Monday, September 26, 2011

A change of pace: life at the radio

One of the main foci of my activity here in Guatemala has been working with a radio station founded several months ago by the women's organization Asociación por Nosotras Ixmukané. The radio station, and my work with it, has gone through a lot of changes over these months. The organization, as the leadership now admits freely, was not really prepared to undertake running a radio station. They solicited and received funding to build the station (i.e. to purchase equipment and install the antenna) and to train some of the women in rural communities the basics of how to be a radio announcer ... but no one really understood what it would take to run the radio on a daily basis, and to maintain it over the long haul.

I got excited about the radio the day we installed the antenna. I have some background in radio: I was a DJ at my college radio station, WOBC, and did a variety of shows over the years -- women's programming, music shows (although I didn't really have any idea what I was doing, frankly; I just kind of randomly pulled interesting looking records off the shelves and slapped them on the turntables), and also some news.  Then after moving to New York, one day in the early 1980s, Bill Tabb, a Marxist economist whom I knew through my work at the New York Marxist School (now mostly known as the Brecht Forum), invited me to sit in on a radio show at WBAI that he was producing together with another friend of mine, Joan Greenbaum. They called it "Econonews" and the idea was to provide a Marxist analysis of the economy in an enjoyable and relatively easy-to-digest way. I was at that time the director of the Marxist School, in my early 20s, and Bill invited me to come with him and talk and do whatever.  

This was during the protracted fiscal crisis in New York City -- a time when parts of the city were burning (fires often deliberately set by landlords so they could collect insurance, and then raze low-rent buildings and replace them with more upscale housing), the city was still cutting public spending, and gentrification was gathering steam.  I was listening to a lot of socially conscious punk (Clash, Gang of Four) and also early hip hop (Jazzy Jeff, Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, Afrika Bambaata) and Bill had invited me to bring some music, so I brought Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" (and yes, I still have that 12" single). I played it during a discussion of the fiscal crisis and Bill's face lit up as he heard the lyrics ("Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head."), and he invited me to come back. I worked with him off and on for some months, and then several years later, when I was active in the movement against the Columbus Quincentennial (i.e. arguing that the 500th anniversary of the so-called "discovery" was not an occasion for celebration but a moment to understand the ravages of colonialism, past and present: there wasn't really a name for this international movement that was largely inspired by indigenous activists in the Americas -- the "counter-quincentennial movement" is probably too oblique a reference), I co-produced a regular program for WBAI.

Although it had been some years since I'd worked in radio or directly in any kind of media (I was also a documentary filmmaker in the 1980s), one aspect of my research over the past several years has been how people use consumer and digital technologies (cell phones, video recordings, photographs) to create their own representations and "media worlds". So, I basically made a complete shift in my research agenda and decided to focus on the radio station and to also offer my services to help get it off the ground.

But it's been a bumpy path. I've done programs, sometimes better and sometimes kind of slapdash. But I've viewed my work as an announcer/producer as just a place-holder. Part of the point of the radio, as I saw it, was to have a radio not just for and about Maya women and young people in Quiché, but a radio that was mostly produced by them. 

The radio station is located in a kind of out-of-the-way place, and it is not a "community" station strictly speaking in that it was not founded by people in the community where it is located (a part of Santa Cruz called Chorecales), and it was not founded by grassroots women in Quiché or a local women's association but by an "institution" -- a well-established organization that functions at a regional level, although it has affiliates in many local communities.

I offered to help in whatever way the organization wanted me to help -- training people in certain skill areas (like speaking and interviewing), helping strategize the overall program, doing programs. Mostly I've done the latter, but in the last month and a half, I've been incorporated into the 3-person team that is charged with running the station, and with coming up with some longer-term plans. But the organization is, from my perspective, a bit top-down, a bit bureaucratic, and so we've not felt that we had the authority to really go ahead and do much of anything. 

The organization also had a lot of other projects going on simultaneously, and I was very involved with the elections, really up until a week afterwards, and so it was hard to get all of our energies focused on the radio. But finally Jeanet, Kan and I were authorized to propose a plan - both to develop a workable schedule for the next couple of months, and propose some ideas for how to move the radio forward.

Back when we got started, the first plan was that one person would be responsible for the radio for a month at a time. That is, each month a different person from the organization would be the "responsable" for the radio, with other staff members coming to do programs during the week. That didn't work out very well; after a while people stopped coming to do their shows (not just because they were slackers but because they had other responsibilities as well, and would get pulled off in different directions). So the responsibility fell solely on the staff person who was assigned to the radio, along with myself and Humberto, who had been hired as a consultant. This, at least, was the state of affairs in May and June. Part of the problem was that decisions were being made by people who were not directly involved in the day to day running of the radio and in fact rarely came to the radio. The organization's offices are in Chichicastenango and the radio station is in Santa Cruz del Quiché -- a solid 20-25 minute drive if you don't make any stops, if there aren't any big tractor-trailers slowly moving up the hairpins turns in the mountains, if it's not raining or foggy, if a piece of the highway hasn't fallen down (that has only happened once this year, but they still haven't repaired that segment and who knows when or if they will). Which is to say, the 20-25 minutes is mostly hypothetical. I'd put the driving time at 25-30 minutes. So the paid staff, except for those assigned to the radio, are not close enough to drop in on any kind of regular basis -- much less a daily basis.

There were some training workshops, starting in January, in which about 60 or 70 women from communities throughout the department were trained as announcers. However, this didn't seem to have been well thought-through; how would these women come to the radio station to put their knowledge to use? A culture of "assistentialism" has grown up: in general, the members will not go places unless they are fed and their transportation costs are covered. So how would the organization be able to "mobilize" the women who had been trained so that they could come and do programs? There had been no plan and there was no funding for this, so the solution was to have the staff run the radio.

In July, the organization decided to divide responsibilities for the radio between two people: one for 6 a.m. to 12, and the other for 12 to 6. More or less. But still, 6 hours is a long time for one person, and even though I came sometimes to help out, people's energy was flagging. We have a computer program that allows us to program songs using MP3 files, and also pre-program pre-recorded announcements and the station ID, so it is possible to just line up some hours' worth of music and let the station run on autopilot. Which is what often happened. I tried to encourage people to make sure that they at least got on the microphone a couple of times an hour, saying "Listeners need to know this is a radio run by people and not by machines", but usually unless I kept harping on them, which I didn't want to do, hours would often go by with little intervention by the announcers.

When we first sat down back in April to plan out the broadcast schedule, I started by saying I would alternate doing the morning show (6-8 a.m.) with Humberto, the consultant who was working with the radio project from January through early July (he and I have stayed friends even though he and Ixmukané did not part in the most pleasant way possible). The morning show is about the "energy of the day" according to the Maya calendar and about the cosmovision more generally. But I was asked to do afternoon shows on music, although I did fill in several times on the morning show, and filled in at other times when someone who was supposed to open up or lock up couldn't for one reason or another.

I had tried to foment some conversation about how to move the radio forward since it seemed to me that we were in a bit of a holding pattern. There seemed to be no specific plan to try and involve women from the communities, to give them more ownership of the radio. The organization did solicit a grant, which was not awarded, for two additional radio stations (at first I had been told off the record that the grant had been awarded, and then the organization told me it had been awarded, but apparently it was withdrawn after some further assessment and conversation).  And then there was a grant proposal that would have provided some funding to train women in communities to be "community reporters" -- this was to get around the fact that we couldn't bring women from rural communities to the radio station to do shows. The department is large; there are places that are 5 or 6 hours each way. It would make no sense whatsoever (plus it would be very expensive) to bring women from even 2 hours away to do a program. Most of the community radio stations are much more local in their scope. The station in Sumpango,  Sacatepéquez, for example, can only be heard within Sumpango, and the town (pueblo) is small enough that it is easy to get from one end to the other. Both audience and announcers are from within the town.

So things had been at a standstill for at least a month or so.  I was frustrated, both in terms of my day-to-day involvement at the station, and in terms of my research. What was there to observe, analyze, study? Finally we had a meeting in early August at which I was made part of the team and we were charged to come up with a plan.  My role was to make sure we sat down and spent time on this, and last week we sat down and came up with a proposed schedule -- one that clarified what themes would be covered, who would be responsible for which program slots. We also made some suggestions about volunteers, since I am convinced that the radio will not survive without additional announcers/producers. I am leaving in January and two people (the two who would be left when I return to the US) cannot make a radio station. They would lose energy and interest, and both they and the audience would be bored. To do good radio you need time to plan and research programs, and if you are on the air 6 hours a day, you don't have a lot of time and energy to prepare for the next day's 6 hours.

We have been tentatively given the green light, so today (Monday September 26) we started to implement the new schedule. We were only partly successful, as we didn't have time to really prepare programs as the email came to me over the weekend. Also, tomorrow we are doing a live broadcast of an event, and two of us (Kan and myself) were SUPPOSED to go over to the location of the event this afternoon with the organizers and figure out the logistics, so we had shifted the schedule around so that Kan and I were covering more time earlier in the day than was on the schedule (we've roughly broken the day into six 2-hour time slots and we each cover 2 of them -- at least that's the general framework). Then the event organizers told us they were coming later in the afternoon, and then they said they weren't coming today at all but that we should be there tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. (the event starts at 9).

But it went fairly well. I am supposed to do news from 8 to 8:30 (interspersed with music; we don't do uninterrupted blah blah blah most of the time), and then from 8:30 to 10, the theme for Monday is the political panorama. I got Monday's and Tuesday's themes confused (Tuesday's is "justice", which encompasses everything from how to report domestic violence to international human rights conventions), and Jeanet ended her show closer to 9 than 8:30, but I did a melange of news stories and discussion of both political and justice related themes (the assassination of a Nicaraguan indigenous leader; the ongoing struggle in the Polochic Valley where hydroelectric companies are causing the dislocation of many Q'eqchi Maya families; among other stories). I ran the program longer, and then Kan did his show on the environment, but also ran it longer, so that we wouldn't be leaving Jeanet with hours and hours on her own. Since we ended up not going to do the logistical run-through, I took back the mic for the afternoon music show (which Kan and I alternate) and spun some classic hip-hop (think "Planet Rock"), and then some Brazilian music (Afro Reggae, Timbalada and some tunes from a compilation I just downloaded).

So, we'll see how the live transmission -- and the rest of the week -- goes.

No comments:

Post a Comment