The following article examines the challenges faced in the struggle to preserve community participatory radio broadcasting in the United States. Community radio in the U.S. has all but been been obliterated by corporate broadcasting effectively buying up the public airways, which are the property of the people and the commons. There are many obstacles to overcome in bringing those airways and community based broadcasting back from the brink in the U.S. The article poses Latin American community radio experiences as a model that could be followed. - Editor
By Leslie López Source: http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=90
Focusing on Latin American participatory radio, Leslie Lopez highlights the promise that the commons hold for the reinvigoration of democratic values. Democracy requires not just a refraining from greed, but an ongoing, constructive effort to serve the greater good.
Alternative radio has, from its inception, tantalized us with its promise of the commons. Bertolt Brecht, back in 1932, fantasized about “the finest possible communications apparatus in public life…if it understood how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a network instead of isolating him.” Today, as we turn increasingly to private non-profits to preserve our dreams of democracy where the public sector has clearly failed us, we should think carefully about what helps those organizations advance toward that promise of shared space, and what pulls them, in Garrett Hardin’s terms, towards the “tragedy” of the commons.
Hardin wrote about the impossibility to legislate “temperance,” and the consequent imperative for people to impose their own restrictions on their freedom to use resources that impinge on the commons. But studying community radio has convinced me that the political economy of democracy requires not just a refraining from greed, but an ongoing, constructive effort to serve the greater good.
Radio and the tragedy of the commons
Certainly, there are plenty of community radio applications of Hardin’s model: the temptation to use public channels as one’s own personal sound machine often proves too great. In the most benign circumstances, given audio equipment in an isolated, sound-proof room, many volunteers experience a failure of imagination and an urge to express themselves at the cost of context. Yet a disturbing social isolation accompanies many radio performances, a simultaneous retreat from community along with an urge to project into it that seems to fit Renato Rosaldo’s description of “imperialist nostalgia:” “people destroy their environment, and then they worship nature.”
I witnessed an extreme example of this, a true tragedy of the commons, in Watsonville, California, where a community’s micro-radio frequency was lost to greed and vanity. About 80% of the population in Watsonville is Mexican, but there are no local broadcast media in Spanish; print options are very limited. After micro radio licenses became legal, an Anglo married couple living on the edge of town, calling themselves Ohana (“Family”) applied for the town’s only micro license, to pursue their mission: to broadcast 100% Hawaiian music. Their application was blocked in the bureaucratic queue by another group: Neltiliztli, a Mexican-American human rights group. When the 2001 amendment to micro radio law was passed, Neltiliztli’s history of unlicensed broadcasting disqualified its application but did not remove it from the queue. The groups agreed to collaborate under Ohana’s name, to build a multi-cultural station, and after Neltiliztli withdrew its application, the license came in the mail.
Six months later, the Ohana couple locked Neltiliztli out of the station under construction, announced they were the sole owners of the station, and proceeded to pursue their dream: a dream of a closed circuit consisting of their home, their own business, and their very own “community” radio station.
Community radio on the defensive
Most first-world community radio projects are a gasp of oxygen in broadcast spectra overflowing with commercialism. But at least in the US they often seem to be on the defensive—and fighting a losing battle—against the progressive retreat from common life. Here, the promise began to pale in the 1970’s, when the Corporation of Public Broadcasting obliged stations to increase their wattage, “professionalism” and operating costs. Acting “rationally,” most stations have amputated their costliest functions—ironically, those that are best served by local radio: news, and live local music. Thus they have foregone their means of knowing their communities, and of expanding local loyalties along with volunteer networks. Despite a lot of hard work, good intentions—and some bright spots—too often community programming is either bland, or smorgasbord and narrow-cast. Syndication brings us the nation’s Left and Liberal super-stars, filling a true need in parched circumstances, but subscription drives seem soul-less as well as all-consuming; and tremendous time and energy is wasted on internal organization issues that never seem to resolve, because the sense of collective mission has been lost.
There are no easy answers for a culture that has forgotten how to serve the common good. However, for ideas we might turn to the kind of radio used by communities struggling against authoritarianism: while poor service is learned behavior, so is good service. Granted, in most rural communities throughout the world, radio teams do not have to cope with the pervasive ethic of personal gain maximization that was already the norm in the US when Hardin was writing. But capitalism and individual survival modes have shaped practices everywhere, not least where poverty and danger press in from all sides. In response, these radios emphasize proactive, participatory programming to build a sense of community and a functional public sphere, diminishing the fear and isolation that have served neo-colonialism so well.
Latin Americans pioneered participatory programming, inventing a variety of cheap ways to get people’s voices on the air, like neighborhood and rural production committees, and roving correspondents, with or without tape recorders. Because poor and oppressed people often cannot come to the station themselves, radio workers leave the studio, carrying recorders “like key-chains,” expanding the boundaries of journalism to include recordings of life occurring, especially wherever people are challenging the status quo.
Such is the case of Radio Teocelo, located in the central mountains of Veracruz, Mexico. As with many Latin American stations, this institution’s story shows that democratization-by-radio was not simply a matter of building a space and waiting for the people to come. After 15 years of sporadic, uncoordinated programming by volunteers, the Jesuits came to town, bearing systematized techniques to encourage democratic participation from elsewhere in the continent, the centerpiece of which was radio team training. Mario Hernández, now station director, recalled the “human formation” aspect of the training: Everything [was] about service, towards the community, no? They’d say: Remember that here we are servants…We’re not going to sell the listener the request; we’re not going to sell the saludo; we’re their servants, right? If there are two or three people, we should be the third, no?
The Jesuits left, but the service ethic, celebrated after centuries of repression by corrupt authorities, has persisted. Despite pressure from political bosses, across epic organizational splits and a bitter internal lawsuit that lasted a decade, the license has never lapsed. The population has turned out repeatedly to defend the station, and, despite regional economic crises, to support it financially (at near-bankrupt levels).
Seventy years after Brecht, the techniques now exist to be able to use radio proactively, to promote “structures of feeling” and practices that can create or restore the promises that the commons holds for democracy and healthier communities. But contemporary radio publics are at the mercy of the private groups that hold these strategic resources. Those who have elected to staff our community microphones should remind themselves that good media, like democracy, was never created just because someone up above created space for people. And as survivors of authoritarianism can tell us, the failure to serve, and to sustain a functional public, can in fact produce tragedy over time.