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.