quechua Indians in films like Yawar Mallku (Blood of the condor) and Nación Clandestina (Clandestine Nation).
These are exceptions, however, that prove the rule of Spanish language dominance within Bolivian television and film, leaving radio to stand out as the medium that most reflects the country’s multilingualism. In this post we will tune in to Radio San Gabriel, Bolivia’s oldest and most prominent Aymara language radio station, to ask how Aymara language radio might not just reflect Bolivia’s multilingualism, but also actively intervene in it, shaping how Aymaras hear their own language.
Aymaras and Bolivia
The Aymaras are one of the the largest ethnolinguistic groups within Bolivia, a nation that is now officially a “Plurinational State” in which 36 indigenous languages are recognized as co-official with Spanish. Aymara is among the most widely spoken of these and Aymaras constitute a majority of the population in a contiguous territory surrounding the nation’s capital of La Paz, and crossing national borders into neighboring Chile and Peru. With approximately two and a half million people (and many more than this if speaking Aymara is removed as a criterion of ethnicity), Bolivia has the largest concentration of Aymaras in the region. Perhaps because Bolivia’s political capital sits within Aymara territory or because of their sheer numbers with respect to other indigenous populations, the Aymara have long played a significant role in Bolivian politics. Increasing the presence of the Aymara language in public space, on the airwaves or otherwise, is thus a prominent component of a multifaceted politics of indigenous resurgence in contemporary Bolivia.
Aymar Markan Arupa – “The Voice of the Aymara People” – Radio San Gabriel
As Bolivia’s first and longest running Aymara language radio station, Radio San Gabriel (RSG) calls itself “Aymar markan arupa” (the voice of the Aymara people). In the wake of the 1952 Bolivian revolution, a major social upheaval in which miners’ militias played a crucial role, Maryknoll Jesuit priests founded RSG in 1955 with aims of Christian evangelization within a broader effort at rural uplift. RSG’s mission was also in line with the new government’s hopes of integrating indigenous rural communities into national political life. Jesuits had experience with radio in mining communities, a broadcasting milieu dominated by radical syndicalist and communist political currents, where Jesuits had also founded radio stations of their own. Although miners are remembered as the central protagonists in the 1952 revolution, also crucial to its victory were the highland indigenous communities who overturned nearly feudal relations of the haciendas through insurrectionary land expropriations.
In its early days, RSG approached the Aymara language as a bridge to Spanish language literacy and integration into the mainstream of the Catholic faith, an approach consistent with a mid-twentieth century view which formulated the “the Indian problem” as one of national integration. Yet these early assimilationist efforts would quickly change due to both developments in the Catholic Church, such as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the rise of “liberation theology,” and also political ferment in Bolivia in opposition to military rule. During the 1970s radical Aymara nationalism, or katarismo, was on the rise, finding institutional expression through organizations like the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupak Katari (MRTK, ‘Revolutionary Movement Tupak Katari’), and the founding of the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos Bolivianos (CSUTSB, ‘Trade Union Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia’) under katarista leadership in 1979.
Influenced by Aymara nationalism, RSG made a dramatic shift in its orientation towards Aymara language and culture. Their adoption of an Aymara-centric idiom resonated with other nationalist currents, while maintaining Maryknoll Jesuit aims of social justice and service to the poor by reformulating “liberation theology” as a “theology of inculturation.” Practices earlier demonized by the Catholic Church as pagan were now celebrated as being essentially Christian—with the spilled blood of a sacrificed llama, for example, recast as analogous to the wine of the sacrament. This remains in many ways the orientation of RSG today, and the station positions itself as an authority on questions of Aymara linguistic and cultural authenticity.
Broadcast language – dehispanicized “pure” Aymara
One of the ways that RSG’s authority becomes audible to its Aymara audience is through the language used on the air. On RSG, radio announcers speak without using Spanish loan words, using what radio announcers and other Aymaras refer to as “Aymara puro” (pure Aymara). This is ensured through the radio’s Aymara Language Department, which intervenes prior to each broadcast by either writing or editing scripts, and is responsible, along with the radio’s director, for these scripts’ ultimate approval. However, its responsibilities do not end with broadcasts’ content. The department is also responsible for a protocol extending through and beyond the actual broadcasts called seguimiento, or “following.”
Seguimiento involves two procedures: the real-time monitoring of broadcasts for “aberrations,” and a follow-up interaction with those who utter them on air.The department finds alternatives or invents neologisms for the many loan words in Aymara from Spanish. These loan words include words as common as the verb “to speak”—parlaña from the sixteenth-century Spanish parlar—and are testament to 500 years of contact with Spanish. Contact, of course, is a euphemism for what was first colonial and later republican subjugation, making the aberración serve as a linguistic reminder of this painful history. This is why, rather than simply “Aymara puro,” a more apt term might be deshispanized Aymara. While Spanish loan words are purged from the broadcasts, many words shared between Quechua and Aymara escape the protocols of seguimiento, even though these also likely entered the language as the result of earlier subjugation of the Aymara under the Inca Empire. It was not the Inca period, however, but the domination of all Indians, whether Quechua, Aymara, or otherwise, by the Spanish under the colony, then by their descendants during the Republican period and into the 21st century that has most profoundly shaped Bolivia’s dynamics of race and class and, it turns out, the linguistic phenomena that accompanying them, leaving the loan word, the aberración, to be understood as the residue of this history.
Decolonization over the Airwaves
Is the linguistic purism of the RSG any different from that of, say, the Academie Française? In terms of aims and procedures, much remains the same—both groups identify loan words and push for consensus to implement neologisms. Such a comparison, however, would obscure the starkly different social context in which this process unfolds in Bolivia. If “protecting” the language is commensurate with protecting the people, at RSG, this means targeting loanwords that serve as reminders of the painful processes of colonialism. In this light, many at RSG understand their work as fitting within a larger project of decolonization, a project not without its contradictions or ironies, particularly considering the role of the Catholic Church in both the past and the present. I explore these ironies more in a longer ethnographic account of the process of seguimiento at RSG.
Whatever the ironies, RSG’s cultivation of a model of refinement in Aymara speech has created opportunities for people who are otherwise profoundly marginalized in Bolivian society, particularly rural women, to advance professionally in a labor market that too often shuts them out. Where Celia Colque Quispe’s wearing of long braids, broached shawl, and full pollera skirt of rural Aymara women, for example, would have her barred from other employment whose job descriptions might demand of employees a euphemistically racist and sexist requirement of buena presencia, at RSG her traditional dress and status as a rural Aymara woman was valued and bolstered her authority within the institution. In a society still steeped in legacies of colonialism, it is no wonder, then, that what Quispe likes most about her work is simply that she can be Aymara.
In the broader media landscape, stations like RSG surely fill a gaping hole of Aymara language programming. Yet as “the voice of the Aymara people” extends across the high plain, radio introduces new absences: the absence of speech deemed too marked by colonialism to appear on air. Linguistically, then, the static on the frequencies of Aymara language airwaves are many. Both the neologisms of the voices cultivated for the airwaves and the incursion of Spanish into the speech of those whose tongues are less trained complicate any notion that the voice of the radio resonates free of the static of history.
Featured image: Aymaras marching to commemorate the uprising and massacre of 1921 in Jesús de Machaca, La Paz.
Karl Swinehart is Collegiate Assistant Professor and Harper-Fellow at the University of Chicago. He is currently working on a manuscript on hip-hop in Bolivia, Clear, Hidden Voices: Language, Indigeneity and Hip-Hop in Bolivia. He is a linguistic anthropologist with interests in media, popular music, social movements, racialization and multilingualism. He is co-editor of Languages and Publics in Stateless Nations, a special issue of Language and Communication. His work can also be found in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language in Society, and Social Text.
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“Violent Circuits, Contentious Voices: Caribbean Radio Histories”-Alejandra Bronfman
“Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms”-Monica De La Torre
This month Sounding Out! inaugurates a four-part series slated to appear on the Thursday stream into May entitled “Radio de Acción”: Broadcasting in Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Cornell Assistant Professor in Comparative Literature Tom McEnaney.
Tom has been a key contributor to SO! over the years — check out his articles on Orson Welles and Twin Peaks, two excellent and vivid pieces I wish I could’ve written. We’re excited to have Tom as our guide to the many frequencies of Latin American and Caribbean radio, helping us “tune North American antennas South for a while,” as he proposes in his series introduction below. Gather round, dear listeners, I think the transmission’s about to start …
— SCMS/ASA Special Editor Neil Verma
It’s difficult to keep the radius of radio within national boundaries. Or so it has often seemed in the Americas. The first Argentine broadcast, on August 27, 1920, transmitted a performance of Wagner’s Parisfal that accidentally reached ships in Brazil. Border radio in Spanish and English has bled across the frontiers between Mexico and the United States since at least the early 1930s. And if listeners from Alabama to Washington State tuned their shortwave receivers right in the early 1960s, they would have heard the exiled civil rights activists Robert F. and Mabel Williams’ famous tag line: “You are tuned to Radio Free Dixie, from Havana, Cuba, where integration is an accomplished fact.”
In Spanish, “radio” can mean the sonic broadcasting it denotes in English, but also radium, the spoke of a wheel, a radius (and the bone of the same name), an orbit, or a sphere of influence. Our series title, Radio de Acción, plays on an inter-linguistic pun, which takes the “radius of action” or “area of operations” the phrase connotes in Spanish, and thinks of radio broadcasting as changing the cultural, historical and political fields it engages through particular types of “radio action.”
Acknowledging language’s role in widening or narrowing that radius, the four posts in this special series help tune our ears to a diversity of voices from Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the next few months Radio de Acción will explore the multilingual history of radio in the Caribbean, an Aymara / Spanish talk show in Bolivia, a Cuban-born writer’s radio dramas produced in German, and the Spanish / English radio program Radio Ambulante, which its creators describe as “This American Life, but in Spanish, and transnational.” Featuring posts from Alejandra Bronfman, Karl Swinehart, and Carolina Guerrero, our series sets out to turn North American antennas South for a while.
I’m especially excited to begin the series by welcoming University of British Columbia History Professor, Alejandra Bronfman, whose extraordinary story of radio in the Caribbean below serves as an ideal overture to Radio de Acción. Don’t move that dial.—
The most striking example of radio’s power in the political dramas of the Caribbean took place in Havana, Cuba in March of 1957. A group of student activists opposed to the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime attempted to assassinate him and simultaneously occupied one of Havana’s most popular stations, Radio Reloj. Locking out the broadcasters, who usually spent the day reading the news and announcing the time every minute on the minute, the activists declared Batista’s death, and their victory. It may be that their plan depended precisely on the uncertainty they created. Whether Batista was actually dead mattered less than the reaction they hoped to incite with their declaration. Batista did not die that day; the students’ plot was foiled; and the attempt ended in death for most of the assailants. However, the failure was only temporary—another group of radio rebels would overthrow Batista less than two years later—and the 1957 takeover cemented radio’s undisputed role as bearer of truth and center of power.
In this post I consider radio’s relationship to violence in connection to its creation of truth, mendacity and illusion. Radio publics in the Caribbean emerged amidst conflict, and, as the 2000 assassination of the Haitian broadcaster Jean Dominique suggests, there is still much at stake in their existence as arbiters of political practice and cultural affiliation.
In the earliest years, radio competed for attention in Caribbean soundscapes full of talk and music rooted in the legacies of slavery. In Haiti, a US occupation (1915-1934) coincided with the development of wireless technology by the US military. Military officials understood the potential of wireless for communication among ships. When US marines landed in Port-au-Prince in 1915, they immediately landed a radio set as well. Although wireless linked the marines to their passing ships, it was not yet a cultural medium sustaining a connection to familiar songs and voices. Haiti was a confusing, disorienting place for many of them: some were disappointed to have been sent there rather than the European front of WWI, others raised in the American South were appalled at the power and status of Haitians of African descent. As remembered by one marine, the sound of Haiti could terrify: “No movies, no radio, none of the features of civilized life to which he was accustomed… Drums boomed continuously. …the drums seemed to him to be the voice of the evil one, always booming in his ears, threatening him, tempting him.”
Most confusing of all was the language. 90% of Haitians spoke Kreyol, which is not French, and not like anything the marines had probably heard before. Documents of the occupation record their efforts to turn what they heard as noise into comprehensible signals. They understood how crucial it would be to obtain information from market women, whose perambulations through the countryside, in weekly walks from their villages to market towns, allowed them to gather news and gossip. If they could convince these women to become informants, and then use radio to relay crucial knowledge between strategic points–the terrain was difficult, with paths rather than roads and frequent rain and flash flooding made travel unpredictable—they might somehow begin to locate and crush insurgencies. The installation of radios signaled the Marines’ efforts to exercise control and insert themselves into these circuits of talk and rumor. But results were paltry. Documents from the early phase of the occupation speak to unreliable technology, lack of knowledge about how to use it, its burdensome heft (radio sets had to be hauled by donkeys through the dense forests), and frequent sabotage.
They also speak to desperation and macabre inventiveness in the face of fear. Some Marines discovered that they could try getting the ‘truth’ out of Haitians in novel ways. They applied wires from radio sets to Haitian people’s bodies, and shot electric current through them during interrogation sessions, hoping to use their “new media” to simultaneously terrorize bodies and extract information from them. Electrotorture enacted, literally, the relationship between technology, the production of knowledge and imperial violence.
The histories of radio played out in different registers elsewhere in the Caribbean. While Haiti eventually acquired a broadcasting station in 1926, there was no local radio in Jamaica until 1939.. British colonial officials, distracted by their bloated empire and feeling the economic pinch in any case, had no appetite for building a local station, though Kingston’s residents frequently called for one. While wealthy residents of Jamaica who could afford shortwave receivers had the world at their fingertips—the BBC, US programs, music from Cuba’s powerful stations—the majority of Jamaicans listened instead to their own voices in songs and popular theater, mostly in Jamaican patois.
As the British Empire relegated Jamaica to the margins, capital, people, and many sounds came from the US. Indeed, strapped British officials conscripted amateur radio operators and their US-bought equipment for state purposes. When passing British ships needed to test communications, they asked amateurs to donate their time and expertise. The most prominent of those, the New Yorker John Grinan, achieved some fame in the ham radio world for his experiments with shortwave radio. A participant in the first exchange of transatlantic signals, and one of the operators who helped relay Tom Heeney’s 1928 boxing match against Gene Tunney between New York and New Zealand (via Jamaica), Grinan lent his technological expertise to the British. When striking Jamaican workers cut telephone and telegraph lines amidst labor unrest in the summer of 1938 colonial officials, lacking access to wireless equipment, asked amateur operators like Grinan to police the rebellion, relaying whatever information they could from their rural stations to Kingston.
In the aftermath, colonial officials hoped the new radio station, created with equipment donated by Grinan, would provide a means of calming the unruly masses through educational broadcasting. But the new station’s programming was so dull, and receivers were so expensive and so unreliable, that few listened. It was only in the late 1950s, through the contributions of people like the actress, writer, and radio personality Louise Bennett that the sounds of patois eased radio’s participation into voluble soundscapes long populated by sound systems, music and talk.
As Bennett joked and chided in patois and local musicians like Bob Marley finally got air time, their performances rescued radio from its elitist roots and people finally tuned in.
By that time in Cuba, both the government and its opposition knew that controlling radio meant wielding power, or at least creating the illusion of that power. Cuba’s commercial ties to the US meant that it took part in its neighbor’s vociferous radio culture. Ads, radios, programs and music crisscrossed the Atlantic and shaped transnational listening. By the 1930s, a large radio public tuned in regularly to radionovelas, music and news available throughout the day. So it seemed to make perfect sense when governments claimed airspace to propagate messages and dissenters tampered with communications networks or deployed underground broadcasts—often from outside of Cuba—to convey their discontent. It was this radio world in which students decided that in order to topple a dictator you needed to occupy a radio station.
Understanding Caribbean radio as a regional history—defined more by circuits and soundwaves than national borders—brings new dimensions to bear on radio histories more generally. Spanning the Caribbean allows me to think about how various listening publics came to be and the contingent nature of those publics. Imperial politics, machines—as instruments of curiosity, desire and violence—and voices converged and diverged in distinct ways to conjure particular publics in particular moments. In order to overcome disturbing origins, radio needed to take part in pre-existing publics. In Jamaica, the inclusion of programs in patois resuscitated a feeble medium. The voices of people like Louise Bennett rendered radio a welcome attraction rather than a patronizing nuisance. In Haiti, radio publics also grew as Kreyol radio plays replaced US-sanctioned programming. Francois Duvalier understood that he could use radio to appeal to many people, drawing them in with celebrations of Haiti’s African roots and Kreyol language. When he became dictator soon after, the publics were already captive. On the other hand, Cuba did not have such a stark linguistic divide. So as soon as radio blanketed the country it could take part in fuelling political rifts. Listening in Cuba meant choosing sides, as all sides spoke through the radio. As the oppositional 1950s turned into the revolutionary 60’s, the battle of voices—the Voice of America, the Voice of Martí, the Voice of Fidel, continued. Understanding the region as a transfer point for empire and capital places the Caribbean at the center of many aspects of the history of communications technologies. It also colors that history with troubling tones whose listeners are long overdue.
Alejandra Bronfman is Associate Professor of History at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches courses on Caribbean and Latin American history, historical theory and practice, race in the Americas, and media histories. She is currently working on two projects: A Voice in a Box: Media, Empire and Affiliation in the Caribbean, which records the unwritten histories of sonic technologies in the early twentieth century, and Biography of a Sonic Archive, which draws from the extensive career of Laura Boulton to interrogate the use of recordings in the making of a sonic, exotic Caribbean. http://alejandrabronfman.wordpress.com/
Featured image: “Cuba 1619 – 10th Anniversary of Radio Havana Cuba” by Flickr user Joseph Morris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Decolonizing the Radio: Africa Abroad in the Age of Independence– Samantha Pinto
“Everyone I listen to, fake patois…”– Osvaldo Oyola