These Are Our Airwaves: A Conversation with Hannah Sassaman and Kat Aaron

From Social Policy 

Summer 2006 


Hannah Sassaman, a self-described “rabble rouser” and program director at the Philadelphia based Prometheus Radio Project, has been featured in segments on NPR’s On the Media, Democracy Now, CNN, C-SPAN, and a variety of other TV, radio, and print projects.  She was a key organizer of major FCC localism hearings in San Antonio and Rapid City and recently helped coordinate the successful building of an FCC-licensed emergency radio station used by families displaced by Hurricane Katrina, in Houston.  Kat Aaron is the co-director of People’s Production House, a media justice organization in New York City that works to expand the next generation of social justice media makers through their youth program, Radio Rootz, which teaches radio reporting skills in schools throughout New York City, and through the Community News Production Institute, which trains low wage and immigrant workers in journalism and radio reporting.  Social Policy caught up with them this summer to discuss the No Hate Radio campaign and the future of community-powered radio.

SOCIAL POLICY: First off, can you give us a general outline of the No Hate Radio campaign and its origin this spring?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: In New York, on the major Clear Channel hip-hop station there had been a pair of top rated DJs – Star and Buc Wild – and over the past couple years there were a number of instances where people in New York (and all across the country – their show was syndicated in a dozen markets) began voicing concern about the content on their shows affecting them, their families, and their communities.  The most recent incident happened this May: Star and Buc had a series of programs over 8 days where Star (whose real name is Troi Torain) was making extremely violent and racist comments against his rival, DJ Envy.  It was blatantly, egregiously violent stuff directed at DJ Envy’s wife and four year-old daughter and it spurred a number of different responses.  DJ Envy’s wife, Gia Casey, went to Councilman John Liu to engage in a public campaign against Clear Channel, which ultimately led to Star’s suspension and termination. 

KAT AARON: The whole thing actually came to our attention when Councilman Liu sent a press release to some media outlets, including the community radio station where I work. We got the sound from Star’s show, and we couldn’t believe how offensive, sexist and racist his statements were.  Since we work with young people, the hip-hop generation, as it were, we knew wanted to get involved.

HS: The No Hate Radio campaign – comprised of longtime media activists from organizations including Kat’s group, Radio Rootz, the Prometheus Radio Project, and Media Tank –  started a local campaign and worked to build a website.  It was tricky to develop, since we’re obviously very sensitive to issues of censorship – how can the FCC establish rules to protect against hate speech, without having the power to stop speech, for example – but the point of the site was to try and get at the root causes of the hurt in the community.  It allowed people who were angry about this content to complain to the station and to the FCC, rather than to ask for the station to censor itself.  It wasn’t even to ask for the station to remove Star and Buc, although that did happen and many people supported the decision.  We wanted to look at the root causes behind Clear Channel’s ability to put out programming that, while often popular, can be very dangerous and offensive to our communities. 

KA: For Radio Rootz, one really important thing was to say look, this issue with DJ Star isn’t about hip-hop.  Hip-hop can be raw, and it can have strong language, but hip-hop culture is not about hate speech.  That’s what it becomes reduced to in a media environment where trash talk is what gets attention and DJ deals.  A trash talk war, back and forth between two DJs, with things like the Tsunami song at Hot 97 and then Star’s comments at Power 105, that can improve ratings.  But good ratings and good radio aren’t the same thing.

These sorts of comments, racist and sexist and homophobic comments, are the opposite of what young people need to hear – or anyone, really.  But when local radio stations are owned by huge corporations like Clear Channel, the listeners have very little control over what they hear via the public airwaves.  Specifically, in New York, the hip-hop community has no say about what goes over Clear Channel’s Power 105, or Emmis’ Hot 97.  As a community, we don’t get to decide whether we want political hip-hop or commercial hip-hop, whether we hear local artists or the same Top 40 artists, and we don’t get to decide what’s offensive to us.  I would much rather my students hear a curse word, as defined by the FCC, than I would want them to hear words like “gook” and “bitch.” And to be really clear, it’s not a question of censorship, or asking the government to get more involved in regulating what we hear.  The larger issue behind the No Hate Radio campaign is changing who gets to define what offensive language is, and who gets to decide whether a broadcaster is meeting its obligations to its listeners.  Right now, it’s not the kids, it’s not the parents, and it’s not the local listening area.  That’s a problem for us. 

HS: For us it’s about who owns the media, who gets access to our airwaves.  Clear Channel owns 1,300 stations in the top 248 national markets.  Their headquarters are in San Antonio, not New York, or Philadelphia, or Chicago, or anywhere else they have a substantial presence – though they dominate San Antonio’s airwaves too.  Now, these 1,300 stations are getting access to a valuable resource – the airwaves – which belong to American people.  In exchange for that resource, they are supposed to be responsive to local communities, to give us access to each other, to our democracy – to make our lives a lot better.  But because Clear Channel owns these 1,300 stations, if there’s community anger towards one station – or even ten or twenty – they will simply be slapped with a fine, or maybe lose some advertising content.  The station is a moneymaker to them; they’d rather ignore public input and pay the FCC every time they “make a mistake.”  With that many stations under your control, community response will never affect the bottom line.

What No Hate does is tell people who are upset how to direct their responses to the FCC, and also describes how the FCC actually has power to take licenses away from corporate control.  Community response can be used as evidence to not renew a license for Clear Channel, and we believe more diverse ownership of station licensing puts a stop to this race to the bottom that inevitably comes with consolidation in broadcast media.

When big companies put out content that is primarily about increasing advertising revenue, it’s clear that issues that are important to the local community in that market simply do not matter to them.  When people get involved in local radio – low-power radio, full-power community radio – we can start to create stations with truly diverse content representing youth, the elderly, that feature real debates, and local politics.  And challenging FCC licensing is the foundation to that movement.

KA: And that’s also where groups like Radio Rootz come in – we teach young people to create funny, dynamic interesting radio pieces and radio shows, so that when we say look, Clear Channel is not what we want to hear, we can point to community created content and say: we want that instead.  We train our students in reporting, and we also teach them about issues like media consolidation and ownership, so that they understand the media landscape they are working in and they can choose to get involved in the fight for a media that serves their communities’ interests.

SP: Tell me about the June 28th approval of the amendment reaffirming Low-power radio on Senate Bill 2686.

HS: Low-power FM stations broadcast at 100 watts or less – covering between five and fifteen miles.  They generally serve small town, really rural communities, and in a very few cases, neighborhoods or communities within small cities in the United States.  When the service was first established, the FCC determined that there was plenty of room in both bigger and smaller communities for this type of broadcasting to exist alongside full-power FM stations.  The National Association of Broadcasters, representing huge broadcast corporations like  Clear Channel and other big owners like Viacom, GE, etc., were so afraid of what the FM dial would be like with all these small, community-driven low-power stations that they pretended there was a technical problem with low-power.  The told the FCC that a low-power station three clicks away would cause interference – terrible crackling on your radio – for a full-power station.  They weren’t able to convince the FCC – even after jimmying up a fake CD with the alleged interference captured – but they were able to convince Congress, members of which, of course, receive big money from the broadcasting lobby for their election campaigns.  And Congress certainly doesn’t have professional engineers at their beck-and-call, like the FCC.

So Congress restricted the scope of low-power (in the ironically named Radio Preservation Act of 2002).  For years we have been fighting to expand low-power FM to all the communities that need it, and now after the FCC’s $2.2 million study, commissioned to the MITRE corporation, the FCC proved that there was, after all, plenty of room for low-power FM to broadcast in thousands more communities with no potential interference.

This year, the expansion of low-power FM (LPFM) radio (one hundred watt community radio stations used by churches, schools, and community groups around the United States) has taken a dramatic, important turn. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, sponsored an amendment onto Senate Bill 2686, a big telecommunications bill that covers everything from who controls your local cable company to how fast and open your access to the internet is.

This amendment removes the artificial restriction that the FCC was forced to put on our airwaves in 2000, keeping low-power FM radio from America’s cities and thousands of our towns.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of new radio frequencies would be opened up to communities across the country if the amendment became law.

Because so many thousands of low-power FM supporters called in – everyone from evangelical Christian stations to farm worker groups to school districts – and because groups as diverse as the Christian Coalition and Free Press support LPFM, the Senate passed the amendment, supporting low-power FM 14-7 on the Commerce Committee level.  Even though we all might have to come together later this year to defeat this bill (we’re not trading low-power FM for public access TV – no way!), this was an important chance to show support for LPFM on the floor of the Senate, on this bill, and in all future legislation.  If this amendment had been voted down on the floor, we might have had to start over at square one to expand LPFM to our communities.

Now we’re talking to a lot of Senate and House offices about the service low-power FM stations provided to communities after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Only four Gulf-area stations stayed on-air during and after Katrina last year, and two of them were low-power stations.  Give us a call if you want to help us work in Congress or at the FCC to expand low-power FM as an essential part of our emergency communications infrastructure in the United States.

SP: So what are some more of the promising signs you see in the campaign to put more control in the hands of community radio?

HS: It all comes back to some level of community reciprocity: in exchange for using a resource that belongs to community, companies to need to give something back.  Instead, they want to establish a status quo that serves them by having the convenience of access in all these markets, but limits our – the community’s – power.  That said, it’s a really exciting year, actually!  When you look at the big companies – Clear Channel, GE, ABC, Disney –  trying to negotiate more and more control without being accountable, what you’re finding is a media justice movement that really understands how they’re trying to do it, a movement capable of using the same leverage to fight for access.

What we’re saying is that we want the local control and determination which allows us to participate in our democracy.  We’re capable of a sophisticated analysis to argue for these rights whether it’s the Senate or the House, and we’re able to make the same argument in all cases – to say no to corporate consolidation of media outlets.

KA: And again, part of what it means to take community control of the airwaves is about creating a new generation of socially engaged media makers.  It’s not enough for community journalists to just be reporters.  They also have to fight on the policy level, and young people all over the country are doing just that.  A great example is the Allied Media Conference, where young media makers and activists gather once a year to talk shop, learn writing and reporting skills, and get up to speed on the policy front.  I didn’t see things like that when I was starting in radio, even seven or eight years ago. 

SP: Hannah, how does your organization – the Prometheus Radio Project – directly engage communities on these issues?

HS: Well, we don’t go and tell people, “You need to build stations.”  We go to them and learn what appropriate communications they want and help people to understand all the battles around these issues, and work in solidarity to share tools and hook communities up with other like-minded communities.

The way that Prometheus does it is we try to tie arguments together.  We try to meet people in local communities and get people together so they can use these tools themselves, engage their local governments, or even take it nationally to the FCC.

Our work with PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste), a local union of farm and tree workers in the mid-Willamette Valley of Oregon is a good example.  They already had access to radio and found it really useful to talk about labor issues and as a tool to come together and organize.  They established a strong, cultural, diverse outlet, but when a local farmer realized they were using the airwaves to discuss labor rights and immigrant rights, he badgered the local station to get them off the air and they lost access.  They even had to sue to claim the last two hours of airtime which they had already paid for! 

They want to use a new station to strongly communicate their organizing goals, and allow the community to influence those goals as sort of a Soapbox media center.  Their own station will be an appropriate tool which will make them more effective, and help PCUN have a place where people can come in, make media, learn how to be more engaged with labor rights and immigration rights.  On August 20, 2006, that station – KPCN-LP – will go live in Woodburn, Oregon for the first time.

KA: Radio wasn’t always the way it is now – programmed remotely, with profit rather than education or entertainment as the main focus.  Even ten or fifteen years ago, there was much more creative, interesting, and local radio. That can come back, if we can get more community control of the airwaves.  Who wants to hear the same twenty songs over and over?  Don’t you think people want to hear what’s happening in their neighborhoods, their schools?  People want to hear from the farm workers, the middle school kids that Rootz teaches.  They want to hear the girl who raps from down the block, mixed in with the big name rappers.  I love mainstream hip-hop and pop culture as much as the next person, probably more, but there’s more out there, and I’m not the only one who wants to hear it on the radio. 

You know, early radios were transmitters and receivers, a two-way medium of communication.  Those days probably won’t ever come back, but the airwaves can and should be a space for community dialogue. No Hate Radio gave people all over the country a chance to tell the FCC that these radio behemoths are out of control.  This campaign certainly isn’t the beginning of this fight against the corporate media giants, but it’s not the end either. Clear Channel has crossed the line, and if I were them, I’d be starting to worry.  People are pissed, and they are mobilized.  Those are our airwaves, and we’re going to get them back.