Categorized | Brooklyn, Featured, Haitian, News

Amid financial uncertainty, Haitian radio staple fights on in Brooklyn


Radio Soleil owner Ricot Dupuy hosts his weekly Sunday show “Voices and Truths.”

When the 2010 earthquake ravaged Haiti, a cramped storefront in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood felt the shockwaves from far away.

The storefront, home to Radio Soleil, opens onto a small lobby that normally serves as a waiting room for the station’s guests. But that January, the lobby swarmed with grief-stricken Haitians, anxious for news of their loved ones back home. Some covered the walls with pictures of their missing parents and children. The line of relatives desperate for answers extended out the door — although neither Ricot Dupuy nor his station, Radio Soleil, had answers for them. But somewhere between consoling community members and trying to connect families with the Red Cross, Dupuy realized his enormous responsibility.

“If at any time we thought this was a pastime, or to be popular,” says Dupuy, “that day was a reality check for us. Because we are dealing in a profound way with people’s lives.”

Since it opened in 1992, Radio Soleil has served as more than just a radio station for Haitians living in New York; it has been a lifeline for news and information often ignored by U.S. media. But today, new challenges — from online competition to a proliferation of nearby pirate stations — are threatening the viability of the radio station.

In the studio on a recent Sunday, though, there was little sign of existential threat, as Dupuy went about his work. He sat hunched over an audio switchboard, masterfully handling the technical equipment while hosting his own show, “Voices and Truths,” and leading a conversation on recent unrest in Haiti. He dialed in a political science professor at Queens College to analyze a story that Dupuy felt was widely underreported by Western media: the largest demonstrations against Haitian President Jovenel Moise since he took office in February.

In the U.S., the protests were “not being covered at all,” Dupuy said after the show. “The only time you’re going to hear about Haiti is when you have a hurricane or a natural disaster.”

Radio has long been a primary means of communication in Haiti, where only 61 percent of adults are literate, according to the C.I.A.’s World Factbook.

Radio also plays an immense role in the diaspora: Radio Soleil is just one of at least three Haitian-owned stations along a three-block stretch of Nostrand Avenue helping Haitians to navigate language barriers and the complexity of life in New York City.

What listeners get is far more than news about Haiti. “They come here for anything. If they have family problems, they call us. Marital problems, they call us. They have problems with the city, they call us,” Dupuy says.

“If you want to confirm the news coming from Haiti, you need to wait until 7:30 to know if it’s true or not,” said Mideline Francois, an avid listener of Dupuy’s nightly show. She grew up listening to radio in her parents’ home. “If Ricot doesn’t say [it], it’s not true.”

Pirate stations and waning ads yield financial struggles

But the station faces a developing challenge as Dupuy fights new competition — both for listeners and for ads.

“It’s a struggle, it’s always a struggle. You’re fighting to stay afloat,” said Dupuy. “But it’s made more difficult when you have competition that you never used to have before, coming from the internet and coming from the pirate stations.”

Both Radio Soleil and its main rival, Radio Panou, are “subcarriers.” Instead of paying for their own FCC broadcast licenses, which would be costly for a small operation, they lease broadcast rights under pre-existing stations’ frequencies. The subcarrier option is legal, but it requires listeners to buy a special radio receiver to tune in. And these days, the operators of Radio Soleil and Radio Panou say, there are new Haitian stations that compete with them by broadcasting illegally — with neither FCC licenses nor subcarrier leases, and thus none of the license costs that Soleil and Panou incur.

“There was a time when pirate stations were just people trying to be on radio for entertainment, but it has become a business-making thing,” Dupuy said. “They seek advertisements the same way we do.”

A list of several competing Haitian radio stations are pinned on the wall.

Dupuy and two other diaspora radio hosts said there are at least 10 Creole-language pirate stations broadcasting to the Haitian community in New York. One former host, Herold Dasque, said some of the competing broadcasters are former Radio Soleil hosts, who left in the early 2000s to start their own stations.

Dupuy says the Federal Communication Commission needs to do more to shut down the pirates. An FCC spokesman said pirate radio is “very much” on the agency’s radar. “Pirate violations go out every week,” said Michael Wagner, assistant chief of the agency’s Media Bureau Audio Division. But Wagner said the FCC could not comment on Haitian-specific radio broadcasters, because the agency does not track by ethnicity or language.

Meanwhile, the array of illegal competition comes during a decline of traditional radio listeners for Radio Soleil and, consequently, ad dollars.

In the 90s and early 2000s, “almost every professional group” wanted airtime and ad space on Radio Soleil, said former host Herold Dasque. But Dasque, who later left the station and became the executive director of Haitian-Americans United for Progress in 2005, said many Haitian organizations that had once advertised on the station have since relocated to Haiti or shut down.

“They’re no longer around,” he said. Some ran out of funding, some were mismanaged, and . “others went to do politics in Haiti,” said Dasque.

Finances at Radio Soleil were so dire in 2012 that the Haitian American Caucus co-sponsored a community gala to fundraise more than $30,000 to help keep the station’s doors open, according to executive director Samuel Pierre.

“The radio was in jeopardy of getting shut down,” said Pierre. “And we could not sit around and watch that happen. He’s one of the last pioneers you have.”

Besides Radio Soleil, Haitians also rely on Radio Panou and Radio Triomphe on the same stretch of Nostrand Avenue for news, plus The Haitian Times, an online-only publication.

For now, Dupuy is hoping to gain younger listeners by streaming broadcasts online. Despite its challenges, Dasque still believes Radio Soleil maintains a wide reach, which is why he is currently advising HAUP to buy ads on the station.

“In order to have a volume of people knowing our service, this is the only way to go. You have to go on the radio,” he said.

Dupuy estimated Soleil currently reaches about 100,000 listeners but said there was no way to measure precisely, since ratings companies like Nielsen do not monitor subcarrier stations.

When asked how he plans to stay afloat through the rising challenges, Dupuy peered through his storefront window onto the sidewalk that once held a swarm of desperate families, all relying on his station for answers in their time of need.

“All we know is we have to exist. We’ll do what we have to do,” he said.


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