The voice of the neighborhood

Over 370 community radio stations broadcast in their respective neighborhoods, in their own voices and covering local issues. The Chamber of Deputies has passed a law that will give them a new boost.

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The walls are covered in egg cartons that have been recycled and turned into cheap acoustic insulation. You have to control the noise that comes in from the street. A round table takes up almost all of the space in the room. This equipment is complemented with a microphone to talk “on the air” and a couple of chairs. The “air” is the air of the Independencia neighborhood, specifically the former San José Hospital. The community station Radio Fusión has been set up where there used to be beds and, with only one watt of power, it can be heard in two municipalities in northern Santiago: Independencia and Conchali.

A glass panel separates the studio. Behind it, the radio engineer Ricardo Ányel makes hand gestures so that the host Alberto Cancino can start talking about music. Then comes a song and a community service announcement, all broadcast on the frequencies 102.9 and 90.1 FM.

This scene is part of the daily routine in Radio Fusión, one that is also repeated with minor variations in the close to 377 stations with reduced coverage that can be found across Chilean territory between the northern city of Arica and Punta Arenas in the far south. According to Cancino, who is also president of the National Association of Chilean Community and Citizen Radio Stations (Anarcich), Chile is the country with the most regulated community radio stations in Latin America.

Neighborhood boards, cultural and education centers, universities, and Catholic and Evangelical churches are only some of the institutions broadcasting contents this way.

Things have changed over the last few years. The radio engineer orders the programming on a computer. There are no longer any turntables in the studios. “We are from a different generation, the one that uses a mouse and ZaraRadio, which is an automated radio program for music that is downloaded from the Internet,” Ányel explains. You do not need sophisticated studios to set up a radio station, either.

Community radio stations are often located in regular ordinary homes. Carlos Radrigán, a neighborhood leader in Santa Adriana, a modest sector in southern Santiago, simply clears the dining room table in his house to broadcast a community journalism session on Radio Ambiental, which has been organized by the Victor Jara Foundation in the municipality of Lo Espejo. The radio stations also broadcast neighborhood news, share work announcements and disseminate information on protecting the environment, promoting cultural heritage and the prevention of violence and drug consumption. But above all, they stimulate community participation.

The neighbors are both the listeners as well the managers of these radio stations. “When a group of neighbors decides to undertake a radio project, the important thing is not the limits of the neighborhood or the municipality, but rather its concerns and problems. This media outlet allows these problems to be turned into shared challenges, which sometimes results in an improved quality of life for the neighbors. That is what a community radio station is,” says Alberto Cancino. This sort of independent and self-sustaining radio station also promotes cultural diversity and the people’s public expression.

New Boost

One of the greatest challenges that community radio stations face has been to become self-sustaining. The majority of times participation in such initiatives is voluntary and the Chilean regulatory framework does not allow them to broadcast advertising. But the Chamber of Deputies’s recent approval of a community radio station law has given hope to the representatives of these media outlets.

The new regulation will allow the radio stations to broadcast advertising, which will improve their financing. It will also expand their coverage by increasing their power from 1 watt to up to 25 watts. The concessions that are awarded will be renewed every 15 years from now on, which will give them more continuity.

“Justice has been done after 15 years. There are hundreds of us communicators who emerged in the 1990s with the firm conviction that we needed communication media outlets to communicate ‘our issues’ and to ‘report’ the problems and needs of our population,” Cancino concludes.