|Interview with Irma and Herbert: Members of El Salvador's Radio Zurda|
|Written by Erica Thompson|
|Thursday, 25 June 2009 13:29|
Zurda is a radical youth media collective that broadcasts a weekly
radio program on 22 community stations in El Salvador. Through a live
Internet feed, the program has the capacity to reach millions of people
around the world with critical and otherwise under or un-reported news
and a consistent drive for community engagement, collective process,
and political empowerment.
Radio Zurda formed in 2004, after the Salvadoran right wing and major media engineered a dirty campaign against FMLN leader and presidential candidate Schafik Handal, costing the Left a devastating loss in their third electoral bid for state power. Lamenting a severe lack of community-based news and information as well as an urgent need for urban and rural youth to engage in meaningful, internal dialogue around the historical memory of El Salvador and political issues of the day, three youth activists began what they expect to be a long, diligent process in reclaiming media to serve these ends.
UDW: Take us back to the first discussions or realizations you had that led to the formation Radio Zurda
Herbert: After Shafik Handal lost the presidential election in 2004, a group of comrades came together to critique the campaign and to examine the media's damaging role in influencing the results. The media strategy was to demonize Schafik - to label him a terrorist and incite fear among the people about the prospect of an FMLN government. We saw that this strategy really worked to confuse a lot of people and swing votes in favor of the Right. People had no way to connect with each other on a national level and debate the real issues. We decided it was up to us to create another kind of media - one that gave space to various opinions, specifically those of alternative youth - and we were determined to do this through the radio. We began by writing a short pamphlet called "The Beginning of Left-Handed Radio" which we distributed at marches that were happening at the time.
Later, an opportunity emerged to propose a radio project to Mayavisión. With the purpose of providing information and generating critiques among youth, our fundamental objectives were to inform, educate, and entertain with liberated perspectives. Within a couple of months, two more compañer@s joined us to bring a more solid feminist voice to the collective and to broaden the team.
We create and produce the Radio Zurda program ourselves. We completed the first two years of transmission without interruption, though we faced a lot of prejudice. Some people thought we wouldn't take our program seriously, that we were going to do it halfway and not complete the job but we did it successfully. That was the first phase.
We have just completed two more phases and have continued to transmit through ARPAS satellite network - 22 community radio stations throughout the country - as well as through the Internet. There are eight other allied organizations in El Salvador, Europe, and the U.S. who transmit our programs on the Internet. Stations like Radio Tazulam in Ahuachapan, El Salvador can also use our program and put it into their schedule whenever they want. They can edit our program in a way that is useful for them, cut the songs that we put in of it doesn't work for them and replace them with music that they like. Or they can select the content that they want and use it in other community programs.
UDW: What is the potential for community radio to affect the lives of Salvadorans and how do you bring alternative sources and perspectives to so many communities at one time?
Irma: The radio is saturated with national and international news and not the kind of news that directly affects the community. That's the space we want to fill. To us, community radio should be transmitted for a community or a group of communities and for no other purpose. There should be no corporate, commercial, or institutional incentive in community broadcasting. The benefit of community radio is that it can address the needs of the community, and contribute to the development of the community.
At the same time, we don't want to just bombard people with information; we want to discuss the problems they're facing and find meaningful ways of exploring those issues while bringing new perspectives in. This has been our most recent exercise, to think about how our message can bring issues and alternatives into focus for a large group of people who have ideological, cultural, and geographical differences. We provide a generalized, comprehensible, useful and interesting discourse for them that they can use.
For example, we've been discussing anarchism and exploring anarchist movements. Many people in the communities of Morazán didn't even know what anarchy was. Instead of calling it anarchism and facilitating a discussion on theoretical terms, we've tried to talk about it in a way that everyone can relate to. How is someone who doesn't know about anarchy going to deal with such a heavy theme? Rather than instructing people on anarchist and anti-capitalist theory, we go little by little, meeting people where they are in their own thinking. People develop a deeper analysis and think more openly when considering new ideas through their own experiences and discussions.
Herbert: Because the show is broadcasted so widely through a public radio station, we're very conscious of the language we use. Irma has helped us a lot with that. We want everyone who is listening to feel included in our discussions. Even though our message is intended primarily for youth, we know there are many other people listening in both the countryside and in the cities. That makes our work a little complicated and it's why we need the team - so that we can discuss ways to maintain our purpose while making the program accessible to many people in different places.
UDW: How does the collective determine the theme or topic for each week?
Irma: We bring proposals to the collective and debate them while keeping the communities in mind. Then we bring the proposal, in the form of the show, to the community radio stations. We have to find one particular theme we think they'll all be interested in and propose it to them. We have many topics to offer to the stations but they are the ones to decide whether they want to cover them or not and how to handle them.
When discussing themes we want to cover, we have to first consider the coyuntura (current political climate). If something is happening on a national scale - for instance, if a critical law is being debated in the legislative assembly - we want to cover that news and make it a topic of discussion at the community level. There are things happening in the country that we can't ignore or negate.
Secondly, there are historical events that are commemorated close to the date of the show. For example, we recently aired a show about the lives and work of Farabundo Marti and Roque Dalton because both of their birthdays were in May. Third, there are themes that are neither news nor commemorations but are themes we think are important in raising consciousness that no one else is covering.
For example, there was a show we did in December that covered student grievances. Though these issues weren't on the public agenda, so to speak, it was still important for the people to hear about them, so we interviewed some students on the air. We've discussed problems that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) present. Or we might talk about corruption, the sale of dangerous abortion medicine in the downtown center. That was difficult because many people rely on this medicine and some live off the money they make selling it but eventually we found a way to present it.
Herbert: We also raise polemic topics related to religion, where we speak about God and what the idea or belief in God means for people. These are difficult and important discussions to have.
Irma: We try to not to take a hard line on religion because we know that many people who listen to us are religious, so we can't go on about how God doesn't exist. Instead, we urge people to explore their own reasoning on the subject.
Herbert: Sexual rights and abortion are very difficult topics, very taboo and controversial. We have to be careful when we decide to talk about these things because even though they aren't delicate topics for us, they are for many Salvadorans. Abortion stirs up all kinds of religious connotations within the general subconscious of our people. When we want to talk about issues relating to abortion or sexual rights, we discuss it in the framework of sexual health. When people assume health is at the foundation, it's easier for them to draw a connection or understanding of the issues and make better decisions.
UDW: Who are the 'experts' in community journalism? Who do you depend on for reliable, alternative sources of information?
Herbert: The source is you for example. What do the American people think about the Obama election? We don't believe in the mainstream. We want to hear from the American people, not the American government, not the status quo or the institutions. We need to find out how the American people are living with the Obama government. We are interested in researching the people's perspective.
Irma: We're connected to the Salvadoran social movement. When there's a problem or a crucial debate surrounding the University, we connect with the student movement. Just like any other media, we have developed sources we rely on for various perspectives we're seeking. Generally we aren't looking for the 'official sources'. We are not going to the same sources La Prensa Grafica or TCS (Salvadoran Telecommunications Company), which is owned by former right-wing president Tony Saca uses.
When the government wanted to privatize our only public University four years ago, we talked to the student movement, not those who wanted to buy it. We want to raise other points of view so that people can develop their own critiques with as much real information as possible.
We consider this work as part of the Left's historical role in the world - to inform and educate. Justice is the main motivation behind our actions. The information is there to back our perspectives and our political positions as well and we feel it's our role to reveal this information to others.
UDW: Which events and/or people influenced your political perspectives?
Herbert: We're revolutionaries. We support the socialist movement based on Marxism, if you will, but we are far beyond dogmatism. We don't accept prescriptions or rigid structures. We strongly believe in the power of collective knowledge. We've found our inspiration in the people, in collective engagement.
Irma: We don't have Masters. Every member of the team, through our own experience and environment, has built a consciousness that coincides with the rest of the team. But if you ask who is the teacher of our thoughts, I don't think there is one. Each one of us, through the University, through family experience, through neighbors, or just through reading, we have each developed our own political thought and now we've come together as a team.
Herbert: We are all anti-capitalists, anti-imperialists. We support struggles around the world against oppression and injustice. That's a common way of thinking among the team despite the fact that each one of us has a different way of understanding reality. We are rich in collective knowledge and this is our collective work. We don't take one single step without the support of the rest of the team.
UDW: What made you decide to become politically active? Were there experiences that pulled you over the line, so to speak from political consciousness into media activism?
Herbert: The Salvadoran people are our main inspiration. A lot of things must be destroyed and a lot of things must be created for our people to reach justice. We would prefer not to watch this happen on TV but to contribute to the destruction and be part of the construction. The things we need to destroy are capitalism, any form of imperialism or domination of one country over another, any form of discrimination. That is fundamental for us. Our main inspiration is people all over the world. Let's talk about freedom, solidarity, about building new things and destroying the unfair things. We understand that our work, media activism, is a small and humble contribution and we are still young people but we believe we are also very useful and we like to do this work.
Irma: I'm studying journalism so I think that this is my way of doing something for the community. Lawyers, business administrators, politicians, every person has something they do for the community. And our way is to take action through the media. We're filling a void of information and consciousness in support of the community. If we don't speak about these issues, no one will. While big media teaches conformity, we create media that orients people to a range of ideas and alternatives and inspires them to take their own actions.
Herbert: We have organized with other political groups as well. Three of us are militants (members) of the FMLN and we are supporters and strong believers in the FMLN. Some of us are part of the FMLN youth movement. Not all of us but some of us. Some of us are students and some are workers. But in addition to being all of these things we are also media activists because we all agree that communication is very important.
Irma: We are lucky to have sufficient formation to be able to see the injustices that are committed against the people and we have the capacity and space to be able to denounce these injustices and to motivate people to confront them. This is what inspires us to make a change.
Herbert: This is the best political school that we have ever had as young people. This experience has allowed us to have a better understanding of reality and to learn so many new things every week. It is the best political school I have ever been in. All of us are constantly learning - through feedback, between our audiences, between social movements, between all of them and us. It is some kind of school of life. I have learned so many things and that keeps me interested. That's why we feel we are useful to this society and to the community.
UDW: What are your plans to expand the project?
Herbert: In the future, we hope to have our own radio station - our own antenna - and to transmit throughout the country.
It is both an opportunity and a huge responsibility to be on the air and to maintain good relationships with many different organizations, both within and outside of El Salvador. That is our main achievement, the political relationships we maintain with allied organizations throughout Latin America, the U.S., and Europe. That is our treasure.
We expect that this network will be bigger and better and that we can maintain connections all over the world, based on solidarity, based on the same vision of the world. We support global movements because the struggle of any people for their own liberation is our struggle.
A solidarity campaign with Palestine, a Free Palestine, to Free the Cuban 5, for civil rights for minorities in the United States. We strongly support the Basque liberation movement in Spain. We also support armed liberation movements as well. That is a part of our commitment with those struggles. Once upon a time, this country received the world's solidarity in the middle of a war. It's a gesture we're returning.
Irma: By continuing to work and grow, we hope to someday be a major information source from El Salvador to the world. That is one of our goals - that when people want to know about El Salvador's situation, they will consult with us. We are a long distance away from that goal but we're working toward it.
In addition to the show, we're taking offers from designers to build us a webpage so we can upload videos, photos, articles, and news reports to make the project bigger. It's a goal for us to have our own domain and not be dependent upon any other support. This is what we hope for within a couple of months.
We want to expand the page and have political opinion pieces about art and politics. Right now our articles are posted, there's also a book section, a place to download music, listen to the radio, and a place where we have posted the work of several authors. Most of what's posted, though, is our own material. We can't work on this project constantly right now because work and school takes so much of our time, but it will be possible to put more time and resources into it in the future.
Herbert: I just thought of a new slogan: Study, Struggle and Microphones!
Listen to Live Radio Zurda broadcasts every Saturday at 10am Central Standard Time at www.ARPAS.org.sv and explore the group's archives, online articles, music and resource library @ radiozurda.blogspot.com.
This is part six of a series of interviews with members of the Salvadoran social movement titled "What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left."
Erica Thompson is a media correspondent for CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To take action with CISPES or find more information about the organization's work go to www.CISPES.org. Adelante!