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Low Power Radio and Media Activism: An Interview with Christina Dunbar-Hester

Here at Radio Survivor we are committed to weekly coverage of low power FM radio, so we’re very pleased to feature an interview with Christina Dunbar-Hester for our Academic Series. Dr. Dunbar-Hester is an Assistant Professor in Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University and she recently published a fascinating book on media activism and low power radio. Her book, Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism (MIT Press, 2014), makes a strong case for the relevance and importance of local, community radio in the digital age.

Below, Christina explains her research process and her motivation for studying low power, local radio. She also elaborates on the relationship between “free radio” advocates and LPFM broadcasting, and raises compelling questions about how democratic spaces online might be inspired by low power broadcasting.

Radio Survivor: Your recent book, Low Power to the People, traces the activist movement that helped establish a framework for licensed LPFM stations. How did you initially come to be interested in researching low power radio broadcasting?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: When I was considering going back to graduate school in the late 1990s, there were a lot of heady claims swirling around about access to media technology as a main plank of a democratizing project. This was an era of high Internet hype in general, but I was particularly interested in the set of claims made by activists such as those in early Indymedia days about “being the media” and using media technologies counterbalance corporate and state power.

I hadn’t heard of low power radio or microradio at that point, but I knew I wanted to do research that engaged these issues, and also engaged the topic of “the Internet,” but without losing historical or cultural sensitivity to the fact that issues of power, voice, and expertise have a long prehistory; they don’t newly arise with the Internet, nor are Internet-based technologies the main way to redress power imbalance, of course.

So in about 2002-2003 when I heard about people advocating for low power broadcasting, who were not Luddites but were resisting being told to just “go on the Internet for your communication needs,” I thought that might be an interesting research project. I didn’t have a background in media activism, let alone microradio; I just thought that was a useful point of entry for these issues.

Radio Survivor: What is the state of LPFM broadcasting today in relation to the larger American broadcasting environment?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: LPFM is expanding right now due to the passage of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010; new stations that got licenses during that window are going on the air right now, so a lot of cities and towns are seeing new radio stations go on the air. And broadcasting is still going pretty strong: the most recent numbers I’ve seen are from 2013 and they report that more than 90% of Americans over age 12 listen to broadcast radio weekly, for at least a couple of hours per day.

But I might suggest that we step back and consider what is meant by the “broadcasting environment.” Broadcasting both refers to a set of social practices, and a set of institutions, technologies, and laws — what “broadcasting” is at any given moment occurs in how those things come together. When we talk about the broadcasting environment, do we mean just FM and AM transmissions? What about streaming? Or podcasts? Now a lot of people use smart phones to “listen to the radio”—but you’re doing this over your phone’s data plan, which is partly because your phone service provider (Verizon, AT&T, etc.) prefers that you pay them for that bandwidth. (This is in spite of the fact that a lot of mobile phones have been designed with the capacity to receive FM. The commercial broadcast lobby argues that turning on the FM receiver capacity in phones would make it easier for would-be listeners to tune in, without burning through their data.)

There are lots and lots of issues like this at any given moment, some more and some less visible to the public. How these issues play out rests on public knowledge, alliances that get formed between various social groups, corporate power, and the law (which is often playing catch-up with newer technologies, and interpreting new technologies in terms of precedents established around earlier technologies). I think we want to take an expansive view of the public interest across telecommunications platforms and assess that, as opposed to isolating broadcasting.

Radio Survivor: Given that alternative and community media organizations are often working with limited resources, financial and otherwise, researching them can often come with a set of challenges in terms of accessing research materials, such as archival documents. In exploring the history of this LPFM movement, particularly its pirate radio roots, what sort of resources did you use to tell this story and did you face any challenges in doing so?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: This is a great question. I had access to a good deal of microradio ephemera at various field sites and in the Prometheus archive. But it would have been a lot more challenging to do a project where broadcast content was central.

My book is primarily ethnographic, combining fieldwork and interviews. My main interest was what people were doing that I could observe, so the book captures as much of that as I could achieve; it looks at how activists promoted radio technology. I was able to get at some of the recent past with interviews, which included people who had done unlicensed microradio and had advocated for legal microradio/LPFM in Washington. I also had access to policy conversations, a lot of which were archived online (comments to the FCC and the like).

Radio Survivor: I would love to hear about the relationship between pirate radio and LPFM broadcasting. How did pirate radio broadcasting influence the LPFM movement and what sort of similarities and differences are there between these two types of radio?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: Well, “pirate” is kind of an overarching term that doesn’t necessarily connote any particular stance or affinity. Pirates have existed throughout the history of broadcasting for various reasons. But more narrowly, unlicensed microbroadcasters, some of whom called their transmissions “free radio,” were hugely influential for LPFM. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was no way for a small-scale broadcaster to obtain a license from the government, so a lot of folks took to the streets, by which I mean the airwaves, launching all these little stations as explicit electronic civil disobedience.

It’s obviously impossible to know how many of them there were, but there may have been around 1000 microradio stations in the mid-1990s. Two people with memorable stories, who were inspirational to other microradio broadcasters, were Mbanna Kantako in Springfield, IL in the late 1980s, and Stephen Dunifer in Berkeley, CA, in the 1990s. Dunifer had a high-profile court battle with the FCC when he refused to stop broadcasting, and the 9th Circuit upheld his right to continue for a time. The members of Prometheus Radio Project in Philadelphia, who are the subject of my book, were inspired by the microbroadcasters to fight for legal access to the airwaves.

Radio Survivor: How is radio well-suited for media advocacy or for dealing with questions raised by media activists? Or is it? Could the medium be used more effectively to advance media advocacy both within and outside the academy?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: Radio, both historically and in the present, is a great point of entry into many points of contention in our present and future media landscape. (Though we don’t want to get so narrowly focused on any particular medium that we lose sight of the fact that the interesting questions cross media and platforms: e.g. who owns platforms, who is empowered to listen and to speak on them, etc.)

Symbolically, radio has some really vital lessons for media activism. LPFM, for example, exists in space on the spectrum, owned by the people, for noncommercial use by the people. Lots of spaces we treat like commons online are platforms and sites owned by corporate owners who see users as sources of revenue. The contrast is huge, and very meaningful. What would it look like to have a space online that is the equivalent of LPFM? How would that get built in terms of social and regulatory infrastructure, and what would it look like technically?

These are questions I get into with my students, who often grasp the idea of community media more generally through what we learn about the history of radio (including hams and LPFM; we don’t do much about CB in class), and it’s then a natural realization for them that social media platforms, even when they can occasionally have the feel of community media, are fundamentally not built to support the uses and values of public or community media.


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