Peru Menu Main Menu What's New Best of this Site Radio History Clandestine Radio


by Don Moore


Following is my original manuscript of an article that was published in the 1989 Passport to World Band Radio under the title Peru: Radio Where Foreigners Never Go. The published version was shortened a little, slightly edited, and (of course) had the typos corrected. Any errors in the text below are mine.

From the city of Cajamarca a rough dirt road winds up the Peruvian mountainside and then over a barren 4,000 meter high plateau where travelers may be greeted by ice or snowstorms any day of the year. One hundred and twenty kilometers, or about eleven hours later, the road winds down the other side of the plateau and passes through the town of Chota before continuing up the Chotano River valley to the little crossroads town of Cochabamba fifty kilometers beyond. From here it another whole day's journey to the paved coastal highway and the city of Chiclayo.

But branching off the main road at Cochabamba is a one-lane dirt track of cutbacks and blind curves clinging to the edge of a mountainside. No cars make this trip; only pickup trucks and rickety old freight trucks, their rotting wooden frames rebolted and wired together in so many places that they squeak and squeal their way up the mountain like a chorus of haunted staircases. At each curve the driver honks his horn to alert oncoming vehicles. When two trucks meet, a few shouts are exchanged, gestures made, and finally one of the two backs up, its driver praying to the saints that one more time he will avoid the sheer drops. When a wide place is reached, the other may pass. Finally sixteen hours and 200 kilometers beyond Cajamarca, the mountain is finally crested and in the valley below, amidst a green plain of fields and meadows, one catches a first glimpse of Cutervo.

Since 1980 more than one hundred shortwave stations have started in Northern Peru. Many don't last for long, as financial realities or technical breakdowns take their toll. But the stations keep coming. The epicenter of this mass move to the airwaves has been the department of Cajamarca. Once a breadbasket of the Inca Empire, it has become home to over forty radio stations, some heard around the world. Every town, and even some villages, have or have had their local radio voices. La Voz de Cutervo is just one of these many stations.

Cutervo is a typical Peruvian town of white adobe and cement block row houses roofed with red clay tiles. Life here revolves around the small shrub-filled central plaza where housewives stop to chat on their way home from the market each morning. After lunch, men gather to pass the bottle and gossip until the midday heat has lessened and its time to return to the fields. After school and through the evening, teenagers take over the plaza to half-heartedly do homework and flirt.

The town's Catholic church, its interior decorated with colorful local woodworking, dominates the plaza. On the other sides of the plaza are the municipal building, several stores, a pharmacy, a restaurant, and the three story Hotel San Juan. The hotel's guests are usually government workers or traveling salesmen. Cutervo is far from the tourist route. According to the townspeople, a hardy Hungarian adventurer in the 1960s was the only foreign visitor before the author and his wife wandered in. The only place in town to stay, the hotel's green cement-block walled rooms with unpainted cement floors are complete with a sink, chair, coathook, and a non-too-wide double bed and go for the bargain price of 85� (US) double occupancy. (That 85� doesn't pay for much cleaning, nor hot water!)

Remote as Cutervo is, modern conveniences such as potable water and electricity have arrived. Ice cold water is piped down the mountain and into most homes by a municipal water system. The water's temperture stays ice cold when coming out the tap because few can afford gas water heaters.

Electricity is more a nightly treat than a convenience. Becuase bringing kerosene to remote Cutervo is expensive, the municipal generator is only turned on from 6-10 pm. For the wealthier families this means a few hours of television from the one Chiclayo station that is received via a mountaintop repeater. To the poor majority, electricity is a bare light bulb or two hung from the kitchen ceiling.

Paved streets and sidewalks grace the center of town, but a few blocks from the plaza, sidewalks end and the streets become rough cobblestone. Closer to the outskirts of town, the cobblestones give way to dirt or mud streets, depending on the season.

Unlike many towns in Peru, Cutervo was neither an ancient Inca city, nor a Spanish colonial center. For centuries only a few Indian peasants enjoyed the year round spring-like climate of warm days and cool mountain air nights. Around the beginning of this century, settlers from the Cajamarca area discovered the fertile valley snuggled among the Andes mountains at 8,000 feet. Realizing its climate was perfect for growing sugarcane, coffee, vegetables, and potatoes, they established farms, and in 1905 founded Cutervo. With plentiful markets for its produce in coastal desert cities, the town prospered.

Today the people who live in Cutervo, walk its streets, own its shops, and listen to its radio stations still depend on agriculture to keep their small town's economy going. Everything not consumed locally is sold in Chiclayo. Everyday, freight trucks lumber the mountain, their open topped wooden frame backs loaded high with produce.

Besides transporting vegetables, the freight trucks serve another vital function. Few people own cars or trucks, and with only one bus a week to Chiclayo and back, hitching a ride on the back of a freight truck is the easiest way out of town. The average person leaves Cutervo sitting atop several tons of potatoes. At least hitching back in the empty trucks isn't quite as bumpy!

Like any small farm town, Cutervo is not exciting by anyone's standards. The best the town has to offer for entertainment is a movie theater that shows karate flicks and cheap westerns when they are available - which isn't very often. In season, there are bullfights in a drab cement bullring on the edge of town. At other times sports fans content themselves with walking to the local high school to watch teenage boys play soccer. Overall, the most popular past time in Cutervo is chatting with family or friends while listening to one of the local radio stations.

To an outsider, Cuterve�os might seem to be real animal lovers. Not only are there many dogs and cats in the streets, but a peek in the front door of many houses reveals a half dozen or more guinea pigs playing on living room floors. Cuterve�os, however, will be quick to point out that those aren't pets - they're supper! For centuries the guinea pig, or 'cuy' has been a delicacy to Andean peoples. Skinned and fried it tastes much like rabbit, and is higher in protein than beef or pork. And, as the people of Cutervo know, it's a lot easier to raise a herd of cuy in the living room than a cow or pig!

Located in a long row of adobe brick buildings half a block from the plaza, La Voz de Cutervo looks like the homemade radio station that it is. Under a handpainted multicolored wooden sign are a pair of decaying seagreen doors leading into the office.

A 10x15 foot room, the office has white adobe walls, and a high ceiling of rough plaster and huge wooden beams thick with cobwebs in the corners. Going inside, to the left is the secretary's 'desk' - a green pegboard counter, its top covered with red cloth. Two wooden chairs are the only other furniture. The wall behind the counter is decorated with beer company calenders and Latin American pop music posters. Sheets of yellow legal paper are taped around the other walls at eye level. Typed onto these are the titles of most of La Voz de Cutervo's record collection, divided into catergories by song type: huaynos, pasillos, vals, ranchera, moderna, and infantil. Listeners use these to pick out songs for record dedications. Above the song lists is a generic black & white clock (the kind found in any American schoolroom); a few cheap-looking landscape paintings; and, the station's pride, an excellant 15x18 inch photograph of Cutervo, taken by a local photographer.

Along the back wall, two plain brown doors marked "Locucion" and "Audio Master" lead into the 8x7-foot studios. In the middle of the main studio, 'locucion', is a table with a homemade console, two turntables, a cassette deck, and several microphones. Records, mainly 45s but some LPs, line shelves on the back wall. Separated from 'locucion' by a fiberboard wall with a large plate glass window is 'audio master' - a special studio with just a microphone for reading the news and doing interviews. Pop music posters decorate both studios.

Station manager Julio Cesar Sanchez is young and enthusiastic about his work. Soon after its founding in 1980, he began working for today's crosstown competition, Radio Ilucan. Two years later, feeling he had the experience needed to make the big move, he founded La Voz de Cutervo. Dedicated to making his the best station in town and undaunted by the numerous station failures in the region, Julio believes that with hard work, radio broadcasting in these small towns can be profitable.

Running the studio feedline through town, Julio put his antennas and transmitters on a hilltop outside Cutervo for better coverage. So that his station could broadcast all day, not just when the municipal power was on, he installed a generator. Car batteries charged at the transmitter site power the studio during the day.

With an ear for quality, Julio runs his one kilowatt AM & SW transmitters at about 700 watts for better performance and to avoid overmodulation. He is building a fifty watt FM transmitter to give Cutervo true high-fidelity. Julio says to be the best he needs FM for listeners in town, AM for the surrounding villages, and SW to reach the more distant towns. His would be the first FM station in the department outside the city of Cajamarca.

Julio's most experienced employee, and the only one to have worked outside Cutervo, is Miguel Angel Quispitongo Suxe. Miguel is one of many itinerant radio announcers of northern Peru. Like peddlers of old, these announcers journey from town to town looking for a station in need of their experience and well enough off to hire them. Leaving Oyotun, his hometown in Lambayeque department, Miguel first wandered out to the Amazon region and found work at Radio Moyobamba. Growing economically like never before, the Peruvian Amazon is a center for both oil exploration and cocaine production. The region's boundless opportunity convinced him and another Radio Moyobamba announcer to quit their jobs and found Estacion C. Bored of Moyobamba, the partners soon sold their station to Porfirio Centurion, another former Radio Moyobamba announcer. After drifting a bit, Miguel finally ended up in Cutervo. As much as he enjoys his work and the similarities of Cutervo's mountain valley climate to his hometown, Miguel feels that the opportunities to make real money in radio are in the Amazon, where he plans to eventually return.

The biggest challenge for La Voz de Cutervo, or any small town radio station in Northern Peru, is getting enough income to survive. Local stores are so small they can't afford advertising much and big national and international companies such as T�a department stores and Coca-Cola rarely spend their advertising dollars outside major cities. Therefore, most of the station's income must be generated through the sale of what are called 'comunicados' or 'servicios sociales'. These are everyman's party line in rural Latin America: where telephones are nonexistant, radio stations have taken their place! Comunicados are simply personal announcements that listeners pay the station to air. In Cutervo the going rate is about 20� (US) for three airings. The main reason that shortwave is used so extensively in this region is to allow comunicados to reach distant towns. A long as there is no other reliable method of communication, shortwave will thrive in Northern Peru.

All towns are far apart, if not in distance, at least in time. Mail service may take weeks. The only way to keep in touch with family members in places near or distant is via radio. Maybe Juanita married a man from Chota. Mama hasn't seen her since the wedding and decides to go visit the newlyweds for a few days. Having the good sense to realize that Juanita will want a little notice, Mama sends one of Juanita's younger siblings over to La Voz de Cutervo with a comunicado to warn Juanita and her husband of the upcoming visit. "Juanita Arana de Valencia in Chota, your mother will be coming to visit you next week on Tuesday or Wednesday. She hopes you and your husband are well and looks forward to seeing you." It doesn't matter if Juanita doesn't hear the announcement. One of her neighbors or friends certainly will and they will pass along the news. In fact within a few hours everyone in Chota will know that Juanita's mother is coming for a visit!

Alternately, maybe Don Eduardo wants to send a message to the workers on his coffee plantation, but doesn't have the time to make the four-hour round trip today. He has told them to always listen to La Voz de Cutervo while eating lunch, so he simply drives over to the station to buy a comunicado.

Indeed, the lunch hour is the best time to hear comunicados. People are most likely to listen to the radio during mealtimes, so that's when the stations usually air them, in long strings, maybe broken up by an occasional song. The next most popular times are dinner time, the early evening, and breakfast time. Even people not expecting a message listen. After lunch, mother exchanges gossip with the neighbor who was tuned to a different station. The men at work don't wait any to discuss the days 'news' either.

The record dedication is also an important source of income - La Voz de Cutervo didn't type up those song lists just to be nice! For 20 cents (US) the station will play the record of one's choice and read an accompanying announcement. Its a great way to wish happy birthday to relatives and friends, or for a young man to publicly express his affections for a certain young lady. "Jorge sends this romantic message by Julio Iglesias to his one and only love, Luisa."

In a country where the average family lives on $30-$40 (US) a month, it is difficult to depend on comunicados and record dedications. Making it tougher in Cutervo are two competitors, Radio Ilucan and Radio Cutervo. With three stations vying for listeners in a town of 6,000, each station tries to play the best music and get the most interesting comunicados to keep people tuned in.

Of course keeping listeners means staying on the air, and equipment problems can be disastrous. Owners hope breakdowns can be repaired or at least jury-rigged with local know-how. If costly imported spare parts are essential, a long overland trip to Lima must be made, putting the station off the air for weeks. Sometimes expensive parts put a station off the air for months, even years, until the owner can scrape up enough cash for repairs.

La Voz de Cutervo has been fortunate that none of these potential disasters have snuffed out the station's dreams. In 1986, they changed their shortwave frequency from 4965 to 5661 khz, leaving them free of interferance. Although their weak signals are rarely heard in North America, the best time to try for them is from 0000-0400 UTC.

1998 Addendum: Unfortunately, La Voz de Cutervo is no longer on shortwave and hasn't been for several years. I don't know if the station still exists on medium wave (AM) or FM. The commonly heard shortwave stations from Cutervo for the past few years have been Radio Sudamerica and Radio Ilucan. In listening to these, I have heard advertisements giving phone numbers for the local stores and restaurants. Obviously, modern communications have arrived to Cutervo in the form of the telephone and, presumably, it is now possible to call anywhere in the world from Cutervo. That is good news for the town and its people, but I'm glad I visited the town while it was still very isolated from the outside world.


This website is maintained by Don Moore,
Association of North American Radio Clubs
DXer of the Year for 1995

My Address Is In This Graphic