SIGNAL INTERFERENCE

Mexicans have created a Netflix-like independent radio service to disrupt the country’s powerful mainstream media

When Olallo Rubio ran an alternative radio station in Mexico City, he had to bite his tongue to avoid criticizing big ad buyers such as Coca Cola on air. But now that his shows are distributed via smartphone app, he recently ran a whole segment on what he calls the “dark history” of the soft-drink company.

Rubio is part of Convoy, a new Netflix-like service that is challenging the country’s dominant radio industry. He says producing independent content within it is practically impossible due to limitations imposed by companies and government entities with close ties to radio broadcasters, as well as by radio hosts themselves.

“If you want to stay on the air, you have to practice self-censorship,” he said in a podcast (video in Spanish) announcing the new service. And, he added, “you have to talk about products you hate or you don’t give a shit about in the middle of a show.”

There’s none of that in Convoy, so named because its members see themselves as a group of communication vehicles traveling together for safety as they wage war against censorship. Starting at 39 pesos (about $2) a month, listeners get commercial-free radio with an irreverent and critical tone. Unlike traditional stations, the content is available anytime and anywhere for anyone with a smartphone.

This isn’t the only instance of technology allowing independent voices to break away from mainstream media in Mexico and still reach a mass audience. Over the past few years, there has been a proliferation of online-only news sites. Because they have a lower overhead than traditional media, they don’t depend on ad buys from the government and big corporations, according to journalists who run them.

Tools such as YouTube are also providing a platform for individual citizens to launch their own information services. “El Pulso de la República,” or the Pulse of the Republic, is a YouTube comedic newscast not unlike the Daily Show. It was started by an enterprising engineer whose YouTube channel now has more than 1.4 million subscribers.

Even well established, mainstream journalists are looking for alternative venues. Carmen Aristegui, one of Mexico’s best-known anchors, was fired last year from a network, MVS Radio. She says it was because of an investigative piece suggesting that Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto had a luxurious house built by a big government contractor, though MVS says it was due to her team’s misuse of the company’s brand. Now she’s preparing to launch a new broadcast platform.

“This country has to put an end to cowardice, to indifference,” she recently said on her YouTube channel. “Let’s communicate between ourselves.”

Traditional radio still has a big audience in Mexico, particularly in Mexico City, where drivers can sit in traffic for hours. “Radio is a hostage situation,” said Rubio, so broadcasters haven’t seen the need to innovate. With more Mexicans carrying smartphones, he sees an opportunity to change that.

On Convoy they can listen to Rubio’s fast-paced show, in which he opines on everything from music to politics, and “¿Por qué?” or Why? a parody of investigative journalism that answers question like “Why are Mexicans racist against other Mexicans?”

Now he just has to convince people to pay for the service. So far, 14,000 people have subscribed since it started in early March.

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