|Avila TV Mural|
By Lainie Cassel
In Venezuela they are a key force in the country’s ongoing media-war. Armed with video cameras, they are a team of some 380 young people working for Caracas television station, Avila TV. Started as an experiment just three years ago, according to one study it is now the third most watched station in the city. Funded completely by the government, they consider themselves a voice of President Hugo Chavez’s “socialist revolution.”
Located on Avenida Urdaneta, in the center of the city, Avila TV is in a large beautiful building bustling with young adults sporting Caracas’ latest urban fashions. The building, a former bank, has been transformed with floors of state of the art equipment and walls decorated with elaborate murals and posters of well-known revolutionary figures.
Hip yet political, the station addresses issues of urban society from the eyes of a staff of mostly 20-somethings and themselves products of Caracas’ poor slums. Their use of urban culture has earned them mass appeal among urban youth, a group disenfranchised by mainstream media.
“Using My Experience to Promote My Own Values”
Avila TV is a part of a handful of media projects that began in the last decade under President Chavez. In a country where nearly all media outlets are in the hands of the rich, the government has been forced to seek new ways to reach out to Venezuelan people.
From community newspapers to pan-Latin American television station, Telesur, hundreds of new media-outlets have been created in the years since the brief 2002 coup against President Chavez. In what many call a “media-coup” because of the alleged involvement of television station RCTV and similar privately run stations, Chavez and his supporters have felt the need to fight back. Since the 2007 decision of Chavez to deny the renewal of RCTV’s license, there has been a constant battle between private and state-funded media. The so-called media-war has pressured the government to create new mechanisms that reach broader audiences.
|Avila TV Studio|
Avila TV has arguably been one of the most important media creations. Founded by a group of middle-aged entrepreneurs and the then Caracas mayor, Juan Barreto, the goal was to appeal to a broader base of viewers. Channel 8, the news based government-run station had been the only station in favor of Chavez at the time of the coup. “We felt this was problematic,” explained co-founder Victor Rivas. “We saw a need for something more socialist but that would appeal to youth.”
Rivas and the other founders all have backgrounds in media but their idea was to turn the station over to a young staff, people like 28-year-old Yender Mellado, a producer of the early morning news program, El Programa Mio. He and other workers are directly involved in the decision making of the channel through a workers’ assembly and are able to control what they put on air.
Mellado recalls that before joining Avila, “I was a slave to private companies. I worked in fast food and shoe stores. I then went on to study advertising, which opened my eyes to the deceiving culture of consumerism. However, it also got me interested in media and when I was hired as a producer, I was able to use my experiences to promote my own values.”
Avila TV was officially put on air in October of 2006 with a newly trained 30-person production team. Since then, it has played an integral role in the media-war, covering the underground culture of Caracas while trying to promote alternative lifestyles.
Their use of music and culture has put them in a category with channels such as MTV, which also attracts young audiences. However, workers would argue it is far from any corporate channel. According to Mellado: “We aren’t trying to sell shampoo or brand name clothes or any capitalist products for that matter. We are trying to stay true to our principles and combat consumerism.” The channel refuses to show advertisements for any product arguing that consumerism and the capitalist system have caused the situations of poverty and crime in their city.
|Avila TV Mural|
More than anything, however, Avila TV is an urban station that attracts young adults mainly between the ages of 14 and 30. With teams of highly skilled graphic designers and hip-hop artists, they put together shows and videos using the music of underground hip-hop groups from around the world.
Additionally, there are a number of news and political programs that address topics from international solidarity to community counsels. “We have to be able to promote values while keeping our audience informed, we have that responsibility”, commented Mellado. By covering news from around the world, informative programs try to draw ties of solidarity between domestic and international struggles. And of course the station has its own telenovela (soap operas that are extremely popular throughout Latin America), which documents the reality for families living in Caracas’ slums.
With a unique aggressive style of reporting, Avila TV news reporters have become well known throughout the streets of Caracas. Showing up with cameras and microphones to Anti-Chavez marches, public restaurants and even airports, they are constantly searching for opportunities to confront opposition leaders and private media owners.
According to Rivas: “There is too much liberty of expression in this country.” A comment made by many who are fed-up with stations such as Globovision, which they argue instigate violence and have promoted the overthrow of the president. Avila TV reporters have sought out those they believe are responsible for such content, often catching the individual’s off-guard.
Their style of confrontation has earned them plenty of attention in government and community media but has created a lot of anger among Venezuela’s opposition. After his election in November of 2008, opposition leader and current mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, threatened to replace Avila TV with his own team of workers. The threat, made within days of his election, not only ignited large youth protests against the mayor but also demonstrated the power of the youth-run television station.
Ledezma’s announcement also came at a transition time when power of the station was moving from the hands of the Caracas mayor to the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information (MinCI). According to workers the process was underway before Ledezma’s election but was rapidly sped up after his remarks.
Avila TV’s programming also tries to unravel many of the stereotypes presented by the private and opposition media. One such program, El Entrompe de Falopio, addresses gender issues and looks at women who are active in the revolutionary process. The show, the only of its kind in Venezuela, is a drastic change from the machismo culture used in a majority of Latino television. Additionally, there are programs that talk openly about homosexuality and others that address Indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan rights.
Those who oppose many of Chavez’s policies criticize the station’s political involvement. The reasoning for some is based on the channel’s aggressive style of reporting, which they claim is unfavorable to those getting interviewed. Additionally, some argue that Avila TV’s association with “pro-Chavez” politics does not give a balanced view of the current situation in the country.
The constant pressure on the opposition has been one of the cornerstones of the stations political involvement. However, they are quick to insist that they put a good deal of pressure on the Chavez government as well. Their main critique is the issue of corruption, a problem that has a long history in Venezuelan politics. On the other hand, workers acknowledge that they have a responsibility to promote government policy to fight against what they call the “common enemy”.
The Question of Violence
More than just a television station, Avila TV was in fact developed from a school. Located on the first floor of the same building, the Metropolitan School of Audiovisual Production (or its Spanish Acronym: EMPA) teaches youth a number of video techniques through a one-year program free of charge. Giving opportunities and resources to youth who otherwise wouldn’t have access, many go on to work in the channel itself.
The school is open to a majority of applicants, however because of limited space the station runs workshops and courses outside of their headquarters. From culture centers to jails, the classes give alternatives to those of all ages in a city that has a reputation of being the most dangerous in Latin America.
Violence, a problem that primarily affects urban youth, is one of the key issues faced by youth movements. Because of this, Avila TV works with a number of other popular organizations in and around the city to help tackle the issue. When asked how they deal with the topic of violence, Rivas commented: “We have to give them alternatives. When youth don’t have access to sports, art, education, etc. they turn to violence…” Future programs set up by Avila TV plan on providing resources and airtime to youth not working with the channel to document their own experiences growing up in Caracas.
Further campaigns such as: “Change pistol for camera”, started by Avila TV, have also mobilized workers around the issue and have pushed the station to reach out to more communities. However, the topic of violence still remains forefront in Caracas, where homicide rates remain high, affecting mostly those in the poorest sectors, the base of Chavez’s support.
Lainie Cassel is currently living in Caracas, Venezuela. To contact her and read more about her activities visit her blog at: Lainiecassel.blogspot.com.