Black immigrant media outlets seek to raise the “voices” of their communities despite challenges
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Vera Azuka Idam was dressed in a vibrant African outfit: multicolored pants and a matching one sleeve shirt with bright red, gray, yellow and green geometric designs. The Nigerian immigrant likes to make a statement.
“I like to dress African all the time, especially if I have an African event that I have to attend, I have to represent right,” she said.
Idam represents because she is the founder of Afrik Digest, a free magazine and online publication. She prints 2,000 copies of the bimonthly magazine and uses African stores as her distribution network.
The most recent issue is about the work women are doing in their communities. It features a collage of photos, headlines and quotes that tease what’s inside the 32-page spread.
“The mission of the magazine is to bring Africans, people together,” she said. “To be their voices, to raise their voices.”
She hires freelance journalists here, and in Africa, to help her write news and lifestyle stories as well as profiles about community members. They know how to present information in a way that speaks to the readers.
“We know what they want. We understand the way to put it that they would understand, right. And that is the way we try to break it down. We have a special code,” she said.
In Nigeria, Azuka was an editor and worked in publishing. In 2010 she moved to Aurora with her family to provide a better education to her three kids. She quickly noticed African immigrants didn’t seem to have much guidance on how to navigate life in the U.S.
“Actually meaning they are living on the fringe,” she said. “No one actually thinks about them.”
Idam learned this firsthand when she went to a local emergency room for chest pains. She thought the ER was the same thing as the free General Hospital in Nigeria. Two weeks later, she was shocked to get a bill for $17,000.
“I almost died,” she said. “Seventeen thousand dollars, I didn't even have $700.”
She conducted research, made calls and eventually got the bill reduced to an amount she could pay. This was one of the experiences that motivated Idam to start Afrik Digest. When she published the first issue in December 2014, it included articles about health care and other topics. Idam wanted to share what she’d learned with her community.
“A lot of people don't have the privilege of this. Let me start something,” she said. “Even if it's a newsletter, just send it out to the community.”
Afrik Digest is one of over three dozen ethnic print, online and broadcast media organizations that serve communities across metro Denver. Some are published in English, like Afrik Digest, while others are written in Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Polish. Despite working with limited resources, these publications provide local news, community resources and help immigrants stay informed about their home countries.
Ethnic media, along with independent and neighborhood media outlets, often fall under the umbrella of community media.
“Media for and by people of color, immigrants and other marginalized communities who have never seen their stories told in mainstream, traditional and local media,” said Kavitha Rajagopalan, the Asian Media Initiative Director at the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. “(They reflect) back a community in its full humanity which is something that’s been sorely lacking in local journalism across the country.”
Community media will often provide resources such as how to access local services, find affordable housing, and register to vote. They establish and maintain the long-term health of U.S. democracy and the economy, and are critical tools for civic engagement for new arrivals and long marginalized communities, according to Rajagopalan. These outlets also publish more nuanced coverage of the violence that occurs in their communities.
Community media is uniquely positioned not only to cover these stories with dignity and to have access to those communities based on language skills, cultural competency, just sensitivity to what communities are going through. Mourning alongside those communities, providing direct service.Kavitha Rajagopalan, the Asian Media Initiative Director at the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York
Community media can be traced back to the early 19th century and the first Black-owned newspaper. It gave a voice to African Americans, their struggles and efforts to overcome the impacts of slavery and discrimination.
“We wouldn't have had any reporting on some of the greatest violence in our history, from lynching and reconstruction onward, if Black press had not been documenting those stories,” she said.
Black media has always had a specific role in the American community media landscape, Rajagopalan said, which progressed and expanded as more immigrants came to this country.
“The first Chinese language newspaper began publishing in 1834 in this country,” she said. “So we know the immigration history is there. We know these communities have been here.”
Today, there are hundreds of community media outlets across the country. They face challenges like evolving digital and social media, loss of in-community businesses, an aging audience and lack of bilingual journalists. Fake news is a big issue too. It can stem from a variety of sources like targeted campaigns in communities of color that hope to influence elections to social media platforms like WhatsApp, WeChat and Facebook Groups.
There was a lot of disinformation about COVID-19 according to Idam. People in Black immigrant communities had different ideas about what it was and where it came from. They didn’t want to wear masks or get vaccinated.
“We worked very hard during COVID,” she said. “We had to make them come out and get vaccinated. We had to tell them the truth.”
However, Idam says her biggest challenge is funding and a lack of advertising revenue. She doesn’t make much money from the magazine and relies on her day job as an IT professional to pay the bills. She was curious if other ethnic media were also struggling financially. In 2022, she received a grant from the Colorado Media Project which she used to create the Ethnic Media Exchange. More than a dozen outlets attended the event where they discussed disinformation, funding and other challenges.
“Networking with others is very helpful because you get to share experience,” said KETO 93.9 FM founder Endale Getahun who attended the event. “For those of us who are doing these things alone, maybe that's because we're struggling with, you know, with support and very minimum financial support.”
KETO is a multicultural immigrant community radio station that primarily serves African immigrants and refugees. The low-power FM station has a signal radius of 10 miles which broadcasts from the campus of Aurora Central High School. The station airs shows and music in English, French and Ethiopian languages like Amharic, Tigrinya and Oromo and also streams online.
It’s fitting that KETO is housed at a high school school because that is where Getahun’s love of media started nearly four decades ago.
“I (had) this vision that I wanted to do this when I was in high school,” he said.
Political upheaval forced Getahun’s family to leave Ethiopia and emigrate here when he was a preteen. He spoke limited English and was bullied for being different in high school. Getahun knew his classmates often formed opinions about immigrants by watching local and national news so he decided to change the narrative and produce his own stories.
“These people, if they watch those and listen to this, I should have my own media and tell them who I came from,” he said. “So that's where it started.”
After Getahun graduated, he had a community cable tv show in Denver before moving to D.C. where he produced a program for Ethiopian Community Television. After a while, he wanted to pivot to radio.
“People don't sit home, but they can listen to radio while in the go,” he said. “My goal was just trying to reach a lot of people.”
Back then, getting a radio license was nearly impossible for an independent broadcaster like Getahun. This changed in 2000, when the Federal Communications Commission created a new class of noncommercial low-power FM licenses reserved for nonprofit organizations. In 2014 Endale applied for a license and three years later, the FCC awarded him KETO 93.9 FM.
“It was long overdue and I was excited,” he said.
KETO covers the local community too. The station broadcasts live from events and airs interviews with leaders and lawmakers. Organizations such as a union that might employ immigrant workers, the census bureau and Denver county will reach out to KETO to share information with listeners. The City of Aurora used the station to disseminate information in multiple languages about COVID-19 and how to stop the spread of the disease.
“We work directly with all these different ethnic media organizations,” said Ricardo Gambetta is the manager of International and Immigrant Affairs for Aurora.
Newcomers often get their information from ethnic media according to Gambetta, so it’s in the city’s best interest to partner with these outlets. For example, in January, his office hosted an ethnic media roundtable with the new chief of police.
“We want to ensure that all these different demographic groups have equal access to information resources coming from the city,” he said.
When Gambetta started working for the City of Aurora eight years ago, he said there was one Spanish TV show and maybe one international publication. The number of ethnic media outlets have grown significantly since then. But last year, he was still surprised to discover a local Russian newspaper with a very small circulation that had become popular within the community.
I feel like for many of these communities, they really trust, you know, these ethnic media organizations. They know that they want the best for these communities.Ricardo Gambetta, manager of International and Immigrant Affairs for Aurora
Getahun agrees. He founded KETO to inform and entertain immigrants. He’s happy to be based out of Aurora Central High School where students speak more than 50 languages. He loves to share his story with immigrant youth in the hopes of inspiring the next generation.
“It makes me very passionate about because I know what I went through,” he said. “Not only because you're immigrant, but because you have very limited communications. You wanted to be more to do things, but you have barrier and you break that and I want other young kids to do the same thing.”
Idam is hoping to expand her Afrik Digest’s reach as well. When she first started the magazine it was actually called Denver Digest and served communities in the metro area. Two years ago she renamed the magazine to reflecther growing mission for the magazine to become a vital news source and resource for Black people everywhere.
“We wanted to reach more people with a story of Africa, with a story of our heritage,” she said.
This story is part of The Colorado Dream: Newcomers Welcome podcast from KUNC.