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LATIN AMERICA
“Giving a voice to those silenced by the system”
Paolo Moiola
7/18/2014
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Interview with radio journalist Santiago García Gago

Spanish journalist and author of “Handbook for tech-illiterate radio journalists” (“Manual para radialistas analfatécnicos”), a tool for teaching technical skills to those who wish to work in radio, Santiago García Gago has been travelling across Latin America for more than 15 years, working in radio and teaching how to work in radio within the community and indigenous spheres. Paolo Moiola, a Latinamerica Press collaborator, spoke with García Gago, who believes that understanding and freely spreading technology can help counter the information oligopolies.

What does it mean to work in radio?
More than just a job, radio is a passion. It’s true that it’s a medium I’ve loved since I was a child. I always wanted to be a journalist. I ended up tied to radio, not as much for the spoken aspect, but for the control panels and the technology. What is exciting about radio is that it allows you to be much more creative than in other communication media, such as in television or the press. You see everything in television, and hence there is little space for imagination. For its part, the newspaper has little room to maneuver. On the contrary, radio has something magical.

You could make a trash can speak to educate about cleanliness in cities. You can broadcast live, allowing many more people to participate at the same time.

In the era of the Internet and satellite television, do people in Latin America still listen to the radio?
Yes, and a lot. Even though it is only because today, in the Latin American continent, access to the Internet is a privilege for only 30 percent or 35 percent of the population. Traditional radio is free. Some batteries can last a year and can allow the radio to keep you company all day. Aside from the economic aspect, radio has some advantages over other means of communication. First, because it is local entertainment, it can be adapted to the needs of the people that live in different settings and speak different languages. That is precisely why many listen to radio, especially in remote and rural areas. You can dedicate time to local news, to speak the local language, especially if the people are indigenous. On the other hand, television and Internet are designed more for mass and national public.

Another important factor is the access to radio. For example, while it is impossible or very hard to take television or the Internet on a bus (even when there is an Internet connection, Internet subscriptions are still very expensive), radio can always keep you company.

Let’s talk about the quality of information. Today the risk is an excess of information (known as information overload) and, at the same time, superficiality of information. I am particularly referring to the role that social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, assume and carry out. What is your opinion?
I think that there are still good journalists even in the digital information era. However, what is happening is that bad journalists now have more opportunities to express themselves in more important ways. Let me explain. When encountered with a rumor, a serious journalist investigates, confronts and verifies [information] before going public. Digital media allow for the development of fast and in-depth information. Bad journalists, those that during the pre-digital era hurried to spread speculations without verifying them, now do the same but in a more general way, using social networks. Their lack of professionalism reaches an even bigger public.

I don’t think that the problem lies with the new technologies, but instead with the way that they are used. Let me give an example. Previously, to learn about history, one would use an encyclopedia written by a group of people who we trusted. Now we can search in Wikipedia, the digital encyclopedia, and have different versions of what occured. There are those who accept what the Wikipedia article says and don’t search for other sources, as those who first read the encyclopedia and stopped there.

But those who, in addition to reading the encyclopedia, consulted other books, now go in search for links with other sources and references of articles for more in-depth [research].

For sure, the Internet allows those who only scratched the surface before to continue doing so. At the same time, it helps those who truly want to investigate, to deepen, to understand. Never before in the history of humanity has there been so much information available to us. The use we give it depends on each one of us.

Despite the proliferation of information media, the tendency that the most influential media are concentrated in the hands of a few (oligopolies) persists. Is there space for alternative communication media?
How can we talk about freedom of expression or democracy in Latin America when in most of the countries, 90 percent of the communication media is owned by a miniscule part of the population?

This concentration has been disproportionate, but there is a glimpse of promising changes. In the last 10 years, various countries have approved laws that favor the access to radio and television frequencies for communities and organizations. Today, among other countries, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela have laws that reserve or divide the radioelectric spectrum among different communications media:  communitarian, public and private.

This has allowed many communitarian radio and television stations to have access to a frequency. However, there is still a lot to do. Reversing so many years of oligopoly in such little time is not easy. The good thing is that the countries with reforms are not abandoning this idea.

Small or alternative media almost always have financial issues. What can be done?
I think all alternative media are asking themselves this question these days. It’s not easy to answer. It’s true that these radio stations began as nonprofits. But this doesn’t mean that they cannot broadcast advertisements and be “a business” because they must live off something, at least to be able to pay the electricity bills.

I think that alternative media has to use the same methods as any other radio to raise money. But the ends for which they do it must continue to be different. However, this means that alternative radio stations and small media enter into a logic of competition, which seems to cause fear. Someone has these communication media convinced that they should not compete, that they should not use a “commercial” logic. I don’t agree. From the moment we held the transmitter in our hands, we began to compete with the other radios to reach more listeners.
 
Why not also do it in advertising? Obviously there will be commercial clients with whom alternative media won’t be able to do business. That is why one must work and think on an ethic and coherent foundation, always moving towards competition, including commercial competition. The idea is to make money so that our medium can pay the bills. Not to make a profit, but simply to survive.

What role can alternative radio play in the areas of human rights and the original peoples?
The power groups that own most of the communication media in the world are not interested in human rights or in the original peoples. They have other priorities:  the goal is to make money. In addition to owning the information media, these power groups own banks or are friends of the multinationals (agricultural, oil or mining). These companies — and there are hundreds of cases that demonstrate it — step over people only to make money.
 
However, commercial information media are not interested in these injustices and don’t report them. They are even less likely to give a voice to peasants, the indigenous, and women. The only media that give the microphone to these people is alternative radio. Without them, those silenced by the system would not have channels to be heard.

What can be done to improve radio and its role in the communications sector?
Right now we are determined to try to make radio and alternative media understand the importance of the Internet and new technologies. And we are fighting so they can be free. That is why we started the site www.radioslibres.net, a project to discuss and train people with free software. It seeks to promote radio to use it and at the same time to spread the free culture and open knowledge philosophy. To say it in other words, we are trying to take advantage of the new technologies from a freedom standpoint.


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Santiago García Gago. (Photo: Asociación Radialistas Apasionadas y Apasionados)
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