November 26, 2004 – 10:34 am
A while back I spoke a fair bit on this blog about Low Power FM radio, and the trials and tribulations of the various operators all competing for elbow room in the Auckland marketplace. After a bit of organisation, they all lived more or less happily ever after.
Well, last night I was in London for a speech by American LPFM activist Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio project. It was the second time I’d seen him speak. Last time was in Wisconsin – and it struck me again – this time even more – that what we mean when we say LPFM are two entirely different phenomena.
The Prometheus Radio Project grew out of the coming together of several political activism movements: workers’ rights, environment, immigrant rights, gay rights, anti-globalisation, and so on.
And the one thing they found they all had in common, despite the increasingly sophisticated methods at their disposal, was that their impact was fleeting.
They would stage a protest outside City Hall, and they would get on the news. Their point would be made in 30 seconds in a television news bulletin, but then the people about whom they were making the point would get long interviews to put their case and paint the protestors as misinformed troublemakers.
The problem? No ownership and control of the media.
Efforts revolved around a Philadelphia pirate station called Radio Mutiny, who defied FCC threats and gained a lot of press as a result.
Although the chairman of the FCC, Michael Powell (Colin’s son, as it happens) was eventually able to impose enough of his blanket neo-liberal reforms on American spectrum management, such that Clear Channel and the like were able to operate under legislated protectionism, the Court of Appeals pulled the rug out from under him somewhat by allowing some community radio.
The Prometheus Radio project enables community groups to start their own broadcasting centres, by holding ‘radio barn-raisings‘ – public events that are essentially weekend-long parties in which the station is built, put to air and officially opened.
In other words, these guys are heroes. From a starting point of civil disobedience and political activism, they have been called upon to help start stations in Nepal and Guatemala – and now, Pete Tridish is in the UK at a time when the British Government is considering a ‘third tier’ of broadcasting: local community radio.
Measure that against the New Zealand situation. In Aotearoa, there is, simply, nothing to kick against. Dissident politics are meaningless in a field where you’re more or less allowed to do whatever you want.
Perversely perhaps, as a result, LPFM in New Zealand is both common and largely bland. You can hear Phil Collins on low power radio in New Zealand. You will almost never hear people organise and talk about freeing the airwaves from corporate control.
Perhaps on the back of George FM‘s seeming commercial success after its modest beginnings, many LPFM operators smell the opportunity to create a business – not change society, or reinforce a community.
There are, of course, exceptions to this – and I wouldn’t trade the New Zealand broadcasting political climate for the American one for a moment.
I just note this as another example of unintended (and unexpected) consequences. The more you try and shut down alternative voices, the louder they get.
And the reverse seems to apply.