by Kate Coyer
(With supplemental support from Dave Arney, and Pete Tridish. Some of the
names have been changed to protect the guilty.)
If MTV’s“The Real Cancun”takes us to the depths of formulaic soft porn with the intercollegiate date rape set,“The Real WTO/Cancun”takes Indymedia audio geeks on a fourteen-day odyssey into Radio Transmission 101.
During the week prior to the mass mobilization against the WTO last September, Indymedia was home to Tidal Wave Cancun, an alternative media convergence of workshops and collaborations where people could learn new skills and help create the temporary centre for reporting during the protests. Within the convergence center was an extensive space dedicated to the radio collective (this was a massive improvement over where us audiophiles worked in Los Angeles during the Democratic Convention in 2000, where we were crammed into the abandoned lounge of the women’s toilet with no ventilation and accompanied by a delightfully murky smell.)
I came to Cancun to help with the radio projects. There was an amazing array of people from all walks of community radio who set up a live web-radio station and produced individual stories for broadcast. In search of earning my yellow belt in Geek, however, I was drawn to the tactical media group where we would learn to make antennas, solder transmitters and play with fun looking audio gear that had pretty blinking lights and knobs. It was the first time I was involved in building a micro radio station, and in the end, it didn’t really work. I don’t build many things. I took it quite personally.
This here then, is a self consciously self-reflexive piece about our valiant but ultimately fruitless, often wacky efforts to build some kind of broadcast communication in Cancun. At the time, I felt dejected, let down. With some reflection, I started to feel powerful, mighty, bad-ass. I have a fresh new outlook on the world. Instead of seeing tall buildings, I see places for antennas.
First meeting, our task is set. Preparatory plans are already underway for a complex broadcast network of radio transmitters and antennas to serve as a means of communication for street activists. A rough diagram of four possible communication networks under consideration is laid out in front of us. One model relies on a coordination of mobile transmitters. Another employs a manual relay network of multiple transmitters from fixed points. Oh, we will also build a micro radio station.
We are about ten people. Three have real technical audio experience. The rest of us are eager and willing. But clearly, our strongest assets are a tall guy from Philly, his yet-unbuilt four-watt transmitter kit, another transmitter en route from Chiapas and the anticipated arrival of low-power radio guru Stephen Dunifer.
What we need for the system to work are transmitters, antennas and tall places to put them. Our aspirations don’t exactly match our means.
With the basic structure of the system finally agreed upon, the next step in Geek Week is finding space on the FM bandwidth for our broadcast. Cancun is resplendent with open frequencies and Dave (the tall guy from Philly), lets me choose from among four options for no reason except that I’m lurking about and he’s a good teacher who knows the importance of engaging his pupils. I select the one which happens to be the frequency of the Hip Hop station in Los Angeles, Power 105.9, and that amuses me. I also learn that antenna length does matter.
Our tactical media group has been meeting in clandestine quarters, which basically consists of the second floor where it is so hot only die-hard techies can tolerate the humidity. The conspiratorial aspect of our collective has clearly peaked the interest of new arrivals to the convergence space and our next meeting inadvertently gathers more people- much to the displeasure of our conveners. Being a bit naive, I don’t feel too bothered, but security is tightened nevertheless. Only those who have attended meetings or are known by someone can stay. The rest are unceremoniously dismissed.
No matter, the unsuspected mole is already in place. He is considered a trusted member of our tactical group. We move our meetings to the roof next door which makes for a more elegantly backlit and surreptitious spot to gather.
Next day, Dave inadvertently goes antenna-parts-shopping with the mole. They travel to every store in Cancun that might carry solid copper wire. None is found, though Dave remarks he is duly impressed by the selection at Serens, which is what Radio Shack would be if run by nerds instead of rabid cell-phone salespeople. A trip to the local Home Depot clone is planned for later that night. You have not experienced the real Cancun until you’ve tried to find a taxi to take you downtown with a three meter piece of copper pipe hanging out the window.
Our mole was soon outed at a tactical meeting. Someone learned that the organization he said he was with in Chiapas just didn’t exist. Too many people organizing Indymedia Cancun are actually from Chiapas to pull that one off. Seeing as nothing in our plan works so far, we don’t worry too much about what our special friend may have gleaned.
Still, the experience made me rethink my nonchalance and take seriously what was at stake for the people involved who live in Mexico and would face repercussions.
Over the next couple of days, it becomes apparent that direct action organizers aren’t exactly looking for the stealth means of communication we thought they were- they just needed to talk to one another during an action. What they needed were mobile phones and a dispatcher! This would have been a reasonable time to take stock of our methodology. I believe someone actually said,“They just don’t know they need it yet. They’ll use it if it works.”(The other rather overlooked piece of the plan was that our broadcast system relied on people in the streets possessing radios for them to actually hear what was going out on air.)
By now, our previously tight-knit group has begun to dissipate. What we set out to build and what we had actually made to work was growing further and further apart- especially since what we had working so far was nil. I felt disappointed I had invested so much time towards so little success, as everyone else did. Others make the wise decision to move on at this stage and put their energy towards other actions in need of support. But a handful of us were blindly determined to make some kind of radio transmission work. We’d lost our most knowledgeable cohort when Dave returned to work in Philadelphia- but Dunifer had arrived and hope was in the air. What began as a complex and overly ambitious network structure now came down to a“simple”micro radio station consisting of one transmitter and one antenna. No problem, right?
Fast-forward to Wednesday. We’d been in Cancun for over a week and still have no working transmitter. We do have a cache of antennas we’ve built from instructions gleaned at Dave’s workshop. (This productive round of antenna construction occurred at some point but I can’t remember exactly when or exactly why. That’s how time works at Indymedia convergences - days and projects blur into each other and are separated only by events in the outside world that begin feeling further and further away- even though they are what brought everyone together in the first place. It’s easy to get lost inside the moment. Which is exactly where I was. Well, simultaneously lost and on the roof late at night building antennas with Carlos and a couple from Estonia. Beers were bought. Instructions laid. The boys cut and the girls weld. Predictably, wisecracks are made about women with powerful blowtorches in hand. A Flashdance moment it is not. Nevertheless we’re pleased with our productivity.)
As for the transmitters- the success of the micro radio station now rests with a transmitter en route on a bus from elsewhere in Mexico. Security being what it is, the bus is detained numerous times, the transmitter along with it. We begin to wonder if we’ll have a transmitter at all.
By this time, passions are running high. The tone of the demonstrations has shifted dramatically since Lee Kyung Hae took his own life in protest of the WTO earlier in the day. The delegation of independent journalists from Korea who came to support the Korean farmers are stripped of their official press credentials and relocate to the Indymedia space. In an instant, everything matters more. At the same time, here I am so wrapped up in building a radio station I’m losing all ability to see the proverbial beach for the sand.
I’m not the only one caught up in this radio moment though. There have been a few of us narrowly focusing on the project, and others are involved depending on what needs to be done. Late that night, while we are still awaiting the transmitter, a couple of people decide to set up the antenna. Only, they strap the antenna straight onto another antenna already on the roof which is exactly what they were reminded not to do as they were leaving. This is not my knowledge being imparted but that of our techie-at-large, Dave, with whom I’ve clocked many online hours chatting since he left. (FYI, your broadcast antenna should always be mounted no less than six feet away from any other antenna or tall metal structure.) It‘s the first time I feel slighted and pissed off during the whole process- but it’s a valuable lesson for me. I’d begun feeling quite proprietary about the radio gear, which is not in the collective vein and is not very productive.
Next day, the transmitter arrives! No time to celebrate, though. The antenna
is being relocated and I am trying to tune the transmitter to the selected
frequency (something usually done in tandem with the antenna, which is, of
course, not by my side but up a rooftop having it’s performance enhanced.)
I decide to try a circuitous route and finish constructing one of the other
antennas as a stand-in.
Stephen Dunifer has arrived at Indymedia as our guardian angel (he always appears unexpectedly in moments of crisis) and begins sorting out what else is needed for our radio frequency test. Then, on cue, a call comes in to Indymedia that police may be on their way to raid the space. Though unconfirmed, no one wants to take this rumor’s possibility lightly. Stephen and his partner Sara express no interest in getting caught up in a raid. Stephen explains we can actually tune the transmitter with a“dummy load”in lieu of the antenna- he has one back at his hotel, where we are invited.
While they make a quick exit, the rest of us in the space run around trying to secure equipment. As the rumor spreads, people rush in from the streets to grab their personal laptops. I set about frantically finding a place to hide three seven-foot antennas. I am literally running in circles on the roof vacillating between ruminating on the seriousness of what could happen while desiring to tap my hidden craftiness in procuring safe-spots, and a massive case of the giggles at the absurdity of it all. In the end, I’m pleased with my choice of hiding spots in the above-eyelevel planter boxes circumscribing the roof- the antennas tucked flush alongside the boxes so as not to be spotted by the casual passerby.
Carlos and I enjoy a day of so-called luxury in Stephen and Sara’s room at the Radisson Hotel. We first head for the restaurant and gorge at the all-you-can-eat buffet (which serves as an exotic break from the variations of quesadillas and sopes we’ve otherwise been enjoying.) Stephen and Sara join us and even buy our lunch (thank you!). We eat dessert. Then, it’s on to the air-conditioned luxury of their hotel room, car battery and transmitter in hand. (Did I mention there was car battery involved? That was our power source. We’re not sure exactly how the car battery came into our possession, but we are happy to not ask many questions with that one. We accidentally left said car battery in the hotel restaurant. I’m sure it happens all the time.)
I spend the rest of my afternoon cleaning out my bag, talking with Sara and taking the occasional photo of Stephen at work. What was supposed to be a simple procedure turns into an all-day affair, as one problem with the equipment turns into another (something that should come as no surprise.) We feel guilty at our good fortune to be the ones“helping”tune the transmitter, but fully appreciate the change of pace from the frenetic buzz of Indymedia.
Next day, Friday. I’m beginning to feel claustrophobic. I’ve hardly been out in the streets and I’m feeling like I’ve wasted my time and contributed nothing. There’s a vibe that has infected everyone, but I’m like the Activist in the Plastic Bubble who has insulated herself to avoid the flu. Only it’s good bacteria and I want the acidophilus. The protests have been underway since Tuesday, the whole WTO meeting wraps up Saturday. Since our tactical system has been nixed, the current working plan for the micro radio station is to broadcast audio from the primarily Spanish language Indymedia web-stream to reach both the campesinos and the people who live in Cancun to help counter the inflammatory government rhetoric surrounding the protests. If we don’t get something running today, there won’t be much use carrying on. So carry on we do.
Later, three of us head to our broadcast site with an arsenal of radio gear in tow. For the first time in a while, I feel really excited. Running wires out windows and up iron rooftop ladders makes me happy.
We are about to make the final connection to the transmitter. Someone taps me on the shoulder to say the farm-workers have decided to break camp and move to where the Korean farmers are camped, right away! Since Mr. Lee’s death, the Korean farmers have been threatened with deportation and ask for support.
What? Solidarity, schmolidarity! Don’t they know we have a radio station about to go on air?!? I know it sounds so painfully self-involved and outside the entire purpose of why we are all here, but as embarrassing as it is to admit, I tell you this is all I could think about.“I broadcast. Therefore I am.”Focusing solely on the technical aspect of a project is detrimental when social needs are excluded from the picture.
We of course decide to go for it and stay put- to keep setting up the station in hopes that the signal will be strong enough to reach the new encampment. (It’s a bit like Amityville Horror- at what point do you decide the house is indeed haunted and maybe it’s best to Get the Fuck Out Now!) As if nothing has transpired, we finish our final plug insertion, I take the mic, ramble into it, morphing eventually into a feeble medley of the only songs in Spanish I know:“Guantanamera,”punctuating it with“Aye, Aye, Aye, Aye!”
Daniel heads into the other room, with his ear pressed hard against Haseim’s solar-powered safety-yellow portable radio. A few minutes of button fiddling and he hears the faint and staticky sound of my dodgy singing!
After a momentary reveling in our success, we realize that: a) we are not set up to actually broadcast content, and b) if it sounds that distorted mere yards from the transmitter, what does it sound like 50 meters away?
We begin connecting the internet stream to the transmitter with the help of an Indymedia techie who I accost getting out of a taxi, much to his displeasure for having his outing disrupted. But he is a true tech geek and stays for three hours reconfiguring the entire network. Meanwhile, I walk across the street to Wal-Mart and buy a portable CD player so at least we can broadcast something. It’s my first ever visit to a Wal-Mart. The irony is not lost on me. And if there is one thing the early days of the 21st century has reminded me is that irony is still not in fact dead, as some punters might have us believe.
I leave the store and realize that I have bought a CD player for which we have nothing play. I return to Wal-Mart, peruse the paltry music selection of overpriced flashy Mexican pop singers and settle on the cheapest thing, a seven CD box set of Ranchera music.
A Mexican activist rightfully laughs at my selection. He’s thinking,“What’s this crazy gringa doing buying farm-workers’music?”(He doesn’t know I spend time in Bakersfield. I know exactly what I bought.)
Technically, at the end, we have a radio broadcast that works, but doesn’t really“work”when all we can broadcast is tuba music that only we can hear. To be fair, the computer guy did get the stream hooked up, but again, the distance we are able to reach with the transmitter is negligible. We have failed in our mission.
Saturday- the last official day of the WTO meetings. Still we persist. We are like Sisyphus with the rock. Cursed and damned to our fate.
Carlos and Fernando go straight to the transmitter in the morning to see if they can eek out more power by shortening the connection length between it and the antenna. By midday, I have officially lost all signs of reason and concoct schemes that could have gotten everyone in trouble- ridiculous things like broadcasting from the convergence center. I am obsessed with tracking down an activist with a van who is up for strapping on the antenna and taking it on a spin around town with a mic, and someone with something to say. I even make fliers for the station that doesn’t exist.
Miscommunications- I never hook up with the guy with the van. On Sunday, I meet him. He’s a nice guy.“Maybe next time,”we say. He can never truly understand what weird radio highs we’ve been on. And at the end of it all, I almost forgot the nicely made antennas I left in the planter boxes.