Discuss as:

In Haiti, 'video has not killed the radio star'

Paolo Woods recently photographed radio stations and their listeners around his home in Les Cayes, Haiti. Here he explains why so many Haitians use radio as their main source of news and entertainment:

More than 50 percent of Haitians are illiterate, and only 25 percent have regular access to electricity. That means most Haitians do not read the country’s only daily newspaper, regularly watch television, or while away the hours surfing the Internet.

But they can listen to the radio. And Haitians do listen, all the time.

Paolo Woods / INSTITUTE

RTMS 97.3 FM. DJ John is on the air mixing Haitian music and American R&B. RTMS relays for a couple of hours each day Radio Voice of America. People in Les Cayes suspect it receives American money for this reason and some refer to it as Radio CIA.

Since the introduction of battery-operated transistor receivers in the 1960s, radio has been the main media in Haiti. American missionaries donated the first transistor radios, hoping to convert the masses through the 24-hour evangelical programming on Radio Lumière. But in the hellish years of the Duvalier dictatorship, Haitians far preferred the radio programs in Creole broadcast on Radio Haiti Inter by legendary opposition figure Jean Dominique, to being constantly reminded about hell awaiting them if they did not become Protestant.

When Baby Doc fled in 1986, finally ending the Duvalier era, independent radio stations flowered and have been a fixture in Haitian daily life ever since.

Haitians are not passive listeners, either. Not only do many shows rely on call-in contributors, but many Haitians have taken to broadcasting themselves. Broadcasting material and operations are relatively inexpensive, so very small groups of people can mount and operate local stations. Thus, there are hundreds of radio stations in Haiti. They closely mirror society in almost all its political, religious, and social variations.

Paolo Woods / INSTITUTE

Radio Lumiere 90.9 FM. This is one of the oldest Protestant radio stations. It has stations all over the country and is financed by the American and German Baptist churches. Pastor Emile Alneve has just read from the Bible and is about to lead the listeners in prayer. Behind the glass is the operator Nahomie Desmornes.

You can listen to Radio Lumiere with this iTunes playlist link or with this Windows Media Player link.

Radio has a crucial importance in the daily life of Haitians. Radio waves reach remote areas that cannot be reached by 4x4 vehicles. Easily available batteries or solar-powered radios ensure that people can stay tuned in. Ninety-seven percent of the population owns a radio, and they all listen to it.

Paolo Woods / INSTITUTE

Radio Men Kontre 95.5 FM. Men Kontre ('united hands' in Creole) is the radio station of the Catholic diocese of Les Cayes. Sister Melianise Gabreus is one of the stars of the station. Even if there are no official figures, father Elysee (who runs the station) says that lots of people tune in for Sister Melianise's program on daily life advice.

Besides the ubiquitous Kompa music, radio stations host endless political discussions, live broadcasts of European football, proselytism by dozens of religious groups, local news and educational programs. Haitian president Michel Martelly was a former Kompa star, and when he entered the presidential race in 2010 he had absolutely no political experience. But he had millions of dedicated followers who knew him through radio, where his music is on constant rotation.

When the cholera epidemic broke out in 2010, stations bombarded listeners with instructions on avoiding the deadly disease and getting help for their sick. This was vital especially in rural areas—most of the country—as Haiti had not known a cholera epidemic in at least a century. Experts agree that radios have been essential in saving lives.

Paolo Woods / INSTITUTE

Radio Lumiere 90.9FM. This Baptist radio station often broadcasts live from churches in remote villages, like here from the village of Kay Toro where the local choir is performing. Kay Toro is more than 3 hours on a difficult dirt road from Les Cayes.

I have photographed a selection of DJs and speakers of different radio stations in Les Cayes, the city in the south of Haiti where I live. The city, population 50,000, has an estimated 30 radio stations—one for every 1300 people—but even this figure likely understates the number of radio stations. Many stations don’t register so as to avoid paying taxes. The speakers are journalists, politicians, community activists, Vodou priests, students, nuns and pastors. The broadcasting equipment is often very bare bones. A used transmitter, mixer, antenna and generator can cost as little as $2,500 and be housed in a few free square meters wherever space is available. I also photographed, in a 100m radius around my house, a sampling of the actual radio receivers used by my neighbors. These vary from old, bulky cassette players to recent mobile phones.

Paolo Woods / INSTITUTE

Receivers used by people in Les Cayes to listen to one of the many radios broadcasting in their city.

On a recent afternoon, I was walking down the main street in Les Cayes with Franz Nazaire, one of the local radio hosts. He was recognized and greeted by dozens of listeners. He turned around to me and smiled “You see? In Haiti, video has not killed the radio star!"

More visual coverage of Haiti on msnbc.com:

Social breakdown fuels sexual violence and its aftermath in disaster-ravaged tent cities.