A mother’s voice stretched over the air
to a son spending the holidays in a Virginia prison: "Keep your head
up. I love you. Just do what you gotta do to survive."
The hushed message was one of dozens featured on Calls from Home,
a project of Mountain Community Radio in Kentucky. Each December, the
call-in program helps families of prisoners reconnect through holiday
shoutouts, aired on stations across the country.
Since the first mass broadcasts crackled over the
country’s airwaves in the 1920s, radio has defined itself as a
democratic medium, providing communities that have few resources–from
inmates to immigrant workers–a conduit for news and civic
But today, media activists say
commercialism has reduced a vital institution to an industry of white
noise. In response, alternative radio projects and media-justice
movements have emerged to resuscitate a flagging public sphere.
Jammed with shock jocks, manufactured
gangstas and formulaic news bites, the FM dial allows scant room for
critical thought. Activists say that’s no accident. The broadcast
industry has become heavily consolidated and commercialized since the
1990s, thanks to the dismantling of federal regulations on corporate
ownership. Those trends, critics argue, have systematically silenced
the voices of women, people of color, youth and other underrepresented
communities in the public sphere.
It wasn’t always this way. A generation ago, radio was fueling activism in Black communities nationwide.
Jammed with shock jocks, manufactured gangstas and formulaic news bites, the FM dial allows scant room for critical thought.
Broadcast veteran Glen Ford, now editor of the online journal Black Agenda Report,
recalled how Black radio news helped anchor civil rights movements in
the 1960s and ’70s: "They would be the ones to cover the folks who were
protesting police brutality or advocating cleanups of the Black
community or speaking about Black issues in education."
Today, mega-broadcasters like Clear
Channel Communications, which controls more than 1,100 stations
nationwide, are fixated on ad revenues and economies of scale. Since
it’s more profitable to centralize content, local affiliates run
mass-marketed music and news, generally at the expense of independent
artists and community oriented
The homogenization of radio plays out in
ownership patterns as well. A recent study by the media reform group
FreePress found that "ethnic minorities" and people of color control
less than 8 percent of full-scale commercial stations, while making up
about one-third of the population. Black radio ownership hovers around
3.4 percent, while about 13 percent of Americans are Black.
Paul Porter, an industry veteran, who
now leads the media think-tank Industry Ears, believes the issue goes
beyond just the demographics of owners: even Radio One, the country’s
leading Black-owned broadcasting network, follows the standard
corporate formula of commercial Black music and minimal news.
Across the dial, Porter said, "Radio is shaped for stockholders instead of listeners."
As broadcast conglomerates narrow
radio’s political scope, activists are recasting the medium to once
again empower underserved communities.
For decades, WMMT Mountain Community Radio has been the only
progressive news source covering the working-class coalfield
communities of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. When two Supermax
prisons moved into the area, the station suddenly faced a new
constituency: Black, male prisoners transplanted from cities into
mostly white Appalachian mining towns.
WMMT’s parent organization, the Appalshop arts center, turned the impending culture clash into an opportunity for dialogue.
"We considered the prison audience as
part of our community," said WMMT producer Nick Szuberla. "And then we
began to figure out ways to use community radio to address what was
happening and to make space on our station for their family and
The station began investigating local prisoners’ complaints of abuse in 1999 and soon developed Holler to the Hood,
a call-in program that explores the viewpoints of inmates and their
families, along with local community members. In addition to
reconnecting separated families, the program has helped launch
grassroots civil rights campaigns and musical collaborations between
hip-hop and country artists.
Even in the so-called digital age,
stations like WMMT remain a key resource for communities isolated from
the technological grid.
"We don’t have broadband, WiFi, cable
access," said Szuberla. "Community radio is a huge part of rural communities’ civic discourse."
For indigenous communities wrestling with poverty and social marginalization, media access is a human rights issue.
Loris Taylor, executive director of
Native Public Media, which advocates on behalf of the country’s 33
American Indian-owned public stations, said that tribe-run broadcasters
are typically the sole source for community-based cultural programming
"If you don’t have access and ownership
and control of a media system, you really don’t exist," she said. "You
don’t matter in terms of being citizens in a democracy who are entitled
to the ability to tell, and have a conversation about, your own
With its gritty do-it-yourself ethos, grassroots radio offers a platform for personal storytelling on a mass scale.
Thandisizwe Chimurenga, cofounder and cohost of Some of Us Are Brave
on the California-based Pacifica network, approaches radio as a
"mobilizing medium." Since 2003, the weekly show has been a rare space
for Black women of diverse political backgrounds to reflect on topics
such as domestic violence, immigration, mental health and imprisonment.
"The show aims to be a resource for the
communities that we come from," she said. "Black women’s voices are so
under-represented, so absent in media."
To advance the show’s mission,
Chimurenga’s organization, the Ida B. Wells Institute, is developing a
media program for young women of color. By giving youth opportunities
to produce their own stories, she said, the training is designed to
"demystify the workings of media for people–show them they can actually
do this also."
At Atlanta’s Latin American and
Caribbean Community Center, grassroots media-making has shone a
spotlight on Latino perspectives that establishment media routinely
ignore. The group’s Radio Diaspora project, broadcast in English and
Spanish on WRFG Radio Free Georgia, covers the plight of African
descendants throughout the Americas who have long struggled for
While corporate news often segregates
coverage of "Latino" and "Black" issues, Radio Diaspora draws
connections between different forms of oppression and structural racism
across the hemisphere. A recent trans-border call-in program examined
internal displacement in the Black diaspora, linking Hurricane Katrina
survivors with a community of African-descendant earthquake survivors in Peru.
Defying the foreign correspondent model,
Radio Diaspora’s unconventional press corps relays news straight from
the source. Local community members and activists record and produce
their own stories as they happen on the ground.
"Our audience, and our participants–they really dictate the shows that we do," said coordinator Janvieve Williams.
"We considered the prison audience as part of our community."
The country is dotted with more than
9,000 full-scale FM stations, but fewer than a third are designated
noncommercial and educational broadcasters. While the Federal
Communications Commission recently moved to grant some new
non-commercial licenses, activists are looking beyond the standard
radio spectrum to carve out fresh broadcast venues.
Some see promise in low-power FM radio,
a new class of frequencies with a range of a few miles. The FCC has
allotted a limited number of low-power licenses to community groups in recent years, though advocates say not nearly enough.
One of the newest low-power ventures is
WMXP in Greenville, South Carolina. The volunteer-based station
launched last summer as a partnership between the South Carolina
Affiliate of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a national organizing
network, and the media advocacy group Prometheus Radio Project.
Engaging local youth as listeners and
operators, WMXP works to counter the generic news and music that
dominates local radio. "The only real way to make sure that there are
diverse voices on the airwaves is by really having stations that are
committed to community access," said cofounder Efia Nwangaza.
Local spoken-word poet Preston Walker is
developing a free-form talk program inspired by the Black radio hosts
and hip-hop artists who shaped his identity growing up–
influences that have all but vanished in his community.
"I’m looking forward to introducing them
to something new, something different," he said, "something that they
could grab hold of, and become a part of."
While alternative institutions like
low-power FM encapsulate what grassroots organizing can accomplish,
some radio activists focus on compelling broader changes within
"We need to grab our people wherever
they are," said Chimurenga. "In terms of activists, in terms of people
of color, we need to build alternative institutions, but we also need
to fight where we are. And we need to hold these mainstream
institutions accountable because they hold influence in our
FCC policies broadly mandate corporate
broadcasters to serve community information and educational needs. But
activists are skeptical about the regulatory system’s will to uphold
those standards. In December, topping years of rollbacks to
media-ownership rules, the FCC moved to further gut anti-monopoly
protections by unraveling a long-standing ban on ownership of both a
radio station and a daily newspaper within one market area.
Activists in communities of color have
meanwhile grown frustrated with the scope of the media reform debate.
Groups like FreePress reflect their mostly white, liberal leadership,
critics say, by focusing on regulatory changes and not grassroots
outreach to communities shut out of corporate media.
"When we talk about ‘media diversity,’
we’re not simply talking about diversifying media choices or voices,"
said Malkia Cyril of the Oakland-based Youth Media Council. "We’re
talking about eliminating the structural oppression and racism at the
core of consolidation."
Aiming to bridge grassroots activism
with policy advocacy, Youth Media Council sees the media infrastructure
as both a target and vehicle for activism. By training youth to frame
their political messages and build media campaigns, the group has
helped youth of color publicize their actions in mainstream outlets.
The Council’s media-accountability monitoring projects have scrutinized
local coverage of youth and social issues, pushing broadcasters like
Clear Channel to provide more community-oriented programming.
"Who has the right to participate in and
regulate this media system is a question of citizenship," Cyril said.
"And the question of civil enfranchisement is an issue for everybody."