I’ve never really tried to explain to you how Belize’s power structure, from the very beginning and over a period of years, maneuvered things so that KREM Radio, which pioneered private, commercial radio broadcasting in Belize in November of 1989, was essentially pushed aside, and a national radio monopoly began to emerge on the Northside of Belize City in early 1993.
Strictly speaking, this is a story which presented an opportunity for interesting investigation by the rest of the media, as impartial as they are supposed to be. The impartial media, however, has studiously ignored this story, for decades. KREM Radio marks its thirtieth anniversary this year November, and I think the people of Belize would benefit from some discussion of how the big boys “booby trapped” KREM.
One reason the Belizean people would benefit, especially younger Belizeans, is because so many thousands of our tertiary students have been doing degrees in business since early 1985, when the then newly elected United Democratic Party (UDP) cast aside the BELCAST model which had been introduced by the People’s United Party (PUP), and established the University College of Belize (UCB) in partnership with Ferris State University, an American business college.
Business as a discipline is not just about neckties and jackets. Business can often get down and dirty, as we would say, especially in Belize, where capitalism is polluted by cartels and where business is intimately, often immorally, linked to party politics. The dominant businesses invest in both the UDP and the PUP, so that it does not matter all that much to them whether it is the red or the blue which is in office.
Previous to Lord Ashcroft’s aggressive initiatives in the 1990s, the most muscular business force in our political world was the beverage company. You know of whom I speak. I think that beverage company has re-emerged as the powerhouse business entity in local politics, since the Dean Barrow UDP government succeeded in nationalizing BTL in 2009, weakening Ashcroft somewhat on the local front.
KREM Radio, as a private, commercial broadcaster, was an idea which came to me while Rufus X and I were travelling in New Orleans in early 1979. The Amandala newspaper was already very popular, and I really could not conceive, as racist as I understood Belize’s power structure to be, of that power structure’s allowing Partridge Street to control a national radio signal. So, I was modest in my deliberations: I thought of a Belize City radio signal. I thought of a station that played a lot of jazz music. But when the station did come on the air, a decade later, there was a lot of different kinds of excitement, and unforeseen elements came into play.
When KREM came on the air, the people around me, and Belizeans in the Districts, immediately became excited about going national with our signal. To a certain extent, I was pushed aside, overruled. Or, I didn’t push back enough. Anyway, KREM became a young people’s station, which introduced dance hall music to Belize Radio, and the KREM formula was very popular in the streets. There was no jazz energy of consequence.
After all the years, with respect to how much the power structure would allow, or how much the power structure would not allow, I think I have been proven right. The Belize power structure, in its business and political symbiosis, was never going to tolerate X controlling both the leading newspaper and a national radio station. Partridge Street would have become too dangerous. Perhaps this was proven as early as late 1990 when Kremandala went to war with the beverage company over the Coke Milpros football situation.
Now one of the areas where the young KREM Radio ran into major problems was when our competitor was able to operate multiple signals, so that our competitor added a separate station which catered exclusively to urban youth, the KREM Radio base, while their flagship station remained completely respectable, genteel, and the favorite of the business world. Our competitor, in other words, had their cake, and they ate it too.
And so it was that in early 2007, when Partridge Street, in response to pressure, thought of acquiring a second signal, which could go jazz/mature, suddenly a threatening letter came from the Barrow & Williams law firm on behalf of Sagis Limited (Lord Michael Ashcroft). I can’t believe the timing of the letter was coincidental with respect to the second radio signal proposition on Partridge Street in 2007. But, of course, it’s possible.
After thirty years, there are still occasions, such as this past weekend, when KREM is unable to pay staff at the appointed time. This is not the case because our management people are inferior in programming, promotion, business, or whatever. The fact that the station has survived for three decades speaks to the creativity of its management and the loyalty of its listeners. KREM’s inability to sustain the extension of its broadcast signal outside of Belize City after the UDP came to power in 2008, is a reflection of the emphasis the new Barrow government placed on directing advertising and promotion resources to its own UDP radio station.
The relationship between the top level leadership of the ruling UDP and the beverage company has been very cosy ever since the late Sir Barry Bowen decided early in 1984 to discipline Ralph Fonseca, a senior employee he had felt compelled to fire. When Fonseca, whose late father, Rafael, had been a financial guru and a Premier Price favorite in PUP governments during the 1960s and 1970s, became the PUP candidate for the new Queen’s Square constituency in the December 1984 general election, Sir Barry went all out to bankroll Ralph’s opponent – the attorney Dean Barrow, the same who has been three-term Prime Minister of Belize since 2008.
So, it has been rough sledding for KREM Radio since 2008, and especially since the Penner passport scandal in 2013. From the business standpoint of the Amandala in 1989, KREM Radio had represented an attempt to diversify, which is business strategy for ages all over the world. But for most of KREM’s lifetime, I would say, Amandala has been subsidizing, not benefiting from, KREM Radio. In the world of radio, electronics, and communications technology overall, however, the innovations have been explosive in our lifetime. In a less hostile political environment, it may be that KREM becomes a more important aspect of Partridge Street activities than Amandala, which has had to contend with social media activity. Who knows what the future holds? For different reasons, the radio playing field in Belize has not been level in the sense of allowing KREM Radio to compete man-to-man. This is because, as I have briefly tried to explain, there are big boys out there who have a stake in the game because of the Belizean business/politics matrix.
If it sounds to you as if I’m weeping and moaning, the fact of the thirty years of survival makes a different kind of statement, I am suggesting to you. In my column last weekend, I remarked that Belize has changed drastically since my high school days in the early 1960s. Well, Belize has also changed since KREM came on the air in 1989. The changes have been truly dynamic. For KREM to have survived, it must be that there is strength at its core. In the first instance, I congratulate J. C. and Mose. They have both been here since November of 1989. And, in the second instance, I say big up to KREM listeners. Your loyalty has been extraordinary.
Power to the people.