December 7, 2012

SQUATTING THE AIRWAVES - Pirate Radio as Anarchy in Action


Pirate Radio as Anarchy in Action

A society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties religious differences and their superstitious separatism. Far from being a speculative vision of a future society, it is a description of a mode of human organization, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society.i

Colin Ward

When Colin Ward first wrote Anarchy in Action back in 1973, he included many examples of anarchist social organization in the areas of work, play, education and social welfare. Missing in action was pirate radio. Little is said in the Ward book about communications. One might assume that one of the reasons for this omission is because of the conflation of communications with mass communications. The assumption being that because of its massive scale, corporate hierarchy, and/or government bureaucracy, radio was not a suitable topic for tracing embryonic anarchist forms or ruminating on anarchist possibilities. Since the birth of the free radio movement, this assumption has been increasingly called into question, especially in relation to the latest developments in micropower broadcasting technology where the transmitter can be as small in size as a loaf of bread.

Radio Waves

While Ward’s book favorably references the British squatters campaign that originated in the Sixties, he could not have predicted that by 1979, just across the English Channel, Vrij (Free) Keizer Radio, named after the huge squatted housing complex in Amsterdam’s Keizersgracht, would take to the air, broadcasting mainly squatters’ movement and resistance news and music, and going live during the big political demonstrations and street riots of the day. Aside from playing this kind of tactical role in defending housing squats as occupied space, outside of capital or government control, pirate radio itself can be understood as a form of “squatting.” By using direct action, radio pirates can communally seize the airwaves and liberate them from institutional control.

In fact, from the mid-Seventies well into the Eighties, an explosion of pirate radio stations could be found plying the European airwaves from the studios of Autonomia’s Radio Alice in Italy, Radio Libertaire in France, Radio Dreyeckland in Germany, Radio Skokkeland in Denmark, and Radio Air Libre in Belgium. In Spain, where an anarchist revolution had been suppressed by General Franco with the assistance of both Hitler and Stalin, within a year of the hated dictator’s death, the first free radio stations would surface, including the decidedly anarchist Radio Libertaria in Valencia. Even from the vantage point of Colin Ward’s writing outpost in the UK, Radio Arthur would soon make its appearance. Named after union leader Arthur Scargill, its origins can be traced to the galvanizing radical politics of the British coal miners’ strike of 1984. The micropower radio movement in the States was born in the late Eighties in Springfield, Illinois with Black Liberation Radio, and then consolidated with the impetus of Free Radio Berkeley in the Nineties. Though not all of the pirate stations mentioned above were explicitly anarchist, they typically operated on a daily basis in ways that resonate with the nascent anarchist organizational forms profiled by Colin Ward in his book.

Once the free radio movement began to gather steam in North America, would-be Canadian pirates could get a front row seat on the action and, with the ever wider availability of inexpensive micropower equipment, it was only a matter of time before they too would want to participate directly. A contemporary case in point is Tree Frog Radio in British Columbia. This island-based station, with which I have been involved from its inception, has now been squatting the airwaves for over five years. From the start, it was to be an anarchist-initiated project that would be open to the community as a whole. Not everyone on the station is an anarchist, and not all anarchist programmers are always doing programming with specifically or exclusively anarchist content, but its origins and current organizational context are deeply informed by anarchy.

Tree Frog Radio

What then are Tree Frog Radio’s affinities with anarchism in Ward’s “everyday” terms? In essence, it is the human scale of the relationships within Tree Frog Radio and with its community that has won it broad-based support and widespread participation. As one programmer has explained the appeal of the station, “Big radio always felt so cold and distant, Tree Frog Radio, like our community hall, recycling centre, free store and farmers market, feels involving.” Though illegal, because it has been the embodiment of autonomous island culture, it has engendered community involvement. It has motivated community members to nurture and protect it over the course of its history, which began with an on-island showing of Rebel Radio, a film about the US pirate radio movement of the Nineties, after which around 20 community people began to envision starting our own station. Collectively, we combined the programming, technical, fundraising and organizational skills needed to launch Tree Frog Radio.

Most of the folks involved did not bat an eyelash in defense of the concept of legality. Though some concern was expressed about the possibility of a government clampdown, legality was not intrinsically linked to possibility. What was illegal, though riskier, was not necessarily dismissed as impossible. Of course, it helped that the island had long been conducive to libertarian living arrangements that were appreciated even by those islanders who would not necessarily identify as squatters or anarchists. In regard to the anti-authoritarian nature of island culture, many of the bohemian residents who came to live here in the Seventies were artists, poets, hippies, and Vietnam-era draft dodgers. While island demographics have changed over the years, the steady stream of free spirits has never really dried up. Most emblematic of an anarchist trace that is still very much in evidence on island is the fact that we have no cops. Because something so seemingly impossible as living in a place with no cops is indeed possible here, islanders are often more receptive than most people to imagining the creation of other autonomous zones. It is precisely this everyday sense of demanding the impossible that animates Tree Frog Radio. With this open attitude in mind, I will now explore the anarchist implications of the station’s libertarian organizational structures, such as community participation, volunteer labor, commercial-free programming, grassroots fundraising, consensus decision-making and community self-defense.

As to community participation, the station was started and continues to flourish as a result of the “sweat equity” of the community members who built and sustain it. Without ever resorting to such bureaucratic policies as “outreach,” “recruitment” or “affirmative action;” from the start, the station has quite naturally been a magnet for political, economic and cultural diversity. Not only the “usual suspects “ among anarchists and punks, but a grassroots assortment of marginalized islanders, drawn over the years from renters (a minority on island but a majority on the station), first generation immigrants, Québecoise and those culturally disenfranchised because of their youth, have readily taken to the airwaves over the years. Though the station welcomes the participation of all islanders as programmers, it has, from the start, been largely the “voice of the voiceless.” As one programmer has put it, “Tree Frog Radio provides the realization of the voice many of us have to share but cannot express otherwise.”

While many of our programmers do not own land, even those that do tend to be unusual—radical libertarians, back-to-the-landers, co-housing land partners, permaculture activists, unruly wage slaves, gender rebels, counter-culture mavens, habitues of the underground economy, and eccentrics of all stripes. Up until recently, the local Residents Association had been called the Ratepayers Association, reflecting in its previous incarnation, the assumption that it was the more established property owners on island who were the rightful community decision-makers. Of course, the fact is that renters indirectly pay property taxes as is evidenced by the soaring island rents that are in part a result of the local property owners’ ability to pass on their land taxes to their tenants. Yet, even though the name Ratepayers has now been changed to Residents, the fully-enfranchised islander is still unofficially conceived of as an adult property owner. Consequently, it is the voice of the more affluent property owner that is the one that is heard most often in public debate at Residents Association meetings, and those with little or no legally taxable income from employment or retirement pensions are rarely part of the public debate. Though the latter are not officially excluded, the alienating culture of formal meetings can often seem unappetizing or unwelcoming to those on the fringes, who choose instead, intentionally or in effect, to withhold their consent.

At Tree Frog Radio, there is no such aura of propertied legitimacy or elitist atmosphere of entitlement. Instead, the station’s free-wheeling lack of formalities attracts a different type of participant than the Residents Association. On the airwaves, the voice of the propertyless or atypical property owner holds center stage. Though the latter might own land, they do not claim a privileged status or act the part of landed gentry. Consequently, the political opinions expressed on our shows offer the listener access to a much broader spectrum of island politics than one can be exposed to by attending a Residents Association meeting, where, even with the best of intentions, the participatory spirit is stifled by the straitjacket of Roberts Rules of Order.

Another group that is represented on the station in ways that they are not elsewhere in the general cultural and political life of the community are recent immigrants. For example, in the entire region, there is no place on the radio dial other than Tree Frog where you can regularly hear local political commentary on island issues, listen to a scathing critique of Canadian domestic repression of indigenous peoples or get no-holds-barred commentary on the government’s dirty little war in Afghanistan; all from the “outsider” perspective of a programmer who is a first generation immigrant of Middle Eastern descent? Moreover, it is not unusual to hear a wide variety of music programming by our deejays, with some vocals in Farsi, Czech, Yiddish, Yoruba or Kwakwaka’wakw, just to name a few languages that would never otherwise be heard in the public sphere on island.

Beyond recent immigrants, Québecois culture quickly found a voice on Tree Frog Radio as well. While in Eastern Canada, the politics of the French language is often hotly contested, in British Columbia, far from Québec, there is little in the way of a public voice for Francophone culture. Yet for the first several years, until she returned to Quebec City in 2008, Tree Frog broadcast a weekly program hosted by a woman of Québecois heritage, featuring French music and culture, which was presented entirely in that language. In a country that pays lip service to bilingualism, not even the nearest licensed community radio station within listening range provided such a service until much later.

As to island youth, at present, we have had two shows by deejays who are under 18 years of age, one of whom started at 14 during the early days of the station and another who began his show at the end of our fourth year on air at age 15 and is still on air. There is simply no public forum on island where a young person would regularly be given similar responsibility, along with an opportunity to learn radio skills while freely designing his/her own show just as the adult programmers do, or be able to participate in programmers’ meetings as decision-makers, or to deejay at station fundraisers. In essence, Tree Frog is a station whose programmers are drawn from the young and the young at heart. As one older programmer has expressed it “This experience has revived that sense of awe that I had in my youth when it was all new, when so much was out there to be discovered.” Our oldest programmer is in his sixties, an age group that faces similar barriers to doing licensed radio, whether on commercial, public or even community stations, as are encountered by youth in relation to the ageism of conventional broadcasting.

At licensed campus/community radio stations, while the programmers are volunteers, management is typically paid. At Tree Frog where there are no managers, it is an all-volunteer affair. There is no paid staff and so it is all a labour of love (though not without a bit of ego thrown into the mix). All in all, we are a non-hierarchical and self-managing bunch. At this point, Tree Frog meetings (which are open to all programmers and technical support folks) are mainly concerned with making consensual decisions about programming schedules, community fundraisers and station maintenance. In the past more philosophical and sometimes contentious issues such as whether to accept local business sponsorship for individual programs as a way of fundraising or whether to apply for a low watt (5 watt probationary) license were passionately debated. Both ideas were rejected as inappropriate and unnecessary after much internal discussion. In terms of becoming licensed, as expected, not only was the anarchist contingent at the station opposed to going legit, but, for other programmers as well, attempting to become a legal station was generally considered to be too expensive, to involve too long a waiting period, and to be too bureaucratic a process to pursue.

By now the station flows pretty smoothly on its own steam with only occasional programmer meetings and the use of a Tree Frog email list for information-sharing and trouble-shooting. If an islander wants to do a show, we’ll find him/her a slot in the schedule, offer some technical training and put that person on air asap. And because we do not have scheduled programming 24 hours/7 days per week, aside from our publicized programming, we allow for sporadic unscheduled broadcasts by any of our deejays or guest deejays during times when none of our regular programmers are slated to do shows. Since there is no commercial advertising on the station, we rely on grassroots fundraising to pay the bills which now consist of $35 a month for electricity, and incidental costs incurred in maintaining, upgrading and replacing the equipment. The land on which our tiny trailer/studio sits has been donated to us rent-free, and the trailer itself was sold to us at a discounted rate by an islander who supported our efforts. Much of the consumer electronics that constitute our studio equipment have been scavenged (at the island “free store”), picked up cheap at a nearby thrift store, or were donated (mixer, cd players, turntable, mics, and tape decks). Other studio technology has been rebuilt (computer) or, like the mixer and turntable, were eventually purchased new after our original ones had died and could not be easily replaced. We even had a second transmitter donated to us for live remotes by the person who built it at a pirate radio workshop in Berkeley, California.

As to our monthly electricity costs, they are paid for by the recycling of bottles. The station has its own Tree Frog bin at the island recycling center, and anyone can support us by simply depositing their beer and wine bottles in our designated repository. Though all of the other bins are for legal community groups, from the theatre group to the land conservancy, no one seems to mind that we are illegal since its obvious that we are providing a service to the community and not harming anyone in the process. If someone disapproves, they can just put their bottles elsewhere. Since our bin is always full of bottles, either our usual compliment of 12-24 programmers are really heavy drinkers or the community must think we are doing something right.

At first we had to do fundraising to pay for the trailer and the original radio transmission technology (transmitter, antenna, power supply, compressor/limiter) at a total cost of around $1500, but by now our only fixed cost is electricity which tends to be payable through our recycling dividends, with the occasional fundraiser used to purchase a piece of equipment. These fundraisers have taken the form of dance parties which are deejayed by our programmers or themed sit-down dinner parties where the cooking is done by us. Both take place at the community hall as would be the case for any other island fundraiser. In each case the person who attends these grassroots fundraisers gets to participate in supporting the station while attending a community social event in return for their contribution to Tree Frog. In the ensuing direct interaction, we get to meet our listeners face-to-face, though the latter happens informally all the time at the local recycling centre, general store, bookstore, bakery or café as well. Typically, the station’s supporters use fundraising occasions to get an updated copy of the schedule, arrange to go on-air in the future themselves or tell us personally what they enjoy or find problematic about our shows (any complaints go directly to the programmer rather than to the station as a whole). We also get the occasional unsolicited personal check or cash (the latter is preferred since we have no bank account for obvious reasons) at these fundraising events. Yet, in the eyes of the Canadian government, we at Tree Frog are viewed as lawbreakers simply because we want to communicate with our neighbors without a license.

Because of our illegal status, and our desire to be “underground” but not entirely clandestine (as is evidenced by this article), we are aware that the possibility exists that we might be in danger of being shut down by Industry Canada, which is the enforcement arm of the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). However, the CRTC typically operates on a complaint-driven basis, except for when they accidentally come upon a station during their routine survey operations. Therefore, unless someone complains about a station’s existence, it is pretty safe. Industry Canada does not have the mandate, budget or staff to go around looking for pirate stations without a prior complaint. Complaints are typically from commercial broadcasters in relation to pirate signals that they contend are interfering with their licensed signal. Therefore, unless a pirate station is intentionally trying to interfere with the CBC or a corporate station’s signal (and most are not), the chances of drawing a complaint are relatively small, though the risk is still there. In fact, as chance would have it, official notice was taken of our radio broadcasts on one occasion. However, once we became aware of being monitored, before we could be found, we went off air temporarily, then resumed our broadcasts a few weeks later.

Another kind of possible complaint might come from unintentional interference with low power tourist information or emergency broadcast frequencies, and so care must be taken to avoid such problematic overlap. Finally, a disgruntled listener who is offended by a station’s programming and contacts the CRTC can ask them to shut down the station. In general, such complaints typically are the result of a listener being upset by political content, scatological language, denigrating personal innuendo, or can sometimes just stem from a grudge against one or more of the programmers. Rarely, do they take the form of a moral crusade against lawlessness.

At Tree Frog, we are not trying to intentionally interfere with another station’s broadcasts by crowding their frequency partly because that would interfere with ours as well, so complaints in that regard are less likely. Moreover, our visible role on the island means that we have confidence enough in community support to risk a complaint. Any islander who complained to the CRTC about us would be depriving the entire community of a cultural amenity that has become quite well entrenched as part of island life at this point. Consequently, they might think twice about attempting to shut us down. As we say, if you don’t like what’s on Tree Frog Radio, you can either become a programmer yourself, change the channel, shut it off, or just choose not to listen in the first place. In terms of the latter options, we do not lose any advertising revenue based on listenership statistics since there is no advertising. This in turn allows us not to have our programming options restricted by the constraints of marketing research studies and “audience share” data.

However, should Industry Canada for some reason be dispatched to come over to the island to ferret us out, warn us to cease and desist, close us down and/or confiscate our equipment; our first line of community self-defense is the ferry. Sympathetic ferrygoers are our early warning system that trouble might be headed our way in the form of an Industry Canada triangulator van. As it stands, whenever an Industry Canada vehicle is noticed getting on the ferry, we usually get a heads-up call from someone. Similarly, many islanders, though not themselves affiliated with the radio station, let us know that they have our backs when it comes to Industry Canada by alerting us as to when it might be prudent to temporarily go off-air while the feds are on-island on other business. For example, when the Industry Canada van is scheduled to be on island to check the volunteer fire department’s emergency broadcast signal, we usually find out about it through the grapevine so that we can lay low during their visit. And, of course, the various grassroots lines of defense publicly mentioned in the above paragraph do not include more covert means of obtaining sensitive information about regulatory surveillance or the use of subterfuge tactics to keep Industry Canada guessing about our location.

A Tree Frog in the Berry Patch of Anarchy

Tree Frog Radio is both a refusal and an affirmation. It is a refusal of the demeaning and disempowering passivity of the bureaucratic model of licensed mass communications, and it is an affirmation of an everyday anarchism that is rooted in mutual aid and individual freedom. While the squatted airwaves of pirate radio can be seen as an example of Ward’s “seed beneath the snow,” we can look to the ubiquitous on-island presence of the blackberry vine as a way of expanding upon that metaphor. Since wild blackberry seeds have a hard seed coat, they can remain dormant even under winter snow. Rather than constantly requiring cultivation during the growing season, the self-propagating nature of blackberries, implies instead the opening up of artificially enclosed space for wildness to flourish. New blackberry bushes can start not only from seeds (which are typically not planted but spread by animal droppings) but from subsurface rhizomes or crown regrowth.

Stephen Collis has expressed the affinity between the humble blackberry and anarchy in his poem, “Blackberries,” which he read here on-island one summer evening in 2007. Here is an excerpt:

the fruit which I celebrate

growing everywhere we cannot purchase

what no one owns shared

thus our blackberries remnant commonsii

Unlike the garden variety blackberry, which might be compared to licensed radio, the notoriously difficult to control wild blackberry which is capable of springing up anywhere, might be likened to the unruliness of the squatted frequencies of pirate radio. In essence, the gardener’s nightmare of a wild blackberry invasion might alternatively be understood as the gatherer’s utopian dream of Big Rock Candy Mountain ease and abundance. In fact, the relationship between the gardener and the gatherer are not necessarily mutually exclusive in that the same person might be engaged in both activities. One person’s steadfast commitment to gardening a plot of land need not be condemned in order to appreciate the wandering life of the gatherer and vice versa. For some, it is finding the right balance between the two which makes the whole meaningful.

In the case of Tree Frog Radio, it has been the community that has provided the space and the nurturing soil, with the spark of direct action generating enough light and heat to facilitate the initial growth. However, once up and running, like a spreading underground rhizome, the subversive tendrils of free radio can spontaneously proliferate with the brambled tenacity of wild island blackberries.

Ron Sakolsky

This article is dedicated to all Tree Frog programmers and our ace tech support crew for providing the energy which animates the station, and to our community which has enabled us to flourish. Personal thanks to all Tree Frog participants for their encouragement and support in the writing of this article, and particularly to Bruce, Jerry and Robert respectively for allowing me to quote their words on what the radio station means to them.

i Colin Ward. Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom Press, 1973/82, p. 14.

ii Stephen Collis. Blackberries. Toronto: Book Thug, 2005/06, pp. 15 and 35.

LATITUDES OF REBELLION: Free Radio in an International Context

by Stephen Dunifer

In the international arena, free radio is the term best suited to describe the ongoing rebellion against not only control of the broadcast airwaves through licensure and sanctions, but the neo-liberal/free market paradigm as well. Entering the lexicon around the late 1960’s, the term free radio was used to describe the broadcasting efforts of offshore broadcasters such as Radio Caroline and Radio Veronica operating in Europe. Popular support was widespread for these “pirate” broadcasters who played music and aired programming not heard on the BBC and other state controlled services. Even community radio as a broadcast form did not exist in Europe at that time, and is still somewhat limited. Although specific details are often difficult to obtain on the global breadth and depth of free radio broadcasting, the picture that emerges is one of a very vibrant and universal movement. Unlike the rosters of community radio stations maintained by organizations such as the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), no central registry exists for free radio broadcast stations – due in large part to the elusive nature of the activity itself.

At its core, free radio is an expression of immediacy and a rejection of state and corporate control. From very early on, free radio has played a central role within popular struggles for liberation and self-determination internationally. Beginning in the late 1940’s, Bolivian tin miners began to create radio stations as part of a larger process to counter ongoing repression by autocratic government and military forces. Over a period of 20 years, approximately 30 radio stations were established in the highland mining communities of Bolivia, most of them after the successful social uprising of 1952 which led to nationalization of the mines. Despite their ultimate destruction following the military coup of 1981, the legacy of these stations remains as one of the most outstanding examples of grassroots radio in history. Apparently, this is still well understood in Bolivia where new community radio stations, now numbering about 30 with a goal of at least 50, are carrying on the already established tradition of street radio. During the indigenous protests that eventually culminated in the election of Evo Morales, street reporters and community radio stations played a vital role in maintaining and increasing the effectiveness of the protests, blockades and strikes. Unlike what might be termed NGO (non-governmental organization) radio, such grassroots radio stations do not originate under the auspices of a formal institution. Instead, they arise from the participatory process of the community itself. As in the case of the Bolivian tin miners and many other similar situations, free radio is a collective expression of the entire community. Full participation by the community is the heart of the radio station, not an afterthought or add-on as in the case of many so-called community radio stations.

Arising from the specific needs and issues of the community, free radio stations require no further legitimization other than that given by the communities creating them. Outside legitimization is only a means by which to throttle expression, limit participation and stifle content. It is one thing to declare that free speech and the right to communicate are human rights as stated by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but quite another struggle to actually act on these principles and assert control over the means of communication. Further, free speech, like other fundamental rights, is an inalienable right. It is as connected to human nature as breathing. Inalienable rights exist a priori, no institution or state can grant or confer them. Suppression, control and disregard, or protection and guardianship, are the only options left to state and institutional actors.

Free radio has been integrated into a variety of popular struggles, from Radio Rebelde, established by Fidel Castro as part of the liberation of Cuba from Batista, to Radio Venceremos in El Salvador, and it has served as an important tool in the arsenal of the guerrilla forces fighting against the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia. It has become the voice of the favelas in Brazil where some 2000 free radio stations exist without government sanction or approval. When threatened with closure by government agencies, communities arise to defend their voices. Mass strike actions by taxi drivers forced the Taiwanese government to abandon its effort to shut down underground radio stations in the mid-1990s. On numerous occasions indigenous communities have put their bodies between their radio station and government forces attempting to shut them down. Following the Zapatista uprising in 1994, a subsequent call was made by Subcomandante Marcos in 1996 for the creation of an international network of grassroots media. In response, independent community media entered into a new period of revitalization and regrowth in step with a burgeoning anti-globalization movement. Many community voices had been silenced not at the point of a gun, but by neo-liberal polices which privatized the broadcast airwaves and mandated their sale to the highest bidder. A single FM frequency or channel for the entire country of El Salvador had a price tag of $100,000. Onerous regulatory policies combined with civil and monetary sanctions were brought to bear against any community laboring under the assumption they had the right of free speech and expression.

For those who resist, the steel fist of state-sanctioned police or military violence rests within the velvet glove of neo-liberalism and is enforced by a global corporate mafia. A handsome profit has been made in selling crowd suppression technology, gear and weapons to both developing and first world countries as mass protests against corporate globalization and neo-liberal policies have broken out on an international scale. Close on the heels of the arms merchants came the lawyers and consultants representing private security firms and mercenaries for hire. To avoid an embarrassing repeat of the shutdown of the WTO in Seattle, steel cordons were raised in Genoa, Prague, Cancun, and dozens of other cities to protect the elite gatherings of the G8 or WTO from the masses who were insisting that another world was possible. Yet, unlike people, radiowaves cannot be easily fenced out. This is a primary reason why free radio is considered an ominous threat by those who wish to maintain their reign of domination and control. After all, the first paragraph in the Dictatorship for Dummies book states: “Seize the radio stations dummy.” A slogan that evolved with Free Radio Berkeley goes like this – “If you cannot communicate, you cannot organize; if you cannot organize, you cannot fight back; and, if you cannot fight back, you have no hope of winning.”

It may be difficult for people of First World media-saturated countries to understand the importance of free radio and community broadcasting to social movements abroad. For example, during the mid-1990’s, a broadcast station was set up in the northern coastal farming area of Haiti. As part of a larger movement for land reform, this station began broadcasting what the market prices for crops should be in Creole, the native language. To many, no big deal, just a farm report. However, for the farmers, it was the difference between barely making it and not making it at all. It was common practice for crop buyers to cheat the farmers by lying to them about what the market prices were. Without any means of knowing otherwise, the farmers undersold their crops. This practice came to a grinding halt when the farmers were informed of what the actual market prices were. Rich landowners and agricultural businessmen, threatened by these circumstances and increasing incidents of land seizure by the peasants, hired local police to destroy the radio station and kidnap its principal organizer, the mayor of the town who was one of the leaders of the land reform movement. Despite the destruction of the station and the wounding of a night watchman, the mayor eluded capture. After the situation had calmed down a bit, the mayor demanded compensation from the government for the loss of the equipment and facility. Surprisingly, he eventually received it, enough to replace the equipment and even buy a more powerful transmitter. For some, radio is just entertainment, for others it is a lifeline.

Within the context of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas constituting themselves as one large community without borders and asserting their sovereignty, free radio and community broadcasting is construed as yet another sovereign right. With homes and villages destroyed by mud slides, rivers and lakes polluted, cancer rates off the charts, mountains ripped open and laid bare and forests stripped – indigenous people are all too well aware of their role as the canary in the coal mine of neo-liberal/free market fundamentalism. Moreover, free radio is a means by which they can preserve their languages and cultures and sovereignty. For indigenous people, the ability to communicate is a matter of life and death.

The Oaxaca Model

Nowhere has this struggle to communicate been more dramatically played out than recently within the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Mere coincidence cannot explain the fact that the poorest state in Mexico, Oaxaca, also has the highest percentage of indigenous people. During the early hours of June 14, 2006, 3000 state police armed with truncheons and shields carried out the order of Oaxacan Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, to disperse the teachers union(APPO) and break up their encampments (plantons) in the City of Oaxaca. Special attention was paid to Radio Planton operating at the center of the encampments in the zocolo (city center) – which was attacked and destroyed by the state police. This naked display of violence lit the fuse of resentment and rebellion on the part of indigenous communities who had been exploited and marginalized for generations. What began as an annual protest occupation by APPO in the capitol of Oaxaca quickly grew into a full-blown state of insurrection. Showing their resolve, the teachers and their community supporters retook the zocolo after the police retreated.

Radio Planton, originally conceived in 1998 by the teachers union, began its first broadcast in the city of Oaxaca on the morning of May 23, 2005 at 94.1 MHz as a voice for not only the teachers but the community as a whole. It quickly became broadly reflective of the diverse aspects and nature of Oaxacan society with 70 percent of the programming being representative of that larger community. After the attack of June 14, the local university’s two radio stations, one FM and the other AM, became the voice of the teachers and community – Radio Universidad. Responding to broadcasts on Radio Universidad for massive nonviolent civil disobedience, virtually all government buildings in the City of Oaxaca were shut down by either occupations or blockades. Constructed of everything from bricks to burned-out cars and buses, barricades appeared on every major street. Government city halls and other buildings were taken over in 25 other towns as well. Thus began what was to be called the Oaxaca commune. On August 1, 2006, 2000 women marched to the state TV Channel 9 facility to demand an hour of airtime so that their truth would be told. Rebuffed but not stymied, the women took over the facility which included one FM and one AM station as well. In so doing, they wrote another chapter in the history of people, and most particularly women, seizing the means of communications and reclaiming what is theirs. By evening the women were broadcasting on Channel 9 with demands for the resignation of the governor. Videos by indigenous community members followed the initial broadcast. For the next approximately 3 weeks, the indigenous communities saw what they have never seen before on channel 9—themselves!

In response to the occupation, armed paramilitaries and police attacked the main transmitter and support equipment for Channel 9 in the early morning hours of August 21. High velocity bullets ripped into equipment, effectively putting Channel 9 off the air for the duration. One person was wounded. As the word spread about this attack, a spontaneous movement seized 12-15 commercial radio stations in Oaxaca City. Expecting to be attacked at any time, neighborhoods and communities throughout Oaxaca City organized a complex network of barricades and notification systems such as bells or fireworks to warn of an impending attack by the police and/or paramilitaries. The people were in control and the official government no longer functioned in many parts of the state of Oaxaca. Humiliated by the turn of events, the governor and his allies in both the Mexican government and private sector commenced a “dirty war” against the popular assembly movement. Reminiscent of similar tactics employed in Central America in the 1980s, people were “disappeared” and became targets of “random” shootings. One of the victims of this “dirty war” was Brad Will, an American journalist, reporter for Indymedia and documentary filmmaker. He was shot and killed on October 27, 2006 by police and paramilitaries acting on behalf of the governor. Interestingly enough, Brad had been involved in the creation of a free radio station, Steal This Radio, in New York City in the mid-1990s. Increasing numbers of Federal troops were brought in to crush the popular rebellion. Finally, a force numbering approximately 4000 were dispatched in November 2006 to recapture Oaxaca City and return it to “normalcy.” Despite repeated attacks, including being strafed with bullets, Radio Universidad continued to broadcast until the very end as the voice of the Oaxaca commune. Police forces were never able to invade and shut down the station. Fierce and determined resistance prevented federal police from entering the university. Free radio stations were operating in other communities as well. Trying to copy the radio efforts of the popular assembly movement, the political party of the governor, the PRI, put its own station on the air as part of a disinformation campaign.

It would be impossible to properly cover all aspects of what transpired in Oaxaca during this period within the context of this chapter. Although widely covered by independent media outlets and progressively-oriented Mexican newspapers such as La Jornada, mainstream sources both outside of and inside Mexico were virtually silent. When they did choose to speak, it was to blame the popular movement for the violence and provide cover for the actions of the governor and the police. In Mexico, the television broadcast media outlets are controlled by only two entities – Telvisa and Azteca. Being both pro-corporate and pro-government, neither entity will ever speak truth to power, contenting themselves to be stenographers for the elite and to continue their efforts to pacify the population with a plethora of mindless entertainment. Although the dominant population of Mexico is indigenous, they are rarely seen or heard in the established Mexican media. When they do make an appearance, it is usually to be portrayed in a negative light. A rigid caste system has existed in Mexico since the arrival of the Spanish colonizers. This underscores the importance of what has transpired with the popular assembly movement in Oaxaca and why free radio stations in the hands of indigenous communities are a vital part of the ongoing struggle for self-determination and freedom whose narrative cannot simply be fit into a preordained leftist mold.

Overall, media policy in Mexico is in a rather retrograde position when compared to other countries in Latin America – even Columbia saw the necessity for community radio and recently issued hundreds of blanket licenses. Community radio had essentially been considered illegal until new legislation made some provisions to legalize it. To be expected, most existing community radio stations were not invited to the table to discuss the provisions of this legislation. While the South American division of AMARC has a progressive and radical history, the same cannot be said of the Mexican branch. Instead, the Mexican representative of AMARC interjected herself and a handpicked group of delegates from a small number of stations into the process. An onerous arrangement resulted in half of about 15 community radio stations being shut down as part of the deal, another indicator of why not to necessarily trust in NGO representatives who can have their own agendas and self-promotion as their primary operating principles.

It is clear that both indigenous communities and popular assemblies and movements in Mexico, and Oaxaca specifically, have not been waiting for legitimization by any entity, government or otherwise. In Oaxaca, as of May 2009, there were dozens of free community radio stations on the air, with 150-200 stations operating in the entire country. Radio Planton returned to the air in early 2007. When you ask these communities about the importance of their radio stations, some common themes emerge. They are means by which to preserve language and culture, to bring news and information to the community, to organize against further exploitation and stealing of resources, to empower women and children to have a voice, and to entertain with music and stories. Because of their power, there are various actors who will kill to silence them. Two women working with Radio Copala, the voice of the Triqui community of San Juan Copala, were murdered on April 7, 2008 by seven gunmen wielding AK47s. Their car was ambushed while they were on their way to a community radio workshop in Oaxaca City. Two other people in the car were injured and a four-year old child barely escaped harm. Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists and media activists.

Based on my own personal experiences in conducting transmitter building workshops in Mexico, there is both a pressing need and demand to establish more free radio stations, not only in Mexico but throughout the world. Primarily, the obstacles to an even more vigorous growth of community broadcasting are funding, training and support. In January 2007, Free Radio Berkeley’s Project TUPA (Transmitters Uniting the Peoples of the Americas) in conjunction with local organizations and people, conducted two 5-day transmitter building and radio station creation workshops in Oaxaca City. Attended by about 50 people, mostly in their early twenties (some younger, some a bit older), who represented 24 Oaxacan communities, these technical workshops were accompanied by evening sessions on the social aspects of community radio and provided the represented communities with the knowledge and equipment to establish their own radio stations. With small grants and personal donations totaling around $12,000-$14,000 in US dollars to cover both equipment costs and operational expenses such as food and rental of facilities, these workshops proved to be very cost effective – 24 radio stations for an average cost of about US$600 per station. As proven in Oaxaca, radio has an immediacy and flexibility that no other medium possesses. All you need is a transmitter, a properly situated antenna, a mixer, 1 or 2 microphones and a CD player or mp3 pocket player. Put everything on a table, make your connections, position the antenna and go on the air within 15 minutes. Anyone within range with a radio is a potential listener. Some have suggested that radio is no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Such a view is dangerously naïve. Sever a few critical fiber optical cables and there goes the network. Further, it is very First World-centric. For the equivalent cost of 1 or 2 computers (US$1000-$1500), a complete radio station covering a radius of 8-10 miles can be established.

Future Directions in Technology

As the June 2009 social unrest in Iran underscores, not enough emphasis can be placed on the necessity of having a decentralized means of communications. With the digerati extolling the role and impact of social networking sites, cell phones, and PDAs on the ongoing protests in Iran, an obvious weakness of these centralized networks has been exposed for all of those who care to examine it. Iran’s communications network, installed by a joint venture of Nokia and Siemens, came with a monitoring centre whose capabilities include the examination and control of every byte of data passing through it. A process called deep packet inspection allows for the ability to troll for keywords and block any communications containing those words. This is far more insidious and effective than merely blocking specific internet site locations which are assigned a unique address known as an IP address. IP address blocking can be countered by the deploying of proxy servers with constantly changing IP addresses, an activity cyber-activists have been engaged in to support the protests in Iran. Further, most cell phones now come with GPS receivers, which allow for the user’s location to be immediately known whether the cell phone is turned off or on. Older model cell phones can be tracked by tower triangulation. Software programs can be downloaded on cell phones to turn them into monitoring devices for any conversations taking place within the range of the microphone, all without the permission or awareness of the user. Such technologies may be much more Faustian than utopian, especially in light of programs such as Echelon and the installation of FBI black box taps (known as Carnivore) on the servers of every internet service provider.

Within this specific context, free radio becomes all the more important because it cannot be centrally controlled and shut down. Every tool has both strengths and limitations and any intelligent user of media tools must recognize this fact. Reliance on any one tool is foolish and shortsighted. Further innovations must be created and established to put technology to work for people and communities. Cory Doctorow, in his sci-fi novel, Little Brother (New York: Macmillan/Tor-Forge Books, 2008), shows a possible way forward with the development of extranets – local wireless mesh networks that allow for regional and local communications. Created with inexpensive wifi transceivers and software for self-configuration, extranets are a way for local control of communications to be exerted. Software defined radio receivers are yet another emerging possibility.

It cannot be denied that the internet has made the world much smaller in many ways and allowed information and news to flow in ways unimaginable a decade ago. Equally important to consider though is that information without context is propaganda. De-contextualization is a primary means of control. Free radio is able to provide context in an immediate and direct manner. As part of a synergistic deployment of media and communications controlled by people, not corporations and government, free radio is a plant which only needs further watering and propagation to blossom and maximize its inherent possibilities. Let a thousand transmitters blossom!

Originally appeared as a chapter in Islands of Resistance - Pirate Radio In Canada by Andrea Langlois, Ron Sakolsky and Marian van der Zon. 

December 5, 2012

The Low Power FM Deception

The Low Power FM Deception

In response to the recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to expand the LPFM broadcast service based on the Local Community Radio Act of 2010

by Stephen Dunifer

Free Radio Berkeley

Despite the well-intentioned efforts of organizations such as Prometheus Radio Project and Free Press to reform the media landscape, these efforts have only played into the hands of the government and the corporations who control it. This is the nature of reform, nothing more than a discussion about how to make the jail cell more comfortable - leaving intact the established relationships of power, control and finance. In the case of Prometheus Radio Project, they have fallen victim to their own historical revisionism, forgetting it was a national campaign of electronic disobedience (the Free Radio Movement) that forced the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to revisit the issue of low power community broadcasting. Hardly a gesture of beneficence from then FCC chairman William Kennard who began his legal career with a 1 year fellowship from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), assuming the role of assistant general counsel for the NAB shortly thereafter. Moving on from there, he made partner in a DC law firm (i.e. lobbyists) representing corporate communications interests prior to being appointed FCC Chairman by Bill Clinton in 1997. Currently, he is the Managing Director for the Global Telecom and Media Group of the Carlyle Group. It was Bill Clinton who signed the Telecommunications Deregulation Act of 1996, leading to an intense period of further media consolidation and control.

As a whole, the Free Radio Movement was not interested in a few crumbs off the table or an extremely thin slice of the pie — it wanted the entire bakery! The airwaves belonged to the people and the people were going to take them back. Despite its own particular shortcomings, this movement, over a period of less than 10 years, was able to elevate the discussion of media ownership and control to both a national and an international level. Although it did not blossom into a movement until 1993, it owed much to the slightly earlier efforts of radio radicals such as Black Rose, Bill Dugan, Mbanna Kantako, and Tetsuo Kogawi. During this period, normally not well known academic authors and media critics such as Robert McChesney were finally able to find a national platform for their views on media consolidation.

With a history beginning in the early days of radio broadcasting, radio as a tool of popular liberation, struggle and expression has always been the instrument of choice whether as: a voice of US labor in the 1920’s; part of the Resistance during WWII; an expression of the Bolivian tin miners’ struggles in the 1950’s; Radio Rebelde, the voice of the Cuban Revolution; radio ships blasting rock and roll into the British Isles when the BBC refused to play such music; the pirate radio explosion in Europe during the 1970’s and 1980’s; and, Radio Venceremos and Radio Farabundo Marti in El Salvador during the Central American “Dirty Wars” of the 1980’s.

It was this spirit that attracted many individuals and communities to the Free Radio Movement. Although the campaign of electronic civil disobedience did not get really rolling until early 1995, when a Federal Judge refused the FCC’s motion for a preliminary injunction to shut down Free Radio Berkeley, broadcasting stations started taking to air soon after Free Radio Berkeley received widespread publicity in 1993. Unlicensed FM radio broadcast station took to the airwaves across the breadth of the US and divergent areas such as: the traffic medians of Mexico City and Haitian Slums. From the beginning, Free Radio stations operated by communities of color received a rather disproportionate degree of enforcement action by the FCC.

Faced with a radio rebellion, the FCC and National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) responded with the expected heavy hand of repression – the NAB is considered to be the most powerful lobbying group in DC since their member control any given politician’s face time in the media. For the FCC, this consisted of raiding stations and threatening the levying of high fines against anyone who had the temerity to believe that the airwaves belonged to the people. A laughably histrionic PR campaign was waged against the Free Radio Movement by the NAB – one claim being that the proliferation of unlicensed stations would literally cause airplanes to fall from the sky. To many, it seemed possible the NAB might consider the hiring of private mercenaries to deal with the situation if their PR efforts and the enlisting of local radio stations in an overall campaign against Free Radio Stations failed to stem the tide. During the course of their convention in 1998 where they were met with organized demonstrations for Free Speech on the airwaves, an NAB daily trade publication stated that they had originally considered one of the leaders of the Free Radio Movement to be just a minor annoyance, but in light of the protests on their doorstep in Las Vegas, he was now considered to be a major threat.

In fact, this sort of kick-down-the-doors, SWAT team mentality lead to the early retirement of the head of the San Francisco FCC field office during the mid 90’s. He was perceived by his superiors at the FCC as being too much of a loose cannon. (Although, this did not prevent an actual multi-jurisdictional SWAT raid on the home of a Tampa Radio broadcaster, Doug Brewer.) Despite immense efforts and resources, both the FCC and NAB lost the PR battle, as far as the court of public opinion was concerned.

Most likely, cooler heads prevailed at the FCC who told the NAB to back off and allow them to handle the situation in a time tested manner – co-option. Given the trend, it was likely a full-fledged Federal Court victory would be given to the Free Radio Movement – almost achieved in the case against Free Radio Berkeley. A Waterloo moment the FCC sought to avoid at all costs.

Combining co-option with an another trusty tool, divide and conquer, the FCC announced that it would establish a Low Power FM (LPFM) broadcast service, but anyone who had been engaged in unsanctioned acts of broadcasting would not be eligible for a possible future LPFM license. In other words, go off the air now if you ever have any hope obtaining a license at some indeterminate point in the future. To be expected, quite a number of Free Radio folks responded with a resounding “F” you. Other stations went dark.

In typical fashion, the FCC created a rather difficult and costly (at least in terms of what it cost to set up a Free Radio Station - $1000 to $2000) LPFM license application process in 1999. Of course, the NAB got its Congress Critters (the lobbying probably carried out by the FCC Chairman’s former law firm) to immediately to pass a bill ironically titled the The Broadcast Preservation Act of 1999. This bill severely curtailed the number of LPFM stations by imposing upon them harsher technical standards than were applied to non-LPFM stations – thus preventing any stations from being established in urban areas of any size.

Some former broadcasters (labeled pirate by both the FCC and NAB) decided to unfurl the Jolly Roger, sheath the broadswords and spike the cannons, seeking a less confrontational approach by organizing the Prometheus Radio Project to assist communities with the LPFM application process and station building. Unfortunately, they engaged in more than a modicum of historical revisionism in attempt to cast off their past and make themselves more appealing to funding organizations such as the Ford Foundation, who are more than skittish about “illegitimate activities”. These same foundations fund a number of so-called progressive voices, considered by a number of folks to be information gatekeepers.

According to the Prometheus narrative, the entire LPFM service, limited as it was, came about as a result of a reasonable and fair-minded FCC chairman William Kennard seeing the need for such a service. Given his corporate background, pigs were much more likely to fly. Such a narrative was a disservice and an affront to the many people, communities and their supporters and legal groups such as the National Lawyers Guild who had put so much on the line in the cause of Free Speech.

Unprepared to the handle the large number of LPFM applications, it took the FCC an inordinately long time to grant LPFM construction permits and licenses to community organizations who had managed to deal with the entire process. Several large national religious organizations contributed more than their fair share to the confusion by filing hundreds of what amounted to be bogus applications on behalf of local religious groups who had no idea what LPFM was or that someone else had filed in their name.

During this period much of the energy of the Free Radio Movement dissipated due to a number of factors. Engaging in media reform was more appealing and less risky than electronic civil disobedience. The established, progressive left never accepted the Free Radio Movement - concerned about image and offending Democrat Party associated foundations, the source of much of their funding. Being a rather diverse amalgam of anarchists, DIY punks, community activists, libertarians, 60’s radicals and contrarians with very little in the way of funding and resources, the Free Radio Movement was not able to create a more evolved, comprehensive and unified strategy, moving beyond the more immediate aspects of putting FM broadcast stations on the air.

Despite these shortcomings, the Free Radio Movement made a number of significant contributions to the media landscape. One being the idea of sharing media content, specifically MP3 audio, via the internet several years prior to Napster and podcasting becoming household words. Instead of audio cassettes being mailed between radio stations, an audio content sharing website,, was established to facilitate the sharing of radio programs. is still going strong today with thousands of audio programs available for download. This ultimately led to the concept of the open publishing model being applied to all types of media – the basis for the Independent Media Centers. In collaboration with Wired magazine, some the first webcasts of live radio were made from the studios of Free Radio Berkeley. Finally, the first time a webcast had been made of a political protest occurred when live audio from a demonstration outside the Berkeley studios of KPFA in 1999 was relayed by a small FM transmitter supplied by Free Radio Berkeley to a nearby receiver feeding the audio to a computer audio server.

An embryonic LPFM service presented a number of challenges to the Free Radio Movement. Many folks felt this was a small victory but more concessions from the FCC should be demanded. During the commentary phase prior to the official launch of the LPFM broadcast service, the FCC received thousands of letters and such. From the point of view of the Free Radio Movement, if such a service was going to established, it would have to be totally non-commercial, locally owned and controlled and structured in a manner to be as financially and technically feasible as possible for grassroots organizations. Further, with the advent of digital TV (an 80 billion dollar give away of spectrum) looming on the horizon, a demand was made for the ultimate expansion of non-commercial FM broadcasting into VHF TV channels 5 and 6 (to be abandoned when the digital transition to UHF channels took place), thereby adding 60 new FM channels to the broadcast spectrum. Needless to say, this has yet to implemented – the phrase “a snowball’s chance in hell” is appropriate.

A general consensus along with a good deal of grumbling emerged from the Free Radio Movement along the lines of - we will accept LPFM, but the war is not over. At that point, two divergent currents emerged. One being the folks who decided they would keep putting stations on the air no matter what and the other represented by the Prometheus Radio Project. A third wave consisted of people who held a more ecumenical position of maintaining the need for a continuing campaign of electronic civil disobedience while at the same time providing whatever assistance they could to communities who wished to engage in the LPFM process. If a few deserving communities could establish a voice with an LPFM station, then that was all for the greater good of media democracy and Free Speech.

The Prometheus Radio Project did their best to create a firewall between itself and the notion of electronic civil disobedience. Inherently, this is the genesis of the title of this article – the LPFM deception. It was a deception on a number of levels. By distancing themselves from civil disobedience the Prometheus Project deceived itself into thinking it could prevail on the policy level with out the threat of street heat. Instead it found itself in a protracted, decade long legislative struggle to expand the LPFM service. By what amounted to a legislative miracle, they did prevail with the passage of the Community Radio Act of 2010. As a result, the FCC will open the window for new LPFM applications in the Fall of 2013. In addition, in coalition with a number of other organizations, they were able to beat back an effort by the FCC for further media deregulation. Ultimately, their strategy may have worked, but at what cost?

By focusing primarily on the legislative level and achieving legitimacy, another deception has taken place - that being to limit the imaginative possibilities grassroots broadcasting offers. Imagine this, non-union workers are demonstrating outside of a Wall Mart armed with the usual picket signs, leaflet and megaphones. But wait, there are also large signs being held up at key points in the parking lot and entry points on nearby roads. These signs say “Tune to 87.9”. A transmitter has been set up nearby in a van or car to broadcast a continuously looping message at the frequency of 87.9 MHz – an electronic leaflet. Workers who are supportive can listen to the broadcast in the safety of their cars without risking their jobs by being seen by management taking a leaflet directly from the folks on the picket line. Drivers going by can tune to the station to hear about what is happening, hard to hand a physical leaflet to car going by at 35 MPH. Drive by Radio. This is one of many possibilities. Temporary stations pop up at community gatherings such as flea markets, concerts and farmers’ markets. All schools, senior and community centers and libraries should have their own stations as well, an impossibility under the current regime imposed by the FCC.

Another not so obvious self-imposed deception concerns the exact nature of a broadcast license. At the most fundamental level, a license is a business law contract between an individual acting on his own behalf or on the behalf of an organization and the government agency issuing the license. It does not matter whether it is a fishing license, driver’s license or broadcasting license. Signing the license form is an implicit abandonment of normally protected rights and presumption of innocence. Possession of a broadcast license allows the FCC to regulate speech (the 7 dirty words), issue fines without any proof other than their say so and enter the station premises at any time without notice or search warrant. Further, fines and penalties cannot be adjudicated at a local Federal District Court. They must first be appealed through a serpentine process within the FCC itself prior to seeking any other legal remedy. After exhausting all administrative remedies within the FCC, the appeal process is then handed off to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Washington, DC – arguably one of the most conservative and reactionary court districts in the US. Needless to say, the FCC appeal process is an exhaustive and expensive journey. Individuals operating a Free Radio station without sanction or license retain their basic rights of Free Speech, presumption of innocence and protection from unlawful search and seizure – at least in theory with what is left of the Bill of Rights.

At another level, it is deceptive thinking to assume that what the FCC has offered us is the best that can be achieved. Yes, an additional 800 LPFM stations is a good thing, depending who ends up with licenses. The major issue of who owns the airwaves has yet to be resolved in any meaningful way, however. Leading to the more general question of who is going to control and own the Commons – the people or the corporations? The current chairman of the FCC is putting forth a proposal that would allow one corporation to own 8 radio stations, 2 TV stations, one newspaper and internet access in any given market area. By taking the strategy of electronic civil disobedience off of the table, the FCC, in relative peace, can continue to being a captive protector of the corporations it is supposed to regulate.

One could take the cynical position of radio broadcasting does not matter, being a legacy technology in this new era of internet information and such. But the reality is that if they come for my radio in the morning, they will come for your internet in the afternoon. Free Speech is anathema to the state and the corporations it serves. Remember, it was just recently proposed to give the White House an internet kill switch. Events taking place in the Middle East over the last few years demonstrate what happens when governments feel threatened by popular movements and revolt – they shut down the entire communications network, forcing a return to the use of legacy technologies such as fax, packet radio, dial-up ISPs, etc. Imagine the consequences if folks in those countries had had portable FM transmitters with laptop studios ready to go. All the various forms of communications do not exist in isolation from one another. They must be combined together to form a synergistic whole, as the Independent Media Centers have demonstrated, to achieve their full potential as a tools for personal and collective liberation.

While the potential addition of 800 or so new LPFM stations is to be welcomed, it remains to seen as to whether radical and grassroots communities will find a voice by this means. It is a matter that will require a high degree of organizing and the establishing of coalitions on an unprecedented level. Finally, one must avoid self-deception by not seeing LPFM as a final victory, but rather one battle of a continuing war for not only the broadcast airwaves but the entire Commons.

December 28, 2008

Being KIND

This letter was posted to the editor of in San Marcos, Texas by Joe Ptak, one of the founders of KIND Radio, on July 24, 2008

Dear Editor, I would like to correct the record concerning the recent news release about the City of San Marcos’ new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Low Power FM (LPFM) Radio Permit and give y’all a little bit of history on the issue as well as make a suggestion on the matter.

The first thing I need to correct was San Marcos Spokesman Ken Bell saying that there is no commercial radio station in San Marcos. I can understand his ignorance because the San Marcos FCC Commercial Radio Permit is held by 103.5 BOB-FM and Bob is an absentee landlord who talks at our community not with us. Unfortunately, Bob is more concerned with his image and Austin advertising dollars rather than the state of the San Marcos River.

That is one of the reasons that in March, 1997, the Hays County Guardian reclaimed the LPFM airwaves for the benefit of the citizens of San Marcos and ran a non-commercial, bilingual, public access community radio station relying on donations and volunteers to broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a new show starting every two hours for 3 1/2 years.

The mission of Kind Radio was to defend the liberty of San Marcos residents by providing local community access to speech about matters of the highest public concern, political and economic reform, cultural and historical perspectives and information about local and international environmental issues.

The second correction I need to make is the City’s claim to have applied for the permit in 1999. That would have been impossible because the FCC only accepted LPFM applications from Texas between June 11-15, 2001. During that week the City was joined by the Hays County Guardian, Earth First! Texas State (SWT at the time) Federation, Nosotros La Gente, Dave Newman, and a kid from Wimberley who’s name I can’t remember right now in filing applications seeking the San Marcos LPFM permit.

I found it ironic that Mr. Bell came up with the bright idea of an emergency radio station during the 1998 flood because for thousands of San Marcians that flood crystallized the arguments in favor of LPFM.

I would also like to note for Mr. Bell that even though no radio station with commercials like KTSW and BOB-FM helped out in the flood, there was fortunately non-commercial Kind Radio operating to provide a lifeline to those stranded and a way for families to account for each other. For hour after hour citizens called Kind Radio through the night and days that followed to share information regarding the conditions in their area, alert emergency personnel to people who needed to be rescued, report road and school closings, shelter locations, phone numbers for emergency and disaster relief agencies, and to share the tale of the “floating pumpkins.”

That San Marcians were able to share a little bit of comical relief even in the most distressing of times showed the true heart and character of our community.

The reason Kind was so effective during the flood was because the community had become accustomed to tuning in regularly to find out what was going on that day socially, culturally and politically, so for many San Marcians when the flood hit and they turned on the radio, Kind Radio was already tuned in.

Kind Radio allowed our community to talk to each other during good times as well as bad and allowed the diverse segments of our community to share their experiences and argue over their differences of opinion in an open forum without time constraints. We were also blessed to be exposed to the immense wealth of talent which resides in our neighbors and we all take for granted.

From live musical performances by Blue October, Shelly King and Ray Wiley Hubbard to Heads Up! news alerts, ravings from “the Rock” with Pappy, children’s tales of Bones, rhyming and Rolling with Dough, amazing prophesies of Captain Conspiracy, cautionary tales of Ripple and Colonel Forbin, acerbic ranting of the Village Idiot, musica exotica del mundo, even the expletive deleted on Jodi’s World, I could go on and on to most importantly live open phone interviews with candidates for public office, Kind Radio expressed the passions of our community without commercial interruption.

Can anyone who heard it live forget the “Greatest Mayoral Debate of the 20th Century”?

I believe that the thousands of people who fought for the right to broadcast on LPFM in San Marcos should be respected and represented.

I request that the City set up a Radio Board to coordinate public access programming. The Board should consist of one representative from each group which competed with the City for the LPFM permit, the Hays County Guardian, Nosotros La Gente, Earth First! Texas State Federation and Dave Newman and one member appointed by the Mayor and each City Councilman. If that kid from Wimberley is still around and interested he should get a seat on the Board too.

While the City decides the type of radio station San Marcians will have , please don’t be like Bob. Be Kind.
Yours in Free Speech,

Joe Ptak

December 27, 2008


This email was recently received.  The senders name was removed by request:

When I sat down at my computer a few minutes ago, I was looking for an FM
Radio transmitter that would satisfy a yearning to hear my music whilst I
mowed my 2-acre lawn.  Since I visited your website, It has turned into a
very emotional “NOW I’M PISSED OFF AT THE FUCKING FCC EVEN MORE” attitude.
NOW I want 500 watts, and fuck the license. 

Let me tell you why it’s odd.

I spent almost half my life in the Air Force, taking orders, giving
orders, but specifically OBEYING orders.  I felt that this was best for my
country.  Now I am A TELEVISION ENGINEER.  Since I got this job, I thought
that the FCC was NOT quite all there.  i.e a few cards short of a deck.
With the Digital transition, I believe even more that they are raging dolts.
They just refuse to think things out before making decisions.  They have not
addressed LPTV or Translator stations AT ALL, and refuse to comment when
asked.  This really pisses me off, as I personally assume responsibility for
one translator, and the community it serves. 

Now do you think it’s odd that a law abiding television engineer would be so
mad at the organization that keeps him employed?

So you’ll know for future reference, I’m on your side.  I will always be a
supporter of free speech, provided it does not interfere with someone else’s
freedom, even if they have lots of money and own many radio or television
stations.  That’s the beauty of the whole idea.  If nobody gets stepped on,
then nobody complains.  Or at least they shouldn’t have the right to

For the record: I still intend to obey the FCC’s regulations with my
television station, even if I think they’re stupid.  I will do this because
I’m not the only employee.  My translator will continue on transmitting on
Channel Eleven with a Digital to Analog adapter on it’s input.  I will not
let the people of the community it serves down.  They cannot see our digital
or analog transmitter as they are in a deep valley, and the translator is
their only connection to the rest of the state.

Thank you for being there today, and I extend my best wishes that you
continue.  Right now I’m going to continue looking for an FM transmitter,
but my requirements have now changed.  I WAS looking for a small 1/4 watt
Stereo unit.  Now I want at least 2 watts.

December 11, 2008

NPR’s war on Low Power FM: the laws of physics vs. politics

NPR’s war on Low Power FM: the laws of physics vs. politics

By Matthew Lasar
Published: April 27, 2008 

National Public Radio continues to move aggressively against Federal Communications Commission proposals that would, if not allow nonprofits to build more Low Power FM stations (LPFM), at least let existing ones survive the intrusion of new full power neighbors. NPR is quite plain about the matter in its FCC filings: it stands opposed to the Low Power exceptions, even though they might help keep FM offerings diverse. NPR charges that the FCC is putting feel-good policies ahead of the laws of physics.

"The laws of physics have not changed, and a system of full power broadcast stations serves many more listeners with less interference compared to low power broadcasting," NPR told the FCC this month. "While LPFM stations may advance the interests of localism and diversity, the Commission cannot assume that LPFM is inherently better than full power service."

NPR opposes proposals to strengthen rules allowing LPFMs to obtain channel interference waivers when an “encroaching” full power station arrives on the scene. And the broadcaster decidedly dislikes measures that would require new full power signals to offer technical and even financial help to an LPFM that they’ve suddenly squatted on (or squatted next to).

This is a serious issue, because over the last decade the NPR service has expanded from 635 to 800 affiliated stations. Public radio’s stance on this puts it at odds with practically every media reform group in the country. But first, let’s recap the history of this bitter struggle, which goes back almost a decade.

A victory deferred

After years of highly-publicized battles between pirate radio stations and the FCC, agency Chair William Kennard’s Commission in 2000 set up some rules to establish two classes of LFPMs: an LP100 class with a maximum of 100 watts of power and an LP10 class with a limit of ten watts. License applicants for this new service had to honor various limits: nonprofit status and a “second adjacent” rule which meant that an LPFM could not set itself up within two channel notches of a full power station.

The FCC established that restraint in defiance of National Public Radio and the National Association of Broadcasters. Both entities demanded that a three notch No Man’s Land be thrown up around a full power signal. NPR pursued this goal with particular vigor, going so far as to suggest that the FCC disregarded laboratory tests that showed that LPFM stations without third adjacent restrictions would interfere with its member stations. Nonetheless, the agency stood these accusations down. It concluded that “imposition of a third-adjacent channel separation requirement would restrict unnecessarily the number of LPFM stations that could be authorized.”

So the big guys raised hell and asked Congress to stomp the FCC’s 2000 Order. Capitol Hill complied with a rider to a District of Columbia appropriations bill that instructed the FCC to put that third adjacent rule in there, despite the FCC’s own conclusions.

This was a big setback for LPFM, because it meant that significantly fewer such stations could be licensed in more densely-populated areas. As the FCC later conceded, various “otherwise technically grantable applications” became “short spaced,” prompting “the eventual dismissal of those applications.” The agency subsequently canceled 17 licenses and almost 100 construction permits “for failure of the holder to satisfy certain procedural and/or technical requirements.”

The DC Congressional rider did contain one silver lining. It authorized the FCC to commission an engineering study on the third adjacent problem, which the government did. The wheels of agency process moved slowly, but they moved. A little over two years later the Mitre Corporation submitted a report on the second/third adjacent problem, from which the FCC once again drew the conclusion that the third adjacent rule was not necessary.

Then, on December 11th of last year, the FCC enacted an Order and Proposed Rulemaking asking Congress to permit it to re-establish that second adjacent guideline. Mike Doyle (D-PA) in the House has sponsored such a bill, as has Maria Cantwell (D-WA) in the Senate.

While we wait for Congress …

The Commission’s December 11th Order also asked for comment on other proposals to help keep afloat the estimated 809 LPFMs broadcasting in the United States. These include more firmly establishing procedures for second adjacent waivers. At present, if a new full power station shows up too close to an LPFM, agency practice has been to consider a waiver if the smaller signal suddenly finds itself afoul of the second adjacent limit. The FCC now wants to turn that occasional practice into a rule, but it also wants guidance on under what circumstances it should grant such leeway. And the Commission wants public wisdom on whether its waiver procedures should be expanded to first and even co-adjacent situations.

Second (and NPR truly hates this idea), the FCC wants to know if the “encroaching” full-service station should be required to offer technical assistance and even financial help to an LPFM that can demonstrate full power interference. This might include paying for filtering technology and other interference aides. And the agency thinks that a full power station should give an LPFM advance notice if the former anticipates interference with the latter.

"It should also be required to cooperate in good faith with the LPFM station in developing the best technical approach," the Commission contends, "including a possible LPFM site relocation, to ameliorate the interference and/or displacement impact of its proposal." In addition, the FCC proposes to raise standards for the kinds of LPFMs that get this sort of help, and seems to be leaning towards codifying these new policies only for stations that provide eight hours of local programming on a daily basis.

Finally, the FCC proposes to use contouring methodology to license new LPFM stations. Contour measurement is a more flexible way of assessing the possible interference of a broadcast signal. It takes into account mountainous and watery areas, therefore offering station applicants a wider range of “new licensing opportunities,” as the FCC puts it.

Defense and offense

On April 7th, a medium-sized platoon of public interest groups and radio stations filed a 23-page statement on behalf of these proposals. They included the usual suspects: Prometheus Radio, Free Press, Benton, Future of Music, and Reclaim the Media, plus quite a few parties you don’t come across very often, such as the Forest Hills School District of Cincinnati, Ohio. These 46 groups enthusiastically endorsed the FCC’s suggestions.

"Low power radio stations are governed and operated by community based organizations with limited resources," they wrote. "It is only fair, then, that full-power stations that choose to move into the low power radio’s community must provide technical and financial assistance to assist the low power station in resolving interference or in its move to a new channel."

In addition, the filing took on the delicate issue of FM translators, which NPR affiliated stations rely on heavily to expand their audience reach. Prometheus wants to limit the number of translators. No entity, Prometheus et al says , should be able to own more than ten translators in the biggest 303 Arbitron measured markets “on a basis that is primary to an LPFM station that pledges to provide local originated programming.” In addition, LPFMs should not be able to convert to translators.

Needless to say, NPR sees these matters very differently, and was not afraid to be blunt about its perspective in its filing, submitted the same day as Prometheus. When Congress created the Low Power FM service, NPR’s comment argues, it intended these stations to broadcast “where full power stations could not.” Thus the Commission should understand LPFM stations as “secondary to full power stations,” NPR writes.

From this point of departure, practically everything that the FCC recommended in its December 2007 Order becomes illegitimate in NPR’s eyes, ignoring “longstanding policy determination that full power service is the most efficient use of broadcast spectrum.” If an LPFM wants a second adjacent waiver, it must first “resolve all actual interference complaints,” NPR insists, and prove that “other factors” have not caused the problem. But it should get no help from the encroaching full power station in question: “The Commission has no place demanding that one NCE [Non-Commercial Educational] station reallocate its scarce resources to another, unrelated one, no matter how deserving the Commission believes the latter to be.”

And as for notifying an LPFM of impending signal interference, NPR says that’s not an All Things Considered broadcasters’ job. “If the Commission perceives a special need to alert LPFM stations to potentially significant Commission actions or provide other accommodation, the Commission itself should take on those tasks.” In a more recent filing, submitted to the FCC on April 21st, NPR also opposed the ten translator limit.

In a sense, NPR has traveled full circle on this matter. In 2000 it protested imagined signal interference from LPFMs. Now it insists that real interference from its affiliates’ signals should be someone else’s problem.

In its FCC comments, National Public Radio claims that it “continues to support the LPFM service and the Commission’s efforts to ensure that it remain true to its original ideal.” But a detailed examination of public radio’s stance on LPFM will lead some to a different impression. “To the extent the Commission is motivated by the desire to prevent the loss of LPFM stations,” NPR writes in the same statement, “we also regret the community’s loss of a valued public service, but risk is inherent in the secondary nature of the LPFM service.”

Perhaps, then, NPR sees LPFM as a lesser species that, with time, will be driven to deserved extinction. That is, if the Federal Communications Commission does not enact rules that thwart the survival of the fittest.

Further reading:

Prometheus et al’s FCC April filing
National Public Radio’s April filing


Mumbai: Community radio for slum residents

Mumbai: Community radio for slum residents

Shai Venkatraman
Wednesday, August 27, 2008, (Mumbai)
Two girls in Mumbai are leading students and residents of slums to host
shows on a radio station started by the Mumbai University.
The girls are spearheading a change through community radio.
Born in a Mumbai slum, 17-year-old Gautami Chawre, a factory worker, has
never been to school. Now her radio shows on MUST Radio have made her the
talk of her neighbourhood.

"I never thought that I could become a radio jockey. I used to listen to
other RJs and wonder if I could do this. Now I know I can. In my workplace
everyone used to stay I speak too loudly. Now they tell me at least you are
putting your voice to good use,” said Gautami.

Another girl Shenaz Shaikh is also learning to be a radio jockey.
It is an initiative by the Mumbai University community radio station, MUST
Radio to bring about a change in local slum communities by talking about
issues like health, hygiene and education.

"We decided to choose people from the slum community itself and train them
to be radio jockeys. It is a big USP because people will listen to someone
their own kith and kin. They think it is from their own basti,” said Pankaj
Athavale, consultant, MUST Radio.

"People from my neighbourhood come up to me and ask me to talk about certain
things or recite poems on air,” said Shenaz.
From school textbook lessons to vegetable prices, job opportunities for
daily wage labourers, the radio show has something for everyone. No wonder
it has got people talking.

"I never thought she could go this far that people would be talking about
her. I am really very happy,” said Gautami’s mother Lata Chawre.
"It will be good if others take to it also. Especially girls because it is
important they do well,” said a local resident.
Like Gautami, many of the residents of the slum colony have never been to
school. However, the community radio station has opened up a whole new world
for them, where they too have a chance to be heard.

NAB: the lobby that cried wolf

NAB: the lobby that cried wolf

Submitted by jonathan
Wed, 2008-10-29 

by Michael Calabrese, New America Foundation

Over the past week, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has bombarded Congress with a flurry of doomsday pronouncements, claiming broadcast television is under attack by the FCC and advocates seeking to open unused TV channels (TV white spaces) for wireless broadband and mobile Wi-Fi devices.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, that’s because broadcasters always scream “interference!” when faced with any new competition or use of the empty TV band spectrum they are hoarding. In 1974 broadcaster’s tried to kill off a nascent TV service called cable television, claiming it would destroy “free” TV. And in 1998, when the FCC wanted to open up the FM band to low-power community radio stations, the claim was intolerable “interference” (later proved false). In 2001, when the first DVRs came out — and now again in 2008, with TV white spaces — broadcasters are predicting the imminent destruction of broadcast television.

The unfortunate reality is that NAB lobbyists will say just about anything to maintain their exclusive grip on the broadcast spectrum. As former New York Times reporter and author, Joel Brinkley, observed: “Above all else, [broadcasters hold] sacred the eleventh commandment: Thou Shalt Not Give Up Spectrum.”

In “The Lobby that Cried Wolf,” the New America Foundation provides a glimpse of broadcasters’ lobbying path of deception, highlighting the repeated NAB campaigns to keep others out of their spectrum and providing parallels with the current campaign against white space devices.

For the past 50 years, broadcasters and their respective lobbies have relied upon a broken record of scare tactics, gross exaggerations and underhanded attacks to oppose some of the most important communication advances of the 20th and 21st centuries including cable TV, the VCR, the DVR, FM radio, satellite television and radio, and even cellular phones.

In 2000, the FCC approved low-power FM community radio stations to operate on the third-adjacent channel after thoroughly examining interference issues. In response, the NAB told Congress “this is a prescription for chaos on the airwaves” and flooded the Hill with copies of an infamous audio disc that simulated the supposed interference from low-power stations. Three years later, an independent study for the FCC by Mitre Corp., a military contractor, found no significant interference issues with the FCC’s proposed LPFM service.

The NAB predicted similar interference nightmares in regards to low-power television stations and wireless microphones. Yet, today there are more than 836 low-power FM stations, 2,900 low-power TV stations and more than 400,000 wireless microphones operating throughout the TV band on an unlicensed basis. Despite the NAB’s pronouncements, neither chaos nor harmful interference ensued.

Download a copy of the paper here.

FCC Fine Structure - The Jolly Roger Comedy Troupe explains how the FCC arrives at a specific fine.  This group produced quite a number of satirical audio pieces during the 1990’s.

December 4, 2008