Radio in Haiti is the Heartbeat of Communities
By Carmen Cuesta Roca
FONDWA, Haiti On the drive toward Fondwa, a forest-cloaked village three hours from Haiti’s capital, it’s easy to spot a slender radio antenna poking up from behind the canopy of greenery that tops the mountain. What’s hard is finding the station that put it there. “Our broadcast will start soon,” said Cledanor Delfils, founding member of the station and local celebrity, while leading the way. Delfils gestured to a dirt trail — banana leaves curled over it to form a tunnel. A few minutes later, he reached a concrete hut, from which an antenna stretched up to the clouds. “C’est la Radio Brillante!” he declared. Radio Brillante is among more than 40 community radio stations in Haiti that are difficult to locate because there are no official listings and, under Haitian law, the stations do not exist. But that could soon change. Haiti’s National Commission for Telecommunications, the equivalent of the FCC, has drafted a bill to present to parliament that will recognize community stations’ right to exist. The draft bill, in the works for nine years, would define community radio stations and their rights, as well as set guidelines in granting these stations frequencies and licenses. But many stations will still have a hard time getting licenses because of a lack of sponsorship and other economic challenges. In the meantime, the commission has given these stations permission to operate out-of-law, recognizing they are an important lifeline for Haiti’s alienated rural population. These communities aren’t just separated from Port-au-Prince and other urban cities by geography, but by low literacy rates and little-to-no-knowledge of the French language. In Fondwa, like in other rural communities, the programs are broadcast in a language that the rural population can understand in two senses: in Haitian Creole and with relevance to their rural lifestyle.
Jean-Baptiste Joseph, a street merchant, is an avid listener. On a recent day, he was tuned in, listening to the host giving a geography lesson, naming various catastrophes and the consequences of each. “The radio helps me know how to behave in society,” he said, his flip phone open on top of his snack cart, playing the weekly science show. “I don’t go to school but Brillante helps me learn.” Back at the radio station, the environment show is the first segment. It begins at 5 p.m. every day and the day’s broadcast can last between one and four hours. “Listen to this,” said Delfils, brandishing his phone as it played a catchy beat, the opening jingle. But just then, a sudden beeping pierced the air: the batteries running the station were almost sapped. Community stations are hard to run because of one factor that unites these stations scattered across Haiti’s rural expanses: a lack of electricity. The batteries at Brillante are the same donated ones that the station received when it opened in 2010, shortly after the country’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. They can barely broadcast for four hours a day, while other stations sometimes are forced to stay off the air for weeks or months while they save money for operating costs. At the sound of beeping batteries, Delfils skirted around the naked walls of the station, and from behind one lugged out a generator. With one hard jerk, it roared alive. Listening to the broadcast through Delfils’ phone became more difficult: the host’s voice was still audible, but the generator’s growl in the background was almost overpowering. It stayed on for an hour while the batteries recharged through a solar panel. Not too far from Brillante, another community station experiences similar difficulties. Radio Zetwal lies at the end of a steep and winding road down the valley from the small commune of Fondwa. Radio Zetwal has existed since 1996, but it moved to this location after the 2010 earthquake flattened the building it used to occupy.
Zetwal experiences the same electricity, internet and funding troubles as Brillante, but the arduous path leading to and from the station adds another layer of isolation to an already remote community. The radio team at Zetwal feels more acutely the effects of a larger problem plaguing community stations across Haiti: a dearth of workers. “Our biggest struggle is the rural exodus,” said Enel Beaulière, director of Zetwal. “Young people in Fondwa who don’t have a salary or a job, if they want to earn a living, they have to leave.” Data from the Haitian Institute for Statistics and Information predict that the rural population of Haiti could decrease by 10 percent over the next decade. “Because I am from Fondwa, people from the capital will often tell me: you’re on the outside,” Beaulière said, by which he meant “on the outside” of political and economic decision-making, and social and cultural legislation. This prejudice is what led him and many others to work for community radio. Communities like Fondwa often feel neglected by the country’s decision-makers, and in this way, the obstacles that community radio stations face also go beyond the economic. Over the years, a number of international aid groups, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Society for the Animation of Social Communication, known by its Creole acronym SAKS, have tried to help community radio stations and journalists in Haiti. But SAKS, which donates solar panels and batteries, has strict rules on which stations it helps and some stations receive more help than others. Zetwal, for example, gets more help than Radio Brillante from SAKS because it’s part of a peasants’ union, the Asosyasyon Peyizan Fondwa.
SAKS likes to work with stations that are formed by community groups, to ensure they are well run. And criteria such as this may become legal criteria required to obtain a license as SAKS works with the government to help it define the criteria for licensing community radio stations. In Fondwa, that would mean Radio Zetwal would be able to get a license through its affiliation with the peasant union, but Brillante would have more trouble because of its independent structure. “Right now we have no financial backers,” said Delfils of Brillante. “It’s tough because without a sponsor we lack recognition.” Like Radio Brillante, around three-quarters of the community stations in Haiti do not have the support of a local group. The prospect of not becoming legalized — and possibly ceasing to exist — doesn’t sit well with Delfils. “Community stations work for the peasants,” Delfils said as he hushed the generator, swapping over to battery power. “They listen to the community radio because it’s their radio.”
Photo Credit: Miami Herald