Last weekend dozens of people gathered at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center in Urbana, IL for the Grassroots Radio Conference 2012: The Future of Community Radio. Long-time community radio producers and station managers were there, as well as people with zero experience making radio who want to learn and start stations in their communities. There were engineers, community organizers and media-makers all mixing and mingling, teaching and learning, building a shared vision for how to reclaim radio and use it as a tool for community empowerment.
“We [people of color] are being shut out of traditional media markets, television and radio, so we're looking to change that,” said Lena Buggs of Twin Cities Community Radio (TCCR). TCCR doesn't actually have a radio station yet. It's a coalition of local groups, led by the Main Street Project, who are partnering to apply for new noncommercial radio broadcasting licenses in St. Paul and Minneapolis when the FCC accepts applications, likely in the Spring or Summer of 2013. The coalition of about ten organizations includes indigenous groups, community centers, immigrant justice groups, service-providing nonprofits, a community development corporation, artists, independent media makers, and more. Lena is currently making internet radio and wants to make a bigger impact.
"African American women weren't being heard politically…We started an online radio station called African American Women in Politics, and we dialog about political content. It's inclusive of the community where they can call in to our radio show and on a local level they can state what's going on in their community, what they're doing. We have lots of community ties with the welfare rights organization, with Occupy Homes, and with other social organizations who have been shut down by the media and all sorts of federal repression that's going on with those movements. Out of that came the brain child of community radio and establishing our own Low Power FM stations."
The GRC attracted diverse groups who came to learn about how they can build new community radio stations in their towns and cities. Certain themes, however, wove their way throughout the narratives we heard. One area of consensus is that the mainstream media is, at best, failing to represent diverse perspectives. Another point of unity is that if we want change to happen, we need to make it happen ourselves. Real change comes from organized communities, and radio is a powerful tool for community building.
Josue Vicente is the Director of the Ohio Hispanic Coalition (OHCO), and he travelled from Columbus, OH to attend the GRC. The Ohio Hispanic Coalition offers a variety of services to the Latino population throughout the state, including job training, language assistance, and healthcare. Josue expected to find himself at a dry, technical conference about setting up equipment, but was pleasantly surprised to find much more – that the people at the GRC all have important missions driving them, and radio is simply a powerful tool to help meet any number of goals.
“Our biggest challenge is communicating,” reflected Josue. He thinks building a radio station in Columbus can help OHCO engage the populations they work with. Josue wants youth to have a major role in the station. He sees radio as an important tool for youth leadership development and wants young people to have shows where they can talk about issues they care about.
He said another role a community radio station could play is dispelling the racist myths that are consistently spread about Latinos by mainstream media. Coverage tends to portray Latinos as all being dangerous criminals, creating and perpetuating racist stereotypes. He wants his station to celebrate the rich diversity and culture of Latinos.
“I imagine this station to be open to community members so they can come if they want to send a positive message or bring an issue that is affecting their local community. They can come and they won't need an invitation from somebody at the radio station. They can go there and see that this radio station is for the community.”
Another person I spoke with is Carlos Carr from Omaha, NE. Carlos is on the board of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. Malcolm X was born in Omaha and went on to become one of the most important voices for racial and social justice in the twentieth century. Malcolm was a fierce critic of the mainstream media. He said, "If you're not careful the newspapers will have you hating the oppressed and loving the people doing the oppressing." The Foundation seeks to keep Malcolm's legacy alive and continue his teachings, especially by working with youth. Malcolm famously said, " Soon, a new community radio station might be amplifying Malcolm X's teachings in his birthplace.
“Mainstream media no longer conducts investigative journalism,” Carlos said. “The news media used to be the fourth estate of government, and now it seems like media for the state.”
Carlos plans to build a community radio station in Omaha that can have a strong grassroots news team to tell the stories happening in the community from the perspectives of all those affected. Part of that means also using the new communications platform to challenge the one-sided stories he says typically reflects corporate news coverage.
One issue that he hopes community radio can help amplify is police brutality and misconduct. As Carlos described local news coverage, when someone becomes the recipient of police violence, “What they'll do is take the police officer's side and report everything from the police officer's point of view. As they look at the person who was assaulted by the police officer they'll start to vilify that person.” Community radio can raise the standard for local journalism.
As for the GRC, Carlos said, “Getting on air with the internet is what we need to do right now to learn to create quality radio programs and build a listener base. I now understand the work and the timeline that it takes to apply for an LPFM license, and I can take it back to the community.”
The voices I had the pleasure to hear at the Grassroots Radio Conference are those of community leaders who you don't hear on the nightly news. These leaders are all over the country, silenced and made invisible by the corporate media machine, but waiting for the chance to make their voices heard. Community radio is distinct from commercial media because it values people over profits, and cooperation over competition. These values were palpable throughout the conference, from talking to broadcast engineers who have been putting up antennas for decades, to simply walking around the beautiful Independent Media Center, home of WRFU, Urbana's Low Power FM community radio station. Brightly colored art meets the eye everywhere you look here. Community radio creates space that nurtures creativity, community, and resistance. The GRC added bright brushstrokes to the vision we have for the future of community radio in the U.S. Build this movement with us, and help amplify the voices of artists, journalists, and community leaders for years to come.
Jeff Rousset is the National Organizer with Prometheus Radio Project. After a successful ten-year struggle to pass the Local Community Radio Act, Prometheus is currently reaching out to social justice groups to build new noncommercial community radio stations across the country.