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Relinquishing the Mic

The day I started work at Feminist International Radio Endeavor (FIRE) in Costa Rica, I was put on the air. It was 1992, and I knew nothing about radio. I had joined FIRE a women's project that broadcast a daily program in English and Spanish, heard internationally on shortwave Radio for Peace International (RFPI) for a three-month internship; I stayed four years.

María Suarez, a popular educator and human rights activist from Puerto Rico who was FIRE's first programmer when it started in 1991, plopped me down in front of the mic and asked me a few questions. Then she introduced the program's first segment. I have no idea what I said, but I still remember the thrill of being on the air and knowing that our words could be heard by shortwave listeners in a hundred countries.

By urging me to jump right into the fray, María set the tone for my four years with FIRE. Her lesson: this is easy, anybody can do it, here's the microphone, chévere! I would go on to interview dozens of women in the field or on live shows, to record testimonies for human rights organizations, and to help organize live remote broadcasts from events such as the UN Conference on Human Rights. In every circumstance we successfully encouraged women to join us on the air and at the controls. "We're not experts, we just learned this stuff ourselves," we told them. It was true.

While all the FIRE producers possessed skills pertinent to producing radio?María was a seasoned activist, and Katerina Anfossi (originally from Chile) and Nancy Vargas (from Costa Rica) both had journalism degrees?none of the team was a radio professional per se. For the most part, that seemed to work to our advantage. We had pretty quickly picked up the technical knowledge we needed to use tape recorders, edit programs, and operate the broadcast studio, and thus weren't at all hesitant to quickly show others. Many of the indigenous, black, rural, or refugee women, and others whose voices and perspectives we wanted to get on the airwaves had little or no experience with the media, had low self-esteem, or were otherwise intimidated. So we placed a high emphasis on training and just helping women get comfortable with the equipment.

For instance, in 1993 I interviewed a Bosnian woman in a refugee camp in Croatia. I was there with a delegation of women journalists; we had our cameras and recorders out, and were talking to a large group of mainly women and children. At one point this woman made intense eye contact. I understood she wanted to hold the microphone. I gave it to her immediately and she held it in front of her mouth as she told us about her village being burned and her husband and two sons being killed. Now that she had control of the mic, she seemed more at ease. This was the sort of situation we always strove to create.

Our format combined programs sent to us from other producers (such as the Women's International News Gathering Service in the US, Radio Tierra in Chile, and the Women's Radio Collective in Peru); pre-recorded interviews; and live, in-studio commentary, interviews, call-ins, and conversation.

FIRE's founder, Genevieve Vaughn, a feminist philanthropist from Texas passionately committed to women's media, had envisioned FIRE as a shortwave broadcast outlet for women's programs from around the world, so we worked hard to keep widening our network of sources. When Nancy Vargas and I went to the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) conference in Mexico in 1992, for example, we met women from South Africa, Tanzania, and Ireland who later sent us their programming. In addition to providing core funding for staff salaries and airtime fees to RFPI, Vaughn covered shipping costs for the programs?not an insignificant matter for a poor women's collective in Africa or South America.

Although FIRE continued to receive more programs, its position as the only daily feminist show on shortwave (which meant effectively that it was the only daily international women's broadcast of any kind) propelled us to find a way to cover more international events. So we cooked up the idea of doing live remote broadcasts. One of the first took place at the 1992 AMARC conference. With assistance from RFPI, we figured out a way to hook up a simple portable radio studio consisting of a mixer, a few microphones, and two or three cassette players to a phone line that would carry our signal back to Costa Rica for live shortwave transmission. Nancy and I assembled our little studio and nervously tested the connection to Costa Rica. When María and Katerina said they could hear us and that the levels were fine, we felt triumphant. Grassroots CNN!

We opened up the mics and heard stories about women's and community radio in the Philippines, Tanzania, South Africa, and Ireland, among other places. It was a passionate program of diverse international viewpoints rarely heard beyond the range of local community radio. Just as important as the information was the fun we had doing live radio together in the field.

It wasn't to be our last time. FIRE broadcast from the UN Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, '93), the UN Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, '94), and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, '95). We usually applied for special grants from the international agencies that were funding other NGO participants, to cover the costs of phone calls (several days of hour-long broadcasts could add up to several thousand dollars), plus airfare and room and board.

At each conference, FIRE had to secure a space to broadcast that was near the gathering place of the women's NGOs and had access to an international phone line (not always easy at UN facilities, where media are expected to use only the well-equipped official media centers). It always took much insisting and sometimes international pressure from women's groups to guarantee our placement outside of the official media centers and close to the chaotic hub.

In Vienna, the Women's Rights Place was ground zero for the women's human rights movement that had converged on Austria from every corner of the globe. Meetings and informal gatherings took place almost twenty-four hours a day. The din in the room was constant, but without fail at 4 p.m., we opened our mics for our daily broadcast. Not only did we cover the great range of human rights issues?Muslim women's rights, recognition of rape as a war crime, recognition of violence against women in the home as a human rights violation, to name just a few?but we reported on both the official UN conference and the concurrent nongovernmental one. It wouldn't have been the program to tune into if you were looking for "objective reporting," but if you wanted passionate, informed, insider views and testimonies there was nothing like it.

You can do radio the FIRE way almost anywhere. At AMARC, we met Margaretta D'Arcy, who ran a micro-radio station out of her bedroom in Galway, Ireland because "women feel most comfortable in that intimate space." In 1994 at the Interdisciplinary Congress on Women, we broadcast from an open tent in the University of Costa Rica's central plaza. I was worried about wind battering our studio and causing the mics to hum, but our central location and open walls attracted interest like a magnet, and was more than worth any technical imperfections.

Just how did FIRE gauge the quality of its programs? Since shortwave audiences are by definition extremely far-flung, we didn't have any immediate feedback loops. Weeks, or sometimes months, after a broadcast, shortwave reception reports would float into the station from Japan or Cuba or maybe Canada, and we'd add another pin to our world map. Between 1991 and 1997, FIRE received 600 letters from forty-three countries; 28.7 percent from the US, 25.9 percent from Cuba, and then the UK, Mexico, and Japan in des-cending order. More than 80 percent of these listeners (in the majority they were men!) said they tuned in because they liked the programs, not just because they listened to shortwave in general.

So we were doing something right. Our passionate, unabashedly feminist programming was finding an audience out there in the shortwaves. But it's also true that "success" didn't depend on ratings. Funded by various agencies that believed in the project, we had the freedom to experiment and to set our own priorities and make programming choices (within our economic limitations). Once we let a Quechua Indian pray in her language on a live broadcast, even though she stood up to do so, leaving the microphone on the table far below. That made for some dead air, but those of us present in the room were moved to tears. No one would have dared interrupt her.

Or, when the Bosnian refugee woman wished to hold the microphone, I gave it to her. A mainstream news reporter probably wouldn't, because she would have risked, among other things, not catching some comment she needed for the report she had been assigned. Different priorities, different outcomes. Both have their time and place.

For the most part, like radio producers everywhere, we strove to produce technically competent programming that sounded great over the airwaves. But if someone was crying, or was repeating herself in an effort to tell an important story, that person's well-being in that moment was more important to us than the technical quality of the program. There's often a fine line between "amateurishness" and profundity. FIRE walked it all the time. Another line lies between "professionalism" and shallowness. That line didn't interest us at all.

Some of my favorite radio experiences with FIRE took place far away from the broadcast arena, in the intimate territory of personal testimony. For the half-decade leading up to the World Conference on Human Rights, a movement gathered force to have gender violence and violence against women fully recognized as human rights violations. Many "tribunals" were organized on immigrant women's rights, international sex trafficking, "comfort women," and all aspects of violence against women. One of the biggest was the Global Tribunal on Women's Human Rights, where FIRE recorded the day-long proceedings and produced a cassette series that won an award from UNESCO.

But our involvement with testimonies went even deeper. In Vienna, we constituted ourselves as a "permanent radio tribunal" and recorded the testimonies of forty-four women, from twenty-seven different countries, who couldn't testify at the public tribunal. Over the years, we played this role at other events, recording hundreds of testimonies, many of which were sent as documentation to human rights organizations.

These intimate encounters had a deep impact on me. A bond of trust was established between FIRE and these women; they were willing to speak in great detail to me or one of my colleagues about very painful and personal events in their lives. It was one thing to hear facts and figures about rape or wife beating, but it was another to hear the story directly from the victim, who in many cases was speaking publicly for the first time. I listened to an Ecuadoran lawyer who had been brutally beaten by her first husband in a small village in the Andes; I heard from a Bosnian woman who had been raped by a Serb, became pregnant, and then was denied an abortion when she escaped to Croatia. Many, many stories. We recorded for ten minutes or forty-five or however long the speaker requested; there was never a time limit. Nor did we use any special format. The most important thing was to allow women to feel safe, and to listen.

Working with FIRE helped me become a better listener, to understand the political power of listening with a microphone. For many women, and many people who have no voice in the media, radio is the key to their chance for dignity and survival. If FIRE is about anything, it's about that chance.