A thoughtful, historical and analytical piece examining Belize’s cultural evolution and media. Aria Lightfoot
We Got Net (W.G.N.) by: Jose Sanchez
Reprinted with the permission of Jose Sanchez
A young man from British Honduras, Ludwig Lightburn walked into Madison Square Garden and stood up to a goliath in the boxing world, the number 2 lightweight contender Ralph Dupas. While the Garden felt each solid blow, and the fight was one of the first televised, they could only be heard by a few radios in the Central American nation. Neighbors gathered around and listened as Lightburn punched his way to victory. It was 1955, almost 3 decades later video would kill the radio stars and television would reach British Honduras.
Just like your fathers the Baymen, valiant and bold, Arthur and Marie Hoare had no idea that their business idea would change the landscape forever. They weren’t looking for timber, but the rooftop antennas connected to the tube would not only bring entertainment, but their Channel 9 would provide a compass for thousands to follow and would change lives and culture for Belizeans to this day. The television signal stretched all the way to Wrigley field, all the way to that box where Harry Carey sang “take me out to the ball game…” for the Cubs. Initially, Chicago’s WGN would be the only station we would be able to see and not only did we watch them lose because of the curse of the goat, we would love these losers as if we were residents of Chicago too. You could always know when the cubs were playing, you would hear people sing the song of camaraderie; you would hear the groans of a loss. The Cub games which were family events, no national events for Belize, would be the penultimate reason much like a blacksmith’s steel, which would heat, knock and forge a bond like no other seen before. Yes, there were other staples on WGN, in the mornings, kids could watch the lovable Bozo the Clown, who actually has a striking resemblance to Stephen King’s IT; “’they float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too!”
And like Georgie, we floated with the CUBS, not Da Bears. We did not need a Cambridge Analytica to decipher our society. We recently gained independence and would not replace British subjugation with Guatemala’s. Our goal was to remain sovereign and our window to the world was WGN, so shaping our opinions had an easy delivery system that was as direct as an injection to the bloodstream. Some smart people realized the power of the tube and antenna and invited a Cubby to Belize. Not just any cubby, but the Sarge, outfielder Gary Matthews. “I had never heard of that place, what is it called? Belize?” Cub manager Jim Frey said on February 28, 1985, when Matthews was scheduled to fly to Belize. While we consumed a diet of dollar chicken and Polar Pak Orange Juice with our cubbies, they had no clue they were the biggest phenomenon in Belize since Dutch cheese.
“They’ve got me scheduled to go out on something called Taca Airlines. I have a policy of never going on an airlines that I can’t spell,” Matthews said. “All I know is that I started to worry when they asked me to wear a bullet-proof vest in the parade. Don’t start the season without me. If I’m not back by April, you guys come and get me…When (general manager) Dallas (Green) was talking to me about this idea the other day and asked me about Belize, I thought he was talking about another player he wanted to trade for. I said to Dallas: “I don`t believe I know this guy. What position does he play?”
The Sarge would be traded, but in 1987, and Matthews’ junior would follow in his father’s footsteps and play for the Cubs from 200-2001. But by that time the antenna signal would be replaced by cable television, dial up internet would be a thing, and the movie Colors would usher in a definitive sign that Belize had gained influence from the US. I could give you 13 reasons why but just accept that the gang culture was exported to Belize as the movie, which was scripted for Chicago but shot in Los Angeles, highlighted the Crip and Blood gangs as they took root in Belize. We had more television than Americans, and only for a fraction of the price. But regulation could have occurred from the 80s or the 90s. The excuse everyone had bought into was “the market is too small” and the cost/benefit would be negligible. There was no big stick, no need for dollar diplomacy, America had not only replaced England, it colonized the minds and shaped opinions of Belizeans by simply letting Americana’s rivers flood the homes of Belizeans. That was when I realized how truly important it is to get different source materials before making judgments.
Today we can tell a lot of the opinion by which free stations we watch. If your neighbor watches Fox News regularly, you can assume they are either Republican or a Trumpster who wants to make America great again. It isn’t a coincidence that Chicago is a major hub for the diaspora.But there just isn’t enough hours in the day, you could watch whatever you wanted. The internet would change communications forever. At first the government attempted to block any voice related apps and websites to keep a revenue stream for the telecommunications company. The internet has provided more options. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Firestick, Apple TV, Youtube and others that are competing with Network Televisions’ NBC, ABC, and CBS. The people of the world have become the pirates of the Caribbean. You can find phone apps and websites (coolkecktv, putlocker, couchtuner) that provide the same premium content made for those platforms but for free. Stranger Things have happened but the cable companies in Belize are entering the upside down while forging ahead with rates moving up from $45 to $60 monthly cable fees but with less channels. And though it will be many channels, people are already complaining that they don’t watch many of the channels because the content may not be to taste. I had to unfollow and Ghost some FB friends who did not have the Power to refrain from posting spoilers. But eventually I too made the call and bent the knee when someone in India posted GOT episodes before the HBO world premiere.
But when it comes the sports, there isn’t just baseball, there’s basketball and football and just about any sport you desire. And there are many teams. Belizeans have now laid claim to America’s basketball teams across the North American continent just as they once did with the cubs. It is all about Lebron James, right now and if he loses, there are more players and teams to choose from, right bro? Having options leads to developing taste. Belize’s primary goal, to remain sovereign did not consider the identity of the Belizean, which is why it was so easy for America to replace England. The country claims American athletes in the diaspora, though they wave the US flag. They can’t represent us at the National level in politics and they can’t vote in our ICJ referendum. But then again, that is why the internet has brought us options of enjoyment and knowledge. We need distraction from the politics, from the corruption, from the daily shit that has repeated itself in some form of the Matrix many times before. How many years have gone by since Sir Colville Young wrote about “Jonas Parker, the silver tongue talker”, the politician who wondered about how people could live in poverty in his division. It doesn’t matter which party won, don’t we always hear about the pot holed streets, and that Orange Street in Belize had a flood after a rain and whomever is in power is to blame? We are all in the sunken place with Kanye West. Get out!
That’s why Netflix exists, that’s why data is more important to Belizeans than a phone bill or a cable bill. You watch your content at the time you want on a daily basis or on the weekend in bulk if its binge worthy. We want internet and the power to decide who we will call, if and when we want to see them while we talk or send a voice message or type and decide which app we want to use. Will it be in an Instagram story? Snapchat story? FB message? Whatsapp? Heck you can put on virtual deer ears and nose to match your mannerisms in a video chat. The local television is divided into 3 categories: 1 news; 2 talk shows; and 3 entertainment. You can hear talk shows on the radio or watch them on TV live or on repeat, you can see the news live on FB or Youtube. The entertainment section is broken down into sports, karaoke, and limited programs which are seasonal typically by 10 episodes. Tastes are changing. Everyone is online, which is why the news industry has shifted online; newspapers have a webpage, FB page and are looking for opportunities to adapt. The internet has killed many printed newspapers around the world. Why read paper, when you can either watch online, or read online? Interactive stories such as the New York Times Snowfall, show how storytelling and technology can merge. Narrative writing and social marketing (not to be confused with social media marketing) have changed how content is absorbed. You can get an education online on YouTube. You can take courses, learn, and there is a feast of information suitable for every palate and at any time. In the age of Youtubers, you can speak to and communicate with a live expert on their channel. Classes can now be taken online.
Rain Drops? Drop top? Fishermen can check an app for the weather. The weather service is only bad and boujie during hurricane season. We can check an app or go online to see if weather conditions permit to go fishing at sea or to plant crops. You can use the internet and data from social media sites like Instagram and Facebook to target a specific age, sex, or region of a country. We are in an age where there is excess as well as excellent delivery systems to the brain.
Companies use influencers and experts to shape opinion prior to the release of a product in order to generate a buzz and content from trusted sources. Check out Sony Kando or Kando 2.0, as an example. However, during the last General Elections I met university students who were hired as influences and opinion shapers for youth of voting age. They did this mostly online, they met in WhatsApp group to receive their talking points and these popular people, some of whom were more noticed for their selfies and duck faces suddenly became political. They got paid and that’s an excellent illustration of technology’s use. I received a notice from Facebook that someone on my friend’s list completed the survey that would eventually send millions of data including mine to Cambridge Analytica and the data would be used to determine weaknesses or biases that would help to steer an opinion. If you liked an article about better border control, then you would have received more content on your news feed about Mexicans taking American jobs, or America needs walls. Strange that for the past few years, no one has used the power to help shape an argument of whether or not we should go to the ICJ? My bad, Guatemala did it, I saw their videos and their posts from every level. Data is not all about memes, shade and selfies, but is it Laurel or Yanny bro?
The beauty of the dilemma is that while Belizeans are being shaped, they are now in the driver’s seat to decide which content they will consume and what platform they will receive it. The Belizean identity is always in flux and how it will continue to shape is anyone’s guess. The phone companies as well as internet only companies are selling data and in some cases data with Netflix to the public. The future for cable providers can simply be in selling data or by providing original content that is not available on streaming services. To survive, they will need to hire content creators to be leaders, not followers. Everyone’s doing karaoke, radio and TV but only one can lead in that. It is possible that cable companies will be cannibalized in order for that industry to survive.
In the past, the play book meant, supporting Bowen as a Belizean entity when Caribbean and beers threatened the niche market. When Telemedia became nationalized, it too became the battle cry, “support Belizean businesses.” It worked for a while. When Albert Street started seeing loss to Chetumal and Melchor, “support Belizean businesses” once again became the anthem. The truth is there are many people employed and many families supported by jobs in this industry that did not pay content providers. Data alone wipes out the need for the two cell phone companies and all cable companies. Perhaps that is why they are all selling internet now, and of course that is why the Government is taxing it, just as fuel is being taxed. Eventually residents at our border towns will buy data from Mexico or Guatemala just as they do now with fuel. If there is a limit to salaries in this economy of the working poor, more taxes simply means people will learn to do without. The cable industry needs to create content and become competitive.
So looking back at the lesson learned from using the Cubs to unify our people, why hasn’t any budding politrician invited him to Belize yet? Does the cost of an international call or text matter to you? Does it matter if you missed the news at 6:30 pm? Does it matter that something happened Friday night and you have to wait for Monday morning talk show for an update? No. Why? W.G.N. We Gah Net.