Invigorating the Public Debate: Popular Media in the Age of Mass Communications

September 25, 2007

In Mulalillo in the heart of the Ecuadorian Andes, Indians from surrounding villages drop by the Radio Latacunga recording booth each week to give local announcer Miguel Tipanguano news and gossip from their communities. 1 The tapes recorded in small outposts like Mulalillo are then sent to the regional capital of Latacunga to be played on the air. Radio Latacunga forms an integral part of the lives of the area's campesinos, knitting the community together and fortifying local culture and identity. Each day, Indians tune in to hear local news and get tips about agriculture, health and hygiene. Others listen avidly for messages transmitted over the radio from relatives who have left home to work in the cities. Radio Latacunga exemplifies the role that popular and alternative media can play in invigorating democ- racy. Popular and alternative media provide a vehicle for marginalized sectors of civil society-such as women, youth, campesinos, and Indians-to partici- pate in public debate. The raison d'etre of these ven- tures is not to turn a profit, but to give voice to often- neglected interests and points of view, and to forge a better society. The media that I will discuss are both popular-emanating from the grassroots, and alterna- tive-representing perspectives at variance with the mainstream. For brevity's sake, I will use the term popular media. Political and economic clout depends on access to information. Parallel to the fight over economic resources in Latin America is a fight over communica- tion. During the 1970s and early 1980s, this conflict was crystallized in the call of Third World leaders for a New World Information Order, in which information would not be monopolized by Western powers. This would go hand-in-hand with a New World Economic Order, in which economic resources would be shared more equitably between North and South. 2 Implicit in this rallying cry was the assumption that Third World media would act in the public interest. Yet Latin American elites have long used media to exercise social control and legitimate their rule. Today, the interests of domestic and foreign elites are more inter- twined than ever before. Now, it is popular media's turn to call for the redistribution of informational resources. During the dark age of military dictatorship in Latin America, popular media thrived, blessed with a natur- al constituency and a strong message of resistance. Paradoxically, in today's new democracies, grassroots media are dwindling in both number and influence. The obstacles are not censorship and repression, but scarce economic resources. The struggle is not to VOL XXVII, No 2 SEPT/OCT 1993 Deidre McFadyen is associate editor of this magazine. 35REPORT ON DEMOCRACY evade being shut down by security forces, but to remain relevant in an age of disenchantment with tra- ditional politics. The adoption of free-market economic policies in much of Latin America has had profound repercus- sions on communication. Latin American media are increasingly dominated by large private corporations. Reinforcing this concentration of power, an intricate web of personal and business ties binds together gov- ernment officials, corporate managers and media own- ers. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)-the principal funding source for popular media-have cut back or turned their attention elsewhere. To make matters even more difficult, grassroots media target precisely those people with the least money to buy magazines or otherwise support popular communica- tion. In the jungle of free-market capitalism, small independent media are being gobbled up by larger companies, or folding for lack of resources. opular media have to dive into this free-for-all of market competition against larger, better- endowed opponents. Yet many in popular media are ill-prepared to do battle. The inclement economic climate has thrown popular media's deficiencies and flaws into stark relief. Mainstream media have become more globalized and coordinated, conveying information to the most secluded corners of the world. Popular media, on the other hand, remain fragmented-a veritable Tower of Babel of divergent sectors and interests. Popular media are predominantly active at the local level in small communities; as a consequence, they have little national presence. In order to influence public debate and reach the largest possible audience, a number of new networks are being created-following the model of the Latin American Association of Radio Education (ALER), an umbrella organization for popular radio. These networks will enable organizations to share resources and information. The Latin American Encuentro of Alternative and Popular Communications Media, held in Quito this April, was a first tentative step in this direction. Sixty representatives from alternative and/or popular media (including NACLA) met to discuss the new challenges they face and to figure out ways to coordinate their work. They talked about organizing a pool of journal- ists to cover major conferences and events, setting up a data bank, and establishing a permanent conference on electronic mail. Similar efforts on a smaller scale are sprouting up elsewhere. A network of trade-union and popular communication, for instance, formed among nine media organizations that attended the Caminos de Integraci6n meeting in La Paz, Bolivia this February. Participants agreed to exchange materials, publish a biannual newsletter, and organize a data bank. These information networks and coalitions are made possible by new communication technologies such as fax machines, microcomputers, electronic mail, satel- lites, video cameras and VCRs. This technology decen- tralizes access to information and accelerates the pace of news delivery. The mainstream media, of course, were the first to take advantage of these technological breakthroughs. But just as Pancho Villa used the trains in the Mexican Revolution, popular media have appro- priated the new technologies to serve their own ends. 3 Mexicans, Canadians and U.S. citizens opposed to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, electronically coordinate their efforts through conferences posted on Association of Progressive Communications (APC) networks. At the Earth Sum- mit in Rio de Janeiro last year, environmental activists communicated with each other via electronic mail. And electronic-mail users were the first to denounce the assassinations of Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack two years ago, and Brazilian rubber-tap- per Chico Mendes in 1988. These new technologies, however, come with a price. To use electronic mail, for example, an organi- zation needs a computer, a modem and a phone line, all of which may be beyond the means of a struggling community radio station. Popular media may soon divide into new haves and have-nots based on access to the new technologies. At the encuentro in Quito, participants enthusiastically discussed plans for an electronic communication network until the discussion was cut short by one woman's angry comment that her small quarterly magazine for social movements could not afford the equipment needed to hook up electroni- cally. This high-tech future is pitted with other dangers as well. As another encuentro participant who works with rural migrants pointed out, the slick presentation of information, made possible by the new technologies, might intimidate people in the popular sectors. Popular media are also expanding their reach by cultivating contacts with the mainstream press. For example, Chile's fempress-a feminist communica- tion and information network which publishes a wide- ly read monthly magazine-feeds information and story ideas to journalists in the mainstream media who are interested in women's issues. In addition, the orga- nization's Media Service placed close to 700 fempress articles in the mass media last year. 4 In Venezuela, even though the economic crisis has wiped out many popular media, people active in the social movements have been able to voice their points of view through mainstream TV programs like "Buenas Noticias," and "Comunidad con..." as well as columns and inserts in regional and national newspapers.s 36NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 36 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASREPORT ON DEMOCRACY Popular media have also begun to take into consid- eration the different capacities and limitations of visu- al and print formats. Print media are severely handi- capped when targeting sectors with low literacy levels. To attract people with poor reading skills, Colombia's Encuentro: revista de comunicaci6n pop- ular uses large typeface and publishes one section made up of a series of photographs that tell a story with balloon captions. Radio, on the other hand, is generally considered the medium with greatest influence in Latin Ameri- ca. The Popular Center for Latin American Commu- nication (CEPALC) in Bogota estimates, for example, that 90% of Colombians listen to the radio, 60 to 70% watch TV, and only 30% read magazines or newspapers.6 Accordingly, a number of print media have begun 2 to explore broadcast for- 4 mats. To reach unorga- nized women, including housewives and those who A popular reporter makes announcements are illiterate, fempress Pachamama, a community radio launched a women's radio information service last year. The Center for Mining Promotion (CEPROMIN) in Bolivia has also begun to experiment with video technology. In addition to its traditional work in radio programming and magazines, CEPROMIN is now making video documentaries of interest to the mining community. But outreach capability is only part of the challenge. To be competitive with their commercial counterparts, popular media must actually gain a broader audience. "Have we not confused grassroots with marginal?" Josd Ignacio L6pez Vigil, Latin America's representa- tive to the World Association of Community Radios, pointedly asks.7 Popular media have traditionally tar- geted organized sectors of the population. Rather than reaching out to the vast unorganized public with its diverse tastes and interests, popular media have played it safe by preaching to the converted. Popular communication has often been considered an instru- ment to educate or inculcate certain values. Content, as a consequence, has often been dour and pedantic. Popular media no longer have the luxury of such a narrow focus. Critics are suggesting that popular media provide a forum for robust debate between peo- ple of different political persuasions; furnish useful information in an entertaining fashion; and-with regard to radio-add music and cultural programming. Uruguay's biweekly newspaper Mate Amargo, for example, covers sports and publishes TV and book reviews in addition to its incisive analysis of politics and economics. The popular press is also paying greater attention to the design and packaging of its publications. Many argue that popular media can no longer depend solely on the good will of amateur volunteers; skilled per- sonnel must be hired-which means paying fair wages to attract and keep them. Popular media are begin ning to adapt the profes sional tools and techniques of mainstream journalism. Magazines such as Colom- bia Hoy and Mexico's La Otra Bolsa de Valores are peppered with large pho- tographs and inventive car- toon illustrations. Colom- bia's Cien Dias has taken the deepest plunge; the magazine is full of color illustrations and U.S. Today-style pie charts and graphs. announcements in Aymara on Radio The business side of pop- radio station in La Paz, Bolivia. ular media is under the magnifying glass as well. Marketing, selling ad space, and streamlining business procedures are no longer taboo topics of discussion. Many in popular media insist that these financial con- siderations do not oblige popular vehicles to compro- mise their values. "Money is like blood," says L6pez Vigil. "Community radio, a living organism, needs it. But it doesn't live for it. In other words, we aren't vampires." 8 But do popular media risk selling their souls for the hollow victory of market success? "You have to live in accordance with the times," says Juan Serrano, director of Radio Mensaje in northern Ecuador. "You can become a capitalist without changing your philos- ophy. Once we've got an audience and financing, it will be easier to get our message across."'9 Popular media, however, walk a dangerous tightrope. The goals of democratizing communication and supporting the struggles of popular movements may not always be compatible with the demands of the marketplace. Popular media aspire to integrate the user of informa- tion into the communication process. But as a result of pressures to commercialize, popular media may become less and less representative of the communi- ties they serve. Only time will tell whether commer- cialization is a slippery slope-and how far down some may slide. 37 VOL XXVII, No 2 SEFr/OCT 1993 Invigorating the Public Debate: Popular Media in the Age of Mass Communications 1. See Marc Bertola and Patricia Pradel, "Los indigenas de Ecuador toman la via de las ondas," CuatroSemanas y le Monde Diplo- matique, June, 1993. 2. See "Toward a New Information Order," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. XVI, No. 4 (July-August, 1982). 3. I am indebted to a spirited discussion at the Encuentro of Alter- native and Popular Communications Media for this analogy. 4. Fempress (Santiago), "Fempress: Una estrategia de comuni- caci6n," preparatory paper for the Encuentro latinoamericano de medios de comunicaci6n alternativa y popular (unpublished), April, 1993. 5. Equipo de Formaci6n, Informaci6n y Publicaciones (Caracas), "Diagn6stico Sobre la Comunicaci6n a Nivel Nacional," prepara- tory paper for the Encuentro latinoamericano (unpublished). 6. Centro Popular para America Latina de Comunicaci6n (Bogota), "La Comunicaci6n en Colombia," preparatory paper for the Encuentro latinoamericano (unpublished). 7. Jose Ignacio L6pez Vigil, "Community Media in Neoliberal Times," in envio, Vol. 12, No. 139-141 (April, 1993), p. 37. 8. L6pez Vigil, "Community Media," p. 39. 9. Quoted in Bertola and Pradel, "Los indigenas de Ecuador toman la via de las ondas," p. 35.

Tags: popular media, grassroots movements, technology, media bias

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