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National Conference on Media Reform Panel: Media Reform One Community at a Time: Case Studies in Local Organizing

Panelists: Sara Longsmith, Radio Free Brattleboro (VT); Deanne Cuellar, Media Empowerment Project, San Antonio, TX; Wally Bowen, Mountain Area Information Network, Asheville, NC

Sara: Radio Free Brattleboro has been around for seven years, has survived FCC raids, does not grant the FCC's right to determine who can broadcast. "We believe every community has the right to broadcast the views of its citizens, based on the Telecommunications Act of 1934."

We started with one watt. The FCC came in and asked, where is your license—or your "authority to broadcast?" That phrase, "authority to broadcast," is crucial. The Free FRB campaign was a nonviolent campaign of conscience. We displaced the FCC's authority and replaced it with community authority: a nonviolent occupation of the airwaves.

When the FCC first ordered them to cease broadcasting, the station complied "to assess our situation." The station managers, all volunteers, decided to "demonstrate our authority to broadcast" through a multipronged campaign including a community-wide petition, a resolution passed by the Town Council, and another by the broader-based Town Meeting (a New England tradition where citizens can vote on legislation). The resolution passed by a 2:1 margin, and the station sent copies to their elected representatives. Also, the group did a press campaign to mainstream local news outlets and alternative media nationwide—"the Brattleboro reformer (local newspaper) backed us 100 percent—and legal defense with the help of donated time from the National Lawyers Guild.

"The petition was the documentation; we got a lot of testimonials from listeners. In eight weeks, we got 3000 signatures. We decided we had enough authority, and went back on the air."

And every staffer received legal training about what to do when the FCC visited again. When they showed up, without a warrant, they were turned away at the door.

Later, in federal court, "the judge was not convinced by the FCC that we harmed the government enough to justify the loss of service to the community."

And sometimes the results are present, but not obvious. The station's supporters barraged Senator Patrick Leahy's office with no visible result—but when Senator John McCain approached Leahy to cosponsor the Low-Power FM enabling legislation, Leahy eagerly jumped on, citing the pressure from Brattleboro.

Now, the station sees a time when it may no longer need to fight the FCC; a group in Brattleboro with a similar philosophy is working to set up a licensed low-power FM community radio station.

Deanne: San Antonio is 70 percent Latino and has many other communities of color. Clear Channel Communications (owner of over 1200 radio stations around the country) is headquartered there. "Every time I do a presentation on campus, Clear Channel is out the next day."

"There's hardly any positive press about San Antonio in the mainstream media," so her group fosters local independent media production, media literacy. In March, 2004, they brought 500 people to the FCC's only non-Washington-area hearing on the consolidation rules, resulting in national coverage—and funding. "We were able to document the history of cultural genocide and economic imperialism in the local media. Now we focus on holding the media accountable," training volunteers in how to document the biases they find. They've also brought Democracy Now! to the local airwaves.

One unusual source of volunteers: Get bored ISP technicians to volunteer. They'll monitor the media, they can set up a community WiFi network. For print media, go to student chapters of Public Relations Society of America to find media-savvy volunteer writers.

The group is located in Centro Esperanza (Center of Hope), the local peace and justice center, which opens many easy possibilities for cooperation with other social change organizations. As one example, there's a sewing circle of elderly local women; they get together every month and report on their media monitoring, write letters, and yes, do some sewing.

Wally: Volunteers supply links for a news page. They work through many media channels. "Do an assessment of resources: Low-Power FM radio, community radio, Internet, alternative print media… We're trying to create an alliance of alternative media regionally. We drive traffic to the Smoky Mountain News, we got [the editor] on the air" when the story broke about the East Waynesville Baptist Church kicking out anyone who voted Democrat (this was a local story). His group also works to provide an online platform to progressive voices from public access TV, and provides dial-up ISP services (through a nationwide consortium at www.indylink.com, serving 4500 customers).

He's hopeful about a forthcoming Supreme Court decision that may make it possible for community-based resellers to provide broadband Internet access.

"The economic development argument has traction in red states; even the Chamber of Commerce backed us.

Audience Comment: Cable radio exists in Europe and is a powerful democratizing technology; why don't we have it in the US?

Shel Horowitz is the editor of Peace & Politics and Down to Business, the author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, and the founder of the Business Ethics Pledge campaign

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National Conference on Media Reform Panel: Media Reform One Community at a Time: Case Studies in Local Organizing
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