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
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
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
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.
Lies & Videotape