Community mobilization and the power of community radio

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A microphone and a radio transmitter in the hands of a community organizer imparts power, which some liken to the life-changing impact when humans first tamed fire. That's why the prospect of 1,000 new community radio stations in the United States, for which the Federal Communications Commission will accept applications this October, is so vital and urgent.

Workers toiling in the hot fields of south-central Florida, near the isolated town of Immokalee, were enduring conditions that U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy called "slavery, plain and simple." Some worked from dawn to dusk, under the watch of armed guards, earning only $20 a week. Twenty years ago, they began organizing, forming the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Ten years later, working with the Philadelphia-based non-profit Prometheus Radio Project, the workers started their own radio station, Radio Consciencia, to serve the farmworker community and inform, mobilize and help the struggling workers forge better lives.

As the largest media corporations on the planet have been consolidating during the past two decades, putting the power of the media in fewer hands, there has been a largely unreported flowering of small, local media outlets. An essential component of this sector is community radio, stations that have emerged from the Low-Power FM (LPFM) radio movement. This October, community groups in the U.S. will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to apply to the FCC for an LPFM radio-station license. But the mainstream media are hardly reporting on this critical development.

"This is a historic opportunity for communities all over the country to have a voice over their airwaves," Jeff Rousset, national organizer of the Prometheus Radio Project, told me on the "Democracy Now!" news hour. "The airwaves are supposed to belong to the public. This is a chance for groups to actually own and control their own media outlets." The Prometheus Radio Project formed in 1998. It was named after the Greek mythological hero who first gave fire to humans to make their lives more bearable.

Back in the 1980s and '90s, "pirate" radio stations, unlicensed by the FCC, were launched in communities across the U.S. by people frustrated with the failures of the commercial and public media system, which was increasingly closed to the communities and seemingly beholden to corporate underwriters and interest groups. Harassed for their broadcasting efforts by federal agents, the pirates formed Prometheus, intent on changing the federal laws and opening the radio dial to a new generation of noncommercial, community-based stations. After 15 years of organizing, they won. Rousset said, "We're going to turn static into sound and use that to amplify people's voices all over the country."

Across the U.S. from Immokalee, farmworkers in rural Woodburn, Ore., were fighting against oppressive conditions similar to the tomato and watermelon pickers in Florida. The largest Latino organization in Oregon, PCUN, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (in English, the Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United), founded an LPFM radio station, Radio Movimiento (Movement Radio). PCUN's president, Ramon Ramirez, explained: "We've been able to use Radio Movimiento: La Voz del Pueblo ... not only to organize farmworkers, but also to provide information. ... For example, we're broadcasting in four indigenous languages from Mexico and Central America, and we're giving those folks a voice in the community that they never had."

When I was covering the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, in early 1994, I attended the first press conference held by the Zapatista military commanders, including Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Ramona. They called it specifically for Mexican radio journalists. Radio, Marcos said, was the most accessible form of mass communication. Even the poorest village had at least one radio around which people could gather, he said.

Social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been rightly credited with supporting social movements like the Arab Spring in recent years. But the fact remains that most people in the U.S. receive their news from traditional sources, especially radio and television, more so in groups separated by the "digital divide" -- the poor, immigrants and other marginalized communities.

LPFM applications must be filed in October, and significant advanced planning is required by any applicant group that hopes to succeed. The Oregon workers knew nothing about radio. Prometheus recruited 300 media activists from around the world to help get them on the air with a radio "barn raising" where volunteers literally built the station from the ground up.

The airwaves are a public treasure, and we have to take them back. The Prometheus Radio Project is waiting to hear from you.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,000 stations in North America. She is the co-author of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times best-seller.

Photo: Daniel Iván/Flickr

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