Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.
Liveness, and company: Ian Coss’s finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station follows the programming rhythm of days and nights, from rollicking to quiet and back again. Radio is a predictable presence, an intimate friend who anticipates your needs even before you do. Coss draws from his years of listening to the listeners as he marks radio time and space in Cap Haïtien. Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman
Fabrice Joseph is a mender, set up on a street corner in Cap Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city. He shows me a red plastic toolbox filled with supplies — thread, wires, scraps of fabric—which he can use to fix a jammed zipper or stitch up a torn backpack strap. I stop because he’s cradling a radio set in his hands, tuned to the city’s most popular station: Radio Venus.
We meet on a quiet day; Fabrice has been sitting on the stoop for five hours already with no work. Another day he’s engrossed in assembling a large umbrella—the kind food vendors use for shade—but the radio is still on, now propped on a ledge just behind his head. He replaces the batteries almost weekly, because the radio is always on. In the morning Radio Venus plays news, Fabrice tells me, followed by music as the day heats up. Then in the afternoon he’ll hear sports or perhaps a religious program, before the station returns to music in the evening.
This arc Fabrice describes is designed to follow the arc of his day. In this post, I trace that link: between the rhythms of radio programming and the rhythms of daily life, to show how formatting choices create a heightened sense of ‘liveness’ on Haiti’s airwaves, with all content located in a specific moment: the present moment.
In a technical sense, terrestrial radio broadcasting has always been defined by real time or ‘live’ transmission (an dirèk in Creole), a characteristic that is often invoked in discussions of the medium’s capacity to create shared experiences or even ‘imagined communities.’ And yet where I live in the United States, the passage of time is barely discernible on most commercial stations. Where radio schedules once varied from hour to hour (often reflecting gendered and classed norms of listening), today market research has driven the rise of so-called “format stations” that target specific interest groups and demographics with an equally targeted form of programming: non-stop sports, news, top 40, easy listening, etc.
When I first visited Haiti in 2015, I was surprised to find a radio format unlike any I had grown up with, and not unlike those broadcast schedules of the 1920s and 1930s. While doing research in Cap Haïtien, I conducted a series of bandscans—systematic reviews of the entire radio dial—in order to identify the different types of programming heard on stations throughout the day there. I found the full range of talk and music-oriented shows you might expect, and yet of the 31 stations I picked up, only a handful carried the same type of programming all day. The vast majority carried every kind of program, including Fabrice’s favorite station, Radio Venus.
The Radio Venus studio sits on top of a three-story building, with a door leading straight out onto an open roof deck where the transmitter tower rises several more stories up in the air. That tower operates at 10 watts, just enough to relay the signal to a nearby mountain, where it’s then rebroadcast at roughly 450 watts, blanketing the country’s whole Northern Department. The person in charge of this whole system, as well as the overall flow of the day’s programs, is known as the opérateur. The station employs four operators—Molliere, Louis, Wilkonson and Simon—who work in shifts to cover the 24-hour schedule. This rotation provides stability as the hosts (or animateur) of different programs come and go—often showing up late, and sometimes not showing up at all. For long stretches of the day there is no host, so the operator just cues up a folder of songs in Windows Media Player, occasionally leaning over to trigger a station ID: a chesty voice that declares, “W’ap koute Radio Tele-Venus”—‘You are listening to Radio Tele-Venus.’
One day, while sitting behind the board of the cramped control room, Simon explains that the goal of the station’s format is to satisfy all of the listeners’ interests and to provide “stability” in their often unstable lives. That last descriptor, “estabilite,” strikes me as somewhat ironic, given that the station’s programming is constantly changing. But for Haitians like Fabrice, who listen all day while they work, the description fits: he never needs to touch the dial, and at the same time he knows exactly what he will hear. Indeed, most of the radio listeners I meet in Cap Haïtien praise the medium’s consistently variable nature; if they wanted to hear the same thing all day they could get a stereo that takes a kat memwa—a memory card—and load it up with their favorite mp3s. Radio should change with the hours of the day; that’s part of what makes it radio.
Many of the staff at Radio Venus describe the art of matching programming to the mood of the moment, in terms of ‘hotness’ (cho). For example, it’s important to have a lively host on the air between about 10am to noon, usually playing konpa music, so that the radio ‘heats up’ to give listeners more energy for their day. This shift takes place simultaneously across virtually every station on the dial, such that it’s literally audible on the street, from countless battery-powered radio sets. The timeliness of this ‘heating up’ is further emphasized by the host—at Venus, a local favorite named Don Lolo—who constantly reads the exact hour and minute off of a large analog clock on the studio wall. Lolo’s job is to make the music live in the moment; to make it ‘hot.’ By the same token, when I interview the overnight operator, Louis, he tells me that since many listeners keep the radio on all night, it’s important that he doesn’t play any music that’s ‘too hot,’ so as not to disturb their sleep. Everything in its right time.
The most dramatic shift in programming, however, begins on Friday evening. For the entire weekend, the station drops most of its talk-oriented shows and plays constant music—almost all of which is bootlegged recordings of live concerts. The idea is to convey the freewheeling mood of a night out on the town, even for those who won’t be at a bar or concert. To keep up this atmosphere, the station operators can choose from whole folders of “konpa live” tracks dating back decades—most of which run twelve to fifteen minutes long. Again, this programming convention of playing live recordings on weekends is ubiquitous across the dial, and indeed across Haiti. Turn on the radio on a Saturday night and you will be hard pressed to find any music that was recorded in a studio.
My first weekend at Radio Venus, I step out of the studio at dusk, and find the station’s signal is suddenly all around me—far more present than just a few hours earlier. Around the corner from the station, an electronics store has set up a row of folding chairs in the street, and is blasting Radio Venus for a small audience. At the end of the same block is a barbershop; there too the stereo is tuned to Venus, with one cabinet speaker set in its arched entryway.
At this hour, both the street and the shop are definitively male spaces—save for some market women packing goods and a mother overseeing her son’s haircut, those listening in public are men. A cell card vendor is perched on top of the stereo speaker itself; a man with two live chickens—their heads poking out of the bottom of plastic shopping bags—stops by and quickly exchanges some money with one of the barbers, who plays some air guitar as the next customer takes his seat. One of the other remaining barbers is perched sideways in his stool, feet in the air and a bottle of Barbancourt rum in one hand. The energy is loose, encouraged by the radio announcer.
Back at the station, the small studio is lit only by a single fluorescent bulb, whose harsh light spills through the glass pane into the neighboring control room. Don Lolo is on the air once again, but his style is different. No more telling the time or giving long monologues. Instead he sings along in a full-throated voice, occasionally adding personal shout-outs. We learn that Gerald is celebrating a birthday today, just as Claire and Alex are marking their anniversary. When his phone then rings, instead of picking it up Lolo silences the call and responds by radio: “Sorry, I can’t talk now!”
It’s late when Don Lolo wraps up his show and we head out of the studio, leaving Louis alone to cool the music back down for the overnight shift. The evening operator, Simon, offers to walk me home. At this hour, we can stroll down the middle of the street side by side, the city’s elaborate facades cast in silhouette by the occasional streetlight. As we head up the hill towards my place, Simon cocks his head and gestures across the street. I turn just in time to catch the station ID—“W’ap koute Radio Tele Venus”—coming out of a barbershop. The radio is still on.
Tune into a livestream of Radio Tele-Venus via Tune In: https://tunein.com/radio/Radio-Tele-Venus-1043-s181945/
Featured Image: “An electronics vendor in Cap Haïtien, Haiti” by Ian Coss
Ian Coss is an audio producer, composer and sound designer whose work spans the worlds of podcasting and performance. He has produced several critically acclaimed series with the Radiotopia network, including Ways of Hearing, The Great God of Depression, and Over the Road. His audio work has been reviewed by the New Yorker and the Guardian; featured on NPR, Al Jazeera and the BBC; and recognized with an Edward R. Murrow Award for ‘excellence in sound.’ Additionally, Ian has premiered live sound works at the Boston Museum of Science and Harvard University, and collaborated on immersive audio tours for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Richmond ICA, and other major art institutions. Ian holds a PhD in ethnomusicology from Boston University, where he conducted research on Haitian radio broadcasting and Indonesian shadow-puppetry. He continues this work as musical director for The Brothers Čampur, an international puppetry collaborative that has performed at major festivals in Indonesia, and at universities throughout the eastern United States. More on all these projects at iancoss.com.
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Radio Ambulante: A Radio that Listens –Carolina Guerrero
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