I always have butterflies during the ten second countdown to airtime. As soon as the studio light turns red, however, nervousness is replaced with excitement at the chance to explore Colombia through radio.
Ever since growing up listening to public broadcasting, I have had a special spot in my heart for all things radio. I leaped, therefore, at the opportunity to be part of the production team of a local radio show in Bogota, called Sintonizate con la Paz, or Tune in with Peace.
The premise of the show is simple: start a conversation between multiple communities and regions about local realities. Mass commercial media in Bogota often presents urban viewpoints as a comprehensive whole that encompasses the entire country. Yet as any traveler knows, Bogotá is simply one of the many diverse areas that make up Colombia. Just as only visiting Bogotá does not provide an experience of the entire country, only sharing one urban perspective hides the wealth of information and local initiatives taking place all over the country.
I have seen firsthand the power of radio and community, as I have travelled across the country through the airwaves.
One of my most memorable journeys was to Cauca. In May, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC ) dominated headlines for breaking their unilateral ceasefire when they attacked a group of soldiers in the southern department. The media was full of news of violence and crisis, but it was hard to hear the voices of ordinary citizens. As we spoke, however, with Didier Chirimuscay, a communicator and social leader, I was able to understand Cauca in a whole new way.
“Despite the fact that we have all of the representations of the armed conflict, Cauca also has an enormous organizational strength that has allowed us to safeguard our social fabric that the war has tried to destroy and has not been able to,” said Chirimuscay. He did not make light of recent violence, but also explained that such violence is not the totality of the Cauca experience. Rather, a rich history of organizing and peace movements, especially among the Indigenous populations, is an important characteristic of the department. To not speak about local capacities and work is to not fully understand Cauca.
The idea that violence and victimization is not the whole story is common across the country. Take the tiny communities along with San Juan River in the pacific department of Chocó, for example, another location I travelled to through the show. For many, Chocó is known more as an epicentre of drug trafficking and coca cultivation than as a location of alternatives to violence. Again, communicating about local initiatives shows another side to the story, such as when we interviewed a local pastor, Rutilio Rivas.
Rivas works with local farmers in many of the small villages downstream, supplying them with cacao trees, the source of chocolate, and agricultural training. For Rivas this work promotes, “not only the absence of conflict but rather peace with the conditions that allow human beings to live with dignity.” Something as simple as a different crop, with a higher market price, changes entire communities. Sharing the story also allowed me to see the area differently.
“Right now, our biggest challenge is preparing for peace. We do not simply want to be impacted by this peace; we ourselves want to impact the peace.” says Alejandra Miller. Women are important actors throughout the country and no broadcasting would be complete without highlighting their unique work all over Colombia.
Some of my favourite experiences have been the times I facilitated interviews with these powerful leaders and their ideas for social change from a community level. Take Miller, for example, of the Ruta Pacifca de la Mujeres, a feminist organization that believes women are important contributors to any sort of post-conflict. By listening to local women, the organization has formed a list of local priorities for peace that place regional women front and centre. Through many different medias, including radio, the women demand that their ideas be heard and implemented in the current peace talks.
Radio communication is not simply from the communities to Bogotá, however, but goes both ways. For remote villages across the country, local stations continue to be one of the only ways to access information about life going in Colombia. Hearing from other regions provides new ideas, a richer understanding of the country as a whole, and a widened understanding of the importance of local voices.
Often, broadcasting consists in a small transmitter connected to megaphones hoisted above the community on bamboo poles; advanced technology is not needed to keep community members informed about everything from birthdays to international events. For many local radio stations, however, it takes dedication to access the content they would like to broadcast.
While internet access is increasingly common, it is still normal for producers to engage in difficult journeys, often involving jeeps and donkeys, to the internet cafes in larger towns. Before returning, they download multiple programs from around the country, for rebroadcast.
Just as I am never sure where a day’s program will take me throughout Colombia, I also never know exactly where the program will arrive. Who is listening today? What I do know, however, is that my view of Colombia has been enriched and enhanced without ever having to leave the tiny broadcasting studio. I guess that is all part of the power of radio.