Nearly two months after Occupy Wall Street set up camp in Lower Manhattan, the New York Times public editor wrote about the challenge presented by the movement’s “difficult, sprawling story.” To journalists, editors and readers he asked, “How should the New York Times cover this movement that resembles no other in memory?”
While the Times was scratching its head, KBOO Radio in Portland, Oregon was several weeks into a reporting experiment. When activists established Portland’s occupation in early October, producers at the volunteer-driven community station decided that the best way to cover the movement was from the inside—to occupy Occupy.
With a table, chairs, a small mixer, headsets, microphones, a modem and two laptops, evening news director Jenka Soderberg and KBOO’s chief engineer set up a field-recording studio in the heart of the occupation. They established a twenty-four-hour webstream with live coverage to supplement coverage on KBOO’s FM frequencies. Volunteers served as hosts and stayed overnight to watch the equipment. The station documented the Occupy social experiment as it unfolded, and relayed the movements’ voices back through a PA, becoming a hub of information. “It was a great spot for engaging democracy,” Soderberg says. “A lot of people who came into the camp with the preconceived notion that ‘these people don’t have a message’ came by our booth and were surprised by the level of discourse there.” A sign in the camp warned protestors: “Don’t talk to the media—except the mighty ’BOO.”
That warning alluded to the storm of media coverage that Occupy was generating across the country, much of it negative. Major news outlets fixated on the skin of the movement—on tattoos and piercings, poor grammar and lack of leadership, on the unsightliness of the camps—and they proved unable or unwilling to address the substantive issues underneath. “The news media was attached to a certain look or image,” says Noah Fehlberg, who volunteered with KBOO at Occupy Portland. “They marginalized the message by focusing on negative snippets.”
The dismissive sneer from the mainstream was, however, only one side of a media event that was akin to the Occupy movement itself in its diversity and significance. The movement inspired citizen journalists, raced through the nation’s digital veins via live-streams, blogs and social media, and spawned new publications of its own, such as the Occupied Wall Street Journal. A key, but perhaps overlooked, figure in this crowd of dedicated media occupiers was radio. Community stations like KBOO, which had covered political activism, labor and homelessness for decades, spread news of the movement during its infancy. Later, activists incorporated radio broadcasts, podcasts and live audio feeds into participatory multimedia projects.
At Occupy Philadelphia, an indigenous media center became a space for strategizing and collaboration, as well as for journalism. “We felt that this really big thing was happening, and the story wasn’t being told right,” remembers Jeff Rousset, a national organizer for the Prometheus Radio Project, a nonprofit that supports and advocates for participatory community radio stations. Rousset, along with Prometheus community radio director Vanessa Maria Graber, helped establish a media working group, which set up a website to house the many stories that independent media makers were producing. When other activists saw the site, Rousset says, they expressed “an interest in having the ability to tell their own stories.” So, using donated computers and cameras, the group began teaching interested Occupiers how to upload a blog, to use social media and to conduct live interviews for a web radio stream.