Free Radio Takes
Aim at Corporate Media
By TOM DUNNE
Tom Dunne, a member of UE Local 1172 at Everbrite in
Milwaukee, is active in the community radio movement. He suggests checking
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
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
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