Filed under: 'media justice', 'media reform', fcc, radio, the revolution, Uncategorized
A number of people have asked me to do a little bit of writing on a big moment for community media justice — the passage of the low power FM radio bill out of the House of Representatives last night.
The bill was brought to the house floor for the very first time on December 16th — directly after the joyful and bipartisan introduction of a resolution to honor A. Phillip Randolph — organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a lion of the labor and civil rights movements.
Randolph believed in community media as a vital tool to build the movement for economic and racial justice. In 1917, he founded The Hotel Messenger — a magazine that fearlessly espoused the political vision and personal stories of a community suffering greatly under class and racial discrimination and brutality. The paper exposed corruption in uniform sales to sidewaiters in New York and regularly told worker and community stories. He used his movement and his paper to plan visionary marches on Washington for fair employment and civil rights, and to engage in a rhetoric of change that rose above partisan argument:
“Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of the times… Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has. Party has no weight with us, principle has. Loyalty is meaningless; it depends on what one is loyal to.”
That’s the kind of media that we need now – media that rises above a ‘cringing demagogy’ that oppresses rather than liberates us. What an honor for the bill to expand Low Power FM to be brought to the floor the same day as Randolph’s resolution.
I spent the larger part of my 20s inside the low power FM movement — helping to build radio stations with the Prometheus Radio Project. Low power FM stations are amazing and unique as snowflakes. The transmitters are these incredible little boxes — shiny lights like computer servers with a thick coaxial cable coming out — winding up to a flagpole antenna on the top of a roof. Pasquo, Tennessee’s WRFN-LP hoisted their tower up with ropes, pulleys, and a hundred hands after a rainstorm. In Woodburn, Oregon, the Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste put KPCN-LP’s antenna on top of a water tower. Best view I’ve ever seen.
I remember building transmitters with Ugandan women in a blackout outside of Nairobi, producing radio plays in Tennessee, and the benediction given by the Holy Ghost priest who led the Southern Development Foundation at the first moments on the air of KOCZ-FM – Opelousas Community Zydeco radio.
When I think of community radio, I think of these moments of magic and how wonderful my time building these stations was. But we don’t fight to expand community radio because of the magic and the beauty. As special as that is. We fight to expand community radio because it – and all community media – is a necessary tool for survival and freedom in our society and in societies around the world.
Then-Federal Communications Commissioner Chairman Bill Kennard was invited at the turn of the millennium to South Africa to help their country build their telecommunications regulation — or so the story begins. He was invited to visit Bush Radio — Africa’s oldest community radio station and an instrument of liberation and struggle that helped bring South Africa out of apartheid. Kennard was scheduled to spend 20 minutes with station founder Zane Ibrahim and his comrades — but he spent over 4 hours studying how people built power with and through the station, how it developed leaders, how vital it was to the community. The station houses a day care center, a radio school for kids age 6-18, a hip hop curriculum for musicians doing outreach around AIDS.
What Kennard saw, he wanted to bring to a movement that was already flourishing in the US. Dozens of unlicensed stations were popping up – from Springfield, Illinois to New York to California. The pressure of those pirate radio stations and the organizing of incredible leaders from faith, legal, and music communities made licensed low power community radio a reality.
Big broadcasters stood in the way for years. Despite millions of dollars of impartial engineering evidence proving there was plenty of room, the big broadcasters kept low power FM out of almost every big city and most smaller communities in the United States. For ten years. But this year, the incredible coalition of deejays-turned-to-self-taught-engineering-experts, of rock stars, of Catholic, Methodist, and UCC churchgoers, of civil rights leaders, made it happen and passed a bill to expand low power FM to hundreds of new communities.
In the House of Representatives, that is. But I can see the other side of the Senate vote. In weeks coming — sooner than later — the vote will be done and then the real work will begin.
Low power FM radio station licenses are free to community groups. Once the bill is fully passed, the FCC will start work and get ready to open a window — one more chance for unions and city councils and schools to get a voice that changes the face of their communities forever. For those of us connected to incredible movement leaders nationwide — from Detroit to West Virginia to South Texas — we have a responsibility to help these leaders apply for these rare tools.
If we take responsibility now, and coordinate, our families and kids will travel through a future country filled with the sounds of our voices rather than the sounds of voices aimed at silencing us. I can’t wait to live there with all of you.
So Nancy Scola wrote a really interesting post at the Huffington Post yesterday — all about talk radio and its relationship to the ownership infrastructure in our corporate media. On my way back from hanging out with the Future of Music Coalition and the wicked charming gentlemen of OK Go, who were stumping for low power FM radio on Capitol Hill and spending some quality time with Local Community Radio Act of 2007 sponsors Mr. Lee Terry and Mr. Mike Doyle, I wanted to comment there. Sadly the Huffington peeps only let you post 350 words at a time, and no room for links! Here’s my thoughts on the relationship between low power FM and opportunities for ‘progressive’ talkers to learn their trade and gain opportunities to succeed on the radio dial:
I really like the baseball metaphor here, Nancy. Let’s take it one step further: We don’t just need double and triple-A teams for progressive (and dare I say local?) talkers to hone their craft — we need Little League.
Cities and towns band around things like high school plays, public school and community sports, and city council meetings not because there’s nothing better to watch on HBO or because there isn’t an arena rock concert or Broadway-caliber show in town. We get a chance to celebrate, appreciate and learn from our neighbors in the most vital ways when we wholeheartedly support their political, athletic, and creative work. Municipalities, local businesses, and churches fund enterprises like this because they are the lifeblood of healthy communities — and when personal or community-wide crises strike, relationships built on the bleachers at the soccer field or in the pews at church end up saving lives.
This is why we need to expand low power FM radio — now, today. Low power FM (LPFM) radio stations are broadcasting in over 800 communities across the United States. They serve broadcast ranges of about 5 miles, at 100 watts, with noncommercial content, always licensed to local nonprofit organizations. From Radio Free Moscow in Moscow, Idaho, to Radio Bird Street in Oroville, California, to the Historic Radio Museum of Ligonier, Indiana, to Portsmouth Community Radio in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to La Voz de la Gente of Woodburn, Oregon, to the Black Chamber of Commerce’s station in Sacramento to WRFU in Urbana, Illinois, and beyond — local radio stations are reflecting, involving, and improving the daily discourse in their local communities. (Notice how these stations are thriving in communities where conservative talk has an unquestioned iron grip on the airwaves?)
(In some cases — like Immokalee, Florida and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi — these stations save lives — because they are run by volunteers, able to stay on the air through terrible hurricanes and storms, and deeply relevant to their local communities, so the go-to place to turn for local emergency information.)
Without a healthy distribution of high school and college radio stations, these venues are often the only places where a young hotshot can learn to handle a mic as well as to handle a well-turned phrase. If Clear Channel and their ilk dominate the hiring and training process of new talk radio show hosts, producers, and corporate domineers, then it is deeply unlikely that our young Future Talkers of America, whatever their political stripes, will find a place to shine in their chosen career.
Our friends at the National Association of Broadcasters — the lobbying group that represents the consolidated broadcasters who have killed progressive talk — have deeply limited low power FM radio to only the most rural areas, convincing Congress in 2000 that these stations could interfere with full power broadcasts if packed onto the radio dial. Even though the FCC designed the program to serve cities too, and for low power FM radio in America’s big cities and suburbs, as well as small, rural communities, Congress has not moved to expand low power FM to the thousands of places that need it.
Luckily, Congressman Lee Terry (R-NE) and Congressman Mike Doyle (D-PA) just joined Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), John McCain (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in cosponsoring the Local Community Radio Act of 2007 — HR 2802, and S 1675. This bill would bring LPFM to almost every major American city, and to hundreds, if not thousands, of other communties.
I want to turn around in 20 years and see vital debate on the airwaves, telling local, regional, and national stories with passion. As Anthony Riddle of the Alliance for Community Media said at this year’s National Conference for Media Reform (and I paraphrase) — if we train a generation of youth to understand that the airwaves belong to them — and we hand them a microphone so they can learn to effect change in their communities — they will expect the next generation of communications infrastructure to be theirs, and in the service of diverse local needs, first and foremost. They will not understand why it should be any other way.
You can call your Congressmembers, and ask them to cosponsor the Local Community Radio Act, by getting started at prometheusradio.org or at Free Press’ great site. Or sign your name to expandlpfm.org.
It’s a small step — but it’s one key tool we need in the fight for more voices on our airwaves. Play ball!
I’m tuned in right now to the next media ownership hearing in Tampa, Florida, looking forward to hearing from diverse community leaders and folks from all across the state. In Harrisburg, people who had driven from hours away, taking off days from their jobs and families, contended with paid broadcasters and the development directors of major nonprofit organizations. The commissioners themselves commented on how striking the difference was between community members who volunteered to come speak, and those staffers who were defending media consolidation, on the clock.
Tonight I’m especially looking forward to hearing from Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a leader from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (http://www.ciw-online.org), who will testify on the 2nd official panel of the evening, after 8pm. Gerardo will talk about the importance of not just stopping media consolidation, but fighting for essential growth of local, community-owned media outlets, like low power FM, public access TV, and full power noncommercial community radio. In his case, lives were saved when Radio Consciencia (http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2006/nov/17/radio_conciencia/?neapolitan ), the local LPFM station licensed to the Coalition, broadcast warnings in Zapotec, Haitian Creole, Q’anjob’al, to farmworkers stuck in the fields during Hurricane Wilma. As Gerardo will testify tonight, local stations were transmitteng alerts on the impending hurricane, but Radio Consciencia was the only station transmitting information on where to go and what to do in both Spanish and the indigenous languages spoken by thousands in the community. Community members could go even further — contacting the station to learn more about the current situation and where the evacuation trailers were. They got so many calls that the station mobilized vans and transported over 350 people to shelter that night. After the storm, WCIW-LP (Radio Consciencia), kept the information going on where to find shelter, food, and water, all in the diverse languages of the local community. By that time the County had realized the importance of the station, and loaned the group a generator so the station could keep saving lives.
The FCC can stop media consolidation if we demand it, but the current situation is broken. Rules that make current corporate media owners accountable, as Commissioner Copps said in his introduction this evening, would be an improvement. But what we really need are rules that encourage and permit more outlets like Radio Consciencia to be built — in every American city, and across the country.
You can listen tonight by clicking here: http://fcc.gov/realaudio/#apr30 , and by visiting http://www.stopbigmedia.com. I can already hear the crowd cheering the amazing, diverse speakers — congratulations to everyone coming out to testify and to all the groups who worked hard to make this happen.
I’m writing this from the last leg of a seventeen hour drive to Memphis, Tennessee, haven’t slept much, so this is rougher than I’d like and might get some edits later on! Prometheus, at this point in the game, has developed some expertise in loading a van with gear, volunteers, and enough of a good attitude to get us where we are going. Usually we’re trucking one or two vans worth of radical radio experts to one of our barnraisings, where we build an entire radio station over the course of a three day weekend. This time around we’re headed to the National Conference for Media Reform.
What is a conference, exactly? If my rudimentary Latin doesn’t fail me, it’s an opportunity to confer — to talk to fellow travellers, people with different kinds of knowledge, about problems, how to solve them.
I know I have a lot to learn, and that many of the people that I want to learn from will be travelling to Memphis with the same hope.
When I look forward from my cramped corner at the back of the van and ask people in the van what they’re interested in doing, it’s everything and anything from spreading the word about independent films, to getting the word out about the last chance in a generation that we’ll have to build our own full power radio stations in the USA. Others will be focused on defending and protecting their public access TV stations, or holding local corporate media accountable to youth and to people of color.
I’m always really struck by the deep and broad literacy that many of the activists I meet hold on a deep diversity of issues under the media reform umbrella. When we woke up from our fitful upright naps, squished between boxes of information about full power FM and sleeping bags and irregularly shaped Tupperwares of baba ghanouj, we stopped at a truck stop for breakfast. I spent a lot of time talking to Howard, who had just returned from Jordan, where he and his wife worked with the Prometheus delegation to build radio stations with a women’s community center. Over weirdly sweet sourdough bread and eggs, he argued fluently for net neutrality, solar powered Wi-Max wireless infrastructure in Sierra Leone, and the nefarious history of the founding of the FCC. Howard is multifaceted — on the surface, I might think he would not be at home at a power lunch or a media convergence space, but it’s his fluency and ability to cross-reference in many issues that makes him so valuable as a colleague, and just the kind of person that I hope many people want to meet in Memphis.
This weekend in Memphis, in the background of the essential and huge debates on stopping the consolidation of media ownership, will be a quiet and insistent conversation on the last frontiers of open spectrum in the United States, and how important it is for the grassroots and the policy shapers to come together to claim that territory for the American people. Presenting on over a dozen panels will be pioneers and architects of media justice and media accountability, looking for allies and backup for their incredibly successful work taking down the corporate media that marginalizes their communities.
If we approach this conference with a lot of hope and with open minds, we’ll have the chance to build relationships that bridge distances. Lots of different kinds of distances, like the geography between San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Nashville, and all the way to and beyond Washington DC. I also want to think about what sometimes seems like the insurmountable distances between organizing strategies, different pieces of this movement. Maybe if we treat everyone like experts — pirate radio operators working in Springfield, Illinois, and policy crafters from across the Atlantic — we’ll be able to prioritize and strategize better, together, to win in all the ways we want and need to win.
The Federal Communications Commission has just collected its first round of comments on its most recent set of proposed rules attempting to consolidate media ownership. Comments are coming in from all over the place. You can do a quick scan for yourself by visiting the Commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System, inputting 06-121 as the docket number, and then get ready to review the over 120,000 comments available on the docket.
I am very glad that I am taking the time tonight to read through a smattering, just some of these comments, because spending time with the voices of the mothers and fathers, musicians and laborers, all these people who are writing in to the FCC, and taking the time to write personal (sometimes handwritten!) comments — is reminding me of one more reason why I continue to be passionate about this work to change our media system.
Just before Halloween, an independent media journalist named Brad Will, working with the New York City Indymedia Center, was murdered by paramilitaries in Oaxaca City. I found out when I got a call from an old friend, an independent media organizer in San Diego, who asked me if I knew any radio stations I could call to get the word out about this terrible and sad event.
At the time I was backstage, volunteering for an amazing pro-choice haunted house/benefit for the Philadelphia Women’s Medical Fund. I couldn’t leave, couldn’t jump online to try to help in whatever limited way I could, so I started text messaging anyone I knew with a connection to a community radio station, or with a press list they could hit.
Many, many Indymedia organizers began coordinating together to fight what they knew would come — the misrepresentation of not just Brad’s murder, but the misrepresentation of the context of why he was killed, and the stories and messages of the organizers and community members in Oaxaca who had been fighting for so long.
Reporters like Romero, author of the article in the last link, seems to be one of, if not the most prolifically disseminated reporter on Oaxaca in both local and national papers in America. A recent search shows communities in Lawrence as well as Olberlin, Kansas; Houston, Texas; rural New Mexico; not to mention Miami, Florida and North Dakota.
Why are these papers all using the same news feed? Because consolidation has forced them to shrink their newsrooms. (Notice the similarities in the style of our hometown New Mexico and North Dakota papers?) Why does it matter to the community members struggling in Oaxaca that our media is consolidating? Because the world depends on an accountable and diverse news media to fight to tell all sides to a story, and no matter what former FCC Chairman Michael Powell might say about the powers of the internet to disseminate information, most people in the United States and around the world are reading the corporate media’s — Rebeca Romero’s — version of why thousands of Oaxacans were encamped in the Zocalo, rather than listening to Radio Appo, for example, which offers up-to-the-second reporting from the streets of Oaxaca, or following the reports from Indymedia itself, which has provided a backbone of excellent reporting for so many struggles, for so many years.
I found this very recent editorial by Mary Sanchez , lambasting response to the media’s coverage of Brad Will. I couldn’t find it anywhere else but the Mercury News, a paper that will lose at least 47 newsroom positions now that it has been acquired by the Media Group. Newspapers, radio stations, and many more media outlets in the United States are poised to suffer deep job cuts if the next round of consolidation goes through. If the United States media consolidates further, for so many millions, and for the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, it will be that much harder to speak to a global public that can levy the pressure necessary to support popular movements, and to bring those who commit atrocities to justice.
I should have written about this weeks ago, but here at the Prometheus Radio Project we’ve been pretty busy with some things (most notably the full power FM window — also known as the last time in a generation that social justice groups will be able to apply for their own radio stations). We want to work with all of you to help thousands of independent groups apply for their own radio stations this spring, because each new station is a victory not just for our local stories in America, but stories that are fighting for our solidarity from all over the world.
I don’t have the expertise to offer an accurate critique of the consolidated-media reporting around the struggle in Oaxaca — and many others are already doing an amazing job at that. But if you live in the United States, you can take the time to write a comment to the FCC, and tell them that there’s more at stake than profits, contour maps, vertical or horizontal integration at stake as they set up these new rules. As is always the case with our freedom of speech, lives are on the line.
You can send your comments to the FCC here — http://www.stopbigmedia.com.