WHEN a farmer in the Haitian town of Dame Marie found a stray cow ravaging his vegetable crop recently, he marched it straight away to the local radio station.
Once there, he asked the station to broadcast an appeal for the cow's owner to claim his bothersome bovine.
Though many media outlets around the world might scoff at such a request, Radio Dame Marie led their nightly news program with the farmer's plea.
In isolated Dame Marie, a small town that is three hours by car from the nearest city, radio is the glue holding the community together. And it is the only link to the outside world for the roughly 30,000 residents in the area - Dame Marie has had electricity only for the past three years and still has no telephone.
``We are the eyes and light of the people,'' says Kenol Andris, a co-founder of the station. ``Our door is always open for people to come in and voice whatever they want, to address their problems to the population.
``In a city that now has no representative in the government, no real security force, we serve an important role in educating and guiding the population,'' he adds.
This is the kind of service that was done away with after a September 1991 coup that sent Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, into exile for three years.
``After the coup, we saw that repression forced all the major radio stations to shut down,'' says Sony Esteus, co-founder of a nongovernmental organization in Port-au-Prince that offers training seminars for groups who have or wish to set up community radio stations.
Radio Dame Marie is one of the few existing community radio stations in Haiti, having reopened after President Aristide's reinstallment on Oct. 15, 1994. But with the window of democratic opportunity created by Aristide's return, many believe community radio stations will spring up around the country.
``[Communication] is a right that hasn't been exploited because people haven't had the tools to do it,'' Mr. Esteus says.
Community developers and nongovernmental organizations are trying to foster the growth of radio and capitalize on the positive impact radio can have on a community. ``Communication has to be included in development,'' Esteus explains.
According to UNESCO's 1992 Statistical Yearbook, the impact of radio is growing. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of radio receivers in 1970 was 45 million; in 1990, there were three times as many - 153 million.
More than talk shows
Radio Dame Marie, begun before the coup in 1991 by a group of young men dedicated to bettering their community, broadcasts everything from misplaced cows to birth and death announcements. The 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. airing includes one half-hour of news, some rebroadcast from a station in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, but mostly local news.
The director of Radio Dame Marie, Emilio Passe, has become so popular that residents called for him to run for office. He is now a candidate for Parliament's Lower House of Deputies in the upcoming elections, expected by the end of April.
Community radio ``draws its philosophy from and thrives on the participation of local citizens,'' Esteus says.
``Unlike commercial radio stations, which are forced to respond to the philosophical line of the news director, community radio stations rely on their listeners to tell them what kind of programs to offer,'' he says. ``They work to sensitize the population, to create a sense of pride for their culture and their environment.''
With Aristide's return, community radio stations are expected to blossom. ``There's a spirit of organization now,'' says Gotson Pierre, communications director of the Center for Research and Development, an independent organization that works with grass-roots groups in the areas of education, health care, and communication. ``People want to be able to take advantage of meeting in public, feeling like there's freedom of speech.
``Even though there are tremendous obstacles for getting things done, people are willing to do them now,'' Mr. Pierre says.
Just providing an energy source requires both financial resources and ingenuity. Since electricity is chancy at best in Haiti, Radio Dame Marie is run on solar panels.
The community radio station, Horizon, in Gros Morne in the northwest, relies on a system that stores energy in car batteries. When the batteries are drained, they have to stop broadcasting for two days to recharge them.
``Every time we broadcast, it's a small victory,'' says Horizon broadcaster Derrison Rener. ``People constantly come in and tell us how happy they are that we're here.
``That's a huge encouragement for us. We want to work to promote democracy and help people understand what their role is. Gestures like this show us they already understand.''