Community Radio Tunes into Spirit of Towns South African Stations Send out Messages about Life

Article excerpt

TROUBLE WAS breaking out at the HK clothing factory at 11 every morning. That's when the radio call-in show "Heartbeat of the Community" came on.

Tuesdays were especially rambunctious, because the subject was gender equality.

Women callers would tell their stories of marital abuse, naming their husbands on the air and even telling where they worked.

On the factory floor, the women workers would shout at the loudspeaker, "Don't let him beat you like that!"

Some would rush to the phone to get on the air to denounce brutal husbands.

The sewing machines slowed or stopped altogether.

Finally, the factory manager had had enough. He switched the work floor radio to the insipid background music and numbing commentaries of one of the government stations. The workers promptly walked off the job, demanding the right to hear the program they loved.

The cause of all the trouble - and its quick solution - was a new community radio station, Radio Atlantis, and its general manager, Eva Georgia, 28. She quickly got the factory manager and the strike leaders into the studio for an on-air negotiating session.

They settled the two-day strike. Management agreed to switch the factory radio back to Radio Atlantis, and the women agreed to keep working up to speed. The radio station now even interrupts its programming with the frequent exhortation, "Keep working! Keep your job! But keep listening!"

At their best, such low-power new radio stations are becoming the vibrant centers of life and hope in communities across the new South Africa.

With shoestring financing and mostly volunteer staffs, the FM stations ventilate family problems, settle disputes, fight crime, report the news, give health advice, build local economies and provide entertainment. Above all, they can give a community a new spirit.

Atlantis had looked like a hopeless case, a relic of the bigotry and mismanagement of apartheid. It was founded as a supposed model community - actually a dumping ground - for blacks driven out of designated white areas under the old system of racial separation.

The scheme collapsed when nearby factories, where the residents worked, closed down and left the people jobless. Atlantis became known as "the Lost City of Apartheid."

About the time of South Africa's peaceful revolution in 1994, a local "development forum" managed to attract some new employers, but Atlantis remained a failure in the Cape region and in the eyes of its own people. …