With 24 years of broadcasting, Radio Heliópolis engages and transforms community on the outskirts of São Paulo

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  • February 11, 2016

By Giovana Sanchez

It was the early 2000s when Reginaldo José Gonçalves received a visit from a policeman during the broadcast of his rap program on Radio Heliópolis, a community radio station on the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil.

"I thought they would shut down the radio," Gonçalves said in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. "But when I opened the door, the policeman had a child next to him, and told me the kid was lost. He asked me if I could talk about the child on the radio, and I said 'of course!' We made the announcement and in five minutes the boy's mother showed up at the radio to get him."

Years later, Gonçalves, the radio's current financial administrator, said he was walking in the community's streets when a young man called him by name.

"He asked if I did not recognize him, I said no, and he told me he was that lost boy from years ago, found with the radio's help."

On Feb. 13, UNESCO will celebrate World Radio Day, including the thousands of community radio stations around the world. As of 2015, Brazil's Ministry of Communication had given 4,724 grants to operate community radio stations in the country.

Radio Heliópolis, like many community radio stations throughout the country, is a bedrock of the neighborhood of 200,000 residents it serves in Heliópolis.

Founded in 1992 to meet residents' needs for communication and organization, Radio Heliópolis’ transmissions began with loudspeakers hung on electricity poles. "I remember that one of the speakers was on the football field where I played football," Gonçalves recalled.

This went on for five years, until equipment was finally purchased and transmission moved to FM.

Gonçalves grew up with the radio, and as a teenager, he got a slot on the station’s schedule to present a music show with friends.

"We started very successfully, and one day the radio board called us to a meeting. We were told that the program was too commercial and that it was not the purpose of the radio. I did not understand at the time, but then I started to realize that people stopped us in the streets to solve problems and ask for guidance. Then I went further in community work. I changed my ideas and started to think of the collective benefit that also brings the individual benefit."

The shows are thematic, and in all of them, producers emphasize the collective nature of the station.

"We make announcements about dogs, parrots, missing children, everything! We also report on the cultural agenda of the day and week, with free and affordable event options," Gonçalves said. They also have religious and news programs.

Brazilian legislation of community radios came in 1998. But, despite the legal recognition, many radios still suffer because of the slow delivery of grants and restrictions on power, transmission range and available forms of financing, according to freedom of expression organization Article 19 Brazil.

For these reasons, in July 2006, the National Telecommunications Agency (known as Anatel) decreed the closure of Radio Heliópolis, which only re-opened after six months of mobilizations. It was not until 2008 that the radio station got the final approval to operate legally.

Today, with 28 employees – who are all volunteers - Radio Heliopolis is still struggling financially. But, thanks to the support of the Union of Associations and Centers of Heliopolis and São João Clímaco Residents (UNAS) and other donors, it is maintaining a daily schedule.

"Today we work in peace, without fear that one day the police will shut us down,” Gonçalves said “The law regulates but does not give the radio conditions to survive."

"We are grateful every day for having the radio that is a vehicle of community and for the community. We have to occupy these spaces, they are our spaces," Gonçalves said.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.