Community radio movement in the United States got a big boost with the passing of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, with about 3000 low-power (about 100 watts) FM stations spread all across the country. Kanchan K. Malik and Vinod Pavarala spoke with Pete Tridish, one of the key activists in that movement and founder of the Prometheus Radio Project in Philadelphia; during his recent visit to India. Following are excerpts from the interview:
On the pirate radio years and the fight with FCC:
Over the years, as both the commercial and the non- commercial band filled up in the US, there was no longer much room to start a new radio station. By the time I got involved in radio, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), our regulators, said that there was nothing left. But, we discovered that, that wasn’t actually true. It was just that everybody had been thinking that they wanted big radio stations. So Stephen Dunifer, an activist, built a transmitter and operated it [Free Radio Berkeley] from 1993 as an act of civil disobedience and when he was caught, he said, we recognise the authority of the FCC and they are allowed to abridge our freedom of speech to have an orderly band. But they are supposed to be doing it in the way that’s the least harmful to the First Amendment. His lawyers said if my client has no radio stations, and Clear Channel has 1200 radio stations, how could this be the fairest system? The judge did not rule against Stephen Dunifer for about four years. So, from 1994 to 1998 there were about a 1000 unlicensed radio stations across the country.
Finally, after four years, not on the merits but on a procedural issue, Stephen Dunifer was ruled against. So, he had to turn his transmitter off in 1998. But, by that time there were already a thousand of these stations and FCC had a very big job to go around and shut them all off.
Our group in Philadelphia, we called ourselves Radio Mutiny [founded in 1996], got to hear that they would start to come in force against the stations. We called for a demonstration and we dared them to come out on Monday, high noon (like a showdown), in front of Benjamin Franklin’s printing press because we are going to turn our radio station back on in front of this symbol of liberty. So we had this little protest there, and we turned the transmitter back on and much of the media showed up and we said, “if they think what we’re doing is so wrong, they can put the handcuffs on us right here…” We put forward at that time, what we called “the seven point platform for how we will make the FCC’s life really suck if they do not give out community radio licences.” And that we were not interfering with anything. Everyone before had wanted large radio licences. But nobody had really tried to get small, neighbourhood radio licences and there was actually quite a bit of room.
On the change in rules for low power stations:
Of the thousand pirate stations and over the course of three or four months, they raided about 400 of them. But, in the meantime something strange had happened, which was, that the chairman of FCC – his name was William Kennard, who we thought was going to be completely against us, changed his mind. He had visited South Africa and he had met Zane Ibrahim and was very impressed by the way that Bush Radio station was integrated with the community and Zane was very effective at lobbying with him. Also, after my station was shut down, I decided that as a further escalation, we would have a protest in front of headquarters of FCC and at the National Association of Broadcasters. It was a very funny protest. We had a giant puppet showing the corporations controlling the broadcasters and the broadcasters controlling the FCC. We dressed the FCC Chairman like a puppet, like Pinocchio, and he was on the strings of the broadcasters. And he thought it was the funniest thing ever. For the next six months or so, every time he gave a big public speech, he would say there were these crazy people, they came outside, these pirate broadcasters, and they made a puppet out of me, you know, and they said I was a puppet of you guys, of you broadcasters. In 2000, Mr. Kennard announced the adoption of rules by FCC, creating a new low power FM radio service.
On the Prometheus Radio Project and barnraisings:
Prometheus was officially launched with that Philadelphia protest in 1998. Once the rule makings opened, we got in the habit of travelling around and teaching people to build radio stations [called ‘barnraisings’ by the group in the spirit of the Amish barnraising tradition, where everyone gathers together to support one family and build together.]. The big broadcasters, National Association of Broadcasters, were very, very upset that they had been beaten… by us! They said we caused all sorts of interferences; we cause airplanes to fall out from the sky, you know, all kinds of things. They went to the Congress and got it to pass a law [the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, 2000] that limited the FCC’s authority to give out these radio licences. The way they did it, they didn’t ban it completely but they said the FCC would have to follow very tight technical criteria. What the FCC did was they had to implement this new rule, which said, instead of having two clicks on the dial between stations, you had to have three, and that meant that, there were no opportunities in the top 50 urban markets and in a lot of small towns. There was only one frequency made available and there was a competition for that one from churches, schools, activist groups and everyone. Anyway, we started building the rural stations because we weren’t going to say no to the stations that we could have, and we started to campaign in Congress to change the law back. The anti-low power FM law was passed in 2000 and the pro-low power FM repeal eventually happened in 2010. It took them seven months to pass the anti-LPFM bill and it took us 10 years to pass the other side. [President Obama signed into law the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 in January 2011.] .
On his work in Colombia, Nepal, Guatemala, Tanzania, and Jordan:
I’ve been very privileged to get a lot of opportunities to go to other countries. There’s much more emphasis on development outside the United States. There are also legal systems that are just completely different. And, so, I’m often cautious. What did work in the United States, I don’t necessarily advise it for every place else. In other systems, in Nepal and Jordan, it’s a monarchy; in Colombia there’s been this very long armed insurrection. I have been very happy to just learn about the challenges that are completely different. I would say, in comparison, the United States is one of the places where the sector is the most volunteer-driven, but it’s not necessarily true… there are definitely other places where there are traditions where people don’t see it as a job but they see it as part of a social movement. One of my biggest inspirations has always been Radio Venceremos which was the radio station of the FMLN in El Salvador which was fighting a war against the Unites States-supported dictator. They had this radio station running for 11 years of the civil war almost completely without interruption. So, there’s a long tradition of this kind of insurrection or social movement radio and when I think about the risks we took [running pirate radio stations in the US], it was very small compared to the risk that they took.
On the CR scene in India:
We don’t really have the same ideas of [using community radio for] development, although, we certainly do have ideas of creating our economic opportunities and those sorts of thing. One of the things we advocated was that none of these stations could be used for commercial interests, and one of the key provisions was that they should be owned by local entities. I’m coming to understand more of this development framework and NGOs’ role in community radio in India. I see a lot more challenges around staffing because, you know, in this country, people don’t have as much free time to do something like voluntarism and there’s more of a culture around radio as being a very serious business. It’s not something fun.