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Classifying Latin American Broadcasters

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the August, 1992 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.


Hola amigos! Welcome to another "special edition" of Latin Destinations. If you do much listening to your local AM/FM stations, you know that we have different categories of stations in the US. The most predominant are the commercial broadcasters, but there are also a lot of religious and educational stations. In Latin America too, there are several types of stations, but because the culture and social reality is different, the types of stations are different too. Understanding what the different types of stations are can help the Latin American DXer better identify and appreciate what he/she hears.

Certainly there will always be differences of opinion as to how to categorize things like radio stations. A favorite article of mine on the subject is Hacia una Tipologia de la Radio en America Latina (Towards a Typology of Latin American Radio) by Jose F. Perez Sanchez. This article appeared in issue #24 (April-June, 1984) of Chasqui, an excellant journal of Latin American communications studies published in Quito (and not to be confused with a Latin American literature journal of the same name published in Madison, Wisconsin!). I'm going to summarize, paraphrase, and freely translate Perez's categories, and add my own comments and examples.

Perez calls his first category Radio Internacional, which, as the name implies, includes Latin America's few international broadcasters. These are, of course, SW stations, but there are a few exceptions, such as Trans World Radio's MW station in Bonaire. I think it is significant that Perez says 'These stations are generally oriented to the middle and upper classes, with good SW receivers, with interest in and knowledge of these stations' schedules, and with a habit of listening.' SW listening is not a pasttime of the lower classes. He goes on to point out that these stations are generally operated by either governments or religious organizations, and their staffs are dedicated and highly professional.

The second category, Radio Nacional are government-owned domestic broadcasting stations, usually dating to the 1930-40s and modeled after European state-run broadcasters (e.g. the BBC). The 'Radio Nacional' stations claim to be broadcasting to their entire countries, but their usually refined, cultural, and sophisticated styles limit their actual audiences. Programming includes news, classical music, art and history programs, literature, and frequently transcription programs from the big international broadcasters (BBC, VOA, DW, RCI . . . and often Radio Havana to avoid appearing like a Western flunkie!). These stations are financed by government taxes, are commercial-free, and usually have well-trained staffs. An exception is Radio Nacional de Chile, which is partially funded by commercial-advertising. Being the official voice of the government, these stations are almost always named 'Radio Nacional'. Exceptions are Uruguay, where SODRE is the offical station, and Bolivia where it is Radio Illimani. There are three other stations in Bolivia named 'Radio Nacional', but they are all privately owned. 'Radio Nacional' stations usually operate on SW, MW, and FM.

We should all be familiar with the next category, Radio Comercial, the commercial broadcasters. These range from stations like Radio Rumbos, Venezuela or Radio Globo, Brazil, which are the flagships of huge nacional chains, to tiny part-time unlicensed backroom operations in the Peruvian Andes. These stations broadcast news, music, ads, and other items of interest to the general public. Announcers are hired simply because they have a good voice for radio, and they learn their profession bit-by-bit on the job. Normally Radio Commercial stations depend on advertising for all their support, but there are a few commercial stations owned by trade unions or political organizations that subsidize unprofitable commercial stations to keep their organization's voice on the air. These stations almost always use AM, sometimes FM (sometimes in parallel with the AM frequency), and, in some rare cases, shortwave. However, because there are so many commercial stations, those few 'rare cases' actually add up to quite a number of stations. Good examples of typical mid-sized commerical broadcasters are Ecos del Torbes in Venezuela and Radio Reloj in Costa Rica.

With our next three categories, there is some overlapping and shades of gray. Perez's categorizes religious broadcasters as Radio Confesional, however not all stations owned by religious groups are religous broadcasters! The 'raison d'etre' of a Radio Confesional is to evangelize the people, from either a Roman Catholic or a Protestant standpoint. Programming is truely religious, with religious music, sermons, talks, etc. Usually these are only listened to by the already-pious and converted, unless the religion is packaged into an entertaining format. Private and church- sponsored donations keep these stations on the air. Radio Confesional stations use AM, and often SW too. Most Protestant stations in Latin America, such as HRVC and TGNA in Central America, and some Catholic stations, like Ecuador's Radio Jesus del Gran Poder and Radio Paz y Bien, fall into this category.

Perez's next category is Radio Educativa, Cultural, o de Servicios. Again, AM and FM is the primary mode, but a lot of these stations also use SW. There are two related types of stations in this group. First there are university or government owned cultural stations, such as Radio Universidad de Sonora in Mexico or Brazilian Radio Cultura de Sao Paulo, which broadcast cultural programming aimed at the middle and upper classes, similar to public radio in the US. The other sub-category are true educational stations, which aim their programming at the under-educated lower classes. Sometimes these are government-owned, as is Mexico's Radio Educacion, but more often they are operated by social groups, especially the Roman Catholic Church. The first such station was Catholic-owned Radio Sutatenza in Colombia, which closed down a few years ago because of financial troubles, after a long successful history. Current Catholic educational stations in Latin America include Ecuador's Escuelas Radiofonicas Populares and the various Radio Educacao Rurals in Brazil. Because the church-owned educational stations usually also broadcast a few masses or other religious programming, it is often difficult to know a station's true focus without seeing a large chunk of their daily schedule.

The following category of stations, which Perez calls Radio Popular (People's Radio) doesn't really have a counterpart in North America, but is of growing importance in Latin America. To understand these stations, we have to delve into Latin American society, which consists of a tiny but very powerful rich upper class, a small-but-growing middle class, and a large disadvantaged but hard- working lower class. A major criticism of the Latin American media is that it is controlled by the priviledged few, and reflects and supports their attitudes and values. It does not support the struggle of the lower classes to improve their lot in life through unions, cooperatives, legal protection, better education, etc.

Radio Popular is said to be an answer to this problem. These are small 'grass-roots' stations that are run by active members of the community which they serve. This process is called 'participatory communication', in that the target audience produces the programming that it needs and wants. As their primary goal is to promote the social welfare of the lower classes in the face of upper class power, Radio Popular stations are naturally on the liberal or left-wing end of the political spectrum. Radio Popular stations are found on AM, and frequently SW to reach the scattered peasantry. Because their staffs are not broadcasting professionals and their equipment is not the best, these stations can sometimes sound rough around the edges. Some stations, however, have highly trained staffs thanks to special training programs run by the Catholic church and by Radio Netherlands, which operates a training facility in Quito.

The best examples of Radio Popular stations are Bolivia's miners' union stations. Stations such as Radio Animas, Radio Nacional Huanuni, and Radio San Jose are integral parts of their towns' local miners' unions, run for and by the miners. They unite the miners, serve as focal points of information during strikes and labor unrest, and have even become centers of armed resistance during right-wing military coups. Another example is Mexico's Radio Huayacocotla, which is run by volunteers from a local civic organization. Again, a gray area exists in that a number of religious and educational/cultural stations have evolved, or are evolving, into 'Radio Popular' stations, as the stations and the audiences they serve become more closely intertwined. Religious/educational stations that have evolved into 'Radio Popular' stations include Radio Antena Libre in Ecuador and La Voz de Atitlan in Guatemala. La Voz de Atitlan is viewed as enough of a threat to Guatemala's ruling class, that in 1980 the station was trashed and the manager and the parish's Oklahoman priest were kidnapped and murdered by death squads. Even today, the station is closely watched by a military batallion stationed in its tiny village.

Perez's Radio FM category obviously refers to hi-fidelity music FM stations. Although FM in Latin America is beyond the infancy stage in Latin America, it hasn't been around long enough to dominate the radio market as in North America. Still, it is becoming a potent force among middle and upper class listeners in the larger cities. Sometimes these are independent operations, but more often they are co-owned with an AM stations, as in the U.S.

Finally we come to the last category, Radio Clandestina. Usually Latin American clandestines use SW, as does Salvadoran Radio Venceremos or Colombian Radio Patria Libre, but there have been political clandestines on AM and even FM too. We may think of these as a rather new phenomena, but the first known clandestine broadcasts in Latin America were in 1933 Cuba. Clandestine stations tended to be few and short-lived though, until the 1950s, when clandestine activity picked up in preparation for the really 'hot' clandestine days of the 1960s. The 1970s were very quiet, until in 1979 Radio Sandino ushered in the very active decade of the 1980s. Clandestine stations are currently on the decrease in Latin America, and, DXing aside, hopefully justice and stable peaceful politics will put an end to them.

Well, that's our typology of LAm radio stations. I hope you've enjoyed it - and I hope you find it useful. 73s, and Buena Sintonia!


This article is copyright 1992 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.

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