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CFSC Case Study: La Primerísima

The CFSC Consortium's managing director of programs, Alfonso Gumucio Dragon, presents in this case study of a hugely popular and long-lived citizens' radio station in Nicaragua the critical elements of the station's social, political and financial sustainability.

During recent decades, the migration process from rural to urban areas in Latin America has been intense. This region is no longer largely "rural,"ť as it was in the sixties and seventies, when the community radio stations emerged. Violence and hunger have pushed millions of Latin-American peasants and Indians to the cities and the misery belts that surround them. Now, the majority of the population is in urban areas. Even in those countries with a large component of Indian people, such as Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Guatemala, statistics show a continual decrease of population in rural areas. These are relevant facts when considering the increasing importance of urban community radio stations, which deal with the new realities of unemployment, informal economy, and social problems of violence, drug addiction, prostitution and lack of civil liberties on both the individual and community level.

The profile of community radio in Latin America no longer corresponds with captive and exclusive audiences. The expansion of telecommunications, the wealth of other commercial and religious radio stations, and the competition from television, even in rural areas, have substantially modified the analytical criteria for community radio. Today they deal with multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual people in an environment of constant cultural exchanges.

La Primerísima is a community radio station. However its "community"ť is not restricted to a particular neighbourhood of Managua. The community of interests La Primerísima represents has national relevance and its audience extends throughout a large territory from north to south of Nicaragua, from the Honduras' to Costa Rica's borders. The 10 KW (AM) transmitter encounters topographic difficulties only when reaching the massive mountain dividing the country vertically, separating the west, where the majority of the population resides, and the east, which links the country with the Caribbean region. Moreover, it is a community radio station because it is owned and managed by a collective of workers including not only journalists and administrative and technical staff but also neighbours and people from the audience as well as other social actors.

Radio La Primerísima is also and foremost a "live"ť station: The microphones are open to participation as the daily programming evolves. Not one segment of the programming grid excludes audience participation, which takes place through telephone calls or visits to the station headquarters. Often, any programme is interrupted briefly to offer the microphones to individuals and groups that reach the station with a complaint related to social injustices or abuses of power.

In a country with such a high degree of political consciousness and polarisation resulting from several decades of struggle against the Somoza dictatorship and 10 years of government lead by the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN)[1] , La Primerísima has managed to preserve a delicate balance. Though Sandinista by heart and origin, the station maintains its independence from the conservative parties and from the FSLN, criticizing the latter for forging alliances with right-wing parties and betraying the ideals of Sandino. The radio station represents for its audience the affirmation of the original values and principles of Sandinismo: democracy and popular participation, social justice and development.

The audience values above all the credibility of the radio station as a source of information and its commitment "“without any ambiguity"”to people who are poor and affected by social injustice. Without any ideological compromise, La Primerísima ranks either second or third among all AM radio stations in Nicaragua and a few of its information programs are the absolute leaders within the audience.

Given its incidence and social impact, as well as the balanced financial and administrative management, La Primerísima has survived for 13 years and is an example of integral sustainability and the balancing of social, institutional and financial aspects.


All FM radio stations in Nicaragua focus on airing music in their daily programming, while AM stations specialise in information. In Managua, 94 percent of homes have at least one radio set, and more than half own a second set.

Radio La Primerísima first came to life on December 27, 1985. It was one of the radio stations created by the FSLN, which stayed in power between their triumph in 1979 over the Somoza dictatorship and their electoral defeat of 1990. The story of this station has two main phases: first, as a state-owned radio station from 1985 to 1990, and then under workers' ownership, through the Asociación de Profesionales de la Radiodifusión Nicaraguense (APRANIC)[2] , until today.

The second phase started in 1990, when journalists and staff of La Primerísima founded APRANIC and requested from the Sandinista government donation of the frequency, the equipment and the buildings in which the station was operating. APRANIC is a non-profit association comprising 70 members, including journalists and staff who work or have worked in the past at La Primerísima, and keep a friendly relationship with the collective.

Let's look at La Primerísima from the point of view of its social, institutional and financial sustainability:


Social sustainability is the ultimate objective of every participatory, alternative and citizens' communication process. In the tissue of relationships woven between the communication media and the human universe in which it develops, the political and communication project crystallises, and the process of appropriation of the media and contents develops. La Primerísima is particularly distinguished in relation to social sustainability. Proof of this is not only its high ranking in polls but also the daily response from the audience.

Social sustainability is clear when we examine these aspects:

a) Defending People Who Are the Poorest

La Primerísima is an important social actor in Nicaraguan society. The station's relationship with the poorest and most in need and its large solidarity network cement social sustainability. The station is faithful to its jingle, "The peoples' radio."ť It promotes fundamental human values and strengthens solidarity within the community. During national emergency situations, the station has a central role. It also plays an important supporting role in social movements and popular struggle. As a watchdog of the national political scene, it has maintained an uncompromising position in supporting people during periods when political parties turned their backs to the needs of social change.

b) Credibility Among the People

Radio La Primerísima "tells the truth"ť, "doesn't lie to us"ť, "and doesn't play with words"ť"¦These are some remarks from the audience. Even those who do not sympathise with the progressive stands of the radio station recognise the station's credibility as one of its main characteristics. For a large number of people, their fidelity is based on the credibility that the radio station inspires. Journalists and staff of La Primerísima both value being different from other media houses. La Primerísima does not compete for the audience with the usual marketing tools; the station profile is to educate and develop public opinion by providing accurate information, knowledge and editorial guidance. A large segment of its audience has developed political wisdom and contributes to create opinion within their neighbourhood, union or university. Most political leaders listen to the station.

c) The Station During Times of Crisis

When La Primerísima faces instances of political and financial crisis, the support from its community is felt with renewed strength. Due to its ideological positioning and independence, the radio has been attacked from left and right. Ironically, the FSLN "“even more than the right wing liberals and business people have attempted to silence the station, going as far as setting e the transmitters on fire. The mechanisms used by the right-wing parties are different: They have tried to deprive the station of oxygen by cutting the advertising. If some advertising is still available from the private sector for La Primerísima, it is because advertising agencies are conscious of the high levels of audience of the station, which makes it interesting from a purely commercial stand.

d) Relationship with Civil Society Organisations

Without surrendering its editorial independence, La Primerísima maintains privileged relationships with key civil society groups, consumer organisations, unions and NGOs promoting human rights. It is the only radio station that has a standby campaign on prevention of disasters and the measures to be taken in case of an earthquake. For this role, the station has been officially recognised by the National System of Prevention of Natural Disasters and by Civil Defence.

e) Participation Through Calls and Visits

Every programme at the station receives on-airs calls from the audience. The dialogue with the audience extends throughout the day and cuts across the programming grid. Usually, each programme segment gets 20 to 40 calls per hour, many of which are aired. Often callers are representatives from civil society organisations and community leaders.

f) Solidarity Help for Individuals

In addition to supporting civil society organisations, La Primerísima constantly helps individuals in need. No one at the station makes a big deal of this continuous exercise of solidarity, because it is already embedded into the daily practice. Even taxi drivers in Managua know that, when there is someone in distress, they can take him or her to La Primerísima, where a solution will be found.


Institutional sustainability covers internal and external organisational factors that ensure the survival and development of the community radio, in harmony with the ideals of participatory and democratic management. In Nicaragua, as in any other country, institutional sustainability is largely dependent on the legal and regulatory environment. Apparently, La Primerísima has managed to achieve institutional sustainability partly because of the cohesion of the team around a clear communication and political platform, as well as the station's internal democracy, the transparency of management and the fact that staff and journalists own the station.

These are some of the key components of institutional sustainability in La Primerísima:

a) Democratic and Participatory Internal Organisation

The station is organised around the General Assembly of APRANIC, comprising journalists, staff, and friends of the station, barrio neighbours and sympathetic individuals from international solidarity groups. All determinations related to major changes in the institutional and programmatic direction are made at the General Assembly, and the operational decisions are in the hands of the executive board, who are elected every two years by the General Assembly. The board, in turn, delegates responsibilities on the station director.

b) Communication Policy Platform

Members of APRANIC decided on the following elements of its communication policy:
  • The station is characterised as popular, participatory, independent and nationalist, without links to political parties or economic private interests;
  • Its main objective is to be a communication channel at the service of less-favoured social sectors and those struggling to improve the poor socio-economic reality of Nicaragua.
  • Its programming is participatory and intends to satisfy the information, cultural and entertainment needs of the population.
  • It is organised as an independent business, which means it has to generate economic and material resources, enough to sustain itself and to achieve the financial capacity to maintain its equipment in optimal condition.
c) Freedom of Expression and Action

The staff and journalists of La Primerísima attach great value to the freedom of expression and action that they enjoy at the station. The absence of commercial competition with other radio stations allows journalists to relate without conflict to colleagues from other media houses. Many had been facing censorship in other media and found full freedom of expression in La Primerísima. They are not alone: The audience also feels freedom to express through the microphones.

d) Ownership and Appropriation Process

Another fundamental pillar for institutional sustainability is the ownership of the station. Those who work at La Primerísima and are part of APRANIC are the legitimate owners of the radio equipments, the transmitters and the buildings.

e) Opportunities for staff

Most of the journalists working in La Primerísima have wide previous experience and are well known nationally. Thus, the issue of training, which is essential in rural or urban community radio stations, is not as relevant here. However, the opportunities for professional growth and individual development have been significant, particularly in the technical areas, where several generations have been trained on the job.

f) Appropriate Technical Resources

Institutional sustainability is also closely associated to appropriate technology. A station that overestimates its possibilities is as unsustainable as a station that underestimates its potential. Many community radio stations fail because, from their inception, they are equipped with sophisticated hardware that they are not able to maintain or replace because of cost. La Primerísima has been careful, and its own financial and political circumstance has forced the station to make wise decisions on infrastructure.

g) Networking

La Primerísima is a member of the Union Nacional de Radiodifusion (UNIR)[3] However, because it's the only national independent station, it does not participate in other national networks that are either made of private commercial radio stations or those politically related to the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN). As for international networks, the station is a member of AMARC.


Too often the discussion on sustainability focuses on the economic and financial aspects and does not consider the diversity of models and options that independent and community radio stations have been able to implement with much creativity.

Financial sustainability ensures the stability and development of community media, allowing enough resources for infrastructure, equipment and payment of services and staff salaries, while keeping its uncompromising communication and political platform.

La Primerísima's strategy for financial sustainability aims to balance various sources of income to avoid being too dependent on a single source, which would dominate, or even asphyxiate, the station.  

The main income is made from renting programming slots to third parties, usually NGOs or individuals that identify with the philosophy of the station, who in turn search out their own advertising accounts to fund their programmes. The second largest income source is direct advertising to the radio station, without going through marketing agencies. Advertising is not as important as it was in the 1990s. However, it accounts for at least 25 percent of the total income, which indicates that there is still a number of small and medium private business that support La Primerísima, either because of sympathy with its editorial contents or acknowledging that the station ranks among the first places in audience coverage. External donations account for a small percentage of the annual income, around 6% to 10%.

Among other factors that contribute to financial sustainability:

a) Transparency in Managing Priorities

Even during the most difficult financial crises, La Primerísima has prioritised the payment of services and tax obligations, even above the disbursement of salaries. Staff and journalists themselves decided that it was foremost important to maintain the integrity of the station"”in regard to the government and the private sector. Thus the staff support is not only visible through the advertising accounts they get for the station but also by backing the collective decisions that are made on economic priorities. Journalists working at La Primerísima have a basic monthly salary of 4,000 Córdobas (around 250 US$), which includes a transportation allowance.

b) Advertising Income

The largest private companies in Nicaragua don't seem keen to share their advertising budget with La Primerísima, because of the station's critical editorial position. However, other medium and smaller commercial business are conscious of its large audience, and thus contract advertising slots. The 92 radio stations currently operating in Nicaragua share the same advertising pie, which has largely reduced due to the economic situation in the country. Very wisely, La Primerísima has a strategy for exchanging goods (car rentals, services, printing, or furniture) for publicity.

c) Staff as Programme Managers

During periods of severe financial pressure the staff and journalists of La Primerísima had to put their creativity into practice and their willingness to overcome difficulties. Early in the 1990s, the information segments were transferred to journalists, so they could manage the programmes as micro-enterprises. Each one generated its own income and paid the station a fixed amount. Eventually this arrangement didn't last, but it was useful to overcome the crisis. Today, similar arrangements involving the participation of the staff in financial management have been retained to allow for equal opportunities, even for those who are not programme anchors.

d) Renting Programming Slots to Organisations

Rented broadcasting time is a major income source. Most of the rented segments are in tune with the station's editorial priorities and communication policy. This is true for "Onda Local"ť[4] directed by prestigious journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro (generates a monthly income of 1,200 US$) and for "La Piedra"ť, aired by the Comisión Nacional de los Consumidores[5] .

e) International Solidarity

Compared to other community radio stations of Latin America La Primerísima does not depend as much on international sources of support. However, during certain financial crises, international aid has been instrumental in the station's survival. When arsonists burned the station's transmitter to ashes in 1990, solidarity committees in Spain collected funds to buy a new one. These international donations are sporadic, and the station does not depend on them on a regular basis, since it generates its own annual income, amounting to over two million córdobas annually (US$ 125,000).

f) Contributions from the community

Last but not least, and it is very important to emphasize this point, the station benefits from the support of its audience, which has always responded to situations of emergency, responding with also generosity to natural disasters. Though these contributions may be hard to quantify, they are no less significant because they are evidence of 18 years of continuous support from the poorest population for the station that defends them and speaks for them.


Radio La Primerísima does not fit with the conventional belief that community radio are rural and broadcast for a small sector of the population and are geographically limited. Contrary to most FM community stations, this one covers the majority of the Nicaraguan territory and population, and appears in polls as one of the three most influential. The station has lived through the many great historical episodes during the past 18 years, and at times it has played a lead role in the nation's history. La Primerísima is a recognised social and political actor through its information strategy and its influence over public opinion, constantly preserving editorial autonomy from the government, political parties and the private business sector, as well as playing a watchdog role and its commitment to the poorest of the poor.

The frequent contact with the audience allows for a social control over the editorial contents and programming. The station responds on a daily basis to the concerns of the audience and does not impose ready-made or pre-recorded programmes, which creates wider opportunities for the audience to demand from the anchors the content people need. Every programme is aired live and receives numerous telephone calls.

La Primerísima promotes democracy, participation and transparency through daily criticism and monitoring of national affairs. The station and APRANIC, its umbrella organisation, also promote democratic participation transparency internally.

The mere existence of La Primerísima invites us to reflect on the definitions of community radio and independent radio, which have not changed much since the sixties.

[1] The Sandinista National Liberation Front chased dictator Somoza from power in 1980.

[2] The Nicaraguan Radio Broadcasting Professionals Association.

[3] National Broadcasting Union

[4] "Local wave"ť. Carlos Fernando Chamorro, well know journalist, is the son of former President of Nicaragua Violeta Chamorro.

[5] "The Stone"ť, by the National Consumers Association.

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