I travelled to Costa Rica in June of this year to begin work on a documentary film about community radio in the country. The first month of shooting would take me to different stations around Costa Rica, speaking to radio producers and community members, to learn whether there is something distinctive about community media that should be protected and nurtured. The project was developed, researched and planned with Sebastían Fournier Artavia and Catalina Montenegro, who are both key voices in the Red Mica social movement in Costa Rica. Red Mica aims to propose a new Costa Rican media law in order to safeguard and develop community media in a landscape increasingly dominated by commercial interest.
The radio for me was like a university, I was very timid, every human being is timid but we have to fight the timidity. The radio formed me. Don Evencio
The first trip took us to San Carlos to look at Radio Santa Clara, a station established by the late Catholic priest Padre Marco Tulio, who had worked tirelessly for over 30 years to shape the radio according to the principles of the ‘Theology of Liberation’, to educate and involve the poor and working classes, and the community as a whole, in public life and democratic participation. We arrived at a moment of flux for the station, which had once been a thriving example of community participation, giving a platform for people to engage with local issues such as the environment, politics and business, especially with its campesino focused radio show. But in recent months the local bishop had reasserted the church’s editorial control over the station’s output, resulting in an abrupt end to community centred programming and participation, instead concentrating on religious output and music. We spoke to a local campesino (small scale farmer) named Don Evencio who had participated in the radio for over 30 years and Sonia and Max from Ciudad Quesada who had been deeply involved in the radio as presenters and journalists. During four days of interviews what came through was the passion and commitment each person had for the station and the sense of loss they felt at its swift change in direction. Each person we interviewed spoke of the transformative nature of the radio, how through their participation it had changed them personally and how the radio had changed the community through giving a voice to people and issues which other media often ignore.
There are a lot of questions that I want to ask to the bishop. It cannot be what the catholic church stands for, what is happening with the radio, for me this is not catholicism. I ́m not the kind of person that if they try to put a muzzle on me, that I would stop speaking the truth, I will always be on the side of truth. Don Evencio
We visited the sleepy town of La Tigra to speak with Don Evencio about his experience with the radio. The first program Father Marco Tulio started on the radio was Abriendo el Surco, a show aimed at engaging the farm labourers (Campesinos) of San Carlos in producing radio. During our conversation with Don Evencio he looked back at the man he was, nervous and reluctant during the early workshops, where they were trained in the use of audio recorders and interviewing members of the public. He spoke of his growing interest in the radio, taking a loan to buy his first audio recorder, a substantial commitment for a small scale farmer. He spoke of a journey that began with a tremulous hand, unable to sign the agreement to participate in the radio’s training program, but which led to him interviewing the national minister for agriculture, and being invited as a journalist to the National Assembly in the capital, San José. Don Evencio’s testimony showed both the transformative nature community media can have on the individual participants, but also how community media can change the theatre of debate, encouraging politicians to engage with communities on their own terms rather than through commercial media, so often tainted by vested interests and bias.
The Cathedral of Ciudad Quesada was built by Priest Eladio Sancho, community fairs were used to raise money to build the cathedral, and little by little people came from the communities to help contribute. On some occasions politicians came and asked the Priest, “how much do you need to finish the construction?” and he always responded “This is built by the people of San Carlos, here we don’t accept any political donations” and with Radio Santa Clara and Father Marco built the radio in the same way, by the people. Max ……….
We met Max and Sonia in Ciudad Quesada, a married couple who have devoted much of their life to the radio. Sonia was a journalist and news presenter on the radio and Max presented a political show named ‘Hablemos Claro’ , both believed in and experienced the power of the radio to inform and empower their community, and they felt an acute sense of loss at what the radio has become. For them the vision of Father Marco had been realised through their work on the radio, they had seen a community informed and emboldened through the nature of the radio’s discourse and through the community’s participation. Max talked of how politicians would come from San José to speak on his show and remarked on how he had interviewed four future presidential candidates on Hablemos Claro . They spoke of how the radio was built and grew in the image not just of its founder but of the region and its people. It came to be an expression of the people of San Carlos, with a history of engagement in politics and social movements. The radio nurtured these tendencies and gave them a platform, and when the radio grew in prominence and influence, it become a voice that could not be ignored. This in turn lead to such a strong engagement by politicians and business in the issues the community raised through their collective voice on the radio. For both Max and Sonia, the change in direction and move away from community centred programming represents a move towards political conservatism by the Catholic church of San Carlos, and a betrayal of what the radio was established to do, and who it was there to serve. Sonia spoke of the strength of community’s response, which will also include a planned public vigil in Ciudad Quesada for the death of Radio Santa Clara, as they knew it.
It’s been 3 months since I’ve been on the air and I’ve received between 70-115 messages per day, a lot of them from people in the community…They’re telling me they need to talk about a road in a bad condition, problems with diseases in their crops. This is an expression of the absence felt by the community, the need amongst the people for a way to communicate, they need their word to be taken into account. Sonia…..
What I saw in San Carlos was both the potential and power of community media but also the fragility of its existence in the current media climate, without legal protection and status.
Radio Santa Clara thrived initially because of the principles of its founder, Padre Marco, but ultimately the frequency belongs to the Catholic church and it is for them to do with as they please. With the work of Red Mica and hopefully the documentary film I’m producing also, we aim to make the argument for investment and recognition of community media in Costa Rica, and beyond. I believe that media in the hands of the many, representing collective interests and fostering democratic participation is vital and Radio Santa Clara was exemplary of this. The profound feelings of loss felt by the community of San Carlos and the many protagonists in the radio’s story underlines that people want their voice to be heard.