Interview: Haiti’s Radio King Carel Pedre Flexes His Airwaves Muscles
Whether living in Montreal or Toronto, Australia or New York, Miami or New Jersey, and elsewhere—and in different time zones, Haitians on the web come together every morning compliments of Carel Pedre and his music radio show“Chokarella”. The show, a mix of music, music criticism and social commentary, is broadcasted on the radio from Haiti, and streamed online. Pedre’s radio show is not the only Haiti-based radio show that can be heard on the web, but a combination of personality, and clever use of technology has made it the foremost, and “the one” to be listened to. Pedre’s show has the technological edge on many of the radio shows from Haiti broadcasted on the web, in that he’s had downloadable custom applications done to make the show listenable to users of Smartphones, and he uses social media regularly to promote it. Mostly though, the show has gained its popularity simply by word of mouth. Pedre’s playlist on a given day can range from Haitian konpa—Haiti’s pop music form—to jazz, R&B, techno, 1990s rap to contemporary U.S. pop music.
For Josny Sévère, who first started listening while living in the Dominican Republic, Pedre’s show is a breath of fresh air. “We can say that it is a great show in terms of content and [his] interaction with the audience. The [show’s] schedule also makes the show a success since there is a lot of people like me that don’t really care about the bad news we are having in the news everyday, so this show really entertains us during those hours of the day.”
Blogger Sarah Desamours, who initially came across Pedre on Twitter two years ago, has gone on to become one of the show’s biggest fans. If she had her way, Chokarella would be broadcasted during evenings andweekends (Pedre occasionally has what he calls Chokarella After Dark, during which he plays super sexy music). To Desamours, the show is a cultural connector. “Carel is the only one I know in the Haitian community who is able to connect Haitians all around the world with a radio show and most importantly, through social media. That is beyond amazing and as a Haitian that was born in Canada, it really helped me discover more about my country and my culture—events, artists.”
“I love his sense of humor, which adds a fun touch to his show,” Desamours gushes. “I also appreciate how he encourages local artists and the fact that I do not have to be in Haiti to be connected to the show as his online stream.”
For Espy César-Saveedra, a Haitian living in Australia, Pedre’s show is a must. “I like his professionalism, patriotism, the burning passion for his work and extreme confidence,” César-Saaverdra notes. “He is also a humanitarian, educator, and accomplished artist.” César-Saavedra says she uses Chokarella as a primer on Haitian music to non-Haitians living in Australia.
One capitvating aspect of the “Chokarella” radio show, says many die-hard listeners, is the sheer unpredictability of it. “I really like the fact that the show is not [stuck] into [some] formal script where the host always has to be the slave to that script,” says Sévère. “[I like] the variety of the music [played] since I personally don’t listen to other genres other than konpa, so the show always connects me with those genres. And I think all that makes the show different.”
New York’s Ti Kenny Dambreville, the host of the web show “The Sauce”, credits Pedre with introducing him to all sorts of new music, and more particularly electronic dance music, a genre that wasn’t exactly permeating his playlist before. That is the sort of power Pedre’s show has had in doing, among other things, persuading die-hard fans of musical genres to try something new—not to mention the sense of unity he evokes through his show. “I think this show enlightens and informs young Haitians about our community and our music,” says Dambreville. “I also like how Carel doesn’t hold his tongue for anyone.”
Hold his tongue? That, he doesn’t do, sometimes even if it means losing a sponsor or an ad on his radio show. If he feels the need to say that Haiti would be in the same medical emergency disaster predicament again, if another earthquake were to strike—then that’s what he’ll say. If while riding the streets of Haiti he sees graffiti on walls with a group’s name, he will denounce the band in question. If a tobacco company is trying to market to underage kids, or market in Haiti period, it will feel the verbal wrath of Carel. If that much-publicized live weekend concert event didn’t live up to expectations, you will surely hear about it on Monday, or whenever his next radio broadcast is. If a Haitian star grossly misbehaves publicly, thou shalt heareth all the details, followed by a lecture and some tough words from Mr. Pedre. If the musical show of such-and-such band was is not up to par, and Carel Pedre happens to be on the scene, he will surely give you the no holds-barred rundown the next day. And if you think you can run some explicit, demeaning lyrics by Carel Pedre, well, think again.
Pedre’s outspokeness is a trait that, rather than turn his listeners off, is pulling them in. Desamours observes: “Although his criticism can be seen as harsh, I believe it is constructive criticism.” Gilles Freslet, himself a host of a radio show based in Haiti describes Pedre as “brilliant” and someone who knows very well what he’s doing. “His show is definitely popular with listeners,” observes Freslet. “He talks about everything and nothing. He criticizes when there’s a need to do so, and he gives props when that’s necessary which of course makes some glad and makes some ticked.”
Ticked, or fache as Freslet puts it, is definitely a reaction Pedre inspires out of some.
Some have gone as far as saying that Pedre is an opportunist that used the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to further his popularity as a radio host. Others accuse him of trying to hoag the spotlight reserved for his star subjects. It is indeed true that Pedre achieved a great deal of notoriety as a result of his using his Twitter and Facebook accounts to help family members to connect with another and posts photos and updates on social media during Haiti’s 2010 earthquake . But long before the earthquake, some observers should note, Pedre was already a seasoned radio man. And if post-earthquake he has indeed gained some social media fame, people are flocking to his show in the mornings for what he has to offer musically—and for what it’s worth—his commentary. The earthquake notoriety alone could not have sufficed to sustain his current following. And the following is huge, from Pedre’s social media network followers—who alone number about 50,000—to listeners listening directly on the radio and on their phone, to listeners on the web.
The breed that probably is the most grateful to Pedre (or at least should be)—other than his loyal listeners—are Haitian musicians. Many fledgling artists in Haiti had their first taste of radio play on Carel Pedre’s show—not to mention their first on-air interview introductions to music fans. Since most radio stations in Haiti are reportedly on a pay-for-play structure, new artists with little backing or sponsorship can struggle for some time before they can get meaningful exposure, Pedre’s show is highly regarded by newcomers and veterans alike. If some musicians’ music is going beyond Haiti, and getting airplay and recognition at lightning and hail speed (or at least at a faster speed than their nonexistent—or barely there marketing and publicity team—work), they have Pedre to thank—in part. “I feel as if Chokarella gives the Haitian music industry and its artists a voice,” Dambreville observes. “The show streams to people who would never have the opportunity to be exposed to to all of the different music Carel plays.” His show streaming can be compared to a form of guerrilla distribution for Haitian musicians, especially those based in Haiti, who are not being backed by big labels, and who often neglect to do international marketing.
Mario Accius, who listens regularly from New York, thinks of Chokarella as a God-send for Haitian online activism, Haitian music and Haitian musicians. He says: “I feel like it does a wonderful thing for our Haitian music and musicians due to the fact that the show reaches worldwide”. “I’m pretty sure there are countries or people who had never heard of Haitian music before, but because of the reach of the show to other nations, they have a sense and notion of what Haitian music is all about.”
Adds Desamours: “He also genuinely encourages artists, especially the youth.” Desamours sees Pedre as one who’s helped her get into vintage Haitian music. “I am a big fan of konpa but the show has helped me discover some of the older generation konpa such as Tabou Combo, which I knew about but never heard their music. It also helped me discover local Haitian artists who are not too big in Montreal but that are very talented such as BelO, Tifane, etc.”
Says Freslet: “We appreciate the man a lot for his talent and what he represents in the community. We really need a whole lot more Carel Pedres in the country, though he’s not perfect. No one is.”
Q & A
Tell us about yourself. What sort of person is Carel Pedre really?
I’m not one who likes to talk about myself. I prefer that people find out on their own the type of person that I am. But If I had to describe myself, I would say that I am cool and down-to-earth kind of guy, a proud father, someone who loves his country and I’m definitely into electronics. I am optimistic and I like to look at the positive side of things. I also believe in sharing my positive energy with those around me.
What are some of the memories you have of your childhood in Haiti?
First thing I can think of is that growing up, the country—Haiti—was in a much better place, therefore it was easier to go out and take a swim in the rivers, play soccer with friends like every child wants to do. I was really into school when I was growing up, so there was also lots of studying involved in my childhood.
Did you attend a broadcasting school there, or was the talent for broadcasting pretty much innate?
I did not attend a broadcasting school. Inversely, my experience as a host started when I was 17—therefore I can say that I spent more time doing radio shows in my entire life than anything else. However, I had the opportunity to attend a conference on broadcasting in Washington DC in 2004 and I also educate myself on what is going on around the world when it comes to broadcasting. Whether it includes reading a book, watching a show, doing research, anything that involves broadcasting is of high interest to me.
In 2010, you used Twitter to help in the relief effort. A great use of technology, some might point out. What misuse of technology have you witnessed since you’ve been a techie?
When I think of misuse of technology, I think of people who use technology to their own advantage by spreading lies, harass other people, spread rumors, fraud, and even those who take advantage of the system to fool those who are not so tech-savvy in order to panic, or scam others.
Do you remember when you first got the idea for your show “Chokarella”?
The idea for my morning show was first based on my schedule. I used to work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. as the communication officer of the World Health Organization office in Port-au-Prince. Therefore, the only time I had available for a morning show was early in the morning, which is why “Chokarella” was originally a 6-8 a.m. show. I decided that having a morning show would offer the listeners an alternate option other than listening to the news in the morning. The show was originally called Radio One’s morning Show, but I felt like the name needed to be catchier. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of calling the show “Carel’s Show” vs. “Carel Live”. When translated in creole, “Show Carel la” felt more original and all I had to do was to come up with a creative writing. And so there it was, “Chokarella”!
You use your show to update music fans on the latest activities of their favorite bands, and of course up-and-comers. What’s your favorite band? And naturally, what newcomer in recent times has made an especially profound impression on you?
My favorite band is Mizik Mizik, Gwo Djaz! [Laughter]. For up-and-comers, I don’t have a favorite.
You’re practically Haiti’s king of all media. What do you have cooking up next?
I am flattered that you considered me the king of the media, but I personally feel like I am on my way to the throne. Although I have a lot cooking, my biggest dream is to have “Chokarella” on TV. I’ve been working on it for two years now, and I hope that it can become a reality before the end of the year.
Is payola, or pay for play really a part of the Haitian music industry, as some have said it is?
Yes, it is. And unfortunately, that is one of the main reasons why some artists and groups, especially newcomers can’t afford airtime on some of the shows that are considered popular in Haiti.
Your fans consider you to be very outspoken. Have you ever had fallout with anybody, any company as a result of your opinions?
Yes, it’s not easy in a country like Haiti where people tend to suck up to other people. But being the person that I am, I will always share my opinions in all honesty—even if it offends others. I do not mean anything personal, but I believe that it is a quality that every successful radio host should possess. Yes, I have had fall-outs with companies before and it resulted in them stopping their commercials as part of my show. But thank God that the owner of Radio One understands and respects my point of view; otherwise, I would probably be the one left without a job. As far as musicians, we sometimes have disagreements, but it never ends as a fall out, we usually find a way to either work things out or agree to disagree.
What are you most proud of?
Professionally I can say that I proud of my accomplishments. Personally, I am proud of my two beautiful daughters. I am a blessed man.
Do you have a record that you especially cherish?
I can’t think of one record in particular that I like the most. I listen to a lot of music; it’s fair to say that I’m always on shuffle.
What does it take for an artist to succeed in the Haitian music world?
I think in the Haitian music world you need talent, a hit song, discipline, and a good manager. These things are key! For example Belo, Mika, and Wanito all have these things in common, and I would say that they are quite successful.
Now, according to you, what sets you apart from your contemporaries who work in radio?
I think that what sets me apart is the fact that I do things differently. I am a visionary, I strive to do things in a different manner. For example, my show has an app, a podcast, and a website, a Twitter account, a Facebook page—it’s a brand. These are things that people in the field who work in Haiti would not really consider doing.
What will it take for Haitian konpa music to reach the mainstream stratosphere of other world musical genres?
I think that we need to define a musical structure for konpa music as the Dominicans did for bachata. The lack of structure makes it difficult to reach a universal level, thus harder to become mainstream.
What artists and band do you think are bound to make a big comeback this year?
I had the chance to listen to some of Carimi’s tracks for the next album, and I believe that the fans will love it. I think Alan Cave is also likely to have a big comeback this year.
You have any regrets so far in life?
No, I don’t have any regrets. I don’t live with regrets. Neither do I ever expect to regret anything in the future. Any experiences that I have been through have been lessons for me and these lessons are what shaped me into the person that I am today.
What are some of the biggest problems faced by radio personalities in Haiti?
People don’t consider being a radio host as a career. I hate it when people ask me “ Qu’est ce que tu fais après la radio?” [French for, “What do you besides radio?”]. I don’t recall ever asking a doctor, or tailor, or teacher what they do once they leave the workplace.
You have a foundation The Sunday Project.
The Sunday Project is not a foundation; it was a movement. I did not want to have another nonprofit organization—since there are thousands in Haiti. It was a movement to encourage young people to use their time to do good to other people, especially kids. I stopped the Sunday Project in December 2010, and we are working to resume our activities in the near future. In the meantime, we are still supporting the youth and still working with those in need—without making it public.
What makes Carel Pedre happy?
My daughters, my job, a tweet to compliment me, a smile, a simple thank you note, knowing that I was able to help someone in some shape or form, a smile when it was not expected. Knowing that my work is not in vain makes me happy.
Are there other radio hosts that you model your career after?
I don’t use anyone as a role model because I started my career in Port-de-Paix and therefore I made myself who I am. If you listen to my show, you won’t find that I share similarities with anyone.
Fans love musical performances, but as a radio and media personality you get to see Haitian music from the performance perspective as well as the logistics and inner going-ons perspective. What goes on behind the scenes in the Haitian music industry that fans and other observers do not see?
A lot, a whole lot. Musicians who don’t get along, but have to play together on stage. Musicians who aren’t happy with their paycheck yet stay in the business. Lots of frustration, but also preparation and some fun.
What do your parents think of the person you’ve become?
I think my mother is proud, and my father would be more proud.
Are you doing anything to prepare the next generation of Haitian radio broadcasters and TV hosts?
Yes, that is one of my projects. I plan on sharing my knowledge and experience with others in the next two years. But, I believe that my accomplishments as a young radio host who started in Port-de-Paix can also inspire others who want to pursue the same path.
Do you ever imagine a time when you will no longer be doing radio?
Yes, but if I ever leave the radio, I will be on TV for sure like Dick Clark or Larry King.
You are based in Haiti. Do you ever think that there will be a time when you’ll go out of the country for good?
Never. I think that the time has passed for me to come to the U.S for studies. I have also made a name for myself in Haiti and I am honestly comfortable in my country. I love my country too much.
Besides radio, what other talents would your fans be surprised to know you have?
I would rather the readers discover for themselves the other talents that I have. I promise they will find out soon.
What was the last thing that made you cry? Besides the earthquake.
The last time I cried was because I was disappointed with someone’s reaction towards me.