The Other Side of The Electronic Divide
Using radio to create community, creating community radio. Why expect radio to do this? It’s malleable, anonymous, inexpensive to build, easy to transmit and receive, relatively speaking, even when the simple act of owning the box is punishable by an indefinite jail term. Radio is always possible. It is the link between local community and the global community. Radio creates a dimension in which various communities can meet, exchange, discuss and develop ideas, transforming the way we define notions of geography and public space. What political, cultural and humanitarian goals can be served by this medium exclusively? How does radio function as a tool for shared information?
In November of 2006, the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at New School for Social Research assembled a small group to discuss this topic. Panelists were Pete Tridish, founder, Prometheus Radio Project; William H. Siemering, President, Developing Radio Partners; Khin Phyu Htway, student, The New School and contributor to Voice of America, Burmese Service; Gregory Whitehead, writer and artist. Moderated by me, Stephanie Guyer-Stevens, Producer, Outer Voices.
We started with a presentation from Gregory Whitehead called, “Here Comes Everybody” and then moved to a panel discussion. The panel, and audience of fifty, focused on different ways of using radio as a kind of glue for creating community both here and abroad.
Here Comes Everybody
Gregory Whitehead, for the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, November 29, 2006
Communication is Community, and it is also true that sooner or later everybody does come through the grand wash of the airwaves, thick with a fog that must be the product of something hot, wet and meaningful.
And suddenly there she is:
Mother radio, wholesome and mature, but still more than a little bit sexy, wearing her proper Sunday best, but with her chic black boots telling us she still knows how to kick it, and where — her arms extended in an open and generous invitation into her seemingly limitless…. public domain. The irresistible enchantments of radiophonic space: no boundaries, no bouncers, no ticket takers or coat checkers. And no unsightly bodies, with their problematic variations in skin pigmentation or footwear or pierced flesh. Radiophonic space, the most sublime ou topos of them all, a wide open no place that positively vibrates with communicative potential and utopian possibility: ubiquitous, yet intimate, godlike voices, hanging in the wind, who could ever resist them?
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I, too, have dreamed, often, of that time when everybody lives breathes and touches each other on air, for that is the dream that Mother Radio dreams every night, and if you climb into that big comfy bed with her, you have no choice but to dream her dream. For those who hold deep beliefs regarding the creation of free, autonomous and sustainable communities via these near magical properties of broadcast, the intoxicating dream of radio utopia is guaranteed to induce a most pleasurable buzz. The problem comes later, the morning after, as a nasty electromagnetic hangover wrapped inside a lethal headache.
Consider the paradoxical case of Velimir Khlebnikov, and his bold 1921 proposal for radio as “the spiritual sun of the country”, that would radiate the unearthly songs of lightning birds. Poised in the control room, the Great Sorcerer at Radio Khlebnikov would mesmerize the national consciousness, healing the sick via hypnotic suggestion and even increasing worker productivity through seasonally metrical notation, “for it is a known fact that certain notes like la and ti are able to increase muscle capacity”.
Yet once radio waves become one with the mental life of a nation, any interruption of the signal would induce a sort of broadcast concussion, “a mental black out over the entire country, a temporary loss of consciousness”. Thus must Radio Khlebnikov be protected, fortified, super-hardened, encased. Peel back the thin skin of the neuro-vibrational zeppelin and you will find a dark control room sunk into cement, signed with a skull and crossbones. That’s how it is in the art and politics of radiophonic space. The Here comes everybody is all too often followed in the next breath, by Danger: Keep Out.
Such is the enduring challenge for all radio that grows from the grass roots, whether in Oaxaca, or South Africa, or Brooklyn, or Berlin, and this challenge, more political and philosophical than aesthetic, is present from the very first transatlantic radio transmission: the single letter “s”, sent out from the hand of Marconi himself, not as a snake or a snarl, but as a simple Morse code dot dot dot.
Whatever Marconi’s intentions, what do we make of this lonely cipher? Does it mean dot dot dot as in the beginning of save our ship, or is it something salacious, or something sacred?? Or is it the dot dot dot of surrender, or just plain flat out scary? For surely Marconi knew that the same airwaves that might save ships would also, one day, sink them, and that for every ciphered bit of innocence, there would be a smart bomb, or incendiary deception, signifying execute the plan, eliminate the problem, erase the non-believers. Might he also have imagined that, many years later, the warm laughter of the Chiapas campesino using a microphone for the first time would eventually cross the big waters and become part of the marathon machete mix at the Hotel Rwanda, where a cool, calm and eminently radiophonic voice urges the invisible masses to cut down the tall trees, and to kill the cockroaches, kill the cockroaches?
After twenty some odd years in and around the world’s cacophonous airwaves, I have been there, many times over, inside that inscrutably ambiguous envelope of the simple dot dot dot … because it turns out that the artist’s dream of radio eros and the dictator’s dream of radio thanatos are one and the same, the first being the finger puppet, the second its dancing shadow, or bouncing echo. Or is it the other way around?
Demagogues may well create radio stations to disseminate their monomania, but radio stations may also create demagogues, possibly even from the ranks of those who used to call themselves radio artists, once upon a time, and it is the pure hypnotic power of the beautiful dream, the dream that communication equals community, the dream that everyone is coming, in all races, and all languages, that sets the stage for the power mad despot to do his thing, in a major key.
Radio eros, and radio thanatos: the two vibrational drives, always present, always in the air, on the loose, saving and sinking, laughter and oblivion, whispers and screams, so humbling in their persistence, and their power. For the broadcast activist and the radio artist, the question is always the same. Can we hear the truth in their seductive and dangerous interplay, and what do we make of it?
Khin Phyu Thway: Burma is a country currently in crisis. There is no freedom of expression in Burma since the military regime came into power in 1962. Only state-run newspapers, radios and TVs are running just for government’s propaganda…
Any kind of political movement is brutally restricted and there is no mechanism to organize public action to claim civil rights or any criticism to the regime. Everything has been systematically broken down, and the majority of the people are not able to access telecommunications such as telephone, internet, email, and etc. More than 70 percent of people are farmers who live in the villages. Under this circumstance, these radios play an important role, carrying messages among people. During a recent student peace action for reconciliation in Burma, student leaders managed to collect more than half a million signatures for a petition calling for the release of Burmese political prisoners after local radio stations transmitted information about the campaign to villages.
Radio plays a big role in a developing country like Burma. Everything is under control of the military regime and people are not allowed to listen to foreign radios. But people listen to it secretly as they want to know what is happening around the country and in the world.
Pete Tridish: I got involved in radio… in 1996. At the time I was working as a carpenter I was part of a community of activists that worked on a number of different issues….peace, AIDS education, housing, environment, and we found that we were overwhelmingly ignored by the mainstream media and we started to realize that there were some connections between the ownership and control of media and the fact that our side always seemed to lose in these great social debates.
Someone gave me a copy of this book ‘Rebel Radio’, and it’s by Jose Ignacio Lopez Vigil. And it’s the story of the Salvadorian Rebel Radio Station, Radio Venceremos. This station was mostly put together by completely uneducated campesinos, people who had been farmers until their villages were burned by the United States backed military there. They were in a very long and bloody civil war for many years and somehow they’d gotten hold of a transmitter and they broadcast every night at five pm even when the United States bought helicopters would drop bombs on them. They had to make their studio transmitter link out of barbed wire fences going for miles through the hills, they had broadcast from caves, and somehow they were on the air every night.
I read the book, we passed it around, we had our next meeting and we all looked at each other and we said, ‘God, we are so, so lame.” These people with nothing managed to have this radio station on the air, under attack for eleven years, and we live in the land of Radio Shack and universities and we can’t make this thing work. So it energized us and shamed us and within about a month we had our little station on the air.
Within three or four months, we went from five people to about eighty people. We were on the air every night, all these people came out of the woodwork to do all sorts of different programs and bring in perspectives that were just completely absent from the radio dial.
It’s getting to the point for us that we get about one or two requests per week from people all over the world from Papua New Guinea, from India. We get so many requests we have no idea what to do. Us and what army is going to build all these radio stations? So we’ve put together a website called Channel Zero. It’s a volunteer matching site [for people] that want to share skills in radio and stations that want partners overseas and groups that want to start radio stations. We’re hoping people can connect through that.
Bill Siemering: I think we’ll look back on this period in our history and say ‘You know there are other ways of bringing about change that don’t result in billions of dollars of damage and over 600,000 people being killed. There are simple ways of bringing about peace and change, and holding public officials accountable. And it will look just as odd and primitive and archaic and stupid as our fixation with war is now.
Radio, you see, is this simple thing; it’s like washing your hands. You make peace; you can do all these things with radio because it is the most accessible medium.
I’d like to talk a little bit about Developing Radio Partners [DRP] so you know who we are and what our focus is. We work collaboratively with people in developing countries. My background has been in public radio, which generally reaches the educated and often affluent. I’m working at the completely opposite end, the people that are in most need of information. Often poor.
Radio is being used in remarkable ways in the developing world. We can learn a lot. Just as we reverse the flow in info in some of these places from the capitol out to the countryside, back to the capitol, so I’m kind of reversing info here and telling you about some of the remarkable things that are being done overseas.
Now we move to Mozambique where eighty percent of people are subsistence farmers. They earn less than fifty dollars a month. And the radio station is near a well, kind of biblical. It’s in a gray track container. There’s an on air studio, production studio, and in the back are the offices. They have a suggestion box outside of the station. And it’s such an extraordinarily community based station that the people say the radio station is the community. They have radio clubs that meet twice a month as a bridge between the community and the station. The station is so responsive to their needs; they’ll say ‘we’ve got a problem with the nurse, could you help us with that.’ They’ve on the air sponsored a clinic so that men and women could get tested for HIV. They’ve brought about reform with an electric company and so on. 94% of the community has a radio and more than eighty percent listen to this radio station. Volunteers do all the programming. Only the administration and engineer are paid. All the programs are in three different languages.
Interesting that the most preferred format is radio plays, which you find in the developing world. Can’t find it on American radio, failure of imagination I would say. Unfortunately in America the joke on that is ‘When’s the best time to schedule radio drama? 1948.’ End of discussion. Yet in country after country in the developing world, radio plays are the most listened to programs. It’s the story telling medium. Radio is a wonderful, intimate, personal, imaginative medium. All the pictures are all in your mind, so they’re very strong. And the radio plays show the rights of women, and of their abused where they can go to get help. The women use them to express issues like domestic violence, rape and sexual health. They identify with the characters.
All my professional life I wanted to see radio used to it’s fullest extent. That’s why I’m sad to see no drama here, radio plays, few documentaries and it gets more and more homogenized with a much narrower band. And that’s what so inspirational for me to be working overseas and seeing what people are doing with so little. And sometimes we’re doing so little with so much in terms of local programming on public radio in this country. Certainly Clear Channel has wiped out local programming to ludicrous extent, so the local voice isn’t there anymore not to mention women, young people…these are the priorities that were given to the democracy, the voice of the community.
Gregory Whitehead: I’m a life long sea kayaker and it’s very similar to learning about the ocean. When you first see the ocean and you’re in a sea kayak you think you can go everywhere, and you think that anything is possible. As you become more experienced you learn that if you want to live for another paddle, you have to have more respect. I think it’s my respect for the medium of radio, the tremendous catastrophe and damage that it has inflicted, at the same time that it has built communities, it has healed, it has improved literacy. For every story about that I think you can find a story where a community has been destroyed, where hatred has been stirred, where people have been killed. In fact many stations that begin as the very paragons, the very models of positive autonomous community, liberatory, etc., etc, radio then become the mouthpiece of an absolute vitriolic despotism. The chances of actually accomplishing long-term objectives are going to be increased when one has respect for that darker side of radio.
Bill Siemering: I think that talking about the ‘dark side,’ the example of course from Rwanda which was promoting genocide on the radio, probably the worst case radio in many ways, it really has served as an object lesson to a lot of the stations in Africa so that they’re very committed to trying to make peaceful radio, use it for peace.
Audience Member: I have a question for you Stephanie. I was curious if in using radio to help people, or women, or other groups communicate between communities if anything beyond radio has come out of that different kinds of alliances, relationships, any way of strengthening political ties.
Stephanie Guyer-Stevens: It’s hard to track everything that’s happening, and the only thing we really track effectively is the responses that people bring to us. I think one of the most interesting examples of a concrete result like that come from the process of making a piece. For the “Girls from Cambodia’ piece that you heard an excerpt from, we ended up enlisting a number of Cambodian immigrants in the Bay Area, for various aspects of post-production work, retranslating some of our tape, and actually being voice-overs. In the process, we sort of became absorbed into one particular temple, the San Jose Cambodian Buddhist Temple and also the Cambodian Cultural Community Center up in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County. They were so compelled by the stories of the women that they were hearing, a number of them– They were really shocked, first of all, that we were doing this piece at all, and they were really amazed that somebody was interested in Cambodia. A number of the people that we had met had left, twenty or thirty years ago, and had never gone back. And now for the first time two of them are actually returning to Cambodia, in order to volunteer with the organization that we profile in our piece. And a number of them have renewed ties that they have severed previously. That to me was amazing, it was a result I never anticipated. I had hoped that maybe some white Americans might get some good ideas about tactics for their own groups. I never ever thought that we would have an impact in the immigrant community that we were speaking about their homeland.
Audience Member: I actually had the honor of being at one of Pete Tridish’s barn raisings, and it really is thrilling, I can tell you, it’s a great experience. I’ve been working trying to save Pacifica network for ten years, which in a disastrous, disastrous state. It’s really a picture of what Gregory Whitehead has been talking about.
Gregory Whitehead: Obviously from my work over twenty years, and I think increasingly if you listen to my own plays over time, you see that I’ve become increasingly doubtful about the relationship between radiophonic space and the possibilities for sustainable community. There’s some aspect of the medium itself that is like a self-devouring monster, and we really have to look that monster in the eye. And this is something that happens very frequently over an entire generation. If you look at Pacifica, it’s happened over a generation. It’s not something that happens over a period of six months where you drop in as a kind miracle team and create a radio station, and then you’re gone. And you take the pulse six months later and everything’s healthy. No, this frequently happens over a generation, or over decades.
I like that word, where you start a radio station you create a disruption. I think that’s absolutely true. Sometimes that disruption can be a rupture, or a tear or a wound, but the consequences aren’t really seen right away. I initiated programs in 1995, and I’ve gone back in 2005 and seen what has happened and it’s been rather sobering. I can get as intoxicated as anyone else but why do I stay in this medium? I have such a passion for it. I so believe in that dream, and yet it is an extremely difficult enterprise. It takes an enormous amount of will and intelligence, and also luck.
I don’t think we can say, ‘Aha, (snaps), we have a dysfunctional community here! What they need is a radio station.” Very often you drop that radio station in there, and in time, ten, twelve, fifteen years, you may have made things a whole lot worse.
I believe that we have to create new kinds of networks; I mean that may be detached, maybe mix and mingle. I’ve been waiting for a new kind of NPR. NPR is a rather sorry, pale, very distant echo of its once very idealistic self. I believe that there has to be some new kind of network that is as kind of hybrid and therefore potentially kind of autonomous and uncontrollable. You know, radio stations are actually rather easy to control. You just take over that control room and you’re in charge. (laughs)
Pete Tridish: You did say the P-word, Pacifica. Which is obviously the great counter-example for all the promise of radio right now. It’s incredibly sad to have watched Pacifica implode over time, although I’m actually feeling much more positive about it in the past year or two. Mostly, I’ve been really impressed by the efforts of a few people, to get Pacifica beyond the five stations. Pacifica now has over 240 affiliates around the country, and these are stations that have not been completely poisoned by the years and years of cycles of self-cannibalism that some of the other stations have.
It used to be that when you wanted to build a house, if you were out on the frontier or something, you would have to get with your neighbors, you would have to stay in good enough with them that they’d be willing to come out and spend a week putting up your barn. Now what do you do? You work hard at you job, you hire someone and they build your house for you. The ways that our economy works, and the ways that we as a culture do not value cooperation and self-governance we pay other people to make decisions for us or we pseudo elect people to make decisions for us. One of the things that I think is an incredible about community radio stations is those are places where peers work together and have to teach themselves how to govern themselves, and to run a productive community project.
Bill Siemering: Just to talk about the public space, that is the theme of the work here. I think we need to note that the conservative talk radio really is occupying a lot of space. I’d like to get back to my favorite metaphor for what radio is, it’s from the original definition of radio which is a broadcast, which is ‘scattering seeds.’ And that’s really what public space is about that scattering seeds of ideas, some taking, some don’t. But it’s that freedom to sow seeds, and see them grow and nurture, and enrich.
Stephanie Guyer-Stevens: This is the place where I see that we have something we can bring overseas, which is ‘this is how you build a radio station.’ But this is where we have a big learning curve ourselves in the US, which is how do you build a viable sustainable community? We really don’t know. And there’s a lot we could learn.
Khin Phyu Thway is a Burmese activist in exile. After fleeing to Thailand, she has led several pro-democracy campaigns for Burma, acting as leader of the women’s branch of the Democratic Party for a New Society. Eventually, she sought political asylum in Poland, and continuing her activist work, founded Polish-Burma Solidarity. Thway currently studies at the Eugene Lang College at the New School for Liberal Arts and is working at the Burmese Service of the Voice of America.
William H. Siemering, President of Developing Radio Partners, has been a leader in U.S. public radio management, local and national program development, and fundraising for more than 30 years. In 1993, after receiving a five-year MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Siemering began his international work, assisting radio stations in townships in South Africa. In 1995 as a Knight International Journalism Fellow, Siemering returned to South Africa, before returning to Washington D.C. in 1996-97 to serve as president of the International Center for Journalists. Most recently Siemering served for five years as senior radio advisor for the Open Society Institute (OSI) that funds civil society initiatives in more than fifty countries.
Pete Tridish was a member of the founding collective Radio Mutiny, 91.3 FM in Philadelphia, and is also the founder of the Prometheus Radio Project. He actively participated in the rulemaking that led up to the adoption of Low Power FM and on the lawsuit Prometheus vs. the FCC, which held back a major round of media consolidation. Tridish has organized a multitude of community radio station barn-raisings, in the U.S. and internationally, and advised on hundreds of others.
Gregory Whitehead is an internationally renowned writer, director and producer of well over 100 radio plays, essays and acoustic adventures for the BBC, Radio France, Australia’s ABC and other broadcasters. His recent production of Normi Noel’s No Background Music received a Sony Gold Academy Award.
For the past twenty years Stephanie Guyer-Stevens has been working in the non-profit world and creating media. She started Outer Voices as a way to both examine social change by women in remote parts of the globe and to disseminate stories about their work in their communities.