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Low Power to the People

Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism

Christina Dunbar-Hester
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Low Power to the People
    Book Description:

    The United States ushered in a new era of small-scale broadcasting in 2000 when it began issuing low-power FM (LPFM) licenses for noncommercial radio stations around the country. Over the next decade, several hundred of these newly created low-wattage stations took to the airwaves. InLow Power to the People, Christina Dunbar-Hester describes the practices of an activist organization focused on LPFM during this era. Despite its origins as a pirate broadcasting collective, the group eventually shifted toward building and expanding regulatory access to new, licensed stations. These radio activists consciously cast radio as an alternative to digital utopianism, promoting an understanding of electronic media that emphasizes the local community rather than a global audience of Internet users.Dunbar-Hester focuses on how these radio activists impute emancipatory politics to the "old" medium of radio technology by promoting the idea that "microradio" broadcasting holds the potential to empower ordinary people at the local community level. The group's methods combine political advocacy with a rare commitment to hands-on technical work with radio hardware, although the activists' hands-on, inclusive ethos was hampered by persistent issues of race, class, and gender. Dunbar-Hester's study of activism around an "old" medium offers broader lessons about how political beliefs are expressed through engagement with specific technologies. It also offers insight into contemporary issues in media policy that is particularly timely as the FCC issues a new round of LPFM licenses.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-32049-8
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xxvi)

    On October 4, 1998, a raucous group of protesters assembled in front of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) building in Washington, DC. Seeking legal access to the airwaves for small-scale broadcasting by citizens and community groups, they engaged in established street theater tactics, including puppetry, chants, and speeches. In a less traditional move, they also flouted the regulators by broadcasting their protest into the building using a portable transmitter (it goes without saying, sans license). Of course this transmission was symbolic; the activists did not so much wish to instrumentally broadcast to the commission as to declare their presence on...

  5. 1 Pirates, Hams, and Protest: Radio Activism in Historical Context
    (pp. 1-20)

    One year after the mass actions in protest against the World Trade Organization’s meetings in Seattle in 1999, Philadelphia braced to host the Republican National Convention (RNC) in August 2000. In anticipation, activists formed an independent media center on an ad hoc basis. Independent media centers (IMCs) were rhizomatic¹ citizen-journalist media centers devoted to creating and disseminating alternative news content within a network known as “Indymedia.”² They were founded in reaction to neoliberal ideology and globalization. IMCs sprang up all over the United States, and indeed the world, at the turn of the twenty-first century. The earliest were founded in...

  6. 2 Selfhoods: Geeks, Activists, and Countercultures
    (pp. 21-52)

    One Sunday evening in April 2005, in the fading light of a glorious sunny day, one hundred people sat on folding chairs facing a makeshift stage in a small town just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. A new LPFM station was signing on for the first time. With equal parts joy and catharsis, its founders recalled the obstacles they had faced: licensing setbacks, relocating their proposed broadcast site, and more immediately, a weekend in the mud with volunteers struggling to erect an antenna tower (the sunny day came on the heels of two straight days of pouring rain). A brother-and-sister team...

  7. 3 The Tools of Gender Production
    (pp. 53-68)

    One afternoon at the Tennessee barnraising, an older electrician approached me and began to apologize for making me cry. This was puzzling to me, because I had not interacted with him at any point. I looked at him quizzically, and he quickly realized his error: he had mistaken me for another young, white woman with short dark hair. Naturally I wondered what was going on. We figured out he had thought I was a Prometheus volunteer named Louisa, and he asked me to tell her he was looking for her if I saw her. A few hours later, I bumped...

  8. 4 The Work of Pedagogy in Technological Activism
    (pp. 69-90)

    At the end of a sunny weekend, activists and volunteers banded together to move two enormous refrigerator-sized FM transmitters into storage. After much hand-wringing about where the transmitters might fit, they were designated to be housed in a warehouse art space a couple of miles from the activists’ office. (The warehouse was famous in activist circles as the site of a police raid on artists making street theater puppets in advance of the Philadelphia Republican National Convention protests in 2000.) The transmitters had been the centerpieces of a weekend-long tinkering workshop attended by activists, volunteers, and engineers. The ostensible goal...

  9. 5 Fine-Tuning Boundaries
    (pp. 91-128)

    In summer 2005, attendees of the National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) in St. Louis held an impromptu demonstration decrying the fact thatDemocracy Now!—a Pacifica news program featuring journalist Amy Goodman—was not carried by any St. Louis broadcasters. They walked away from the downtown conference site and set up a rally with banners and signs near a highway off-ramp. One Prometheus staff member spontaneously decided to get drivers’ attention by writing “Democracy Now!” across her belly with a magic marker and flashing her bare breasts and stomach at the passing cars.

    Whether or not this succeeded at...

  10. 6 Making Old Technology Anew: Reinventing FM Radio in the Twenty-First Century
    (pp. 129-160)

    In 2006, Prometheus held a barnraising with a farmworkers’ union in Oregon. Founded in the 1980s, the union represented tree planters and farmworkers, and was Oregon’s largest Latino organization.¹ Throughout the barnraising weekend, activists and union organizers stressed the potential for the new station to extend the union’s organizing activities. At a plenary session, an eloquent and powerful audio greeting from an activist in Peru intoned:

    Dear friends, [simply broadcasting] information is not enough. We need to position ourselves, we have to get involved, we need to strive to turn community radio [station]s into actors—not only spectators, but actors...

  11. 7 Do New Media Have Old Politics?
    (pp. 161-184)

    Reflecting on the earliest organizing he had done around LPFM, a Prometheus organizer cited Mbanna Kantako. Kantako was an early hero of the micro-broadcasting movement who had broadcasted without a license from a public housing project in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1980s. He devoted his broadcasts to social justice topics including police brutality, racism, and poverty. Kantako understood his transmissions as electronic civil disobedience and “a potent means of regaining power and a voice within an oppressive local system.”¹ The activist said that this story was one that filled him with passion, and that although he wanted to capitalize on...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 185-194)

    After a decade of advocacy, LPFM’s proponents celebrated a victory. Congress at last passed the legislation they had pursued since 2000, and President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 into law. This law vastly expanded LPFM, allowing up to a thousand new small-scale, independent stations to be built nationwide. New stations will perhaps go on the air at about the same time this book is published, in 2014. Prometheus was a major force in shepherding the bill to its passage. The signing of this law marks the closure of the period discussed in this book. It is...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 195-234)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 235-258)
  15. Index
    (pp. 259-272)