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Radio Quillabamba, Peru

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the February, 1991 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.


Hola amigos! Welcome to Latin Destinations. This month we're going to journey to one of the more remote corners of Peru and look at one of my favorite Peruvian stations - Radio Quillabamba, 5025 kHz. The city of Quillabamba is the capital of La Convencion province, which occupies the northern third of Cuzco department. Quillabamba is, literally, at the end of the line. From Cuzco, the railroad snakes its way north through the narrow Urubamba river valley. Most travelers get off about 100 km later, at the famous Incan ruins of Machu-Picchu. From there, the railroad continues another 90 kilometers, finally ending on the opposite side of the river from Quillabamba, to which it is connected by a footbridge. Quillabamba is so remote that this last stretch was not completed until 1978. Previously, the only way in or out of the city was a very rough dirt road, or by boat down the Urubamba towards Iquitos and the Atlantic ocean.

To look at this interesting station, we're going to delve into and condense an article on the station in a little-known Spanish language radio book, Radio y Comunicacion Popular en el Peru. As we'll see, Radio Quillabamba is more than just another radio station that plays great folk music!


Radio Quillabamba had its beginnings not in Quillabamba, but 225 miles to the east in Puerto Maldonado, capital of the regional Roman Catholic Vicarate. There, in 1958, Dominican missionaries installed Radio Madre de Dios (still heard on 4950 kHz) 26k graphic. The success of this station convinced the fathers of the importance of radio as the only means of communication in remote eastern Peru. However, their new station was not powerful enough to be heard in the western half of the Vicarate - the upper Urubamba river region centering on Quillabamba. By the mid 1960s the padres began thinking of a second station in Quillabamba, and Padre Joaquin Barriales, manager of Radio Madre de Dios, was sent to Quillabamba to scout out the area.

There was already one small AM station in Quillabamba - Radio Quillabamba, founded May 20, 1959. The station was barely operating, and having trouble renewing its licence. The owner was willing to negotiate, and the padres bought the station on October 12, 1966. Not that the padres got much - a little office furniture, a frequently-broken 300 watt transmitter, and, most importantly, the licence. This all happened so quickly, that the padres didn't even have time to plan for the new station. They kept the same name, but moved the station to the parroquial building. The next investment was a turntable and a few records.

The padres worked hard and by 1969 had a 1 kw transmitter on the air. But, they knew this wasn't enough to reach the vast expanse of La Convencion province. Contacts were made with international Catholic agencies, and gradually the money was raised for a new, better Raspa 1 kw AM transmitter, a brand new Bauer 5 kw shortwave transmitter, and new studio equipment. On September 15, 1971, Radio Quillabamba was granted a shortwave licence, and early 1972 the new equipment arrived, about the same time as the new director, Padre Joaquin Barriales from Puerto Maldonado.


As difficult as it may be to imagine life in such a remote area as Quillabamba, it is equally difficult to imagine how important something as simple as a radio station can be in such an area. "In this zone, radio is the telephone, the telegraph, the post office, the newspaper, the magazine, and the record player. With reason, a peasant said when the station was off the air that they had lost 'their bread'" (Lobo & Encinas). Radio Quillabamba started out as a Bible and prayer station, then developed into an educational station of radio schools and health classes. Finally, like many parts of the Catholic church in Latin America, Radio Quillabamba evolved into something else - a voice for the common people in their fight against poverty and oppression. It became a "radio popular", a peoples' station, not just broadcasting to the people, but putting the people on the air to communicate to each other. As the padres put it, they became La voz de los que no tenian voz - the voice for those without a voice.

The belief behind this is that for democracy to work, everyone, not just a priviledged few, must have access to mass communications. In rural Peru, radio is the mass communication that counts. Radio Quillabamba sees it role as working with the common people of La Convencion province. Time is regularly given at no cost to cover, sometimes even transmit, meetings and conventions of local peasant federations, trade unions, schools, and social agencies. Twice a day there are half hour programs of announcements from these organizations, again transmitted free of charge. A number of organizations, including the Provincial Peasant Federation, the Provincial Trade Union Federation, the Provincial Council, the local human rights group, and several agricultural cooperatives are given 15 or 30 minutes blocks of time once or twice a week.

All this is not to say that Radio Quillabamba has lost sight of its religious purpose. Fundamental to Roman Catholic "liberation theology", for people to be good Christians, their basic physical needs must be met and they must have control over their own lives and their own society. Radio Quillabamba sees its social role as an extension of its relgious role. Furthermore, Radio Quillabamba works very strongly with numerous comunidades cristianas campesinas (Christian base communities) in La Convencion province. These CCC groups teach Christian values and encourage the peasants to share and work together for their common good. In some ways, these are a lot like the old Puritan villages of early New England. Radio Quillabamba assists in regional CCC meetings and gives four half-hour slots each week to the CCCs for their own radio programming.

The trust that the local populace has in Radio Quillabamba is perhaps best shown in its role as an unofficial post office - yes, post office. Because mail service to surrounding villages, even to much of Quillabamba city itself, is poor, people direct letters for friends or relatives to Radio Quillabamba. Hearing that they have a letter, people can then go in or send a friend to pick up the letter.

Although Radio Quillabamba is a religious station, it does take advertising to help pay for the station's upkeep. But in keeping with its religious character, it refuses ads for alcohol and tobacco products. Like most small town Latin American radio stations, additional income is made by selling station time direct to listeners through record dedications and personal announcements. In the early days, these were Radio Quillabamba's primary means of support, but commercial advertising has since become more important. The two daily two-hour programs of record dedications and mensajes are among Radio Quillabamba's most popular programs.


Radio Quillabamba isn't as easy to hear as it once was, since it's now usually covered by cochannel Radio Rebelde from Cuba. But occasionally a few lucky DXers catch Radio Quillabamba signing on early with terrific Peruvian folk music, around 0900 or 0930, before Rebelde comes on the air. For years, Radio Quillabamba issued one of the most beautiful station pennants ever made; a lush jungle scene with a snow covered mountain in the background. I received mine in 1974, and they were still sending the same design out until at least a three or four years ago. They may still be using it.

If you can read Spanish and would like to know about this station and other Roman Catholic stations in Peru, the book is available through inter-library loan. Those who don't read Spanish may be interested in NASWA Reprint L-1, a collection of articles by Pitt McNeil who visited several cities in southern Peru, including Quillabamba.


Lobo, Padre Rufino and Padre Alfredo Encinas. Radio Quillabamba: Una Experiencia de Comunicacion Popular en La Convencion. In Radio y Comunicacion Popular en el Peru. 1987. Eduardo Ballon, ed. CEPES (Centro Peruano de Estudios Sociales), Lima.

Well amigos, that's it for this month. Hasta luego!

1996 Addendum:Radio Quillabamba continues to be occasionally heard when Cuba's Radio Rebelde is off the air.

2007 Addendum:I haven't been listening myself in recent years, but I have seen reports of others hearing Radio Quillabamba.


This article is copyright 1991 by Don Moore.

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