Deep in the Laguna Mountains, some 6,000 feet above the city of San Diego, stands a transmitter for KNSJ, an all-volunteer radio station at the heart of Southern California’s social justice community. Founded in summer 2013 by Activist San Diego, the station broadcasts more than a dozen local programs, which dive into everything from food justice and spirituality to San Diego’s ongoing movement against police brutality. The aim, says station manager Martin Eder, is to amplify voices and perspectives typically excluded from commercial media. “We needed a way to raise the visibility of struggles and connect people to one another,” he says. “Unless people have deep information about fundamental issues, it’s very difficult to mobilize people.”
KNSJ is one of hundreds of new community radio stations launched in recent years—the biggest addition to FM airwaves in decades. While some, such as KNSJ, are the brainchild of dedicated activists, others simply aim to eke out some space on the airwaves for local voices and viewpoints—which until recently was just about impossible. Since the mid-’90s media consolidation has given corporations such as Clear Channel (now called iHeartMedia) overwhelming control over nearly all major radio markets in the country. That’s non-local control over news stories, music playlists, and programming of all kinds for hundreds of stations across the United States. At the same time, onerous FCC regulations mandated that new stations stay several frequencies away from existing networks, effectively banning grassroots upstarts from crowded urban markets.
That all started to change in January 2011 when President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act. The law eased the “buffer” rule between stations and made low-power FM frequencies available to ordinary citizens for the first time in decades. The change came after years of activism and advocacy pitting grassroots activists against the FCC, the National Association of Broadcasters, and even public media like NPR. The victory has the potential to radically change the local media landscape in communities across the country.
From Pirate Radio to Community Resurgence
By the end of 2014, some 2,000 unions, environmental groups, and community organizations of all kinds had applied for the right to broadcast—compared with fewer than 1,000 low-power stations in existence in 2011. While most of these networks are still in their infancy, the political impact of this movement could be huge. “These are folks that over the last twenty years have been completely shut out of their local media systems,” says media activist Sanjay Jolly. “Now they’re emerging as this really integral and potentially powerful player.”
Jolly is the policy director of Prometheus Radio Project, a worldwide network of stations, activists, and engineers dedicated to creating a more democratic media system. To that end, Prometheus has fought hard for more openness in FCC policy while also helping to launch dozens of grassroots stations (while Prometheus didn’t have a hand in launching KNSJ, Eder says the group’s work was a direct inspiration).
What makes radio unique, says Jolly, boils down to accessibility and participation. In a media system owned and operated by giant corporations, community radio is a hyperlocal alternative, owned and operated by activists and neighbors. Requiring little in the way of formal training, literacy, or even internet access, radio offers the chance to create and shape a grassroots media system from the ground up. “It’s people actually participating in their own media, having an active role in how the infrastructure and information is created and distributed,” Jolly says. “It’s that blurring of lines between listener and producer that actually creates a democratic alternative within local media.”
Activists have long made use of community radio, but by the 1990s, consolidation and regulatory hurdles had made this more difficult. Where grassroots voices still haunted the airwaves, they often operated illegally.
One of those voices was Pete Tridish, a longtime radio activist who helped found Prometheus in 1998. “Myself and my friends, we were pirates,” he says, referring to Radio Mutiny, the pirate station he launched in Philadelphia in mid-’90s. “In some ways my life has become a lot more boring since then. I went from a lot of sneaking around and helping people build pirate transmitters to helping people fill out forms and things like that.”
Tridish was driving through Arizona when I called. Earlier that week he had been helping the Navajo Nation’s Diné College set up a new FM station dedicated to preserving Navajo culture and language. Tridish says his interest in radio began when he became aware of the power of media giants to shape public debate. “I saw all of the campaigns that I worked on sort of throttled by the way the media was owned and controlled,” he says.
Radio Mutiny was designed to be an alternative where more radical perspectives on foreign policy, homelessness, and the environment could be heard. “We were committing an act of civil disobedience against a system of ownership and control,” Tridish says. Operating without a license, Radio Mutiny was raided more than once by the FCC during its short lifespan, but it got Tridish hooked on the idea of building a grassroots alternative to corporate media. When he helped launch Prometheus a few years later, its aim was to help others build grassroots stations while also putting pressure on the FCC. Prometheus’s message to Washington was clear: when Clear Channel owns more than 1,200 stations nationwide, why is the FCC cracking down on a few hundred pirates? Tactics ranged from high-profile court cases to a “pirate march” on FCC headquarters in 2000.
Owing in no small part to this pressure, the FCC began loosening its grip on local radio in 2000 by issuing a small number of new licenses, mostly in rural areas. In some ways Prometheus had won a significant victory but industry pressure—mostly from the National Association of Broadcasters—lobbied to keep community radio out of the nation’s largest media markets. It would take another decade of grassroots action and advocacy for the FCC to go further. “I’ve actually later heard that that’s about average,” says Tridish. “For grassroots groups, in a case like ours where the facts are totally obvious, and they’re on your side, and you’ve got big industry money behind the other side, ten years is about average. But it’s by no means guaranteed.”
When Prometheus and its allies finally won out in early 2011, the media system had changed dramatically, but what hadn’t changed was an appetite for local, grassroots voices. Even in a society that’s largely online, says Tridish, “Ninety percent of Americans still are listening to FM radio. And so we kind of ended up with a table scrap at the end of the game but it’s actually quite worthwhile.” Nor have community stations lost any of their transformative potential. “Radio is really the first chance a lot of marginalized communities have to own a piece of media,” Tridish adds.
The Enduring Power of Radio
In fact, in some ways the world of community radio has never been more vital. Look closely at many of the biggest social movements of the past few years and chances are you’ll find community radio. Even before the FCC granted its first set of new FM licenses, community radio had been emerging as a critical tool for activists and citizen journalists of all kinds. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, for instance, has utilized its own grassroots station ever since Prometheus helped the group build one in 2003.
Similarly, during Occupy Wall Street, a citywide ban on amplified speakers and public address systems made communication at Zuccotti Park difficult. Activists famously circumvented the ban with the human microphone (a means of amplifying voices over a large area with no electronic technology, common in Occupy encampments), but they also broadcast continuous updates from 107.1 FM, a low-power pirate station headquartered in Zuccotti’s media tent.
Not only that, community radio broadcast from inside occupations in Boston and Portland, while Radio Free Nashville hosted a weekly discussion called This Occupied Life from the encampment there. At Occupy Philadelphia, Prometheus helped launch a media working group which included a blog and web radio stream. Stations like these provided critical audio and live stream coverage in ways traditional media outlets wouldn’t or couldn’t—particularly during the November 2011 evictions in Zuccotti Park.
The same is true of #BlackLivesMatter protests in Ferguson last summer, many of which were documented by KARG Argus Radio’s Mustafa Hussein. Hussein’s live-stream, dubbed I Am Mike Brown, was viewed more than a million times in just a few days last August, and footage later appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and countless other media outlets.
And in the Seattle area an immigrant rights group called OneAmerica announced plans in 2013 to begin broadcasting a station of its own by 2016. OneAmerica was one of the leading forces behind the successful campaign to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars in SeaTac, the first city in America to do so.
Experiments like these have the potential not only to amplify marginalized voices and issues; they can also begin to rethink what journalism is all about. Instead of trying to maintain objectivity and distance in reporting, a more participatory media model—what Seattle organizer Sabrina Roach calls “community-based journalism”—can invite both producers and listeners to explore more deeply how power is expressed, including in one’s own reporting. “It can get into a territory that’s different from traditional journalism,” Roach says. “It demands a harder look at power dynamics and a sharper cultural competency.”
In a sense, Roach adds, it’s an environment where everyone involved can teach and learn something valuable. “If you think about a journalist as someone who knows how to tell a story or someone who knows how to use a certain kind of equipment, then you can work with community members to tell their story the way they want it told. And I think that’s the goal.”
It’s a goal that KNSJ clearly shares. This past September, the station helped mobilize hundreds of activists for the largest climate march in San Diego’s history. Armed with cell phone recorders, KNSJ volunteers reported directly from the protest, conducting dozens of interviews and letting marchers tell their stories in their own terms. And during Ferguson solidarity protests, KNSJ did the same thing: getting the word out about marches and community meetings on police brutality and racial inequality, and broadcasting right from the streets. “There’s an immediacy to that kind of reporting,” says Eder. “KNSJ is a lifeline for activists and community members here to get in touch, get informed, and work together.”