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Community radio: a history and analysis

Dear All, This is the text of a fabulous presentation made at a teach-on on the crisis in education at Cal State Los Angeles last week. David Adelson, lead plaintiff in the LAB lawsuit discusses the Pacifica crisis in terms of education and educational media. For those who don't know David, his day job is as a neurobiologist engaged in research.

The remarks below really go to the heart of what the struggle for community radio means in the context of education as a vehicle for social/political struggle. Convrentional educational institutions are being attacked by the same neoliberal, market approach as Pacifica and community radio has been subject to.



What you think, or even more importantly, what you think about, is of central importance to anyone interested in money or power in this society.

So it should not come as any surprise that there is an intense interest in and struggle over the most important avenues for affecting what you think, or even more importantly, what you do or do not think about.

This is true for educational institutions and it is true for the media.

It was true in the time of Galileo, whose great crime against the Church was not so much the fact that he argued a vision of the universe that contradicted the Church, but that he published his arguments not only in Latin, the language of the Church and of the educated, but also in Italian, the language of the common people, in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina - so that the ideas would be broadly read and discussed.

And it was true in the 1920's and early 1930's. At that time radio broadcasting was a relatively new technology. It was thought of as potentially the most powerful force for public education that had ever existed, given it's potential to reach people wherever they happened to be.

There was a struggle that lasted nearly a decade beginning in the mid-1920's over whether or not any part of the broadcast spectrum, which at that time was all AM, would be reserved for educational purposes.

For an excellent concise history on that stuggle, see http://www.current.org/coop/index.html, Tuning Out Education - The Cooperation Doctrine in Radio By Eugene E. Leach, Ph.D.

Leach relates that already by the mid-20's, the potential to make money using advertising had been demonstrated, and commercial broadcasting was taking off, after the preceding fifteen years or so during which educational, civic, and religious broadcasters had created a growing audience for radio. NBC formed in 1926, and CBS followed a year later.

"If you educators do not hold radio for yourselves," Judge Ira Robinson of the Federal Communications Commision told educational broadcasters in June 1930, "it is going to be so fortified by commercial interests that you will never get it."

At the time, commercial broadcasters argued that they were a superior mechanism for delivering educational programming because they were better at getting and holding larger audiences.

During this struggle, The Carnegie Foundation funded groups to produce educational programming for distribution on commercial radio. In the meantime, what I'll call civic broadcasters for short, were fighting to get spectrum reserved for purely educational purposes.

Ultimately, the commercial broadcasters won outright, and with the 1934 Communications Act no spectrum was reserved for civic purposes. This was in contrast to every other industrialized country in the world, that reserved most of its spectrum for civic purposes.

According to Leach, within four years of the passage of the Communications Act, commercial broadcasters dropped educational broadcasting altogether, primarily because it wasn't profitable enough and did not draw a large enough audience.

The battle over educational broadcasting was re-joined in the mid-1940's, this time over FM. FM was a wasteland, since no one had FM receivers. In that renewed struggle in an area whose commercial worth wasn't yet recognized, educational broadcasters were able to win reservation of about 20% of the spectrum, that part of the dial now known as public radio.

It was in that valueless terrain that Lewis Hill and a group of other conscientious objectors created Pacifica Radio in Berkeley California, at a station called KPFA. They did this because they wanted an avenue to use radio for what Hill referred to as ethical communication.

One of Hill's basic premises was that you could not get challenging ethical communication via commercial radio because broadcasters were put before a microphone to deliver large stable audience flows. This worked against anyone who wanted to say things that might alienate the audience, or that the audience would not have the patience to listen to.

In his 1951 essay entitled "The Theory of Listener-sponsored Radio," (http://www.radio4all.org/fp/lewhill.htm) Hill wrote: "The basic situation of broadcasting must be such that artists and thinkers have a place to work, with freedom. Short of this, the suffering listener has no out."

It went beyond that though. Hill and his conscientious objector friends were pacifists opposed to war, and wanted to be able to speak to people about their beliefs at a time when the popularity of war was at an all-time high. And their ideas challenged US Imperialism and the war machine, and thus challenged big business.

So what they intended to broadcast would challenge the interests of wealth in this society. Therefore they recognized they could never do what they felt they needed to do on commercial radio.

In order to do carry out this project, they invented the concept of listener-sponsored radio. Their formula launched an entire movement in civic broadcasting and gave rise to what is now generally referred to as community radio. Pacifica created the fund-raising marathon, the call-in talk show, and a number of other innovations that are now taken for granted in public broadcasting.

Unfortunately, since at least the mid-1980's there has been a steady assault on community radio, and it is very important and very interesting that at the heart of that assault is the claim that the value of community radio should be judged primarily on the basis of the audience ratings and the money raised by stations. These measures of service are precisely commercial measures of value, and that test has been done: when success is measured in that way, you get ever more efficient ways of increasing those measures, size and money, and any values that conflict with those values get run over.

The upshot of this trend in non-commercial broadcasting, which has been largely spearheaded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has been essentially a form of privatization of public media. It's not privatization in the traditional sense of a government owned entity being transferred into private hands.

(For an excellent description of the process written in 1992, see http://www.well.com/user/rachel/wer92.html - Why Public Radio Isn't (And What You Can Do About It)

In this case, the way it works is that power over decision-making about the broadcasting gets centralized in the hands of those people who want to maximize the market success.

The essence of this reconfiguration is a move from a volunteer-driven, decentralized institution--more or less open to direct community participation, featuring a wide diversity of voices speaking from and to a wide diversity of audiences--to a "professionalized" and more centralized institution engaged in target-market programming to increase revenues and audience share by cultivating increased listening times from a larger core audience.

This trend took hold throughout non-commercial radio and it has in the last nine years or so, taken hold at Pacifica Radio. Some of you may have heard about the ongoing conflicts at Pacifica and KPFK. These issues are at the heart of it.

Since major changes in KPFK's programming and programming format in the mid-nineties the station has nearly doubled the money it raises during it's fund-drives while only modestly increasing the number of subscribers and with an essentially flat total listenership. At the same time, there are no longer any people of color doing locally-produced daytime public affairs programming at KPFK; programming by African-Americans, Latinos, and Chicanos in particular has been slashed. The station has been without a news director for some time, and does not produce a local news show any more. And it rarely broadcasts local events and speeches as it once did.

At the administrative level, the Board of Directors of Pacifica in 1999 changed it's by-laws to make itself completely self-selecting. That change is at the heart of several lawsuits presently pending, but more important than that detail is the questions of how and whether communities get to have any say in what is broadcast on the public airwaves.

I'll sum up noting that when you treat people's attention and their intelligence as mass quantities, as a commodity, you severely undermine the potential for education.

In purely market terms, education of the sort I am thinking of is actually not a viable financial venture. In my own career, I could never have afforded to pay for the time of the scientists and engineers who chose to spend their time teaching me, nor in fact could any institution have afforded to pay for their time unless that time was so devalued monetarily as to make a joke of the true value of what I was being given. They made a decision that they wanted to spend their time in that way. So it is my belief that decisions about education must be made by the people doing the educating and those being educated, because the market cannot properly express or appreciate the value of the kind of human interaction and ethical decisions that are fundamental to the sharing of understanding, insight, knowledge, and love. Unfortunately, history demonstrates that since education is not about concentrating power but about disseminating power, that it will always eventually come into conflict with forces in the society that want to direct its flow. So there will always be a struggle over how education will be paid for, who will participate in it, and on what terms. As a my friend Pete Goodman once told me, another name for history is struggle.

I'd like to ask that all those listening today pay attention to what is happening in the reconfiguration of so-called public media, which for over a decade has been being put on a market standard, in which its value is judged in terms of ratings and money, criteria identical to those used in commercial media. And I'd specifically like to ask that people pay specific attention to the crisis at Pacifica Radio, including KPFK 90.7 FM here in Los Angeles, because Pacifica was explicitly created to challenge the market model of radio that treats listeners in bulk and prioritizes audience size over the relationship between the broadcaster and the human beings who are listening.

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