Seizing the Moment

Radio and the Internet offer affordable routes to new audiences

Solidarity begins at home. But too often we — and I include myself — may use this as a kind of rhetorical device, and yet don’t practice it.

I’m interested in concrete and practical ways of connecting with movement groups. I see my radio project as an audio vehicle for the movement to get messages out — be it Fifty Years Is Enough, Global Exchange, East Timor Action Network, Voices in the Wilderness, the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy, or numerous others. I’m really delighted to be aligned with them in this kind of audio venture.

My contribution, Alternative Radio, began in Boulder in 1986. I had no background and really didn’t know what I was doing. I just jumped into the deep water, and eventually I got to shore. Now the program is broadcast on about 100 stations in the US, across Canada and Australia, and on short wave to more than 100 countries. It’s offered free of charge. From the beginning, one of my strategies was rather unusual — not to put a fee on the program. All networks and most independent producers charge up front if you want to carry their work. But I thought this might lead many of them to say, "We really like your program, David, but our budget’s a little tight this year." I wanted to pull that rug out from under them.

Like a lot of radical projects, this one also began because I was prepared to work out of my house seven days a week. Now I’m happy to report that I’m in an office, have paid staff, and no longer spend all my time answering the phone and stuffing envelopes. That’s a source of great personal satisfaction. But it also shows that without a lot of talent or many resources, there are openings to be seized.

Radio provides a tremendous opening; in fact, it’s so economical that it defies belief. For example, my weekly one-hour program costs me $100 for satellite time; that’s all it costs to rent one hour on the public radio satellite for access to hundreds of stations. When I first explored this, I thought, "It’s out of the question, I don’t have money." I thought it might be thousands, like for TV. But it’s not. Radio remains an area of enormous possibility.

I’ve also learned from National Public Radio, which controls the public radio satellite, that a 24/7 channel is available for 365 days a year for $8200.  That’s like six trips to Safeway, or, if you have an SUV, a tank of gas. But no one is stepping forward yet to seize this opportunity.

We should grasp such openings. As bad as the US media system is, it has probably the best community radio network in the world — WORT in Madison, WERU in East Oakland, KGNU in Boulder, KABU in Portland, KPFA in Berkley, and so on. It’s a tremendously vital network, with many people doing very important work. Just look at the radio landscape. Ten years ago there was little alternative radio, and 16 years ago there was no CounterSpin, FAIR, Democracy Now, Radio Nation, Making Contact, or National Native News. All these programs have emerged in the last decade or so, providing tremendous opportunities for intervention — audio intervention — as well as getting the words of many groups onto the public agenda.

Radio is a tremendously powerful and intimate vehicle. Edward Said calls it the oppositional vehicle, because visual images steal our imagination. TV sort of paralyzes our thoughts, while radio allows the mind to absorb subtle and not so subtle messages.

Around 1910 there was a weekly magazine in this country called Appeal to Reason. Can anyone guess its paid circulation? 700,000, with a readership of four million.  Think about that, and about the US population in 1910. What were the conditions then, and what are the conditions now?  In particular, why are our print media so enfeebled and impoverished? The Nation is the premier Left magazine, and its circulation is 100,000; The Progressive has 30,000, Z magazine has 20,000. If you add up the circulation of our entire print media today, we don’t even approach a quarter of what Appeal To Reason had 90 years ago. And you don’t have to go back 90 years. Just go back to George Seldes, the legendary radical journalist. He had a wonderful newsletter call In Fact. When he stopped publishing in 1947, it had 150,000 paid subscribers.

We need to recreate that, perhaps not in the same forms, but in the forms that have been alluded to by others. I’m firmly committed to electronic media. I don’t want to dis my print brothers and sisters, but tapes, CD’s, and videos are where it’s at right now. And that’s where it’s going to grow exponentially.

In short, enormous possibilities exist, and I’m inspired to find a new generation of media activists surging forward, exploring and developing indy media centers, the Internet, and Websites. That’s the future.

David Barsamian is a radio producer, journalist, and author, as well as founder of Alternative Radio. His interviews have appeared in Harper’s and The Progressive, and are heard on radio stations around the world. His books include Keeping the Rabble in Line and The Common Good, both with Noam Chomsky.