Less than half the country trusts the media. Most people consider the mainstream media a bunch of biased hacks who aren’t to be trusted. In this increasingly acrimonious environment, it’s hard to know just what to believe.
You might think I’m referring to the United States. But I’m talking about Argentina.
A handful of major news outlets dominate the country. Broadcasting without a license is illegal. And an alarming number of people simply do not believe what the big networks say. But rather than complain about #fakemedia or retreat into filter bubbles, many Argentinians take to the airwaves to tell their own stories. A small collective called DTL! Comunicacion Popular erects radio towers in largely poor, working class neighborhoods so ordinary citizens can broadcast guerrilla programs for all to hear.
Anita Pouchard Serra spent three years with DTL! Comunicacion Popular. The gritty, intimate photos in her series Communication Is Not a Merchandise offer an almost cinematic look at the collective as it assembles antennas and trains citizen journalists. “The radio is a way to create solidarity and collective action,” Serra says. “It’s an opportunity for them to tell their story.”
Argentina’s media monopoly dates to a 1980 law, passed by the military dictatorship, banning nonprofits and community groups from broadcasting on television or radio. Former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner tried (and failed) to loosen big media’s grip five years ago, and the press grew even more polarized in the aftermath. Poorer, marginalized communities felt ignored at best and misrepresented at worst. “When you read about slums in the media, it’s always about violence and drugs,” says Serra. “In the radio, they try to show another side. It might good actions performed by neighbors.”
Guerrilla radio and TV stations started popping up in the early 1990s. They grew in popularity during Argentina’s economic collapse in 2001 and the massive protests it fueled. Today, hundreds of communities offer programming, sometimes in indigenous languages like Mapudungun. They play local music, read poetry and discuss issues the mainstream media often gloss over, like police brutality and controversial mining projects. “We don’t have authentic public media in Latin America, so in order to communicate and exercise freedom of expression, communities build their own media,” says Martín A. Becerra, who teaches communication at the University of Buenos Aires. “They express to some extent the vitality of civil society.”
DTL! Comunicacion Popular helps bring these stations to life. The nonprofit started about a decade ago with a small TV station in the Villa Lugano slum of Buenos Aires. Since then, it’s launched some 150 radio studios and 20 TV studios in provinces like Buenos Aires, La Rioja and Catamarca. It takes at least a couple days and up to $2,500 to build a simple studio and tower capable of broadcasting about a mile in urban areas and 30 miles in the countryside.
Serra met DTL! members at a political protest in 2013, and found herself immediately intrigued. “I was absolutely fascinated by their do-it-yourself ethos,” she says. She began following the group, sitting in on weekly meetings, attending workshops where ordinary citizens learned how to report stories, and joining volunteers as they clambered across rickety rooftops erecting towers. Often, the event drew a crowd of curious locals. “It’s beautiful to see the neighborhood come out,” Serra says.
The stations often become the focal point of a community, giving people of all ages something to do together. They’re also powerful tools for informing the public. Algarrobo radio in the northern mining town of Catamarca investigated the environmental costs of a mining project. Agora TV in Buenos Aires covered protests against the police killing of a schoolteacher. And La Colectiva discusses everything from workplace inequality to new food laws. “It’s not ideologic,” Serra says. “It’s just the point of view of the inhabitants, the people in the street.”