Revolution on the Radio

Revolution on the Radio

Community radio stations were key to spreading the message of the Occupy movement.


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.

One goal of the working group was to draw a parallel between money in politics and the commercialization of media, particularly radio. In the last few decades, corporate consolidation and stringent restrictions on independent broadcasters has sharply curtailed the ability of citizens to use the airwaves. By building an independent media structure at Occupy, Rousset says, “we were demonstrating that we don’t want a media system that’s controlled by Wall Street, one that’s trying to teach us about ourselves or spreading lies about a movement. We want to be able to tell those stories ourselves.”

Working around the regulatory squeeze, community radio has historically been an effective medium for voices of dissent. The explosion of pro-labor activism last year in Wisconsin set the most recent precedent, with independent journalists and stations picking up the slack left by sloppy and, in some cases, intentionally misleading coverage from mainstream sources. Madison’s WORT-FM and Rick Smith of the Rick Smith Show demonstrated the same commitment to tell the story from the inside that was later adopted by stations like KBOO. Wisconsin revealed the withering of the labor beat in the mainstream press, much as Occupy would later highlight the need for better coverage of economic inequality.

Nowhere was the perceived divide between corporate and independent media so apparent as in Portland when Occupy protesters faced down an eviction deadline on November 13. As the fate of the camp grew more uncertain, the KBOO studio became increasingly mobile. Engineers switched from a generator to a twelve-volt battery, and loaded their equipment into a small red wagon. The battery failed, and soon the station was down to a laptop and a backpack. Throughout the night, as the standoff between protestors and the police took shape, Soderberg drove back and forth from the Occupation to KBOO headquarters to swap out batteries for the computer. Meanwhile, she told me, the national cable affiliates who’d shown up to cover the eviction had hired private security. Their reporters huddled on the police side, she says, and when they crossed into the protesters’ domain, they went in “as if they were going into a war zone.” Occupy Portland, along the mobile arm of the “mighty ’BOO,” was fully dislodged from the camp the next day.

“Whither Occupy” may be a stale question, but it may be duly asked of community radio stations. Statistics reveal a hemorrhage of listeners over the decades to other news sources. The majority of talk stations that remain preach venom to the Bible Belt. In the Internet age, radio can seem little more than a nostalgic curio.

But Rousset says the dichotomy between Internet and radio is a false one. For him, the question is how adding new tools can expand radio’s reach, and power as a means for organizing. Before Wisconsin and Occupy, it might have looked as if the simultaneous heyday of activism and radio had come and gone with the 1990s. But these movements prove that dissent has not died; perhaps they also reveal a resurgence of community media—and, certainly, make clear its value. Jesse Walker, author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, says that community radio could play a big role in the next stage of the digital revolution by being a hub for multimedia innovation. Community radio promotes freedom of expression not only by broadcasting marginalized voices but also by encouraging people to make media themselves. In this way, says Walker, “Stations can still be vital in the community whether or not people are listening to the FM channel.”

Beginning with the protests in Wisconsin, radio has been at the forefront what John Nichols calls the “Next Media system,” a pioneering coalescence of old and new platforms. A dense network of linkages makes up the system: a mobile recording studio streams audio to an FM station’s website, where visitors can download podcasts and watch live video feeds, which are tweeted and re-tweeted and shared on Facebook, and then digested in the blogosphere. From Cairo to Madison to New York, the power of “Next Media” and its worth as a counterbalance to corporate sources, has made itself clear.

Radio stations help to realize the promise of hyperlinked media, but they remain crucial in their own right. Rousset warns that reliance on web-based technologies alone could be crippling should attempts to censor and privatize the Internet prevail. “We see the importance of having an infrastructure that we can control, so that we don’t depend on the Internet being as free and as open as it is now,” he says. “Chances are, it isn’t going to be like that [in the future].”

Even now, as Vanessa Maria Graber notes, Internet access is far from universal. “There’s still a lot of work to do in providing people with access to web technology,” she says. Particularly in low-literacy and non-English speaking communities, radio fills a vital gap. Activist organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, along with unions, churches and other community groups, rely on low-power FM (LPFM) channels to spread local news and to organize. Licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, LPFM stations have a range of a few miles. According to the Media Access Project, there are more than 800 of these broadcasters on American airwaves. Because LPFM stations are relatively affordable and simple to set up, they provide amplification for voices that have been belittled by the commercialization and consolidation of the media oligarchy.

Prometheus Radio Project has championed LPFM for years. “We’re hoping to build a national infrastructure of these community spaces, as a way to empower social movements across the country,” explains Rousset. Graber describes the media working group at Occupy Philly as “good practice” for Prometheus’s ongoing efforts to promote participatory media, which include providing technical support and licensing guidance for LPFM start-ups, as well as advocating for regulatory reform.

For the future of community radio, the next few months are particularly key. Radio advocates have fought for years against prohibitive regulations that favor commercial conglomerates over community stations. Legislation passed in 2010 widened the door for more LPFM broadcasting, and the FCC is expected to begin accepting applications for new stations this fall. That window presents community groups with the greatest opportunity in a generation to get on the airwaves. A related decision anticipated from the FCC this month will affect the number of local frequencies available in big cities, especially in communities where people of color live.

Back in Portland, KBOO is embarking on a new project to record and broadcast the stories of activists and people affected by inequality—effectively, to keep the airwaves Occupied. The station’s vision for covering Occupy—“To relate to protesters as human beings,” as Noah Fehlberg put it, “and not to ask them to look or talk a certain way”—displays an empathy that’s often missing in our political and economic discussions. It’s encouraging to see major news outlets now take an interest in economic inequality, greed and joblessness. And it’s worth asking how a media structure that listens to people as well as money might pave the way for a government that does the same. A colossal project: but, as Jeff Rousset says, “Now is the time.”

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