Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Brief Look Back at the VI Encounter of the Network of University Radio Stations of Colombia, RRUC

Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla, Colombia
September 25-27, 2008

Like most conferences focused on media that I’ve participated in over the years in the U.S., Colombia and around the world, the Sixth Encounter of the Network of University Radio Stations of Colombia, RRUC, provided an interesting mix of social/cultural discussion and debate, with the more practical concerns of economic sustainability and technical/normative issues affecting the many stations participating in the network.

There was a lot of talk about future collaborative projects for the network, and considerable attention was paid to RRUC’s relationship to state entities like the Ministry of Communication. A diverse mix of representatives from every region of the country was present at the conference, sharing experiences and concerns about the state of University Radio in Colombia, and its outlook for the future.

What I was surprised – and a bit disappointed, I might add - not to hear too much about in the three days of meetings that took place in the Universidad del Norte in the Caribbean coastal city of Barranquilla, was information about the internal political dynamics within the country’s many campuses, relating to student activism and mobilization, and how these issues may or may not unfold in the radio signals that are emanating from those distinct locales. Indeed, there was an almost total absence of student participants in the conference, even though it was held on the beautiful campus of one of the most important universities in the country, home to Uninorte Estereo, the university station celebrating its 25th anniversary this week.

This observation is not meant to be a criticism of the conference or its organizers. I actually enjoyed myself there, and learned a great deal about the history and current state of college radio in Colombia. All the people I spoke to are very creative, committed individuals, doing some incredible work in their respective universities. Indeed, RRUC’s ongoing efforts to strengthen their national network of like-minded people who are producing a wide range of programming content to many distinct audiences should be applauded, and are most certainly necessary, if one considers the current media environment in which they are operating, one that is dominated by a handful of massive corporate conglomerates whose missions are driven by rampant, almost religious commercial consumerism, and deliberate exclusion.

The limited political discussions that took place in the three day gathering is perhaps more a reflection of the fact that in a majority of the 31 university radio stations that make up the network, especially the oldest ones, the cultural mission of providing audiences with concrete musical alternatives within a larger package of “educating the listeners,” as several of the stations proudly proclaim, outweighs the social or participatory mission of these stations. The conventional wisdom is that citizen participation in media production is reserved more for the many community stations operating in over 500 municipalities around the country. High-brow cultural programming is considered to be the primary purpose of many of the university stations, whether they are commercial licensees or so-called public interest stations. With very little attention paid to the issues of student involvement at the stations, the role the stations might play in strengthening citizenship engagement, not only on campus, but within the local communities that the stations serve, was very difficult to assess.

In essence, of all the many presentations and panels at the event, only two focused on the issues of community and citizen involvement at the university radio stations. The first was the talk by Jaime Abello, the national coordinator of the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, FNPI, the press association founded by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez. Abello painted a broad landscape of the state of news media today, not only in Colombia, but on a global scale. He made a strong case for the need for University radio stations in Colombia to strengthen its commitment to comprehensive journalism, one that goes beyond the already solid cultural reporting that is common in many of the older college stations in the country. He reminded the audience of the social responsibility the stations and universities have to their localities, and that one of those responsibilities include providing the audiences with investigative and well-researched information that can offset, even if on a small scale, many of the inherent flaws of mainstream, commercial news organizations.

The second presentation that addressed the social responsibility of university radio stations was provided by, well, yours truly. I had been invited to present a keynote speech about this broad topic by the current national director of the RRUC, Guillermo Gaviria, a Julliard School graduate and seasoned musician who happens to be the head of the Javeriana Stereo in Bogotá, one of the strongest university stations in all of Colombia. I focused on the role of the students in the spaces of broadcasting, keeping in mind that as educators and as broadcasters, most of us working in University radio have dual responsibilities: one to our audiences, and two, and perhaps more important, to our students.

Just as community radio can contribute to the building of citizen participation in local settings by engaging volunteer programmers in the creation of their own messages, university radio can and should do the same, albeit under different circumstances. Challenging the notion that students were generally incapable of thinking critically and producing responsible news and information programming content for a broad audience, an opinion expressed to me by several station directors in the room prior to my talk, I discussed the importance of hearing the voices of young people in these spaces. It opened an interesting discussion amongst the participants, many of whom openly acknowledged the limited participation of students in the broader direction, production and planning of the respective stations.

I should point out there was a broad cross section of stations represented in the conference, and, just as in US College radio, there are many different levels of student and community participation in each station. The directors of the radio stations in the University of Córdoba in Monteria, of Magdalena University in Santa Marta, and several other stations, said they were committed to strengthening and maintaining student involvement in their radio projects. Others pointed to their station’s close connection to community organizations and civic groups as evidence that the stations do reserve a social mission.

Nevertheless, I was especially intrigued by my conversation with the director of the radio station licensed to the University of Nariño, in the southwestern city of Pasto, Miguel López Guerrero, who specifically said theirs is a “very activist-oriented campus,” and this activism finds its way daily onto the airwaves of the radio station, something that doesn’t happen too often in other places. López and his colleague, Germán Avila, of the northeastern city of Barrancabermeja, in Norte de Santander, have established an alternative news and commentary website, Red de Prensa Alternativa del Sur Occidente Colombiano, that they see as a watchdog to the many examples of misinformation that finds its way into the mainstream news channels (www.rpasur.com ).

Identifying themselves as “independent, politically-minded progressives,” both López and Avila expressed alarm as to why the RRUC conference did not take up controversial issues such as the persecution of students on campuses across the country, particularly directed against those students critical of the current government. They agreed with my general assessment that college radio has to be a space for democratic dialogue and open debate about a broad cross section of issues affecting the community. But that “due to political pressures from University Rectors, powerful local interests, and the government ministries regulating broadcasting, nobody really wants to rock the boat” with truly critical programming. In essence, they were challenging the autonomy and independence of the university radio stations, something that other participants in the conference had expressed deep concerns about.

I’ll have more on the conference and my observations about community and popular media in the coming days.

For now, take a look at the RRUC site that I linked to the left, and the "rpasur" site, which is pretty incredible as an alternative news source.

Members of the RRUC, at the VI Encounter of University Radio in Colombia.

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