Alternative Radio

by David Barsamian

excerpted from the book

War, Lies & Videotape

International Action Center, 2000


Why radio? Edward Said calls it "the oppositional form." Whereas with television there is the constant drive for the sound bite, with radio, he says, " You have to think in a different way, you have to think consecutively, you have to think with reason rather than with pictures. The fact is that radio is open to intervention." (Personal letter to me, 1993)

I have been a radio interventionist, doing combat on the airwaves, since 1978. Alternative Radio, my "organization," is part of a burgeoning movement of community-based, noncommercial stations in alliance with independent producers. I produce and distribute a weekly one-hour public affairs program that is broadcast on more than one hundred stations in the United States and Canada as well as to over seventy countries via shortwave. The technical aspect is not very complicated and the cost is quite modest. The U.S., with all its media problems, has by far the most developed and evolved network of community radio stations in the world. There are about 100 such stations in the country. For example, Pacifica, established in 1949, has five stations: New York, Houston, Berkeley, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

A little background first. I moved to Boulder, Colorado in July, 1978. A friend who picked me up at the airport told me that KGNU had recently gone on the air and was looking for people to do radio. I quickly submitted a proposal, and before I knew it I was doing a weekly one-hour program which later expanded into 2-1/2 hours. Mind you I had no background in the medium. KGNU was open and supportive, but actual training in radio arts and crafts was perforce limited due to the usual formula: too few staff doing too much work. Much of what I learned about " doing" radio came on and off the air in an auto-didactic fashion. I gradually developed my editing, production, interviewing and other skills. Some grants and awards followed, which were all very gratifying. But I was still very much a local voice.

A significant turn in my audio evolution came in 1986. I was appointed program director of KRZA, a new bilingual station in Alamosa, in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. During my tenure there I learned the intricacies and mysteries of the satellite system. I began Alternative Radio in late 1986 m a bizarre way. I did something unheard of: I put up on the satellite in one block, three and a half hours of Noam Chomsky, a ninety-minute lecture followed by four 30-minute interviews. It was my first national broadcast. No one told me that most stations usually only have half-hour or one-hour slots. It was the proverbial learning experience. However, the Pacifica network did pick up the programs and listener response was tremendous. AR was on its way.

How do I do a program? First of all I use professional equipment; a SONY TC-D5M portable tape recorder that costs about $600, an Electrovoice RE-50 microphone which runs about $150, SONY MDR-V600 headphones, $70, and an AKG mic stand, $30. There are of course other configurations. Some producers prefer a SONY Walkman-PRO or a Marantz tape recorder. Others are advocating DAT machines. Whatever you get, don't chintz. Get good reliable equipment. Forget K-Mart bargains and completely forget using cheap tape. Always record with chrome cassettes from name manufacturers. I use Maxell, but the others, TDK, Fuji, etc., are comparable. And it is best for recording purposes to have 90-or 100-minute length cassettes. Know your equipment well and have full confidence in it and yourself before you venture out into the field. If the financial aspect is daunting, then most stations, with conditions, will permit you to borrow equipment.

Secondly, I tape and edit a lecture or interview. Let's say Winona LaDuke is giving a talk in Boulder at the University of Colorado. Her topic is " Social Justice, Racism and the Environmental Movement." I get her permission to record before she speaks. I record her presentation. It is brilliant. I decide to turn it into an AR national program. My associate Sandy Adler transcribes the tape. The transcript helps me enormously for I can see the tape. I time all the paragraphs and then start the actual editing process. I boil the program down to some fifty-odd minutes, tack on my music theme on both ends, add an introduction and closing and it is ready to go up on "the bird," the satellite.

Another example. I want to do an interview with Marilyn Young, the historian who teaches at New York University. Her book The Vietnam Wars is impressive. I contact her to see if she would like to be interviewed. She agrees. I go to New York and interview her. I then go through the same procedure as with LaDuke although this time I have expended much more time and money in the collection process. Some of my programs are locally generated but frequently I have to travel to find what I am looking for. I often feel that I am a hunter and gatherer. I go out and get tape and then bring it back to be cooked! A heartening development in the last couple of years is that I have established a coterie of field producers in various parts of the U.S. and Canada who send me tapes which I then turn into programs.

Thirdly, most of the cooking is done at KGNU studios where I continue to do local political and world music programs. I was station office manager in 1981 and then from 1987 to 1991 I was the News and Public Affairs Director There is a healthy give-and-take between me and the station I give them tapes to offer to listeners who become members during their fundraisers and I help with on-air pledge rapping, i.e., asking listeners to send in money, as well as in a variety of other ways.

Finally, I reserve in advance a regular time, day and channel on the satellite. I express the completed program to the uplink. I use the one in Ames, Iowa. The satellite system is the electronic umbilical cord linking hundreds of stations. It is run by National Public Radio. But fear not. All they want is your money. I have never heard a peep from them about the content of any of my programs. Some 400-plus stations have dishes or downlinks, i.e. they are capable of receiving programs. There are some 20 uplinks through which programs are distributed. Working with satellite deadlines is a constant stimulation. It is like having a Damocles sword of tape over your head at all times. The program has to be at the uplink before the scheduled uplink time. Stations record the program off the satellite and air it during a designated time. It is possible to broadcast live off the satellite and that is the case for news and breaking events, hearings, marches, etc. You can find out all about the satellite system and how you as an independent producer can use it by contacting NPR, 635 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20001. Tel: (202) 414-3329. If at some point you decide to produce and distribute your own programs then NPR charges a one-time only $25 registration fee.

Of all the electronic media there is no question that radio is the least expensive. And as far as I am concerned it is the most satisfying. There is something very intimate about radio. It doesn't rob or preempt the listener's imagination. And for spoken word, which is what I do, it is the best. An hour is a decent amount of time to cover a subject. Alternative Radio programs focus on the media, U.S. foreign policy, racism, the environment, indigenous rights, NAFTA/GATT and economic issues and other topics. Recent programs have included Elaine Bernard on Creating a New Party; Juliet Schor on The Overworked American; Ali Mazrui on Afrocentricity and Multiculturalism; Edward Said on the Israel/PLO Accord; Helena Norberg-Hodge on Rethinking Development, a two-part debate on NAFTA; and Michael Parenti on The Struggle for Democracy.

I distribute via satellite. Fees run about $100 per program. The fee also gets me into the DACS (Direct Access Communications System). It is a device somewhat akin to a news wire. Every station that has a satellite dish has one. The DACS is the eyes and ears of the satellite. Program and news directors check it to find out what's up! The DACS tells them for example that on Tuesday, November 9 at 1400 eastern time on channel 6, Alternative Radio is offering a program on GATT featuring Herbert Chao Gunther. The DACS is a direct way to reach all the stations that are interconnected to the satellite system. I mail, fax and phone stations to nudge them further. Unfortunately, the satellite system is limited to the U.S. That means I have to send tapes via mail to Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Clearly an expensive, inefficient and not as good audio method. I look forward to the day when we'll be globally connected.

How do 1 support my "operation?" Directly through the sale of printed transcripts and audio cassettes to listeners. I don't charge the stations. It is important that the programs be broadcast so I make it as simple and as painless as possible for stations. My goal is to disseminate diverse perspectives and views. It does me little good to produce a program and then have it sit on a shelf.

There are stations and there are stations. Some of them won't go any where near my work. Most of these stations are NPR-types. Their licenses are mostly controlled by colleges and universities. And their schedules consist of lots of NPR news and other network produced programs with a good dollop of classical music and/or jazz. Sometimes stations like WGBH in Boston, KCFR in Denver or WHYY in Philadelphia are not institutional-based but nevertheless have very narrow politics. NPR-type program directors and managers worship at the chimerical icons of balance and objectivity, the kind exemplified by Morning Edition and All Things Considered. AR represents to them a bias. It is advocacy radio and hence anathema to the ears. Listeners must be protected from ideas outside the framework of received wisdom.

However, scattered around the country there are a handful of NPR-type stations that are willing to take risks and explore. They need to be encouraged and their numbers need to increase. A two-prong strategy seems appropriate. We need to create our own media as well as to penetrate existing structures. One of my goals is getting beyond the choir. Certainly our friends need information, news and analyses but simply preaching to the converted is neither intellectually nor emotionally satisfying. It is not easy but I can attest from my own experience that breakthroughs do happen. A sustainable media movement cannot abandon these possibilities.

The other category is community-run stations where there is a pluralism in programming and certainly more diversity in terms of gender and race among staff and volunteers. Community-run stations have been growing in steady numbers since the mid-1970s. Noam Chomsky has observed that when he visits a town or city that has a station that people tend to be more informed and aware of what is going on. Radio provides a means of intellectual self-defense and a vehicle for connecting with others. One of the things I love to do is to visit stations like KMUD in Garberville, California or KMUN in Astoria, Oregon or WERU in E. Orland, Maine or Co-op Radio in Vancouver, British Columbia. Though lacking in resources, the vitality, energy and sense of commitment at these stations is inspiring. And yes, there is political infighting and there are struggles but the positives far outweigh the negatives. The overwhelming number of on-air programmers are volunteers It ~s the exact opposite of the NPR group where virtually only paid-staff are on-air and volunteers are fine for answering the phone during fundraisers.

What do community stations sound like? Their formats vary. KGNU, for example, has a news mix of the BBC and Pacifica that provides it with national and international coverage. Local news is tough to do. It is very labor and capital intensive. Its quality. can range from excellent to fair. KGNU has a number of interview programs. Guests are either in the studio live, pre-taped or on the phone. Call-in programs are popular and get people interactive and talking. The station has a diverse music format with a good amount of international music. The fare is definitely not top-40. Much attention and emphasis ~s given to small, independent labels. The music to spoken word ratio during the week is about 70-30. On the weekend it is 8515. KGNU has five paid staff, 230 volunteers, 3,000-plus members and a budget of $325,000.

If you are interested in more information and/or would like to establish a community radio station, then contact: National Federation of Community Broadcasters, Ft. Mason Center, Bldg. D, San Francisco, CA., tel: (415) 771-1160. NFCB is a national service and representation organization for community broadcasters. Audio Craft, a useful how-to book on production techniques written by audio wizard Randy Thom, can be ordered from NFCB. The annual community radio conference, sponsored by NFCB is a good opportunity to network.

Outside the U.S. you can contact AMARC, the World Association of Community Broadcasters, 3575 Blvd. St. Laurent, Suite 704, Montreal, Que., H2X 2T7, Canada. AMARC's seventh global radio conference is set for Milan in late August 1998. Bruce Girard of AMARC has edited A Passion for Radio, an informative book about what is happening in community radio in various countries. Traditional state control of radio is somewhat breaking down and radio activists are making inroads. AMARC has literature available in English, Spanish and French.

If you don't have a good local station and have a shortwave receiver you can hear a number of progressive programs on Radio for Peace International. It operates out of Santa Ana, Costa Rica. For a free schedule and frequency information write to: RPI, P.O. Box 20728, Portland, OR 97294.

Right-wing talk shows dominate the airwaves. A progressive response to the toxic emissions spewed forth by the Rush Limbaughs, Howard Sterns, Paul Harveys, and Tom Valentines is urgently needed. Now is the time to launch a daily national call-in talk show that will address issues and concerns of our communities. An 800-number as well as a fax are requisites. Such a program or programs-let's get one going but think of doing more-would be most valuable in creating an audio dialogue among ourselves as well as reaching out to a much wider audience and building new constituencies. The money required is not huge. The project will be supported by listener memberships. Additional income could come from tape and transcript sales.

Another critically needed program is a national morning news service that will challenge NPR's Morning Edition. Currently Pacifica offers a daily half-hour late afternoon newscast. In my view that program should be expanded to an hour and shift to the morning where radio use is at its maximum. If money ~s available the late afternoon news should be retained but the priority is the morning. Funding for this program will come directly from stations subscribing to the service. This project will involve much higher costs than the call-in show. If Pacifica is unable to do a daily morning news program then other sources must be identified.

A new development with potential is low-watt micro radio It s sometimes referred to as pirate radio. It is a mechanism that does an end-run around the stations which are the gatekeepers of the airwaves. There are scores of micro radio stations popping up all over the U.S. M'banna Kantako in Springfield, IL is a pioneer in this field as is Steven Dunifer in Berkeley. Micro radio has the virtue of being low cost. How ever its narrow signal range limits its audience.

William Barlow of Howard University writes that community radio "has more democratic potential than any other form of mass media operating in the United States." Activists should seriously consider radio as a medium for action and engagement. There are more and more signs that that is happening. Matt Rothschild of The Progressive has Second Opinion, an interview show. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the New York-based media watch group, has CounterSpin. It is hosted by Jamne Jackson. Making Contact is produced by the National

Radio Project in the SF Bay Area. All of these are weekly half hour programs that are distributed via satellite to connected stations and by mail. Pacifica's Democracy Now is a dally one-hour program hosted by Amy Goodman. The Nation has launched a weekly one-hour program hosted by Marc Cooper. In These Times, the Institute for Policy Studies and others are contemplating radio. All these efforts are to be encouraged but they must locate themselves in a larger context. Edward Herman in the very first Z Papers wrote, " A full fledged democratization of the media can only occur in connection with a thoroughgoing political revolution."

The trend toward greater media concentration will continue. The amount of literature documenting corporate control and domination of media is staggering. We have done our homework and while that critique is ongoing I believe it is essential for psychological as well as political reasons to project and produce positive alternatives. It is vital that it happen. And radio offers just such an opportunity.

War, Lies & Videotape

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