Sending Out the Right Signals

Spannered talks to radio activist Max Graef about the pros and pros of community radio broadcasting.

By Ali Wade

Before April of this year, the last time I'd talked to Max Graef was at a house party in Bristol, UK, in around 2002. When I visited Rio de Janeiro a few months ago, to find out about an internet radio project being set up in the favela of Parada de Lucas, we unexpectedly crossed paths again, as we travelled together on a rattling, lurching ônibus to the city's Zona Norte.
Last year, Max's organisation, RadioActive joined forces with BBC producer Izzy Fairbairn to establish the first ever internet radio station to broadcast from a favela. Following much fundraising and planning in the UK, and many months of hard work in Parada de Lucas itself, the station, built for Rio's NGO/cultural movement AfroReggae, is now up and running. The project is opening up new opportunities to favela youth there, by offering training and hands-on experience in radio production and digital broadcast technology — further expanding AfroReggae's broad programme of cultural and creative initiatives.
Max has spent the last few years establishing and supporting community radio stations in countries such as Honduras, Mexico, Palestine, Madagascar and Cameroon (with a project soon to commence in Kenya). After training as a music systems engineer, he decided to ditch his job as a venue designer and apply his specialist knowledge to more altruistic ends, by helping communities all over the world to embrace the countless benefits of FM radio broadcasting.
This interview, that took place in Parada de Lucas in April 2007, tells of the events that led up to the establishing of RadioActive. Max also talks of the technicalities and costs involved in setting up a station, and of how the medium can provide new possibilities for communication, education and interaction to communities everywhere.
 Photo: Max Graef (right) and students in the AfroReggaeDigital studio.
 How did you conceive RadioActive?
I was doing a degree in music systems engineering, and I wanted to design outdoor venues — outdoor acoustic spaces, where you could listen to music in a beautiful place, where it would sound good; and I was also doing the course so I could learn how equipment worked, because I’d been DJing, and equipment just fucks up all the time — you’re in front of a crowd and the decks aren’t working… so I wanted to know how amplifiers worked, and speakers. As part of the degree I had a year placement; I found a company that designs venues, so I spent a year working for them, and then ended up staying an extra year, doing acoustic spaces, designing sound systems for studios, concert halls … Then, while I was there, the Iraq war started — and I was working on stuff, trying to get the frequency response perfect in a concert hall, and I thought ‘hold on a sec, we’re going to war, and I’m trying to get the frequency response perfect in a room. Why are we doing this?!’ And the more I was there, the more I was actually learning a lot about Latin America, about America’s history of behaviour in Latin America — and everything I learnt was just driving me nuts. I felt like I wish I’d studied something more useful. Sound systems and this kind of thing… it all felt like a bit of a luxury.
Surplus to most peoples’ requirements in life?
Yes. I had to look through pages and pages of speaker manufacturers, meeting middle-class white men being paid too much money to take us all out to lunch, to sell us a new compressor that cost way too much… I even felt ‘how much of our resources — our education — is all going into this process, which is just to benefit people that already have more than they need?’ I just didn’t want to be part of it anymore. So, my thoughts were ‘damn, I’ve studied this thing — how can I use this particular skill in a useful way?’ Luckily, a guy I’d met there from playing football knew I was a DJ and wanted to know what equipment he would need for a radio studio, as he wanted to buy a DJ mixer. I helped him out and asked him what it was about, and he said that the radio equipment was for a group in Honduras that helps landless farmers to organise and occupy abandoned land.
Like the MST [Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra] in Brazil?
Yes, like the MST, with slightly less controversy around their name, but doing similar work, supporting groups of landless farmers who would otherwise have to work for very low wages for a big landowner; instead they build new communities. They’re a really good organisation, called the CNTC — the Conselho Nacional de Trabalhadores do Campo. So, they were going to use the radio station to help organise land takeovers. He was telling me that it was in a place where there’s no TV, there’s very low literacy, no roads… Radio was the way to get information out — like, the crucial way. I was hanging out with him, talking to him more about what equipment was used. I found out about what equipment you need for a low-powered FM radio station, which is simple — just transmitter, antenna and antenna cable.
You can set one up on a very low budget?
Yes. We raised $2,000 for that project in Honduras. In the end I said to him ‘Can I come along when you build the station?’ I thought it would be a great opportunity, and he said ‘Sure, just learn some Spanish. I don’t want you around if you, you know…’ So, that was cool and I did, and two other friends of ours — one who’s a community organiser in Chicago, and the other who has done a lot of popular education training in Mexico – they also got involved. So, the four of us came together and we formed a group called Radios Populares, and went to Honduras as a group and built this station, and gave workshops, taught people — some of whom had never seen a CD player before — how to build a radio station. We talked them through connecting the antenna, how radio frequencies work, that kind of stuff. Amazingly, before we’d left people had heard about what we were doing, and another group, from Mexico, wanted a radio station. I had finished my year’s placement, so I had the time to just go directly on from Honduras with a radio station in my bag, carried it across the borders through Guatemala, got to southern Mexico and then built a second station, literally just straight after the first — and that was with rudimentary Spanish.
So those were the first radio projects you completed? RadioActive wasn’t established then?
At that point it was Radio Populares. That was in the summer of 2003, and I decided to stay another year in Chicago to work with this company, and to stay with Radio Populares. Then the following March, in 2004, we went to Nicaragua and worked with a womens’ health clinic and cooperative made up for former Sandinistas who had started their own clinic to provide health services and rebuild communities after the Contra war — where most of their young men had died and it was just women left, with their houses flattened. They started with these block-making workshops, where they taught each other how to build houses, and then they started this clinic. They’ve been working for ten years, totally independently; they were probably the most impressive people I’ve ever encountered.

That’s one of the best things about this job… I only build stations with people who I think are going to do good stuff with them, and for the moment I’m not planning to change that. This group in Nicaragua were using radio to tell people when their tests had come in and they needed to travel to come in for an emergency treatment. This area was so rural…
Their plan for the station was very purposeful, then, broadcasting important announcements and suchlike, rather than scheduling regular shows?
Yes. Interestingly, they had seen it as a means of reaching people. They give workshops there, so they’re able to use it to give workshops over the radio on hygiene and simple sanitation stuff, which as a health clinic is one of their most common ways of improving health — if people aren’t going to school then they don’t know about washing their hands when they eat, about not sharing plates… From there, a community radio station can also be a place where people can come and say ‘hey, I’m looking for so-and-so — is he around? I’m coming to your village in a few days or so, so if anyone’s listening…’ Literally.
Did you find out much about your listening demographic? How many people had radios and that kind of thing?
In some places it’s been easier to tell than others. That third project, it covers an area of about 40,000 people. There’s a church radio as well, so some people would listen to that no doubt, but it’s certainly popular. It’s not easy to tell how many people are listening.
But generally, in the places you visit, you find that people have radio in their homes?
It’s the only way to get any information, especially if you can’t read. If you’re working in the fields, people take their radio; in Mexico they’ll go to the fields as a whole family to cut the corn, and they’ve got their radio. Now with the station in their village, if there’s a phone call for them — if there’s anything — it comes over the radio.
Surely there are legal restrictions locally?
There are — each country has its own licensing laws. My personal view, and when I was working with Radio Populares as well, was that we all check out what the group we’re working with is like. If we think they’re doing good stuff, then it’s their radio — how they want to use it. If they want to get a license, great, if they don’t, that’s their call — unless it’s a particularly risky place, where it would be a waste of time us raising money for a radio station. But in Nicaragua they’ve chased the police out; this is their area — they provide all the health services, they provide legal aid for domestic abuse cases, there’s a shelter for girls who are pregnant who have been raped. They’re doing so much stuff — they’re former Sandinistas, so they’re used to protecting what’s theirs. They wanted a license, and they probably have it now, but at the time they were like ‘we’re starting now, and we’ll get a license — you know, you can’t trust the government’. And they were so excited about their radio station; when we interviewed them, we filmed them — and they actually cried. ‘We’ve been waiting for this for years,’ they said, ‘it’s been our dream’. It’s amazing to think what’s achievable. And it’s so achievable — I mean… that station cost $3,000.
Has radio technology only recently become cheap enough to make projects such as these viable?
I don’t know. I know there have been pirate stations for a long time. The equipment I use, for a transmitter it’s about £600, for a 100 watt; the antenna is £150; the cable is £100; and from there you can add whatever else you want.
And what kind of coverage would that give you?
Well, the same equipment I just described we used in Nicaragua, and that was put on top of a 150-foot tower and it reached 45km, in an area that’s very flat and where there’s no other radio, no buildings. Height is might, is what they say with FM, so you want to put your antenna as high as possible. So, that’s under a grand for your transmission equipment — then if you want a computer, or just a tape deck, mic, mixer, you can add and add and add. One of the interesting things I find is that people ask me how much a radio station costs, and it’s like…
…how long is a piece of string?
Yeah, really! I have to say, ‘well, what do you want?’, and in the end I’ve been forced to give people a suggested basic package … I went to Delhi in February, because the law has just changed to allow community radio for the first time, and so I went to this meeting of NGOs and communities that want community radio stations; they all came to Delhi on this one weekend and I had to be there, but they were like ‘how much is it?’ So I’ve since responded to that.
So, what projects did you move on to after Latin America?
Well, after Nicaragua I got a call from a guy who had been to Palestine. He’d visited this youth cultural centre that provides kids from a refugee camp with stuff to do with dance, teaches them music, art, computing, sports — just as a place for kids to go in this cramped refugee camp called Dheisheh, right next to Bethlehem. He told me he went to visit them, asked what they wanted to do next, and they really wanted a radio station — so he came to see us. He actually sued the city of Chicago for wrongful arrest during an Iraq war protest and was awarded five grand, and decided to spend it on a radio station. Interestingly, he didn’t want to go — he didn’t want to build it — so as a group I thought we would do the project; but the other members of Radio Populares wanted to focus on Latin America, so I said ‘go head, I’d love to go’. It was a difficult choice at the time. My sister was furious at the time, because she was scared — she had been in Israel and the idea of me going to the West Bank scared her.
And was it dangerous?
No, not at all — it was a brilliant experience. I was very well looked after. The people in Palestine are very, very intelligent, and sophisticated; it’s a very sophisticated long-standing culture that’s been basically squashed. Killed. Compared to a rural or a developing country it’s the opposite — it’s going backwards. Then I decided, on the back of this Palestine project, that I would start my own group. I talked to various people and I came up with the name RadioActive, so that rather than just being ‘Max, radio boy’, I would have a name to present to the world and I could get people on board and work as a group. I had this one woman come and join me for that project, who had studied radio production — she came and gave workshops. We were only there for eight days, in Palestine — I spent every day with the builder, building the studio, putting the antenna up, but it was very cool.
And from there?
Since then, I’ve been to Mexico again, to work with a group called CIPO, and then I went to Honduras again, to see what had happened to the station we first built there — which got stolen, sadly. There I stumbled across another community that had a small station that was broken, and I was able to get them on the air. What they were getting up to was very impressive, in terms of their work, so to be able to support them was excellent. It was a community that had started in 2000, on an abandoned US military base that had been used to support the Contras from Honduras, to teach them… They’d started this new community of 600 families from scratch, and they now had a radio. Then I came back to England and thought OK, now I want to do this professionally. I found work in Chad as a radio engineer, building radio stations to provide information for Darfur refugees, as there’s a bunch of refugee camps along the Chad-Darfur border, so I worked with an organisation there, and I worked with UNHCR — it was my first experience like that, in the desert; it reached 60 degrees centigrade while I was there, there were all these big white UN vehicles, mad desert lands… it was a proper experience. And of course, visiting refugee camps was very interesting — people aren’t miserable, as you’d think, although many of their stories are pretty harsh, especially about fleeing Darfur.
So, at the moment you have lots of projects pending?
Yes, there are about ten different countries. At the moment the projects that are most likely to happen are one in Kenya, which is working with the Maasai in the Maasai Mara, to promote environmental issues — to stop them killing off their animals basically; one in South Africa, working with an AIDS charity in an AIDS orphanage — the radio station will be used to promote local music, as well as AIDS awareness. I came back from Madagascar before this one… In Madagascar community radio is used a lot for announcements; in fact you can often use it this way to sustain employment of people — for instance, people will come in and pay 10p to give an announcement, such as ‘Mum, I’m looking for you’, or a death announcement. Then there’s Cameroon. There’s one with the university at Bujumbura in Burundi. Two days again I got a request from Papa New Guinea, and then yesterday I got three projects in the Comoro Islands, which are an incredibly beautiful group of islands that I’d love to work in. And when I went to India in February, this trip basically opened up a whole new world of community radio. The law has changed, as I said, and the government has announced that they will be giving out over 4,000 licenses over the next ten years.
Wow, that’s quite different to how the community radio sector gets treated in the UK…
The sector in the UK gets half a million pounds for the whole country, and the law in England requires that community radio stations only get fifty percent of their revenue from advertising — so if they want to employ people… There’s an excellent radio station in Manchester called All FM, that has nine employees, and the director just spends his whole time seeking funding. But it’s a movement that is growing in the UK too, since the law changed in 2004.
Many music-orientated community radio stations in the UK seem to be struggling though, such as Resonance FM
Really? I think partly, there, it’s not the same necessity — we’ve got so much access to information… and that’s what makes radio so ideal in all these rural parts of the world; once you’ve built your station, it’s pretty much free to continue apart from the power. It’s just cheaper to set up a station there; you just need a room — in some places the government will provide the electricity. In Madagascar we set up the first entirely solar-powered station that I’ve worked on.
Are the stations self-sufficient once you’ve left?
I try and provide as much training as possible — that’s a big part of what I’ve been working on now, because the equipment’s pretty straightforward, but good training is very important. With all the RadioActive projects, I’ve always brought volunteers on board who have radio experience, and they’ve spent a couple of weeks giving workshops on production — and I also give training, finding a couple of people and giving them as much training as possible on the maintenance side. Still, they have problems, but in every country you have people — even kids — who know how to wire up and fix radios. But the FM transmitters that we use are simple to set up — they’re plug and play. There’s a little box called an SWR meter that you use to check the power and to check the efficiency — if there are any problems in the system then you’ll see. And the transmitter will also shut down if the antenna disconnects; you should never plug a transmitter in without an antenna — it’s a very bad idea, as it’ll burn out. You can use a little thing called a dummy load, which pretends to be an antenna, if you want to check that it works.
And how did the project with AfroReggae come about?
It was when I got back from Mexico, and I was seeking projects — at this point I don’t need to seek projects, as they’re coming in, and that’s great — but then I was looking for organisations doing good stuff, so as to support them by providing community radios. I went to see them [the AfroReggae band] in concert at the Barbican [London] and they blew me away — the whole concert was absolutely packed, and there was dancing in the Barbican! At the end they gave a talk about what they were doing, and how they’re providing alternatives to try and curb the drug trafficking and the killing of children, and I wondered if they used community radio. So I arranged a meeting with them afterwards, and went to see them, told them what I do and asked them if they used radio at all — if they had a community station, or if they’d be interested in one. They had a show that they would always do, but on a station in town. They came back a couple of months later and said ‘well, we can’t have an FM station because we’ve had bad experiences — and the drug gangs will probably take it over, even if just to play their own music... but what about an internet radio station?”
So, they suggested that?
Yeah. At first I was a bit disappointed, because an FM station will affect everyone in the community; it could provide everyone with information, education, and a means to communicate. But an online station doesn’t have that facility — I mean, how many people in the community can listen to it?
One of my initial thoughts was how can it benefit those in the community without internet access?
I posed that to them — and they came back with very clear reasons for wanting it. One is, that the main goal would be to provide kids with a place where they could learn the skills for radio — that’s the main purpose of this station; it’s not to give listeners a good show, it’s to give kids new skills, more confidence, and more opportunities.
The second thing is, AfroReggae want to get their message out to the world — they’re all about that. They’ve been around for 13, 14 years now, and they’re going to places, making links, and this will be a way to be online, not just with a website, but speaking, telling stories, and communicating — having an audience right there.
The third reason is the one that makes an internet radio station particularly handy, yet you might not think of it — AfroReggae have four community centres in different favelas, and the favelas are in different parts of the city. Two of them happen to be next to each other: here in Parada de Lucas we’re next to Vigário Geral, and there the favela is run by a different drug gang. If the kids want to go across to meet their family, or to do anything, they’re often in trouble. Someone will visit their family and ask ‘what was he doing there?’ — you know. It’s been war between these gangs, and not only that, but, weirdly enough, the kids and the residents grow up with the sense that the people from Vigário are the enemy. One of AfroReggae’s aims is to rear a generation who are free from that sense of the other kids being enemies. So although they can’t just walk across into the other favela, they will be able to listen to kids here telling stories — and also they can come in and participate in a workshop in a studio, do something with these kids from here and think ‘Hey, I’m from Vigário, you’re from Lucas, and we’re going to make a radio show together’. Building links in a way that sidesteps the drug gangs — it’s through the internet that that can happen.
 AfroReggaeDigital needs volunteers with radio, teaching or web design experience to work at the station in Parada de Lucas, Rio de Janeiro — if you can speak Portuguese and are interested in helping, visit the station site to find out more (you can also listen to broadcasts there); and if you're in London on 2 October, you can support the station by heading along to Guanabara for the next 'Favela Feva' fundraising party. RadioActive is always on the lookout for equipment donations — visit their site to find out more about current projects and how you can help.
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