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The radio station fighting false COVID news in Guatemala

From their ‘space cabin’, Radio Sónica is building a new radio movement and community for young people in Central America

Taken from the Summer 2021 issue of Dazed

From a tiny purple cabin, in a valley flanked by four volcanoes, a group of young journalists is pushing back against a tide of white noise, creating space for marginalised young people. Live on air from Guatemala City, Radio Sónica breaks the country’s fiercest taboos, passes the microphone and counters the flood of coronavirus disinformation which has made media literacy a life-or-death issue over the last year. “We never, ever say we’re giving a voice to those who don’t have one – of course they have one!” says Melu Coyoy, one of the station’s hosts. “We just hand them a mic and ask, ‘What do you want to say? What’s on your mind? What’s in your heart?’” They’re a tight-knit team who vibrate with enthusiasm for the work they do.

Around 70 per cent of Guatemala’s population is under 30, making it the youngest country in Latin America. But young people here are stigmatised, ignored and patronised by politicians and mainstream media alike, even more so if they are from vulnerable or difficult backgrounds. In Guatemala City, the country’s capital, they are routinely denied work based on which zona of the city they live in. Many grow up in unstable environments: poverty, malnutrition and gang violence are widespread, and many have to earn money from an early age, meaning they don’t finish school.

“We work for kids that other media don’t take into account,” says Coyoy. “But those media are missing out on an opportunity to really get to know Guatemala’s young people – its chavos and chavas (kids). They are right there and ready to engage.”

“We never, ever say we’re giving a voice to those who don’t have one – of course they have one! We just hand them a mic and ask, ‘What do you want to say?’” – Melu Coyoy

Sónica breaks the barrier between audience and presenter, strategically using one of the country’s most traditional media: radio. A fifth of Guatemala’s population cannot read, and while not every household has an internet connection, and few can rely on mobile data, there is always a radio blaring somewhere. Not only was Guatemala one of the world’s worst-prepared countries for the pandemic according to the Global Health Security Index, it has one of Latin America’s weakest health systems. Mid-crisis, the government launched Alerta Guate, an app to keep citizens up to date on the latest Covid statistics and safety advice. But the app is also designed to store users’ personal information for up to ten years, and has constant access to their whereabouts as well as phone cameras and mics.

The station doesn’t just take young people into account, it co-creates with them – taking its brightly painted ‘space cabin’ into schools in the most deprived parts of the city and broadcasting shows there, as well as staying in close contact on air through WhatsApp Q&As and call-ins. And inclusivity is more than a buzzword for Sónica: as well as using inclusive grammar (a hot topic in a gendered language like Spanish), the team translate content into Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan languages – there are more than 20 in use across the country, and 40% of Guatemalans do not speak Spanish as a first language.

Sónica’s tight-knit team is close in age to its listeners – mostly between 13 and 20 years old – who write in about their most intimate problems, from bullying and domestic violence to work and migration – often to the USA. “In a word… we’re noisy! But in the best way,” laughs Coyoy, with an energy that makes it easy to see why people call in to talk to her. “We speak with our audience exactly as we would with each other: authentically, honestly, openly. It’s super chilero (awesome).”

Presenters gear their shows around topics chosen by their listeners, from fatphobia and mental health to toxic masculinity and internet culture. The shows cover tough topics in a fiercely conservative society pervaded by religious taboos; the thorniest conversations centre on abortion (still illegal in Guatemala) and LGBTQ+ identities, provoking backlash and even campaigns to get people to unfollow and stop listening to Sónica. Despite their critics, the team are determined, doubly motivated by seeing how taboos deprive young people of necessary information on sex: Guatemala has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the region.

Sónica’s majority-female team is led by Jenni Velásquez, a 23-year-old with outsize glasses and a huge smile. In 2015, she was a participant in Sónica’s first-ever broadcasting course for schoolkids: four years later, she became director of the station. “I was so nervous in my first show – I had never had an opportunity like that,” says Velásquez, her excitement for radio palpable – and infectious. “I had never had so much freedom; I barely knew what to do with it. In Guatemala, they teach you that you have to be a very specific sort of person to be behind a microphone – but I learned here at Sónica that you don’t, you just have to be yourself.”

“We identify our own sources, so that our audience can investigate and verify us too – we don’t have the monopoly on truth. We want them to be sceptical of everything” – Gilda Barrientos

When Covid hit, the station had to find a new MO, says Coyoy: “I remember the day the first case was announced in Guatemala. We all just went, ‘Right, OK then, this is here now. Let’s work on this, let’s do something.’ We talked a lot in those early days, working out what information to listen to, what sources to use – how to inform our community.” What Sónica and the country at large were confronted with was an onslaught of disinformation: social media and WhatsApp groups full of home recipes for ‘coronavirus prevention’ like eucalyptus vapours and lemon juice. Then came disinformation about vaccines – widely shared conspiracies about mind control chips and a growing antivax movement gaining its foothold through shareable multimedia content. “Nobody does verification for young people – it has been something for older people in a format which is… yeah… boring!” says Gilda Barrientos, who leads the team’s factchecking unit, referring to the waning popularity of traditional news media among younger audiences. “So we started doing hard news, but in a form which would interest our audience.” Her long, curly hair pulled back, she speaks with a powerful clarity – all of her thoughts seem to emerge perfectly formed. With this new approach, Bajo La Lupa (Under the Magnifying Glass) was born, taking on topics from facemasks to miracle cures. The segment is produced on a variety of platforms, from social media to ‘micropodcasts’ which can be shared on WhatsApp. “We identify news which has gone viral, then we consult at least two sources, decide which medium to use, and create case studies and graphics,” says Barrientos. “We also identify our own sources, so that our audience can investigate and verify us too – we don’t have the monopoly on truth. We want them to be sceptical of everything.”

Official sources like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and government institutions are always the first port of call, but those have to be scrutinised too. Government information on the pandemic in Guatemala has been highly problematic: chaotic at best, intentionally obfuscating the pandemic’s effects at worst. “Coronavirus has been… a whole thing,” jokes Coyoy, shaking her head. “It’s been pretty difficult with the lack of government information – no data, no information, clashing official announcements, constantly shifting regulations and measures. You create a segment and two hours later none of the information is relevant any more.”

To tackle disinformation where it was emerging, Sónica started working on social media as well as on air, creating Instagram stories and graphics that debunked myths without making their audience feel stupid for having believed – or shared – the story. “The biggest lesson has been learning to transform everything: to accept the limited things we could do, and do them well,” says Coyoy. “The most important thing is that we accompany and inform our community. That meant creating quality content in new formats, and in record time.”

As Guatemala’s lockdowns ease, Sónica is on the road again. The health crisis has revealed a huge demand for factchecking and media education, so the team started building a van with a classroom in the back, armed with games and tools to develop critical thinking and factchecking skills. “We can break that cycle, so that we and our community can be more free in what we think and what we know,” says Barrientos. “Lack of information is how many power structures have oppressed young people – it suits those structures perfectly that people don’t investigate or think critically.

“With more media literacy, we gain the freedom to say, ‘No. I don’t believe what you are telling me, I’m going to look into it.’ Then (we can) act in the interest of society, bringing our own perspectives and realities.”

“Lack of information is how many power structures have oppressed young people – it suits those structures perfectly that people don’t investigate or think critically” – Gilda Barrientos

As a young team operating in tough circumstances, Radio Sónica is up against it, but their energy and the bonds they share, as well as an unrelenting focus on their audience, pushes them to keep moving. The office has a huge table at which all 25 team members sit down to work, strewn with flashcards of ideas from their listeners.

“We’re like a lab – not everything will turn out great!” says Velásquez. “We let ourselves design and create and give things a go. The pandemic really taught us to look for solutions, alternative roads to where we wanted to go.”

The group are already working on projects in Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, taking their fight against disinformation and collaborative ethos to a wider audience. “I want us to reach more people, grow our community and create those small changes which spread – those awakenings of awareness. That’s how change is made,” says Coyoy, smiling. “So many of these chavos and chavas are still searching for their identity, looking for the information they need along the way.”