Belize Menu Main Menu What's New Best of this Site Radio History Clandestine Radio

Radio Belize:
Caribbean Beat in Central America

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the January, 1989 issue of Monitoring Times magazine.

NOTE:Several years ago the ruling party in the Belizean government privatized Radio Belize by selling its parts to four companies controlled by the party's supporters. This article is kept here for historical purposes.


Where in the world would people name towns Gallon Jug, Washing Tree, Double Head Cabbage, Orange Walk Town, Burrel Boom, and Monkey River? Nowhere else but easy-going Belize, the world's number one producer of humorous place names. Perhaps these names are a product of Belize's distinctive history.

Belize was once part of the great Maya Indian civilization. The Spanish came in the 1500s, claimed Belize, and tried a few tentative settlements. Finding no gold or silver, they soon left. In the 1600s, English pirates used Belize's numerous coves and offshore islands as bases from where they launched raids on Spanish treasure fleets. Along with their booty, the pirates carried stories of Belize's huge mahogany forests back to England. Soon British loggers and their slaves set up camp among the pirate bases. Pirates, loggers, and slaves mingled. As time passed, new groups were added to the mixture. An ethnically diverse nation was born.

Ethnically Diverse

Today about half of Belize's population is of mixed ancestry, descendants of loggers, pirates, and slaves; with negro slave blood predominating. The rest of the population is quite a hodgepodge. About twenty percent are Mayan Indians; Kekchi Mayas who have always lived in Belize, and Mopan Mayas who came in the 1860s, fleeing a civil war in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Another ten percent is German Mennonite. They came looking for a place to practice their simple agrarian religion, and today their farms are Belize's breadbasket.

Garinagus, or Black Caribs, comprise another ten percent. This unusual group originated on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, where escaped negro slaves joined the native Carib Indian tribe. Because of their frequent attacks on plantations, the British army deported the Black Caribs to Honduras' Bay Islands in the 1850s. From there they spread to Belize.

But that's not all. More recently, Chinese, Lebanese, and East Indians arrived to set up stores, restaurants, and other small businesses. Since independence, a number of Americans and Canadians have either retired or bought small businesses and settled down in Belize.

So, Belizeans can be German, Garinagu, Lebanese, and just about anything else. But, one thing they are not is Hondurans. Until Belize received independence from England in 1981, it was known as British Honduras and was often confused with nearby Honduras.

Claimed by Guatemala

Belizeans don't want to be confused with Guatemala. Even when the English settled Belize, Spain never gave up its claim to the territory, which it claimed as a province of Guatemala. Therefore, when Guatemala became independent in 1821, it took over the claim to Belize. In 1859, Guatemala agreed to give up its claims to Belize and in return England agreed to build a road between Belize City and Guatemala City. In those days, though, the British Empire didn't pay much attention to small out-of-the-way countries like Guatemala, so the road was never built. Guatemala contends that the unfilled contract makes the treaty invalid, and they still claim Belize.

Few think Guatemala would actually invade Belize to put its claim in effect. Neither Belize nor Britain wants to chance it though, especially after the Falklands/Malvinas War with Argentina. So several hundred British soldiers are stationed at three bases in Belize. One base is at the Belize City Airport, where international passenger flights land beside anti-aircraft guns.

The British soldiers brought their own radio stations with them. Belize is home to three British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) FM stations, which broadcast the latest rock music and news from London, direct by satellite. Another radio station in Belize was brought by the United States - the Voice of America's AM relay station in Punta Gorda. Neither of these stations broadcast local material.

Radio Belize

The only station that actually reflects Belizean culture is Radio Belize. Founded during the British colonial era, Radio Belize was modeled on the BBC. Like the BBC, it is editorially independent of the government, even though it receives all its funding from the government.

Located in a three story building, Radio Belize is just two blocks from Belize City's main plaza. The station's efforts to promote Belize are reflected by a sign in the lobby, "Be a Belizean. Buy Belizean."

Sixty to seventy people are employed by Radio Belize, including Mike Nicholson, assistant director of programming. A job vacancy plus interest in radio and a clear speaking voice landed him a job when he finished high school. That he speaks both English and Spanish also helped. What began as a job has become a career. Mike has seen other announcers come and go over the years. "Time has a way of eliminating those who aren't cut out for it," he notes.

Although Belize is far off the beaten track, Radio Belize's announcers don't lack opportunities for professional training. For example, the BBC regularly organizes courses for radio announcers from the British West Indies, which Mike has attended. Perhaps proving that working at Caribbean radio stations is not for everyone, several of the announcers decided to stay in the US when the group met in Miami, before lying to London, according to Mike. Besides studying in London, Mike spent a semester in classes on making radio documentaries at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. Since staff members who study abroad share their training in seminars for other employees, there are many opportunities for continued learning. Working visitors from the BBC or other broadcasting organizations also occasionally teach courses at the station.

Daily Programming

A test tone, followed by the station ID and national anthem at five a.m. begins the broadcast day at Radio Belize. After a "prayer for our nation," Belize starts the day out right, from Monday to Friday, with the upbeat music and lively DJ chatter of the "Belize Sunrise" program. Though mainly in English, the program also includes a half hour in one of three ethnic languages: Kekchi, Mopan, or Garinagu each day.

From 8 a.m. to noon, the mic is handed over to the crew of "Belize Today", a program of news, weather, music, local announcements, and phone-ins. For the first two hours, announcer Debbie Tillet goes it alone in English. Then at ten a.m., the program becomes bilingual when she's joined by Spanish announcer Rudy Aguilar. Mike guesses that this makes the station "a little unique, as I can't think of any other station that has two announcers working together in different languages." One of the program's features is "Opportunity Calls", where listeners call in and put free want ads over the air.

At noon, it's time for one of the two main newscasts of the day; first, a half hour of news, sports, and weather in English, then a half hour in Spanish. The rest of the afternoon is more music, local announcements, and DJ chatter. The other main national newscast, again half in English and half in Spanish, is from 7 to 8 p.m.

The 7 p.m. newscast is probably the most listened to program of the day. What follows at eight, however, may be the least listened to. By agreement with the People's United Party government, an hour of debate from the Belize House of Represenatives is broadcast between 8 and 9 p.m. Occasionally the House is still in session at that late hour, and the debate is broadcast live. Otherwise, an hour which was prerecorded during the day is aired.

When the politicians finish at 9 p.m., its safe for listeners to tune back in again. The broadcast day finishes with three more hours of music and DJ chatter. At midnight, a prayer is said, the signoff announcement made, and finally the National Anthem is played before turning off the transmitter.

Competition from Cable TV

Over the last several years, Radio Belize has been increasingly getting stiff competition from a newcomer to the local media scene: cable television. Belize has no domestic TV stations, but that hasn't stopped local entrepreneurs from hooking up their own neighborhood cable systems. By showing movies from a VCR, as well as rebroadcasting American TV stations received via satellite dish, these cable networks are giving Belizeans a new view of the world.

Some people think that too many new ideas are being introduced too fast and that Belizeans are in danger of losing their national identity to American culture. The Belizean government did consider banning the impromptu cable networks but, bowing to popular pressure, decided that TV had come to Belize for better or worse. In the interest of preserving the national culture, Radio Belize stepped in and started its own TV network.

Well, calling it a network may be a bit of an overstatement. But it is a start. A studio for videotaping TV newscasts has been set up in the Radio Belize building. Originally taped once a week, the newscasts are now twice weekly and will soon be taped every day. Of course Radio Belize doesn't have a TV transmitter . . . but they don't need one either. The government passed a law that all cable networks must broadcast the newscasts, or be shut down. Radio Belize provides each cable network with a videotape of the newscasts. To be sure that viewers don't decide to switch over to WTBS and watch The Honeymooners instead, the newscasts re broadcast nationwide at the same time, and no cable network may broadcast anything else while airing the newscasts. Actually the latter rule isn't too hard to follow because most networks only provide subscribers with one channel anyway - whatever station or movie the network owner feels like watching!

Promoting Belizean Culture

For many years Radio Belize was little more than a mini BBC-in-the-Caribbean. The BBC was the station's role model, and despite a few exceptions such as the Garinagu program, the upperclass values and culture of the British colonialists shaped the station's programming. However, things have changed drastically since independence was gained in 1981. The ever-increasing influence of the United States in the politics, economics, and even day-to-day life of the country prompted some of the changes. Because of American influence via the mini-cable networks, Radio Belize saw its role change from one of promoting British culture to one of preserving Belizean culture against an onslaught of Americanisms.

A different role demanded changes. To give Radio Belize a new, less formal appearance, the station's on-air name was changed to Belize Radio One in 1985. Slowly, the station began to shed some of its stoical BBC image, and discover its Caribbean roots.

An ethnically diverse nation, Belizeans speak a multitude of languages. The Garinagu have their own language; the Mennonites speak German. Some Indians speak Kekchi or Mopan Maya. Other Indians speak Spanish, as do some of the mixed- blood inhabitants. The majority of mixed-blood Belizeans speak Belizean creole, a local dialect of English, influenced by local languages and African languages brought by the slaves. Most Belizeans speak Creole as either a first or second language.

Despite this, the English on Radio Belize was BBC English for years. Listeners around the country often asked why there weren't programs in the local dialect, Belizean Creole. Adding programs in the dialect was the first big step towards changing the station's focus. Radio Belize began by testing a three hour program one Saturday morning. The response was overwhelming - listeners loved having their own dialect on the air. Today, creole is used exclusively on the "Belize Day" program, aired from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month. Mike Nicholson describes its as a day long "free for all" because the announcers really "let loose".

"We can't please everybody, but we try to offer as much as we can," Mike notes. All day there are at least three or four announcers in the studio, with new ones coming and going periodically. Chitchating about everything under the sun, announcers also take phonecalls and read listeners' letters. The station invites listeners to write stories and poems and send them in to be read on the air. Some listeners even record their own writings on cassette, which the station plays n the air. Other listeners record local folksongs and mail them to the station for "Belize Day". Although the emphasis is on Belizean creole, listeners contribute in many of the nation's languages. "It reaches out to people a lot," Mike says proudly.

Live . . . from Burrel Boom

The next step toward change was to take the station to the people: live broadcasts from outlying towns and villages. On the third Saturday of each month, a remote studio is set up in some town's central park. Except for an hour break at noon for the news, Radio Belize broadcasts from the park from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Very little planning goes into the broadcast. It has the same anything-goes format of "Belize Day", except that local townspeople get in on the act. They go to the park to see the show and end up taking part in it by gossiping with the announcers, singing songs, reading their own stories and poems, or just sending greetings to family and friends in other towns. Again, Belizean Creole is the main language used, but listeners use other languages as well. Mike notes that these programs are basically an open-mic "featuring the culture from that district." It's another way "to keep our culture alive," he adds.

Beginning in September 1987, the program traveled to one of the six district capitals each month. Then the station began featuring the other larger towns. Plans are to eventually broadcast from even the smallest village. "People wanted something like this to happen for a long time," explained Mike. So far, reaction to the program has been very encouraging.

Not only does the on-the-road program put the station in touch with the people, but it puts the people of different towns in touch with each another. Each town shares its own culture, customs, and concerns with the rest of the country. It's a better lesson in the nation's heritage than could be taught in a classroom.

New Sister Station

Another way of loosening up the station's image was to establish some in-house competition. Friends FM is Belize's twenty-four hour music station. From 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 7-8 p.m., Friends FM simulcasts Belize Radio One. At other times the station only airs music and occasional headline news. Friends FM basically plays foreign rock and jazz music, although they try to broadcast as much local music as possible. Belizean rock bands are encouraged to record their own material on cassettes, which are then played by the station.

Intentionally, there is no strict division between Belize Radio One and Friends FM. To avoid rivalry between the stations, the same announcers work for both. That's not a problem since they operate from the same floor of the Radio Belize building. With a new, modern studio, Friends FM is no poor stepchild. Future plans for Friends FM include separate programming twenty-four hours a day.

Hearing and Verifying Belize

Belize Radio One uses six transmitters in five locations. The main MW frequency, 830 khz, as well as FM on 91.1 MHZ broadcast from Ladyville, just a few miles north of Belize City. The shortwave transmitter used to be at Ladyville also, but in 1976 it was moved 40 miles west to the new capital of Belmopan. About the same time, the frequency was changed from 3300 khz to the presently used 3285 khz. Finally there are three medium wave repeater stations in Corozal, San Ignacio, and Punta Gorda. Currently Friends FM is heard via an FM transmitter in Ladyville and repeaters located in Punta Gorda, Dangriga, and Independence. More repeaters for Friends FM are planned, so that eventually national coverage will be achieved.

In the 70s and early 80s, Belize was one of the easiest Central American countries to log. On shortwave 3285 khz, the signal was strong and free of interference. Medium wave reception was an added bonus. On split-channel 834 khz, under good conditions Belize was often found wedged between WCCO 830 and WHAS 840. Many DXers logged Belize on SW and MW simultaneously.

It's not so easy anymore. In the early 80s, the MW frequency was changed to even-channel 830 khz, where it is usually buried under WCCO. In the meantime, technical standards at the station have apparently decreased. Although there are no interfering stations on 3285 khz, Radio Belize has been reported less and less often. When the author was in Belize in December, 1987, both 830 and 3285 khz were heard only with weak and heavily distorted signals in downtown Belize City.

During the last several years, the engineering staff at Radio Belize has been busy installing new transmitters. First the MW repeaters, then new FM transmitters for both Belize Radio One and Friends FM. Hopefully, once these additions are completed, they will have time to rebuild the older transmitters for 830 and 3285 khz.

Whether you hear them now - in which case it's quite a DX catch, considering their technical problems, or hear them once the SW transmitter is fixed back up - be sure to send them a report. Radio Belize has always been a good verifier, and, unlike a lot of tropical band stations, reports can be sent in English. Just slip in a dollar bill or a couple of IRCs, and address the report to: Radio Belize; P O Box 89; Belize City, Belize.


1996 Addendum: Unfortunately, Radio Belize no longer uses either shortwave or medium wave (AM), having completely switched over to FM.

This article is copyright 1989 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.


This website is maintained by Don Moore,
Association of North American Radio Clubs
DXer of the Year for 1995

My Address Is In This Graphic