One of my appointments on a recent trip to Euskal Herria, the Basque Country, was with a “free radio station”, with a dual purpose: to learn about their operation and to give them an interview about my thinking on the political phenomena known to most people as “peace processes”. The radio station in question is Zintilik and located in the Orereta area of Errenteria town, not far north from Donosti/ San Sebastian, in the souther Basque province of Gipuzkoa and my hosts were Hektor Gartzia and Julen Etxegarai.
Not long after I arrived, one of my hosts related his memory of events in the area after a local ETA fighter had been killed. The Guardia Civil had swamped the area to prevent an “homenaje” (an event honouring the dead) taking place, guns pointing at men and women; the children, of which he had been one, gathered into their grandparents’ house ….. He showed me where the police vehicle had parked at the end of the street, his sweeping hand indicating the places where the armed police had stood.
THE “FREE RADIO”
The “free radio station”, also known as “pirate radio” has been broadcasting for 32 years, which I find amazing. It began broadcasting from an “okupa”, an occupation of a private empty building, turning it into an alternative social and political centre. Under popular pressure, the local authority, under the control at the time of the PSE, i.e. (Spanish unionist social democratic party), granted them the building they currently use.
Originally built to house a smithy, for some reason the building never saw service in that capacity. It is in my estimation an attractive building in a traditional-enough local style, of thick stone, compact without being squat. It has an attractive back yard, no doubt intended at one time to receive the horses with hooves in need of iron shoes, fitted and nailed. The roof is tiled in what seems the usual way for the Basque Country.
Zintilik broadcasts 24 hours a day, which it is able to do using repeats. The Zintilik collective owns its equipment and funds itself through fund-raising concerts, txosnak (stalls/ marquees) at festivals and occasional donations. They run advertisements for
local community groups and announce events but accept no commercial sponsorship – nor does their wish for independence stop there. “We don’t receive any funding from the local authority or from the Basque Autonomous Government,” declares Julen, “nor do we wish to.”
“Funding from such sources comes with strings attached”, adds Hektor.
“Or one becomes dependent on it and unable to function without it”, further explains Julen.
As a further illustration of self-reliance, they tell me how they climbed on to the roof of their building to repair a leak, rather than ask the municipal authorities to do it. And it was the same when branches of a nearby plane tree needed cutting to prevent them knocking against the radio aerial on windy days.
“We know it’s work that the local authority owes us and that we and the rest of the community pay their salaries but we prefer not to depend on them,” they explain.
As an example of how dependency – although of a different sort – can undermine a community resource, they relate the story of building which was occupied in order to be used as a community resource. As time passed, many were using it as a social resource but less people were volunteering for the work involved in maintenance at any level. Appeals of the four or so committed people who ended up doing everything fell on the deaf ears of the clientele until one day the four locked the centre doors after the last user had left for the evening and, the next day, handed the keys over to the local authority.
“As you imagine, this was a great shock to the clientele,” they tell me, “but it was the result of their own lack of commitment to the project.”
I reflect that many activists will identify in one way or another with that sad experience.
RECORDING THE INTERVIEW
Julen and Hektor discuss the format and general content of the interview with me and map it out, do sound checks and then we go to it. Hektor, who knows quite a bit about the more recent Irish history and about the current situation in the Six Counties, is my interviewer, while Julen monitors from the control room and occasionally joins in with comment or question.
For music in between sections of interview, Irish Ways and Irish Laws (John Gibbs) and Where Is Our James Connolly? (Patrick Galvin) have been chosen, both sung by Christy Moore and Joe McDonnell (Brian Warfield), by the Wolfe Tones.
They also invited me to sing Back Home in Derry, Christy Moore’s lyrics arrangement of Bobby Sands’ poem – but to the air I composed for it. I am happy to oblige – I enjoy singing but it is more than that: I want the air I composed to get a hearing. Christy Moore used Gordon Lightfoot’s air to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald for Sands’ poem and, excellent though that fit is, especially with Moore’s chorus, I think that the poem (and its author) deserves an air of its own.
Although the main focus of the interview was the phenomenon of “peace (sic) processes”, we discussed aspects of Irish, Spanish, Palestinian and South African recent history, including the 1916 Rising in Ireland, along with the backgrounds to the songs chosen. For the most part, I left it to my interviewers to draw conclusions relating to their experience of political processes in their own country.
FESTIVALS AND STORMS
Upstairs in the broadcasting/ recording and interview rooms, all is in good order: equipment and facilities. After the interview, I note that downstairs, in the main space, things are a in a bit of a mess, for which Julen apologises (he has never seen the state of my flat).
“Some of the community groups we support store their placards and banners here,” he says. “Besides, we’ve just finished our local festival and everyone relaxes, dumps their equipment and goes on holiday.” Throughout the Summer and early Autumn, each village, town, city and even area will have its own week-long festival for which the community groups and campaigns will organise and participate.
Down in Donostia (San Sebastian), to where Hektor and Julen accompanied me after we ate the food they had prepared, the city was in the midst of its own festival and was heaving with people – tourists from everywhere, it seemed, as well as Basques.
With that picturesque bay and its island in our background, they got a passing young woman to take our photo, the three of us – the conversation with her was in Euskara only. I held up the placards I had prepared for the photo in turn, one in Irish and another in English, supporting the Moore Street quarter in Dublin.
Dark clouds were gathering overhead and on the horizon the sky was a baleful orange. A storm or at least a downpour was being promised and, as we turned back towards the bus station, the first drops began to fall. In the humid heat, the light rain was welcome for awhile but for part of my solitary journey back to Bilbo, it formed a silvery curtain in the coach’s headlights and streamed down the windows.
I remembered being told that one can frequently witness a violent storm in the Donosti bay while not so far away in Bilbao, as a result of local conditions, all is calm. As for winter storms in Donosti, the waves hitting and surging over the seafront and piers have to be seen to be believed; occasionally the sea reaches inland, floods cellars and converts parked cars into boats or semi-submarines.
The rain eased off and stopped about half-way through my journey and when I got into San Mames station in Bilbo, the streets were not even wet.