then set out for Riobamba, two hours south of Ambato. Riobamba is a popular
destination for tourists who want to climb the monolithic volcano, Chimborazo,
at 6310m above sea level. The town center is lined with cobblestone streets
and colonial houses, a refreshing change from the bustle of Ambato. Elsa
and I decided to waste no time and jumped into a taxi to go straight to
the city’s Escuelas Radiofónicas Populares del Ecuador (ERPE.)
By now the clock was nearly striking three and only God knows when the
business day is considered over in Ecuador.
We found the station’s villa by its modest sign hanging over the door. Inside, a nurse directed us to the station’s office just beyond a little courtyard and garden. We walked in and met with staff member Ruben, whom I was relieved to see smoking at his desk. Thank God "smoke-free" hasn't entered into Ecuadorian conscienceness yet, I thought. I offered him a clove cigarette to break the ice and we began to chat about various political scandals in our two countries. Soon the room was filled with smoke and nearly ten people, including two well-known verification signers: Juan Pérez Sarmiento (ERPE Executive Director) and his secretary Maria. (Here was undeniable evidence that not only are verification signers real, but they also have human urges and addictions, like smoking! Now I understand where all those dollars to unanswered follow-up reports are going to: Marlboro's!)
ERPE, the radio station, is one of three projects for their foundation, which also includes a small hospital and a group of farms to export a cereal called quinia to the U.S. The station began on March 19, 1962, and has nearly run its 1kW transmitter into the ground. In fact, it was off the air in the mid-nineties after its tubes burned out. Besides operating on 5010 kHz to Riobambans who live in Quito, Guayaquil and other cities, ERPE airs on 710 kHz and 91.7 MHz FM for the local populace.
Listeners can hear the station’s educational programs on 5010.1 kHz between 0000 and 0200 GMT nightly. Unfortunately, they are using only 500 to 800 watts in order to preserve the equipment, and when the time comes that a replacement is needed… ERPE will probably lose its SW voice. Reports are promptly answered with a letter and, when available, large pennants which reflect the project’s community orientation.
Juan invited me to the FM studio for a live on-air interview about youth and the Latino community in the United States, and so we headed over. Like Radio Centro, the announcers sit in a separate room from the producer. The MW and SW studio is across the hall, but it was not being used at the moment.
After the interview, we took a stroll into a classroom and Juan showed me the foundation's growing collection of radio station pennants. He said that they're useful to educate students about the world around them. We then returned to the office, where engineer Lauro offered to take Elsa and I to see the antenna and transmitter. I thanked the friends I’d met and hopped into his car for the 20-minute ride.
The three of us pulled into a section of farmland and more or less bounced through what once was a road until we came upon the site. ERPE’s MW tower and SW dipole lie literally in the massive shadow of the snow-capped Mt. Chimborazo. I stood in awe of the folded dipole hanging between two 50’ towers, as if juxtaposed over the sleeping volcano. Off to the side of the antenna is a traditional Indian hut, where the station’s guard appeared. Lauro explained to me that the guard doubles as a farmer for their export project and pointed to the cultivated ground. “This is the quinia we’ve been talking about,” he laughed.
Within a large shed live the MW and SW transmitters. The SW unit, standing over 6’ tall and 4’ wide, was donated almost forty years ago by a French foundation. I was amazed to stare into the monolith – the same monolith that rides through the static every night with the music and programs of ERPE.
After taking a few pictures, Lauro drove us back to Riobamba where we found another bus. We hopped on as the sun went down and headed straight for Baños, a venerable tourist trap. Elsa had called a friend of hers who lives there and got permission for us to stay the night. Little did I know how interesting things were about to become.