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Grassroots Radio

Radio?communication employing electromagnetic waves?was the first industrial mass medium. In the US, the granddaddies of some of America's major entertainment and telecom networks?AT&T, CBS, and NBC?profited by delivering radio listeners to national and regional advertisers. In England, Canada, and most of Europe, national governments used the airwaves to bind and administer their national unions. Today, wire, microwave, and satellite transmissions have expanded electromagnetic wave-based communication, but corporate influence has limited the number of frequencies available to local and noncommercial broadcasters. A smaller number of broadcasters retails a shrinking diversity of musical products, news, and formats.

But radio has another history. Since its beginning, independent groups underserved or not served by corporate or government broadcasters have found ways to use the airwaves. While their programming varies widely, their larger goals are similar: to connect people for the exchange of news, music, and community, and, often, for such wider ideals as religion, peace, justice, and democracy; to get their words and music out; to entertain, inform, and empower.

Independent radio is undergoing worldwide revival, especially in some poorer and newly formed countries, and among populations such as women and indigenous peoples who have been left out of mainstream media. Today's grassroots broadcasters go by different names?community or micro-powered radio in North America, radio popular in Latin America, development radio in Africa and Asia. In Africa, the number of nongovernmental and noncommercial stations has increased from ten, in 1985, to dozens today. In Central and Eastern Europe, there are now 250 independent radio stations. Aboriginal, religious, or ethnic communities; students; musicians; community organizations; labor unions; women's groups; and development and educational institutions are adapting shortwave, Internet, or micro-radio to break through government and government/corporate media monopolies.

Radio is still the grassroots medium of choice: it's much less expensive than television, doesn't require literacy as do newspapers, and doesn't require the phone lines, computers, or user skills of the Internet. And it's portable. Because of these advantages, it has been the revolutionary's first choice. The Irish Republican Army first used radio to get out its insurgent message from Dublin in 1916. Fifty years ago, while Cold War politicians and TV were looking to shut down radical voices, Lew Hill took a chance on the new medium of FM, and started listener-sponsored KPFA. Recently, B92 in Belgrade defied the Milosevic censors by using an Internet/radio combination to solicit crucial international support outside its borders. B92 later lent a hand to the journalists in Indonesia who created Radio 68H.

But not all contemporary "radio-pirates" are political revolutionaries. In the US, while many have taken to the airwaves in contravention of Federal Communication Commission rules, they represent America's eclectic democracy?producing everything from a cooking show for the blind to Christian prayer programs to garage music.

Tying all these radio passionarios together is the World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC). Its members share a desire to challenge both corporate and national government control of the airwaves, and to facilitate the widest and wildest democracy of people using the electro-commons.