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Free Radio Takes
Aim at Corporate Media


Tom Dunne, a member of UE Local 1172 at Everbrite in Milwaukee, is active in the community radio movement. He suggests checking this web page  for links to the Eclectic Kool-Aid show on Wireless Virus ["community free radio from the Riverwest neighborhood on Milwaukee’s fabulous east side"], the Wisconsin Labor Party Organizing Committee and UE Local 1172.

Broadcasting from the "underground bunker" located somewhere "deep below" Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, the Wireless Virus takes to the air at 104.5 FM. Inside a tiny 6' x 10' room, FAT members Jovita Cruz Aguilar and Modesta Vasquez Lopez, along with UE Director of International Labor Affairs, Robin Alexander are interviewed by "The Invisible Man." For 45 minutes they talk about conditions faced by workers in Mexico — gripping stories ignored by the corporate media.

Several months earlier, on the "Eclectic Kool-Aid" program Local 1111 member Al Harhay spends an hour talking about the importance of building the Labor Party. Again, it’s a topic not likely to be discussed on a typical talk-radio format.

The free radio movement is one that has exploded across the country in recent years. It is estimated that there are currently over 1,000 "pirate" radio stations operating in the U.S. Free radio is largely a response to the growing corporate control of media, and the lack of access to the airwaves for voices of dissent.

In Milwaukee, the Wireless Virus is a collective of over 40 members that has been broadcasting illegally for the past three years. From about noon each day until 2 or 3a.m., a wide array of programming is broadcast over the airwaves on Milwaukee’s east side and downtown. Music and political discussion form the bulk of the programming, with poetry, sound collages and news and issues tapes, such as the Labor Party’s "Just Health Care" broadcast from June of 1999, also being aired. A recent highlight was an in-studio interview with Socialist Party Presidential nominee David Mc Reynolds.


Free radio is an extension of the philosophy of direct action and civil disobedience that has been widely used in recent protests against the WTO, the IMF and World Bank. In fact, one member of the Wireless Virus, whose radio name is "Disruption," was one of the activists involved in Mobilization Radio, the "pirate" station that was shut down by the FBI and FCC during the April protests in Washington D.C.

While many of the collective members are young, self-described "anarchists," there are a variety of people drawn to free radio’s open format. Collective members range in age from 17 to 48, which allows for a wide array of musical tastes. While some shows focus musically on a particular style, including big band, hip-hop, western swing or hard core punk, other shows are wildly schizophrenic.

A "typical" set on the Eclectic Kool-Aid show could easily include Ani Di Franco and Utah Phillips, old Velvet Underground, Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, spoken word from Jello Biafra (former lead singer for the Dead Kennedies), Miles Davis, Woody Guthrie, Tchaikovsky, and techno band Lords of Acid. Anything goes...


Although radio "pirates" have been around as long as government regulation, the free radio movement began in the mid 1980s, when a blind African-American by the name of Mbanna Kantanko began broadcasting with a one watt transmitter from his apartment in a public housing complex in Springfield, Illinois. His broadcasts which chronicled police brutality in that city, drew the attention of the police department and the FCC which took measures to shut his operation down.

In March of 1990, Kantanko contacted the National Lawyers Guild’s Committee on Democratic Communications after being ordered to shut down by a Federal court. They began to explore the possibility that the court order was a violation of the First Amendment. Meanwhile, other "pirates" began operating, and Kantanko continued broadcasting in defiance.

In 1993, perhaps the most influential person in the free radio movement began broadcasting. Stephen Dunifer, a former broadcast engineer for a commercial station, set up Radio Free Berkeley as a direct challenge to the FCC’s ban on low power broadcasting. To do that, he broadcast openly with the full intent of being cited by the FCC, which would allow him to challenge the constitutionality of the ban in court.

Dunifer was fined, and the FCC tried to get an injunction from a Federal judge. The injunction was denied while Dunifer’s attorney filed an "Application for Review" appeal with the FCC. The FCC sat on the appeal, hoping that Dunifer would not get the chance to challenge the constitutionality of the ban. In the meantime, Dunifer had developed, and began marketing, small transmitters for less than $1,000 to activist groups and free radio supporters. The revolution had begun.


Perhaps one of the biggest catalysts to the explosion of free radio was the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which allowed media conglomerates to own more than two radio stations in a market. In city after city, radio stations were swallowed up by growing corporations. In some communities, the entire market fell under the control of one or two corporations. The result was less diversity in programming and editorial comment.

Hundreds of free radio stations began popping up around the country, and despite an FCC offensive in 1997 to shut them down, more and more stations appeared. The FCC which had been downsized by Republican budget cuts, could no longer keep up with the movement.

Many of the broadcasters began to demand a legal classification for low-power stations under 100 watts, which had been banned since 1978. Finally, in January of this year, the FCC relented and announced plans to begin accepting applications for low-power FM stations.


Almost immediately, lobbying efforts by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Public Radio (NPR) produced bills in both the House and Senate that would essentially kill the new classification. In April, the House passed H.R. 3439, (the Oxley Bill) 274-110. In the Senate, a similar Bill, S.B. 2068 (the Gregg Bill) stalled in committee. Committee Chair John McCain (R., Ariz.) drafted a bill that would allow low-power FM with some stipulations, but free radio supporters have their fingers crossed that both bills will die in Committee. This would allow the FCC’s application process to continue unhindered.

In Milwaukee, a coalition of groups has banded together to pursue an FCC license for a 100-watt station. A number of labor activists, including Milwaukee County Labor Council President John Goldstein have become involved as have activists from over 30-community based organizations.

A legal station would be an opportunity to operate more openly, and would provide a much needed voice for the disenfranchised. Labor unions, constantly a source for derision by right-wing talk radio hosts, would have direct access to the airwaves.

Perhaps that is what corporate media fears the most: an educated population armed with information and able to put up resistance to its profit driven agenda.

UE News - 07/00

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