During the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest fears of the 471 teachers in the Amazon town of Benjamin Constant (population: 45 thousand) was to see more kids drop out of school. Assailed by one of Brazil’s lowest education rates (89.5 percent), local teachers decided to buckle up and take action. They knocked from door to door asking students to turn on their radios and listen. The teachers’ voices were going to reach them even from a distance.

Other cities across Brazil have adopted this approach to keep classes going despite hardships. What students may not know, however, is that the educational role of radio has been its cornerstone since the outset of its history in the country.

Education for all

Historian Maria Gabriela Bernardino explains that station Rádio Sociedade, Brazil’s first radio station, was founded in April 1923 by Edgard Roquette-Pinto, and was predominantly educational in nature. 

“It wasn’t radio as we know it today. The station had classes on school subjects, and there was the very strong idea that education should to be democratized,” she noted.

No wonder. Radio was a novelty in a country facing an alarming 80 percent illiteracy rate. Through its frequencies, education could travel far and wide and provide a public service of undreamed-of value.

This is why radio was the great communication channel of the 1930s, researcher Liana Milanez argued. “Roquette-Pinto wanted to maintain the premise [of radio] as a modest tool for the education of the Brazilian people,” she remarked. In 1936, she went on to point out, the members of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, who ran the radio, had to comply with radio statutes and transfer all the station’s assets to the government. It was then that Rádio Sociedade became Rádio Ministério da Educação—Rádio MEC, in short.

Specialists tell us that Roquette-Pinto donated the station in 1936, but did not leave its management. “In 1937, the Educational Radio Broadcasting Service was created to operate it. After the creation of this service, Roquette remained in charge for another seven years, keeping the radio exactly as it was,” Liana Milanez said.

In the 20 years during which Roquette-Pinto was in charge, an estimated 71 educational and cultural programs were aired. The entrepreneur handed over the direction of the station in 1943 to Fernando Tude de Souza, who said in a speech later on: “The motto of 1923 is still the motto of 1948. Since May 11, I have been directing Rádio Ministério da Educação, the successor of Rádio Sociedade of Rio de Janeiro, and I have done everything not to deviate from the norms drawn up by the great Brazilian Roquette-Pinto and his companions in 1923.”

Patrono [Tude de Souza] discursando na Rádio Roquette Pinto (década de 1940). Fotografia: Agência Nacional (RJ). Fonte: CREP. Arquivo Tude 34/12. Patrono [Tude de Souza] discursando na Rádio Roquette Pinto (década de 1940). Fotografia: Agência Nacional (RJ). Fonte: CREP. Arquivo Tude 34/12.

Fernando Tude de Souza delivers an address at Rádio Roquette Pinto (1940’s). Photograph: Agência Nacional (RJ). Source: CREP. Arquivo Tude 34/12. From dissertation Educação e cultura no rádio brasileiro: concepções de radioescola em Roquette-Pinto, by Renato de Souza Porto Giglioli, 2008 – Agência Nacional

Education on air

From the 1940s on, program Colégio no Ar (“School on Air”) was a ratings success, with classes on Portuguese, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Brazilian history, geography, and natural sciences. “In 1954, 6.5 thousand students were enrolled. They’d receive learning materials from the mail,” Liana Milanez pointed out.

Professora Hilde Sinnek ministra o “Curso de Alemão”, do “Colégio do Ar”, programa precursor do rádio educativo Professora Hilde Sinnek ministra o “Curso de Alemão”, do “Colégio do Ar”, programa precursor do rádio educativo

Hilde Sinnek teaches German on pioneering educational broadcast Colégio do Ar EBC Archive

Historian Thiago Gomide, head of Roquette-Pinto Radio, said this was not an idea conceived in Brazil, but rather drew inspiration from other countries. “Roquette-Pinto and other thinkers underscored the importance of this medium as a tool for education—not to replace classrooms, but as support for teachers,” he explained.

This was the context, back in 1934, in which a radio station was created in a bid to assist schools, with teachers at the microphone and a system for sending letters. It was called Rádio Escola Municipal do Distrito Federal (“Municipal Radio School of the Federal District”), founded by Edgar Roquette-Pinto and Anísio Teixeira. This is the station that was renamed Roquette-Pinto Radio, in the late 1940s.

Ratings success

Marlene Blois, also a researcher, brings to memory yet another successful initiative: the Universidade do Ar (“University on Air”), on Rádio Nacional, in 1941. “The idea was to focus on teachers in Brazil’s limited secondary education. The program reached almost 5 thousand radio students in the first year alone.” Another milestone was the proposal of the basic education courses under the National Educational Radio System (SIREN), spearheaded by the Ministry of Education, which ran from 1957 to 1963. “One year after the creation of SIREN, 11 stations were broadcasting its courses. In 1961, stations numbered 47. The idea was to promote the discussion around stations making citizens more actively critical,” Blois said.

Universidade do Ar. Folheto do programa, 1941. In.: Universidade do Ar: em foco a inciativa de formação de professores secundaristas via rádio no Estado Novo (1941 – 1944), de Maria Helena Cicci Romero, 2014 Universidade do Ar. Folheto do programa, 1941. In.: Universidade do Ar: em foco a inciativa de formação de professores secundaristas via rádio no Estado Novo (1941 – 1944), de Maria Helena Cicci Romero, 2014

Universidade do Ar. Program brochure, 1941. From thesis Universidade do Ar: em foco a iniciativa de formação de professores secundaristas via rádio no Estado Novo (1941 – 1944)’, by Maria Helena Cicci Romero, 2014 – EBC Archive

In the 1970s, the government created the Projeto Minerva, aimed at using radio to foster adult education in the country. The project is reported to have benefited at least 175 thousand students across 19 states in the first phase. In the second phase of the project, 560 class programs were produced. A total of 370,381 students in at least 3,813 municipalities benefited from the project (Source: Rádio MEC: herança de um sonho, by Liana Milanez).

Minerva made it possible for students leaving MOBRAL—the Brazilian Literacy Movement, created in the 1970s to teach people aged 15–35 to read and write in the cities—to further their studies via a 30-minute broadcast that stations had to air on a daily basis, plus one hour and fifteen minutes on weekends. Blois described how classes worked: “The network head was Rádio MEC. The students who missed the radio transmission could make up for it in a discussion with classmates. This pedagogical strategy was designed by the Projeto Minerva team at Rádio MEC.”

One day of the program, for example, included Portuguese and History, with 15 minutes per class. On another day, students listened to the Math and Science teachers. The students would receive printed fascicles free of charge by mail and could also follow the classes at designated locations with a monitor and a radio.

Between 1973 and 1974, the Projeto Saci prepared 2 thousand untrained teachers and enabled 16 thousand elementary school students to take advantage of these teaching initiatives. The station, as it could reach the furthest corners of the country, was also used in the 1980s for Projeto Seringueiro, carried out in Acre state and inspired by the philosophy of Paulo Freire. “It was a pilot project, which had a completely different didactic approach. These were Rádio MEC teachers sent to Acre. A vocabulary survey was carried out, we talked to rubber tappers about what they wanted in terms of educational radio. The rubber tappers were taught to read and write again,” Blois recounted.

O servidor Sills em estúdio de Rádio do Projeto Saci em 1971. Fonte: Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais. O servidor Sills em estúdio de Rádio do Projeto Saci em 1971. Fonte: Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais.

Radio operator Sills at the radio studio of Projeto Saci in 1971. Source: Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais – EBC Archive

These initiatives served as inspiration for both public and commercial broadcasters. This goal of promoting education countrywide, inspired by the ideals of Roquette-Pinto, shines through to this day and brings the country together even as the nation struggles under a pandemic. This is especially the case for the students of Benjamin Constant, in the Amazon, as well as so many other places reached by these frequencies

Translation: Fabrício Ferreira –  Edition: Nathália Mendes / Sõnia Fernandes

Source: Agência Brasil