Radio Conciencia

Radio Conciencia

By Jennifer Sutcliffe (Contact)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Francisca Cortes takes a phone call from a man who identifies himself as “The Mexican.”

“Good morning, this is Consciousness Radio,” Cortes says in Spanish. She wears a worn headset and speaks into a microphone rigged up with masking tape.

The man on the other end requests that she play a song by Los Alegres de La Sierra. She’s just started her 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. radio show and already two other callers have called in with requests.

Cortes puts the song in the queue and continues reading news from the Mexican newspaper La Jornada on the air.

The low-power, 100-watt station of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers transmits politics and culture from the homelands of Immokalee residents. Radio Conciencia — its name in Spanish — reaches 15 miles from its location in the heart of the city. One part entertainment and two parts information, it’s like a foreign-language top-40 political platform.

The deejays on Radio Conciencia weren’t trained professionally in radio broadcast. In one sweep, a grassroots group in favor of community radio — called the Prometheus Project — set them up in December 2003. Volunteers assembled donated equipment and showed them the basics of monitoring a sound switchboard before handing them the mic.

“We were all very nervous when we started,” Cortes says.

After three years of practice, she flips switches and creates playlists like a pro. She calmly reads news feeds from Oaxaca, Mexico, where she’s from, and earnestly informs farmworkers about their labor rights.

Through all of this, she gains the trust of her listeners. New people are joining the ranks of the town’s immigrant farmers every day, and the more workers who support the coalition, the merrier the worklife of Immokalee, she says.

Photo Gallery

Photo: Anthony Souffle

- - -

Behind the coalition’s headquarters, the trailer temporarily housing WCTI (107.9 on the FM dial) is quiet except for the voice of a soft-spoken deejay.

The scene is a microcosm of the city, a place that appears undisturbed throughout much of the day while farmworkers are laboring in the fields.

Most of the radio shows are in Spanish, Haitian Creole, Zapotec and Quiche. The programs provide a rare service to non-Spanish speakers.

“Even though we’re a mainly Hispanic community, some farmworkers don’t speak Spanish very well,” Cortes says. “We want to reach them, too.”

On the station, the jokes aren’t offensive. The airwaves are ad-free. And every call gets answered. Cortes and many of the other 13 deejays approach the job like they’re on a mission.

Some of the radio hosts are staff workers with the coalition, but most are volunteers. All are farmworkers who spend part of the year picking fruits and vegetables, and part of the year working with the coalition.

Cortes, 24, was one of the station’s first deejays. Her daily lunchtime shift mixes horoscopes with hard news licensed by foreign news outlets.

Immigrants who miss home are always wondering what’s happening in their countries, she says. “It helps them, which is why we have to do this,” Cortes says.

Mexico-native Gerardo Reyes-Chávez, 29, is a migrant farmworker with a watermelon cooperative in northern Florida. He returns home to Immokalee this time of year, to help out farmworkers with concerns about their rights as workers.

“I’m their cheerleader,” he says.

His weekly show covers everything from local government to policy. Last Friday, he discussed housing options for migrant farmers who have recently arrived.

Reyes-Chávez says he wants to bring more guests and experts on his show. Right now, though, few people get the chance to sit in the old school desk placed in front of the radio switchboard. That’s where guests sit in during interviews.

But the space is just not conducive to a proper one-on-one. The guest microphone, which now sits in a holder made of a tape dispenser, doesn’t always work. Right now, the station doesn’t look as professional as the deejays would like.

Improvements won’t happen until the non-profit coalition can raise funds for new equipment — taller microphones and a fully-functioning console, for example — and their community center is renovated.

- - -

The drive to Immokalee takes about an hour down Immokalee Road in Naples. Not far outside the city, WCTI comes in and out of tune.

But walk into any of the businesses near the coalition — like the zapateria (shoe store), La Fiesta #3 grocery or the city’s largest store, Winn Dixie — and 107.9 FM is probably on the dial.

Three years after its initiation, Consciousness Radio is the primary source of news and community information for residents of Immokalee.

The early, long and late hours of migrant farmworkers make it difficult for them to catch up with the day’s events, Cortes says. And word about the coalition doesn’t always spread fast enough.

“Most of us (Immokalee residents) don’t have time to sit down and read the newspaper, a lot of us don’t have access to the Internet, and some don’t even have televisions,” Cortes says.

But everyone owns a radio, she says. Even winter farmerworkers can get their news while on the job, saving the evenings for much-needed rest.

Juan Pedro, a.k.a. “The Mexican,” listens on a portable radio while he works on a nearby citrus farm. “I’m always listening,” Pedro says in Spanish. “I carry this radio with me to keep up with what’s going on.”

On his breaks, Pedro gathers with other workers to call in song requests. These account for most of the calls hosts receive during their shifts.

Reyes-Chávez says farmworkers can be “a bit shy” about talking on the air about anything related to their jobs. They feel more comfortable when their identities are not being broadcast to the entire city.

But they do call in. Off the air, hosts help them problems with their jobs, or their employers — much like they would if they had walked into the coalition office.

- - -

During harvest times of the year, Immokalee has about 15,000 to 20,000 residents working on the farms. If their ears are open, they’ll hear about their labor rights on WCTI. It’s been around long enough that word has spread.

“Everyone in the farmworker community at least knows about the station,” Reyes-Chávez says.

By the response the coalition receives from announcing events and demonstrations, he knows a large percentage of that group is listening regularly. “We’ll get thousands of people attending (coalition events) — much larger numbers than when we didn’t have the station,” he says.

He says the radio station was instrumental in their wage war against Taco Bell, which ended in a coalition victory in 2005. And the station plays an important part in the group’s mission — to reclaim the rights of farmworkers, Reyes-Chávez says.

“It’s accessible to the whole community,” he says. “It’s like having a meeting with the entire city.”

After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, for example, the coalition received several calls about a farming cooperative that had not paid its workers in several weeks because of crop damage.

Without naming the company, one of the deejays announced to farmworkers that if they hadn’t been paid, they should come to the coalition headquarters.

“That was around 4 p.m.,” Reyes-Chávez says. “By 6 p.m., hundreds of people were lined up outside.”

The coalition then confronted the owner of the cooperative over the phone, and he admitted he was wrong. He agreed to meet with coalition workers to sort out the issue.

In Immokalee, radio is the wave of the future.