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Caracas Journal: Pirate Radio as Public Radio, in the President’s Corner


Pirate Radio as Public Radio, in the President's Corner


Published: March 8, 2004

ARACAS, Venezuela, March 7 — The sound room of Radio Perola, a small community station on the poor edge of this city, is papered with posters celebrating Latin American revolutionaries like Fidel Castro and offering a stern warning to the behemoth to the north: "Death to the Yankee Invader."

The setting seems fitting for José Ovalles's politically charged Saturday radio program. Gripping a microphone and waving reports from a government news agency, the white-haired retired computer teacher charges that a far-flung opposition movement arrayed against President Hugo Chávez is part of an American-led conspiracy. He ridicules the president's foes as criminals with scant backing.

He urges listeners to defend what Mr. Chávez calls his Bolivarian Revolution, which is under international pressure to allow a recall vote on the president's tumultuous five-year rule. "We have to fight for a free country," he said recently, "one with no international interference."

The message, beamed from a 13-kilowatt station in what was once the storeroom of a housing project, reaches at most a few hundred homes. But Radio Perola is part of a mushrooming chain of small government-supported radio and television stations that are central to Mr. Chávez's efforts to counter the four big private television networks, which paint him as an unstable dictator.

With Venezuela on edge, stations like Radio Perola are poised to play an even bigger role in this oil-rich nation's political battle.

Instead of shutting down his news media tormenters, Mr. Chávez's tactic appears to be to ignore them as much as possible while relying on former ham radio operators and low-budget television stations to get the government's message across.

Although the stations say they are independent and autonomous, Mr. Chávez has announced that $2.6 million would be funneled to them this year. They also will receive technical assistance and advertising from state-owned companies.

"This year, we will not only legalize and enable approximately 200 more communitarian radios and televisions with equipment, but we will also promote them," the communication and information minister, Jesse Chacón, said in an interview posted on a pro-Chávez Web site.

The stations have been important to Mr. Chavez's government during the current turmoil, in which the opposition has accused the government of fraudulently disqualifying hundreds of thousands of signatures for a recall referendum.

Through it all, the private television and radio stations and the nation's largest newspapers have stepped up their pressure, presenting a parade of antigovernment analysts and opposition figures.

Mr. Ovalles, though, calls the opposition "gangsters" and accuses private news organizations of faking the sizes of antigovernment marches.

At first glance, the community stations and their largely volunteer staffs hardly seem political, nor do they offer the wallop of the big news organizations. Programming often deals with mundane matters like trash pickups or road conditions. The stations are staffed by volunteers, from teenagers eager for the chance to play Venezuelan hip-hop or salsa to homemakers who want to tell listeners how to stretch earnings in tough times.

The main objective, say those who work at the stations, is to show there is another side to neighborhoods that, in the popular press, are presented as crime-ridden ghettos.

"The image of the barrios is one of criminals, violence, prostitution, where kids are abandoned," said Gabriel Gil, a producer at Catia TV, a three-year-old station that recently moved into a vast building belonging to the Ministry of Justice. "We say we are television of the poor."

Radio Un Nuevo Día, in a poor neighborhood, is much like the rest. Its small transmitter has been set up in the corner of a bedroom in a two-room cinder block house belonging to a cleaning woman, Zulay Zerpa.

Bedsheets separate the bare-bones operation from the cots where her two children sleep.

"I cook, I clean, I watch the kids, and they do what they have to do," Ms. Zerpa said. "I do my part by giving up a bit of my house."

Music is a big part of the broadcast fare. Disk jockeys arrive with stacks of CD's, playing for hours on end. "I like to talk, and I like to play the music," said Rosa Amarista, 26. "Private radio is so grandiose. Here you can say what you want, tell people what you feel."

Nuevo Día, with just 5 kilowatts, does not have much of a signal, reaching only a few miles around Ms. Zerpa's house on a crowded street. It is still waiting for a $31,000 government grant. Its 15 staff members are unpaid. But the people who broadcast are committed to Mr. Chávez.

While the station is small, it is just one in a string of outlets that have been popping up in neighborhoods, one after another, covering a broad expanse of urban Venezuela. The number of community radio and television stations, both licensed and unlicensed, has grown to about 300 from 50 in three years, said Alfredo Flores, who helps stations nationwide set up operations.

Although Nuevo Día has modest means, it also clearly demonstrates its close ties to the government. When its reporters are sent downtown, they have easy access to governing party officials and government functionaries. The station broadcasts the president's garrulous speeches.

This week, the health minister, Roger Capella, is expected at Ms. Zerpa's house for an interview.

"This is a counterbalance," said one of Nuevo Día's operators, Armando Farias, 37, referring to the new dynamic with the private stations. "Right now, it is balanced one way. Our idea is to counterbalance the other way."

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