Media and Identity in the Caribbean

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Media and Identity in the Caribbean

On any given day in every Caribbean country, with the exception of Cuba, the majority of citizens get their news and information about what is happening in the world from one of six primary sources: CNN, ABC, CBS, Fox News, NBC, or BBC. However, this plurality does not represent an equal diversity of views. Operating as businesses that provide eyes and ears to global advertisers, these six news organizations offer essentially two perspectives to viewers: a British and an American, and "embedded" perspectives in the case of war reporting from Iraq. And what regularly constitutes newsworthy information and makes the headlines depends, for example, on whether or not a famous entertainer is on trial for child molestation or the life support system is withdrawn from a fifteen yearlong comatose individual.

This one-dimensional and lowest-commondenominator perspective on newsdubbed infotainmentis bred by the dominance of entertainment as the ubiquitous form of information globally. In style and format, if not in content, local Caribbean television news replicates the American model. The assumption is that audiences have limited appetites and equally limited attention spans for any information that may force them to think. One result is that local news, especially in the broadcast media, thrives on the violent and the bizarre, paying very little attention to matters of greater relevance and significance to the people of the region. A cursory reading of select regional newspapers in early 2005, for example, showed that coverage of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) was virtually nonexistent even though the CSME has widespread economic, political, and social implications for the region's people.

Over ninety percent of all non-news content originates from U.S. distributors and is relayed via local cable operators. Throughout the Caribbean, popular channels include HBO, TNT, TBS, Cinemax, ESPN, the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Showtime, MTV, Fox Sports, A&E, Lifetime, and BET. As a result, even though it is played in few Caribbean countries (notably Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico), baseball may be as popular in the region as cricket, which, for historical reasons, is considered the regional sport of the Englishspeaking Caribbean. And basketball is more popular than baseball across the region.

Operating on significantly lower budgets and with far smaller audiences, local program producers also tend to mimic the styles and formats of their U.S counterparts. Soap operas in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, for example, are patterned on such shows as The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless, both of which have had their loyal viewers across the region. However, the high production costs of such local programs for regional and extraregional consumption make them economically uncompetitive and hence, rare.

Globalization by Happenstance?

When in the late 1970s U.S. domestic satellites were first used to distribute television programs across the continental United States, the signal overspill from these satellites was easily accessed in the region via parabolic dish receivers. Among other things, this led to the emergence of unregulated cable television services in most Caribbean countries provided by local entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity to satisfy the demand for multiple channels by those who could not afford to own their own dish receivers. The launch in 1986 by Westar of its V1-S C-band satellite covered the entire Caribbean and Central America, including as well Venezuela, Colombia, Guyana, and Suriname on the South American mainland. Suddenly, television viewers in the entire region had access to multiple broadcast channels where before, especially in the Englishspeaking Caribbean, they were limited to programs usually provided by a single government-owned channel. Free access to a cornucopia of television images in color by audiences then became the norm throughout the region.

This was to change with the introduction of the Caribbean Basin Recovery Act (The Caribbean Basin Initiative, or CBI) in 1983 by the Reagan administration. The emerging contours of the nascent global media industry dominated by a handful of largely North American media conglomerates had become evident. So too had the convergence of computer, satellite, and audiovisual technologies made possible by the digitalization of information. The resulting commodification of information led to creation of a hospitable market environment for the new global media industry in the interests of content creators and distributors. The CBI therefore mandated that beneficiary countries of the region meet certain conditions. One of these was structural adjustment of their economies, which, among other things, required them to divest and privatize government-owned enterprises, liberalize and deregulate their economies, and conform to the rules and regulations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and subsequently the World Trade Organization. Significantly, the CBI bill singled out broadcasting for special treatment, explicitly stating that "the President shall not designate a country a beneficiary country if a governmentowned entity in such a country engages in the broadcast of copyrighted material, including films or television material belonging to the United States copyright owners without their express consent."

Full liberalization of the regional media soon followed, with all governments granting multiple broadcast licenses to commercial operators. As a result, with the sole exception of Cuba, all countries of the Caribbean are now served by a multiplicity of predominantly privately owned commercial media including radio, television, and cable services. In this constellation Barbados is an unusual case because the government broadcaster also has a monopoly on cable television. At the other extreme, the governments of Jamaica and Belize divested and privatized their national broadcast servicesin the case of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, after thirty-seven years of broadcasting. Public service broadcasting patterned on the BBC model that had been accepted as the norm from the inception of broadcasting in the Anglophone Caribbean from the mid-1930s up until the early 1980s is today nonexistent in these two countries. Where government broadcasters still exist elsewhere, they operate on the margins of the media marketplace as conduits for government information.

In short, the worldwide ascendancy of neoliberal political ideology and technological convergence have resulted in the global media industry being dominated by an oligopoly of vertically and horizontally integrated media conglomerates including TimeWarner, Disney, Bertelsmann, News Corporation, Samsung, and Sony. These global media giants are the primary content providers for the Caribbean's television and cable industries with local video productions operating on the fringes of the industry. Proximity to North America, a shared common language, and heavy reliance on tourism as a major foreign exchange earner make the Anglophone Caribbean countries virtual appendages of the United States.

Radio Broadcasting

For the majority of Caribbean citizens, radio remains the most accessible and ubiquitous medium. Its mobility, immediacy, low cost, and the fact that it does not require literacy in a region where literacy levels remain relatively low are its inherent strengths. It is not surprising, then, that in the Caribbean, radio is the medium through which popular culture is given greatest exposure and that media liberalization policies have led to market segmentation by owners seeking niches and greater market share, resulting in a wider choice of content for listeners.

In keeping with global trends, the pattern of media conglomeration is also discernible in the region. In Jamaica the RJR Group owns four radio stations, one television station, and a jointly owned London-based weekly newspaper. Starcom Network in Barbados owns four radio channels, and in Trinidad and Tobago CCN owns a major national daily newspaper and a national television channel.

The diversity of programming on radio, though predominantly music oriented, provides exposure for local musicians in a variety of genres. Predictably, in Jamaica, where radio helped to foster the emergence of reggaethe national musicthere is an all-reggae station, and most of the other fourteen stations also playing some reggae; in Trinidad and Tobago, where fifty percent of the population is of (East) Indian heritage, there are stations specializing in all-Indian music as well as stations specializing in indigenous calypso and soca music. Sports programming also has widespread popularity on regional radio stations, with international cricket being broadcast regularly across the region.

Talk radio, hugely popular in Jamaica since the mid-1970s, remains a staple of programming in that country, with even greater audience participation in light of the prevalence of cellular telephones. The Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Jamaica estimates ownership at two million mobile phones in a population of 2.6 million. Elsewhere there is at least one popular talk radio program in virtually every English-speaking country. Given the mountainous topography of most Caribbean countries, prior to the advent of mobile phones, access to call-in radio programs was primarily limited to urbanites. Although there remain pockets of exclusion in some countries, contemporary technologies have made for greater accessibility and inclusiveness with much wider national participation across the region. Streaming of programming on the Internet by some of the larger radio stations also makes local programs accessible to the Caribbean diaspora globally, and it is not unusual to have Caribbean citizens in New York City, London, and Toronto participating in local discussion and call-in programs via the Internet.

The relative diversity of radio programs notwithstanding, market and business considerations limit the production of local/national and regional news to a handful of larger radio stations in the Caribbean. The main source of regional news from a Caribbean perspective is the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC)an alliance of the defunct Caribbean News Agency and the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU), which supplies news to subscriber newspapers and to radio and television stations regionally. However, the perceived high cost of CMC news limits carriage to the larger and better-endowed broadcasters. That these also happen to be the more popular local stations, however, mitigates the relative paucity of regionally generated broadcast news in domestic markets. The BBC, employing Caribbean personnel, also provides a free daily half hour Caribbean news and sports magazine program that is carried by many radio stations. In Jamaica, Radio Mona, owned by the University of the West Indies, provides Jamaican listeners with news from a variety of perspectives by carrying the weekday services of U.S. National Public Radio (NPR), Radio France International, the BBC, as well as Radio Canada International.

The Press and Press Freedom

Freedom of the press is highly valued, if not always practiced, in all Caribbean countries and is enshrined in the constitutions of some. However, readers have access to daily newspapers only in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Guyana, and the Bahamas. Everywhere, though, weekly and community papers catering to special and parochial interests are widely available.

The Daily Gleaner of Jamaica, founded in 1834 and continuously published since, is the oldest Englishlanguage paper in the Western Hemisphere, with an international reputation as a newspaper of record. Like its daily counterparts elsewhere, with the exception of Guyana, it is privately owned and considered to be mildly conservative editorially. Favoring the business class and business interests, national dailies nevertheless have a reputation for providing wide coverage of national issues and providing a broad spectrum of political views from columnists of varying ideological hues. Heavy reliance is placed on both the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies as sources of international news, with some regional news provided by the CMC. The major dailies also have online editions that are available globally.


Since the mid-1980s, the Caribbean has been exposed to the full range of visual media content emanating from the United States via satellite. Its media-rich environmenttelevision, cable, radio, the press, and more recently the Internetis supported by neoliberal government media policies that extol the virtues of the free market. In this environment citizens have differential access to a variety of media depending on their levels of income and literacy as well as their interests. While virtually all international news via television is provided by and from the perspective of American and British networks, radio, which is accessible to all, provides culturally relevant programming to the region's citizens. Radio is inclusive and acts as a conduit for the expression of popular culture.

See also Filmmakers in the Caribbean


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aggrey brown (2005)

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Media and Identity in the Caribbean

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