Radio Activists Win a Pathetic Sliver of the Airwaves For Neighborhood Radio!

By pete tridish, in the Summer of the Year 2000. First Published in the Resist Newsletter

In late 1996, myself and four activist friends launched Radio Mutiny, an all-volunteer, non-commercial, anti-profit pirate radio station in West Philadelphia. We were tired of orchestrating elaborate media stunts for the sake of getting a 5 second mention on the news, tired of the endless prattle of corporate apologists and the soundbite assembly line of commercial and public radio, tired of the market-research driven playlists on the music stations. We saw that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 would open the fl,oodgates for media giants to buy up thousands of local radio stations. We knew that this would decimate what was left of local radio and reduce the public trust of the nations airwaves to an aetherial strip mall. Inspired by the radio rebels of El Salvador and microradio pioneers Steven Dunifer and Mbanna Kantako, we decided that we were ready to face fines, searches and possible jail-time at the hands of the federal government to take back a chunk of the publics airwaves for our neighborhood.

Within a few months of taking to the airwaves, our numbers increased from five to fifty and we soon were on the air seven nights per week with programming unlike anything else on the dial. We had music ranging from big band to western swing, cheezy French pop to samba, klezmer to hip hop. We had weekly public affairs shows like Red Sun Rising (news of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere), Incarceration Nation (hosted by a former inmate and prison activist). Sweet City Sensation- (health tips from The Condom Lady, mixed in with K-tel Classic disco), and Africa Report (news of Africa as interpreted by a former ANC party member and soldier from South Africa). We discovered the miraculous outpouring of local talent that surges forth when a neighborhood is given a new means of self-expression. Our little radio station became a medium for telling peoples' stories without regard for profitability or marketshare or political expediency- the gatekeeping logic of the for-profit media.

Of course it couldn't last forever. When we had been on the air for nine months, we got our first visit from the FCC. We struck back three days later with a defiant return to the airwaves in front of Ben Franklins' printing press downtown, a potent symbol of the origins of the first amendment. At the same time the ACLU announced that they would defend us if we went to court. This kept the FCC at bay for months but some of our programmers were scared off. We had many non-profit and immigrant groups that were excited to work with us, but who ultimately could not afford the risks associated with joining our station. Our station was divided about the next moves to make. We knew that our days were probably numbered. We tried to make the most of our demise by using the impending confiscation of our radio station to further the cause of legal, neighborhood radio. As fun as our station was, our vision did not stop at a radio station for the daring and perhaps somewhat foolhardy- we wanted a station that all of our neighbors could join.

By the time the FCC broke into our station and carted it away, the combined efforts of hundreds of stations like ours had created a public relations nightmare for the FCC. To improve the image of the FCC, ChairmanWilliam Kennard announced that he was going to do everything he could to create a legal community radio service. At first we thought this was just a lot of spin-control, but eventually it became clear that he was serious. Amazing everyone including ourselves, our acts of electronic civil disobedience had actually changed the minds of key decision-makers at the agency.

After years of public comment and engineering studies, the combined pressure from media reformers and direct action activists prevailed to win a partial victory. On January 26,th 2000, the Federal Communications Commission voted to create a new low power FM service. The new rules allow small non-profit groups, libraries, churches and community organizations to apply for licenses to operate simple, inexpensive local radio stations. Individuals can not apply for licenses, but any group can apply, from your local chapter of ACT-UP to the Rotary Club. The equipment costs of these stations can be as low as a few thousand dollars. Perhaps thousands of non-commercial microradio licenses will be given out across the country over the next year. The technical standards of required distance between stations are so stringent, however, that most cities will only be able to have between one and five new stations. These standards mandate enormous separations between radio stations, far more than is necessary to prevent interference. Some of the largest cities, like NY, LA and Chicago, will get no new licenses under LPFM. .Activists are continuing the fight to open up more bandwidth in these places- and pirates who are currently operating interference-free in these places continue their civil disobedience.

Meanwhile, wherever there are frequencies available under the new plan, Prometheus Radio Project is working to find activists and community groups that want to start neighborhood radio stations. We know first hand from our days of yore as pirates that almost any neighborhood can support a good new radio station. Community radio stations draw together activists and neighborhood folks from all walks of life, creating the sort of public institution that gives focus and expression to a community. Our assistance is free, and we can walk you through the process of putting the station on the air from your first application to building to pulling together your programming.

Radio is a remarkable medium. It is cheap to produce, the receivers are ubiquitous, and it is remarkably easy to do a better job at producing informative and entertaining programming than the pros, with all their MBAs and high tech studios. Kids love to produce it and love to listen to it, creating one of the few activities in the adult world that you can actually interest teenagers in. It can serve as a great training ground for youth to learn to speak publicly, to fix things, raise money, to plan ambitious projects. And every neighborhood has someone who can do a beautiful weekly serial reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh, someone with a giant collection of the music of Lower Serbia, someone who can explain the news behind the Western headlines about their home country.

The struggle for low power radio has already been won- the first licenses will be issued within a month or so. As of now, everything is moving ahead, but advocates of low power radio still face a number of threats. The most pressing is the broadcasters lobby and NPR. These incumbent broadcasters, commercial and non-commercial, have combined forces to squelch their new competition. The House of Representatives has passed a bill that will eviscerate the low power radio initiative, eliminating 80% of the new stations that will be allocated. If the Senate passes a similar bill, and the President signs it, the new stations will never get a chance to go on the air. We are pulling out the stops to make sure that Senators know how important it is not to derail the FCC's plan. Activists are planning a giant mobilization to shut down the National Association of Broadcasters radio convention in September in San Francisco.

The other biggest threat comes from fundamentalist Christian radio operators. All advocates of low power radio are advocates of freedom of expression- we have no problem with Christian, right wing radios stations. The Christian Right, however, has been particularly adept at bending the FCC's rules to allow for nationwide repeater networks built out of stations that are supposed to be allocated for local use. In the first round of applications, these groups entered hundreds of superficially local efforts that were obviously fronts for a national religious programming network. It is deeply ironic that progressives have fought so hard for this service, but right wing churches seem poised to get most of the frequencies. It is all the more ironic because these churches have put little or no effort into establishing the service, and do not seem interested in persuading their Senators to support it- they spend all their efforts on getting as many stations as they can. Prometheus Radio Project seeks to counter this trend by getting as many legitimate, local progressive organizations and publicly minded institutions to apply for stations as possible. There will be just one, five day opportunity to apply for a low power radio station in your town, sometime within the next months. If you ever wanted to have a community media project- the time is now. Don't let this chance slip by!