It did not have the longest playlist for a community radio station, but certainly one of the most influential in the history of the 20th century. Housed in the Luis Ángel Arango Library at the country’s central bank, Banco de la República, the documentary collection of Radio Sutatenza – Colección Documental de Radio Sutatenza y Acción Cultural Popular – is an invaluable resource for students of Colombian history, especially those interested in understanding how tens of thousands of campesinos were able to learn how to read and write before the ubiquitous media of today’s globalized world.

Community radio was founded to give a voice to the voiceless. From mountain communities in Bolivia to remote towns nestled in Colombia’s verdant Tenza Valley, the rise of free airwaves across Latin America was driven, in part, by determined Catholic clerics who wanted to fight poverty and ignorance on the ground, rather than from the pulpit.

In 1947, political violence in Colombia was reaching a tipping point. Liberals and conservatives were in a power-sharing quagmire, aggravated by the presidential aspirations of a liberal party outsider and populist, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. His assasination in Bogotá a year later plunged the city into chaos, razing large parts of it to the ground and resulting in thousands of deaths.

In this politically charged setting, a Catholic priest, Monsignor José Joaquín Salcedo Guarín (1921-1994), was assigned to the parish of Sutatenza in the valley of Tenza. A witness to growing social disparity between those who lived in the cities and those in the countryside, he set out to create a radio network in order to broadcast lessons to men, women and children who had no access to formal education.

Lessons on the radio included basic math, reading the alphabet, health and sanitation advice as well as agricultural instruction to help improve the quality of life in the Boyacá and Cundinamarca highlands. Radio Sutatenza was so instrumental in educating farmers across the agricultural breadbasket near the capital that it purchased several transmitters, and the community network expanded to include parishes up towards the coast and a weekly paper called El Campesino. The advance of education through Father Salcedo’s community-motivated media led to the dawn of social-inclusive thinking and the creation of the umbrella organization Acción Cultural Popular (ACPO), which would work closely with state entities and big business to bring services and education to the Colombian countryside.

The ACPO set up stations in Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla and Magangué as well as created an editorial company to design and print books for start-up libraries. State entities such as Caja Agraria (bank), the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) and the Coffee Growers Federation became involved to help finance night courses on the radio.

Radio Sutatenza ran for 47 years until it was sold off and closed in 1994. During its almost half decade of operations, it racked up 1.5 million hours of radio air time, 1,635 editions of El Campesino and was the home of 690,000 vinyls of the Discoestudio collection. This community radio station, above all, managed to form tens of thousands of community leaders in villages throughout the nation.

All these valuable recordings and documents were handed over in 2008 to the Luis Ángel Arango Library by the ACPO. In an age of downloadable digital media, this collection now sheds light on how a then-“new” medium managed to transform not just a rural landscape but also the futures of many, in addition to helping shape this country towards its newfound modernity.

Radio Sutatenza was “revolutionary” because it gave a voice to the poor and today, thanks to UNESCO, it is recognized as an invaluable part of this nation’s educational heritage.

  • Also as a very young worker in the function of an “Asistente Cultural” (1977-1981), ACPO was my university of life. Its social spirit was a life guide for me and thousands of latinamericans! And do you know who fightet against this idea and banish Pater Salcedo abroad? The FARC, the self called “advocate of the poors”. Because education of the People has been always dangerous…! José Ospina-Valencia [email protected]

  • Fascinating read, Richard. Excellent report.