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Characteristics of the community radio movement

Community radio, rural radio, cooperative radio, participatory radio, free radio, alternative, popular, educational radio. If the radio stations, networks and production groups that make up the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters refer to themselves by a variety of names, then their practices and profiles are even more varied. Some are musical , some militant and some mix music and militancy. They are located in isolated rural villages and in the heart of the largest cities in the world. Their signals may reach only a kilometre, cover a whole country or be carried via shortwave to other parts of the world.

Some stations are owned by not for profit groups or by cooperatives whose members are the listeners themselves. Others are own ed by students, universities, municipalities, churches or trade unions. There are stations financed by donations from listeners, by international development agencies, by advertising and by governments. To get a picture of the variety of experiences, it is worthwhile to look at the situation of community radio in various regions of the world.

World Tour 1995

In Africa, eight out of ten people live in rural areas. It follows that rural radio is the most common form of community broadcasting. Traditionally owned by the State, these stations broadcast in local languages and strive to get by with a minimum of financial resources and equipment. Often, their ability to reflect the concerns of the community is prejudiced and they are as much the voice of the State as of the community. In recent years this situation has changed. The rural radio stations persist, but the radio waves have ceased to be a State monopoly. Independent and democratic radio stations have appeared in urban and rural areas in countries ranging from South Africa to Burkina Faso.

Asia, the planet's most populous continent, is the one with the least community radio. Notable width="100%" exceptions are found in the Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Taiwan is the site of a large movement of unlicensed stations struggling for the legalization of their project to democratize communications. In other countries, such as Thailand, a few licensed radio stations are doing their best to serve their communities, despite heavy censorship. In India, broadcasting remains a State monopoly, but some observers are predicting that independent stations will soon be on the air.

Community radio stations began to appear in Europe in the 1970s. In most western European countries, the movement began with unlicensed "pirates", the fruit of frustration with the State broadcast monopolies existing at the time. The precise number of community stations is not known, but is at least 2,000. With the recent political and social changes in the eastern and central parts of the continent, independent community broadcasters have quickly been establish ed and are found in most countries. AMARC's European regional office has been quick to support the development of new stations in the former Soviet bloc countries, with a program of training and exchange between the various regions of Europe.

Community radio first made its appearance in Latin America at the end of the 1940s and in the early 1950s. Since then, the region has developed probably the most dynamic and diverse radio environment in the world. In addition to a very strong tradition of commercial radio and a weaker history of State radio, there are indigenous peoples' radio stations, as well as stations owned by trade unions, students, rural associations, churches and women's organizations. In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in the number of low power community radio stations in many countries. Many of these stations were unlicensed, but obtaining legal status was a priority. By the time AMARC 6 began, there were several proposals for legislation favourable to these new stations. AMARC's regional office, located in Ecuador, is also responsible for the Caribbean. In general, the French and Spanish speaking countries have experiences similar to those of South and Central America. English speaking countries have been slower to rid themselves of their colonial legacy but stations have begun appearing in the past few years and many more are expected.

North America also has a diverse tradition. In the United States the National Federation of Community Broadcasters has close to one hundred member stations, ranging from the giant stations of the Pacifica Network to those serving small communities in remote areas. In both the United States and Canada, urban stations serve diverse communities with specialized programs for communities defined by their political and cultural interests. Indigenous peoples have radio stations throughout North America, with over 100 in remote communities in the far north. The French speaking population of Canada also has radio stations, including more than twenty five in Quebec -- where most of the population speaks French -- and another fifteen serving minority French speaking populations in the English speaking parts of the country.

In Oceania, a region largely made up of small island nations, Australia is the most developed, with over 100 community radio stations. Funded by both public and private sources, Australian stations serve diverse communities and include a growing number of Aboriginal peoples' programming groups and stations. Recently, the Regional Media Centre of the South Pacific Commission has generated some interest in community radio among member states. It is hoped that more community radio stations will emerge by the time AMARC 7 is inaugurated in Australia, in 1997.

What makes a community station "community"?

One might ask what unites representatives from such a variety of radio stations at AMARC 6? What is it that makes a radio station a community radio station? Perhaps the best way to answer this is in the words of a conference participant:

The answer is not very complicated: it is enough to look at the objectives of the station. What does it look for, what are its goals? The determining element is the social nature of the medium.

Commercial radio stations define themselves as profit making institutions. As communications media, they have to have the same social and cultural responsibility that all good journalists do, and have to design programming to serve their communities. But, when a conflict arises, when they have to choose between God and a golden cow, the owners of commercial radio stations will be inclined towards the latter.

Our option is different. And in it we find the precious jewel, the unnegotiable characteristic of our radio projects: Do we work primarily for our own gain, or to help improve the social conditions and social conditions and the cultural quality of life of the people in our communities? Community radio stations are not looking for profit, but to provide a service to civil society. Naturally, this is a service that attempts to influence public opinion, create consensus, strengthen democracy and above all create community--hence the name community radio.

José Ignacío López Vigil, ¿"Que hace comunitaria a una radio comunitaria?" Chasqui, Quito, Ecuador, November, 1995.

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