It started with a fund drive, as many things do in community media. But William López wasn’t asking for money for his radio station in northern Guatemala, he knew that residents didn’t have much of that. “People would bring things from their farms, like vegetables and animals, and donate those to the radio station,” he says. The station would sell those resources at the market and use the money to pay for staff and equipment.
This is one of the many innovations López has tried in the past decade to maintain various radio projects in his region near the Mexico border. His ongoing challenge is the extremely bureaucratic and expensive process of applying for a terrestrial radio license in Guatemala. Also the risks involved with starting pirate stations, which include government raids and confiscation of equipment. And the fact that the potential audiences for Lopez’s radio programming have fled the country. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans have migrated to the US, including most of the men from López’s town of Aguacatán.
But López is circumventing these challenges with the fact that all of the diaspora, and even remote parts of Guatemala are now connected to cell phone networks. “These are communities that are super poor, that don’t have much to eat every day, but they never lack data for their cell phones, and access to social media,” he says. And, this means that terrestrial radio is no longer necessary. Lopez has been helping predominantly Mayan communities in his region create their own internet radio stations. He says with a laptop, microphone, a modem, and a hosting service, communities can get on the air. “It costs around one-thousand dollars to start, and around eight hundred dollars to keep it going annually,” says López. The benefits are huge. “The majority are transmitting news and information in their own indigenous languages. Spanish is pretty limited in the villages that I’m helping. The majority transmit their culture, their language, their beliefs,” he says.
Knowing that most of these communities who want radio stations lack funds to acquire even the basic equipment, López has tapped into their diasporas in the US and Canada to cover costs, and more. López says large Guatemalan communities in places like North Carolina, Washington state, Houston, and Los Angeles are some of the biggest contributors to the radio stations he helps set up. “People send 10, 15, 50, even 100 dollars, depends on what the radio station needs to keep things going.” He says in return they get to keep up with the towns and villages they miss, and they get to hear their names shared on the air as supporters so everybody back home knows they’re still involved civically. “These radio stations broadcast religious festivals, funerals of family members, the inauguration of a highway or a new building. This is the information people want to listen to,” says López.
López’s services go beyond just the radio side of things, he says he also has to help community members learn how to use credit cards and online payment systems to set up web hosting, and process donations. He’s gotten a lot of anecdotal evidence that once stations are up and running there’s a variety of audiences, the biggest being in the US where Guatemalans are live streaming their hometown radio stations at work or home on their cell phones.
López says his latest request for help are coming from diaspora communities who want to set up their own radio stations. “I’ve got six requests to set up internet radio stations in the US,” he says. These innovations have created sustainability opportunities for community media in Guatemala. “It’s become a business opportunity for a lot of communities,” says López. And the rise of internet radio has given López some sustainability too, he now makes a living helping communities start their own stations.