Community media networks in Latin America
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Community media networks in Latin America

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Community, alternative and popular radio stations have a long tradition in Latin America that began in the middle of the 20th century. They accompanied the struggles of social organizations and popular sectors against dictatorial or authoritarian states despite the fact that those states persecuted them or, in the best of cases, ignored them. At the same time, they always demanded legal recognition.

In this century, community media supported wide-ranging alliances of civil society organizations in each country that promoted communication policies based on the human right to communicate and that succeeded in influencing the new broadcasting acts passed in the last 15 years. What has been their role in these struggles and what did they achieve? Why today, in an era of digital media, are they still relevant?

Their history
People’s radio stations have been a relevant part of the media landscape in Latin America since the 1940s. In the beginning, they were founded by grassroots movements with a strong presence of Christian organizations. They are connected to myriad social movements and organizations of workers, peasants and farmers, miners, indigenous peoples, human rights groups, unions, local churches, neighbourhood associations, and the urban poor.

They are conceived as channels for ordinary people to express themselves publicly and to make demands of society. By rejecting the propaganda of state-run media as well as the profit-seeking goals of the private media, they sought to expand communication spaces by providing access to alternative issues and perspectives generally ignored by the mainstream media.

Despite widespread and longstanding links with social movements and local activism, they have survived – often clandestinely – under precarious conditions. In most countries, they were considered illegal or faced significant restrictions until recently when many broadcasting acts were changed. Because they operated without licenses, they were frequently the target of judicial persecution as well as police raids and closures. They have chronically operated on shoestring budgets. Because they existed outside legal frameworks, they could not access much funding, which perpetuated economic difficulties. One of the most important financers of community, alternative and popular media was – and, in some few cases, still is – foreign aid.

Community media constitute the least visible sector of the cultural industries in the region. Neither their networks nor the states have centralized, systematized or complete information about their coverage, audiences, number of workers, and possibilities of development. Although there are no reliable figures, community radios in the region are estimated to be in the tens of thousands: according to Gumucio Dagron, in Brazil there are eight thousand and in Peru four thousand.

Although this is a vast and diverse group, some shared characteristics can be identified. They question profit as the purpose of their communication practices. They seek a change in social relations from inequality to inequality and to intervene in public spaces to contribute to the construction of more just societies. They also oppose the hegemonic media system formed predominantly by for-profit and highly concentrated companies, which collude more in legitimising the social order than in criticising and transforming it.

That is why community, popular and alternative media are characterized by the expression of historically silenced voices, a willingness to intervene in public debate, the construction of agendas and approaches that challenge the dominant ones, the promotion of participation, and the creation of alliances as strategies to gain influence.

Community radio stations historically provide an important service function to their communities. Besides, as a result of their work, there are thousands of people trained in communication, education and development in every country. They also contribute to media growth on the continent. In addition, people’s radio stations aimed to strengthen democracy after the dictatorships, and that effectively happened.

Their struggles 
Community radio stations founded national networks such as ERBOL (Bolivia), UCBC and UNDA (Brazil), CNR (Peru), Arpas (El Salvador), IGER (Guatemala), CORAPE (Ecuador), and UDECA (Dominican Republic). In 1972, many of them founded ALER (Latin American Association of Radio Education), the regional association of community radios. At the international level, they supported the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) promoted by the movement of Non-Aligned Countries, that had an impact on the MacBride Report published by UNESCO in 1980. In each country, while they accompanied other popular movements fighting for social, politic and civil rights, community radio stations also demanded legal recognition.

In the 20th century, that demand was extended to integral media policy reforms aimed at limiting media concentration, legalizing and promoting community media (including indigenous media), and fostering national, local, and independent production. The aim was to restrict the domination of private corporations based on the perception that the unmatched power of market forces in terms of ownership, funding, and content was the key problem of public communication in the region. 

These notions are based on the concept of communication as a human, universal, collective, and positive right that should be guaranteed by the State. They draw on the principles promoted by the Non-Aligned Movement (which endorsed the New World Information and Communication Order debates in the 1960s and the 1970s) and articulated in the MacBride Report in 1980. The right to communicate includes but goes beyond freedom of speech and access to information. The human right to communicate is not just for media owners and journalists, but for everybody. It includes access to media consumption and production, social participation in media management and production and in devising broadcasting policies, content diversity in every media, diversity in the media system, and equity in the distribution of information between nations, regions of a country, political powers, cultural communities, economic entities and social groups.

To reinforce this demand, community radio allied with other media movements and social movements in coalitions and networks in each country such as Coalición por una Radiodifusión Democrática (Coalition for a Democratic Broadcasting) in Argentina and Coalición por una Comunicación Democrática (Coalition for a Democratic Communication) in Uruguay. In most countries, they played key roles in bolstering communication policy reforms in the 2000s.

After decades of resistance to states, community radio stations and their allies began to negotiate with them to influence communication policies. These traditionally disempowered entities have been the main promoters of communication legislation reform that ensures diversity and, in particular, participation by the sector in the legal provision of audiovisual communication services. Alongside other civil society organizations, they played an unprecedented role in the debate and formulation of new media policies in the region.

People educated in and motivated by the right to communicate ideal in community radio stations and networks decades ago – intellectuals, activists and politicians – play key roles in communication and political fields today. Some of them even became important state functionaries like Augusto Dos Santos, Minister of Communications during the presidency of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, or Rafael Roncagliolo, Minister of Foreign Affairs during the government of Ollanta Humala in Peru (Dietz, 2017).

Their impacts
Over the past decade and a half, in many countries community media have succeeded in their struggle for state recognition. They have had an impact on the 11 new radio broadcasting and telecommunications acts passed in the region since 2004, which recognized community media as legal providers of broadcasting services. In addition, almost all of them introduced more equitable distribution of the radio spectrum in the commercial, state and community sectors. Some laws reserved for them a third of the electromagnetic spectrum (Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador), established state promotion mechanisms (Argentina), and participation in media policy-making institutions (Argentina, Uruguay).

This created an unprecedented scenario for community media. They need to apply for a license or legal authorization to provide audiovisual services. In addition, they can advocate for the implementation of new laws in relation to the particularities of the sector. Fulfilling the requirements of new laws brings novel challenges for their economic sustainability and growth, and requires new administrative, legal and accounting skills and knowledge.

Since 2015, in several countries of the region and along with political changes there has been a change of direction in communication policies directed at community media. Although the norms sanctioned in the previous period were not repealed, there are significant slowdowns in the processes of legalization and promotion of these stations. At the same time, measures allowing concentration of ownership by audiovisual and telecommunications corporations have been deployed. Governments that lean to the right distrust popular voices.

Their relevance today
In a context of high concentration of media ownership, advertising and audiences, rapid and massive diffusion of information including false news, and media linked to political and economic elites, community media are needed to provide alternative information from a diversity of perspectives. When violent expressions of racism, xenophobia, and classism increasingly come not only from isolated social groups but also from states, a form of communication that recognizes different people as equal, with history and destiny in common, is essential for democratic societies.

In the digital age, community broadcasting is still important in a region with growing levels of internet access and affordability, but also with enormous inequalities in access according to the geographical location and socio-economic situation of the population. Here, community broadcasters are starting – slowly and unevenly, according to their economic possibilities – a transition towards digitalisation and convergent technologies.

In summary, we reaffirm the relevance of community, people’s and alternative media for their history of solidarity with popular movements, social struggles and disadvantaged sectors of society; for their leading role in the challenge to expand communication rights; and for their contribution to diversity and pluralism: crucial factors in the construction of democratic and just societies.

On the one hand, their presence helps to configure more plural and diverse media systems, given that the sectors that participate in it multiply. On the other hand, these media allow the intervention of subjects, themes and perspectives that usually do not have a place in the private-commercial or state media. That is why non-profit media are central to guaranteeing the right to communicate and crucial to the development of democratic, diverse and pluralistic societies. For these reasons, the existence of community media cannot be left to the market. The role of the State in promoting them is essential. ν


This article is based on:
Segura, M. S (2011) Las disputas por democratizar las comunicaciones. Las tomas de posición de las organizaciones sociales. (Córdoba, 2001-2009), PhD Thesis, UBA. Available at: 

Segura, M. S. (2014) “La sociedad civil y la democratización de las comunicaciones en Latinoamérica”, in: Iconos. Revista de Ciencias Sociales, FLACSO-Ecuador, Quito, May. Available at: 

Segura, M. S. (2017) “From media development to public policies: the impact of foreign aid in the latin american communication field”, in: Benequista, N.; Abbot, S.; Mano, W.; & Rotman, P. International Media Development: Historical Perspectives and New Frontiers, Peter Lang, Forthcoming.

Segura, M. S. (2017) “The impact of foreign aid in Latin American popular communication”, in: 2017 IAMCR pre-conference “Reflections on foreign aid, philanthropy and change in media systems”, Cartagena de Indias, Juy 15.

Segura, M. S & S. Waisbord (2016) Media movements. Civil society and media policy reforms in Latin America, Zedbooks, London. 

Segura, M. S., A. Linares, A. L. Hidalgo, L. Kejval, V. Longo, N. Traversaro & N. Vinelli (2016) “Brechas. La desigualdad en las políticas de fomento de medios comunitarios, otros medios e industrias culturales”, in: Revista Latinoamericana de Ciencias de la Comunicación, No 25, ALAIC, Brazil. Available at: 


María Soledad Segura holds a PhD from Universidad de Buenos Aires and is a professor at Facultad de Ciencias de la Comunicación and Facultad de Ciencias Sociales of Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina, and researcher at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas. She leads research groups about civil society and communication and culture rights, and about community media. Her most recent books are Media movements. Civil society and media policy reform in Latin America (with Silvio Waisbord, Zedbooks, 2016) and Los medios sin fines de lucro entre la Ley Audiovisual y los decretos. Estrategias, desafíos y debates entre 2009 y 2015 (editor, with Cintia Weckesser, Editorial de la UNC, 2016).

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