Social Movement Studies, Vol. 3, No.

2, October 2004

Remaking Public Service Broadcasting: lessons from Allston-Brighton Free Radio
Kevin Howley
Pulliam Center for Contemporary Media, DePauw University, 609 S. Locust Street, Greencastle, IN 46135, USA

The role of communication in social movement theory is well observed. Considerably less attention has been given to the question of whether or not media reform efforts constitute social movements in and of themselves. In an effort to consider the efficacy of media reform initiatives and to evaluate their relevance to social movement studies, this essay examines the evolution of a so-called ‘free radio’ station in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. The essay situates a discussion of ‘free radio’ in relation to the unprecedented consolidation of commercial radio and the attendant diminution of public service broadcasting in the USA. The lessons learned from Allston-Brighton Free Radio help to illuminate the local and particular dynamics of a global movement for communicative democracy. Keywords: Communicative democracy, community radio, public service broadcasting, social movements, media activism, regulatory policy.

In recent years, the relationship between media and social movements has attracted considerable attention among academics and activists alike. For scholars inclined toward interdisciplinary study, communication and media studies have taken an increasingly prominent role in understanding the social, cultural and political dimensions of movements (Gamson and Wolfsfeld 1993). Work of this sort fruitfully explores the dynamics of interpersonal, organizational and mass communication in socio-political movements (Herbst 1994); considers the rhetorical and discursive strategies of movement leaders (Morris and Browne 2001); and investigates the complex and contradictory role mass media play in reporting and publicizing social movements (Gitlin 1980). Conversely, activists and organizers seeking more effective ways of communicating with different constituencies—movement participants, business leaders, elected officials, journalists and editors, as well as the general public—turn to media researchers, political scientists and cultural theorists for insight and inspiration. For instance, the Media Research and Action Project (MRAP) works with community groups, political activists
ISSN 1474-2837 print/ISSN 1474-2829 online/04/020221-20 © 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/1474283042000266137


Social Movement Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2

and others on the finer points of media relations. Using frame analysis, MRAP coaches these groups on ways to avoid being ignored, trivialized or perhaps even demonized by the press (Ryan et al. 2001). As Laura Stein observers, ‘The relationship between these two endeavors is symbiotic. Activism draws on theory to inform its action and critical scholarship asks questions intended to redefine what is conceivable in the realm of action’ (1999: 5). While this realization fuels work that seeks to understand why, how, and to what end popular movements appropriate communication technologies; it also begs a fundamental question: does the struggle to democratize the mass media constitute a social movement in its own right? That is to say, although social movement studies often examine the role communication and mass media play in mobilizing, legitimating and publicizing various socio-political movements—from feminism and environmentalism, to the antiwar and civil rights movements—it is less clear whether or not we can speak of a coherent and cohesive media democratization movement (Hackett and Adam 1999). This essay proceeds with the assumption that such a movement is well underway. In saying this, I am drawing upon my own experience as a media activist and an academic as well as recent scholarship that supports this assertion.1 For example, in their excellent volume ‘Our Media, Not Theirs’ Robert McChesney and John Nichols observe:
Ordinary Americans have recognized that it is no longer enough to complain about the media. Thousands of our fellow citizens have already begun to organize to change the media system. The growth of this media reform movement is one of the striking developments of the past decade; though understandably, it has passed beneath the corporate news media radar. (2002: 38)

On this last point, one might add that, with relatively few exceptions, movement studies and media studies alike have failed to recognize an emerging media democratization movement. One notable exception on this score is John Downing. In his seminal text on oppositional movements and alternative media, Downing (1984) calls our attention to the proliferation of ‘self-managed’ media organizations: small-scale media outlets predicated on opening up the channels of communication to wider publics and dedicated to participatory self-governance. In subsequent work, Downing et al. (2001) not only provide a more nuanced definition of what they describe as ‘radical alternative media’ but also suggest that, despite their varied manifestations, these media share two important features that are especially germane to this discussion. First, radical alternative media ‘express opposition vertically from subordinate quarters directly at the power structure and against its behavior’ and, second, that these organizations ‘build support, solidarity, and networking laterally against policies or even against the very survival of the power structure’ (2001: xi). As we shall see, microradio or so-called ‘free radio’ neatly encapsulates the twin aspirations of alternative media that Downing observes. Following on from Downing’s work, Chris Atton underscores the significance of alternative media production to social movements and suggests that ‘radically democratic notions of participation’ are essential for building and sustaining a movement’s coherence and contribute greatly to ‘the production of knowledge within new social movements’ (2001: 80). Atton’s emphasis on the organization of cultural production associated with

Lydon and his staff were locked out of the station in the wake of a bitter contract dispute over broadcast syndication rights (Johnson 2001). FCC agents. Despite these strong-arm tactics. By the end of the decade. for our purposes here. Sakolsky and Dunifer 1998). Lydon is welcome to produce the same sort of erudite public affairs programming for AllstonBrighton Free Radio that made The Connection a staple for thousands of listeners in Boston. A-B Free’s press release indicated that despite his stated opposition to the free radio movement. in the company of heavily armed federal marshals and local law enforcement officials. Following this. Allston-Brighton Free Radio (A-B Free). community-based radio station in Boston. The Microradio Movement In a press release dated 2 March 2001. A brief discussion of microradio provides a context to consider the contours of this struggle for media democracy. low power stations across the USA took to the airwaves in a spontaneous expression of popular discontent with contemporary radio—industry representatives pressured the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to shut down so-called ‘pirate’ stations (Hornblower 1998). Nesbitt 1998). In some instances. Likewise. Throughout the 1990s—as hundreds of unlicensed. The following case study draws upon this important new work in movement studies. Lydon was the host of The Connection. one of three NPR affiliates serving the greater Boston area. a low power. I describe the diminution of US public service broadcasting before moving on to the case study proper. hundreds of free radio stations continued to operate in open defiance of the FCC as a form of electronic civil disobedience (Ferguson 1998. broke into private residences and held unarmed civilians at gunpoint while they confiscated radio production and transmission gear (Cockburn 1997. The press release concludes: ‘members of the station are confident that Lydon’s recent experience with public radio and any reality-testing he does with commercial radio will help to change his attitude towards the importance of community radio’ (CMC 2001). however. A-B Free’s invitation. . the FCC was confronted with a growing enforcement crisis. a nationally syndicated call-in program produced at WBUR-FM. In this politically charged atmosphere. let alone respond to. Rodriguez’s comparative analysis succinctly captures the global dimensions of an emerging media democratization movement. and across the USA.3 In mid-February. Until recently. the FCC took up a comprehensive review of its twentyone-year ban on low power FM broadcasting. Clemencia Rodriguez’s (2001) examination of what she describes as ‘citizens’ media’ alerts us to the non-hierarchical and collective nature of alternative media production. invited National Public Radio (NPR) personality Christopher Lydon to join its volunteer news team. Equally important.Howley: Remaking Public Service Broadcasting 223 alternative media is especially relevant to our understanding of popular movements to democratize media systems. I suggest that the emergence of ‘free radio’ constitutes a media reform movement that seeks to reclaim the airwaves in the public interest and to reassert a public service ethos that has all but disappeared from US broadcasting. Massachusetts. Lydon did not accept. Chris Lydon is not alone in his disdain for free radio: a socio-cultural movement of global proportions (Soley 1999).2 Throughout.

respectively. Vol. Subsequent FCC engineering studies repudiated these accusations as false and misleading (FCC 2000).5 . In short. religious and civic groups across the country rallied in support of the FCC’s directive. non-commercial service. news reports invariably reinforced and legitimated the NAB’s dubious claims regarding the new service. Congress usurped the agency’s authority to regulate the nation’s airwaves. the commercial broadcast sector. a self-proclaimed champion of broadcast diversity and journalistic integrity. in all likelihood. National Public Radio. No. 3. NPR’s official response to the FCC’s plans echoed the rhetoric deployed by commercial broadcast industry (NPR 2000). LPFM was envisioned as a modest attempt to promote broadcast diversity in an era of unprecedented media consolidation and control.4 According to the NAB. In doing so. non-profit radio station. the FCC sought comment on a third class of so-called ‘microwatt’ stations operating between 1 and 10 watts (FCC 1999). labor. On 28 January 1999 the FCC issued a formal proposal (NPRM 99-25) seeking public comment on a new radio service: Low Power FM (LPFM). literally thousands of LPFM applications will. In essence. a popular movement to wrest a modicum of control away from the broadcast oligopoly was defeated by entrenched media interests. the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). public service broadcasting in the USA. led a public relations campaign against LPFM. here we can detect the efficacy of media reform movements to challenge and change communication policy. By passing this legislation. What’s more. consistently sided with commercial broadcasters (Wildman 2001). the intense lobbying efforts by both the NAB and NPR paid off. A locally oriented. be rejected on the grounds of objectionable interference with established commercial and public radio stations (Sakolsky 2001). threaten the roll out of new digital services. a so-called ‘Broadcasting Preservation’ bill was attached as a rider to the Omnibus Budget Act of 2000.224 Social Movement Studies. NPR played a decisive role in undermining the FCC’s LPFM directive. when NPR broke its radio silence on the LPFM debate. as well as intent. and to meet each community’s distinctive needs and desires (McConnell 1999). Orwellian in design. And yet. 2 Briefly returning to Downing’s observation regarding radical alternative media’s oppositional stance toward power structures. making it exceedingly difficult for all but the most remote rural communities to establish a local. In addition. Then FCC chairman William Kennard characterized LPFM as an important step toward returning the public airwaves to local communities to use as they see fit. ultimately compromising the future viability of community-oriented. As a result. Despite the fact that the FCC approved the new service and began accepting license applications. As media activists. educational. Behind the scenes.000 watts. the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act effectively neutralizes the LPFM initiative. low power and microwatt broadcast signals cause objectionable interference to broadcast signals on adjacent frequencies. the powerful broadcast lobby sought to kill the LPFM initiative. Specifically. In December 2000. the new scheme proposed the creation of two classes of LPFM stations with maximum power levels of 100 and 1. Not surprisingly. working through its influential lobbying group. the US Congress broke precedent and questioned the findings of the FCC’s engineering studies. despite the NAB’s spurious arguments. and even compromise the integrity of air traffic control signals (NAB 1998).

led to public broadcasting’s increasing dependency on foundation and corporate sponsorship (Hoynes 1994). and in some cases fired. For example. a local public affairs program aired on WGBH-TV— Boston’s Public Broadcasting System (PBS) affiliate and a major production center for the entire public television system—the show’s host. Initially conceived as an alternative outlet for news. In the meantime. yet. and meant to serve as well as reflect America’s rich social. the result of ill-conceived federal guidelines and funding schemes which preclude community control. Worse. information and entertainment programming. In this regard. when Allston-Brighton Free Radio’s overture to Chris Lydon was mentioned on Greater Boston. As a result. the ‘professionalization’ of smaller community radio stations around the country proceeds unchecked. responded with characteristic arrogance. the once vibrant community radio sector has succumbed to a lethal combination of marketplace pressures and misguided federal regulations. For the past several years. public broadcasters could scarcely contain their contempt. Most recently. ownership. indeed. pressure from political conservatives to reduce federal appropriations for public service broadcasting reached new heights throughout the 1980s. First and foremost is the legacy of an inadequate funding mechanism for public radio and television dating back to the formation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in 1967 (Engelman 1996). What’s more. Walker 1997). not to mention the enormous public relations campaign waged against the new service. around the world (Tracey 1998). the wholesale application of free-market ideology to communications policy—as codified in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and as evident in successive waves of media mergers and acquisitions—further undermines the principle of localism that is the cornerstone of . public television’s vaunted in-depth coverage of important policy debates failed to materialize. when the subject of low power community radio was mentioned. the Pacifica Radio Network. public broadcasters aim to compete with their commercial counterparts for corporate sponsorship and market share (Hoynes 1999). Long-time producers and on-air hosts have been locked out. Second. despite widespread popular support for the FCC’s initiative. cultural and political diversity. Emily Rooney. then. The evisceration of locally oriented. however. public broadcasting in the USA has all but abandoned its public service mission. Increasingly. for publicly discussing their opposition to the Pacifica Board of Trustee’s plans to sell the network to the highest bidder. public service broadcasting in the USA is the result of several factors. ‘Oh. the debate over LPFM was a non-issue on public television. this attitude underscores a profound crisis facing public service media in the USA and. This. Indeed. and participation in radio broadcasting (Bekken 1998. has been embroiled in a struggle to maintain its editorial independence and progressive identity (Carney 2001). When placed in the larger context of the corporatization of public service broadcasting. in turn. this incident is little more than an irritant to proponents of free radio in and around Boston.Howley: Remaking Public Service Broadcasting 225 The Corporatization of Public Broadcasting More troubling is the realization that NPR’s animosity toward community-oriented radio is endemic to the entire public broadcasting system. are they still on the air?’ Taken in isolation. arguably the model of community broadcasting in the USA. public broadcasting has come to resemble the safe and predictable formulas associated with commercial media.

the lessons learned from Allston-Brighton Free Radio may help inform what Robert Hackett (2000) characterizes as an increasingly global project: a movement for communicative democracy. Boston Public An economic. I argue that A-B Free. to the local community. At the same time. WFNX-FM (Alternative Rock). This essay proceeds with a brief description of the Boston radio market. Like other markets. the Citizen’s Media Corps (CMC).226 Social Movement Studies. and cultural center. then.6 Despite the station’s diminutive transmission power and limited coverage area. the first of its kind ‘public access’ AM radio station in the USA. the CMC’s media activism. and WUNR-AM (Ethnic) remain in the hands of local. such as WBCS-FM (Adult Contemporary). educational. local radio stations are owned and operated by absentee owners who are neither accountable. In this regard. Vol. I highlight A-B Free Radio’s commitment to the ideals of public service broadcasting and the station’s emphasis on broadcasting as a social practice. IT companies. financial updates. . and engaged citizenry. current affairs. More than this. Specifically. placing special emphasis on the erosion of locally oriented news. while a handful of radio stations. I trace the history of A-B Free Radio. from its origins as a ‘pirate’ FM station. participatory communication in the twenty-first century. public radio programming increasingly reflects a narrow range of interests. The balance of this discussion explores the significance of grassroots media organizations in an ever more corporatized media culture. In doing so. wealth management consultants. informed. More critically. These changes. 2 US broadcast regulation (McChesney 1999). market analysis. and upscale lifestyle reports have come to dominate public broadcasting’s news and information programming. and public service programming in a city long associated with public broadcasting. As a result of the deregulatory fervor of the past two decades. and its parent organization. 3. No. is a model for communityoriented. Thus. Solomon 2000). most notably the consolidation of holdings within and between media industries. more generally. I want to suggest how A-B Free’s experience might inform ongoing efforts to reclaim the airwaves for local communities and thereby remake public service broadcasting. a majority of Boston stations are owned by media conglomerates. Investment firms. largely the interests of corporate underwriters and the upscale listenership these sponsors seek to address (Ledbetter 1998. A-B Free illuminates the importance of a critically informed media practice that treats audiences as participants and promotes an active. the ‘public’ in public radio is narrowly defined by educational achievement and socio-economic status. are the direct result of reductions in ownership limits and the elimination of cross-ownership restrictions enacted under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Boehlert 2001). independent operators. Boston is the eighth largest radio market in the USA (Arbitron 2001). Boston radio has undergone profound changes in recent years. In short. through its current incarnation as a milliwatt AM outlet. WJIB-AM (Easy Listening). Following this. and business-to-business services are among the more prominent corporate underwriters in public broadcasting today. provides an invaluable public service to the residents of Allston-Brighton. I then examine the forces and conditions that enable as well as constrain A-B Free’s participatory potential and. Here. A-B Free. nor responsive.

the primary demographic for student-run stations is college students and recent graduates. these stations air brief hourly news inserts from national satellite services or produce in-house news reports of the rip and read variety. WHRB-FM at Harvard University. Moreover. and WXKS-FM (CHR). WROR-FM (Classic Hits). college. Together. Infinity. owns WJMN-FM (CHR). however. Equally important. Boston is fortunate to be served by a number of non-commercial radio stations. WBCN-FM (Modern Rock). music and cultural programming reflects the tastes of younger. Texas-based Clear Channel Communications. The San Antonio. based in New Brunswick. WUMB-FM at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. WMBR operates very much in the spirit of community radio championed by the likes of Lew Hill and Lorenzo Milam—two pivotal figures in the development of the US community radio sector (Barlow 1988). makes limited use of student interns. And. through its holdings with the Infinity Broadcasting Corporation. For the most part.and university-based stations eschew in-depth news and local public affairs programming. More typically. WMBR airs a mix of independently produced news programs including WINGS. As a result. Programming of the sort found on college radio rarely appeals to more general audiences. Gender Talk. NJ. both Clear Channel and CBS account for well over 50 percent of the advertising revenue generated by radio in the Boston market (Boston Radio Watch 1999). not public service. One notable exception to this is WMBR. WTKK-FM (Talk). CBS/Viacom owns WODS-FM (Oldies). is a student-run station out of Emerson College. broadcasting from the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). ‘local’ radio in Boston is. Greater Media. and No Censorship Radio. Likewise. Inc. and WBZ-AM (News). WYLX-FM (Classic Rock). Given this state of affairs. An all-volunteer organization that airs a lively mix of news. non-profit organizations. Inc. many of these stations have affiliate relations with national networks and program syndicators including ABC. In short. information. In this regard. While these stations do indeed provide a welcome respite to the corporate consolidation of commercial radio. and WMJX-FM (Adult Contemporary). WKXO-AM (Spanish).. and Free Speech Radio. and cultural programming. . WERS-FM. WMBR is something of an anomaly in Boston’s non-commercial sector. relying instead on a salaried staff. Although its schedule is dedicated primarily to music programming. a magazine show produced by the Women’s International News Gathering Service. much of WUMB’s evening and weekend programming. including a handful of information and public affairs programs such as The Infinite Mind and Power Point. locally produced public affairs programs such as Black Perspectives. Moreover. and WZBC-FM at Boston College are all staffed by student volunteers and owned and operated by private. and CBS.Howley: Remaking Public Service Broadcasting 227 For instance. owns WBOS-FM (Adult Alternative). Whereas student-run radio typically provides a measure of community involvement in program production. by and large. WKLB-FM (Country). for example. a nightly newscast produced by striking Pacifica network reporters. For the most part. WUMB programmers are paid professionals. owned and operated by national media conglomerates: organizations whose primary objective is capital accumulation. Westwood One. Radio With a View. WMBR supports a number of long-running. well-educated listeners. these stations are affiliated with the city’s many educational institutions. WXKS-AM (Nostalgia). is obtained either through National Public Radio and Public Radio International (PRI). On the other hand. WFMO-FM at Tufts University.

As a result. Not unlike University of Massachusetts/ Boston’s NPR affiliate. in terms of signal strength and audience reach. a co-production of WGBH. Furthermore. WGBH is a quintessential public radio station. While the show’s format remained the same—listeners were still invited to join Lydon’s conversation with authors. increasingly. The Connection consolidated its ties to the local community. Christo built WBUR into the first 24 news and information station in the US public radio sector. then.228 Social Movement Studies. Whereas WUMB bills itself as a folk music station. Over time. This same trend is evident in the evolution of two more locally produced programs. international trade agreements. and the proposed national missile defense system. Launched in 1994. housing. Christo has transformed a modest 4. Aside from airing NPR staples such as Morning Edition. current affairs program. WBUR’s local news staff. WGBH’s broadcast day is split between classical music in the daytime and jazz at night. All Things Considered. Weekend programming seldom strays very far from this format. however. The city’s premiere non-commercial stations are the aforementioned WBUR and WGBH. The financial shortcomings and declining audience numbers associated with this traditional approach to public radio led WBUR general manager Jane Christo to focus her energies on news and information programming. WMBR is no match for the public radio stations serving the Boston market. WUMB. arts. WGBH’s broadcast day is dominated by music and cultural programming. devotes most of its energies to coverage of news stories for broadcast over NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. No. In terms of station format and program content. the BBC. . With the hiring of former Boston Globe columnist and public television personality Chris Lydon. and education. 3. Program topics centered on subjects relevant to area residents: city politics. The Connection was initially conceived as a locally oriented. Although these topics do indeed resonate with Boston listeners. and PRI. PRI’s Marketplace. Vol. like the aforementioned The Connection. academics and policy analysts—programs increasingly focused on national issues such as presidential politics. The Connection invariably lost much of its local orientation. Since taking charge of WBUR in the late 1970s. the largest in the city’s radio market. politicians. the rise and fall of the dot. While most public radio stations experimented with different musical formats in their efforts to increase listenership and attract corporate underwriting. two of public radio’s most popular and identifiable programs. around the country (Kennedy 2001). This strategy is consistent with Christo’s overall objective to make WBUR a leading program syndicator for public industry. 2 Despite its adventurous programming and commitment to community service. Aside from syndicated music programs. Christo sought to make The Connection a program with much broader appeal. commerce. WBUR’s formidable production resources are increasingly directed toward the development of nationally syndicated material. and The World. Christo augmented nationally and internationally syndicated programming with local news and public affairs shows. however. further contributing to the decline of local news and public affairs programming on Boston area radio. namely WBUR’s Here and Now and sister station WRNI’s One Union Station. both of which were rolled out for national syndication in 2002. WGHB airs A Prairie Home Companion and This American Life. WGBH has a more traditional public radio format.000-watt station on the campus of Boston University into a major production center for public radio throughout New England and.

became highly centralized production and distribution services not unlike commercial networks. public radio and television was promoted as a means to offset the alienating and disenfranchising effects of a privatized media environment. pubic service broadcasting in the greater Boston area is virtually non-existent today. Here. RFA nonetheless garnered the support of local elected officials. enables communities to utilize the airwaves. and philanthropic organizations associated with the eastern establishment (Englemen 1996). and both the Brazilian and Irish Immigration Centers embraced this dynamic new community resource. then. The localism that the Carnegie Commission saw as the foundation of public broadcasting in this country never materialized. the Boston City Council passed a resolution praising Radio Free Allston (RFA). An unlicensed. and the Public Interest On 28 July 1997. we can detect the twin aspects of alternative media and social movements observed by Downing. With this in mind. the Allston-Brighton Historical Society. RFA openly challenged a regulatory regime that increasingly favors entrenched commercial interests over the public interest. as we have seen. Created in response to what was widely perceived as the failure of commercial broadcasters to meet their public service obligations. many of whom were frequent guests on RFA’s public affairs programs. the august body that established the framework for public service broadcasting in the USA—were affiliated with Boston-area educational institutions. for its service to the community. broadly conceived. public television and. And. the predecessor of A-B Free. RFA’s commitment to non-commercial. the Allston-Brighton Community Development Corporation. Indeed. to an even greater extent. area business and civic organizations. Pirates. such as the Allston Business Association. however. These local voices would then be shared with a national audience in a celebration of America’s rich cultural diversity and in an effort to encourage informed debate and deliberation over matters of national concern (Carnegie Commission 1967. Moreover. Within the first few months of operation. Some of the most ardent proponents of public broadcasting—including leading members of the Carnegie Commission. That is to say. Likewise. 1979). locally oriented. as a vehicle for self-expression and as a forum to discuss matters of local import and significance. Unmoved by the city council’s ringing endorsement of RFA and seemingly unimpressed with the station’s . Profiteers. a public resource. RFA was a hit with a significant and growing cross-section of radio listeners throughout Allston-Brighton. public radio. Public service broadcasting. by operating without a broadcast license. and therefore illegal station operating at a modest 20 watts of power. in its declaration of support for RFA and its request to obtain non-profit status—thereby making the station eligible for grants and tax-deductible donations—the city council noted that RFA ‘serves the Allston-Brighton community in ways that commercial and public broadcasting do not’ (Boston City Council 1997). Over time. locally oriented radio coupled with the broadbased popular support for the station’s efforts are a clear expression of widespread dissatisfaction with radio in and around Boston. we turn our attention to A-B Free’s effort to remake radio as a medium that celebrates local cultural diversity and facilitates community communication. think tanks.Howley: Remaking Public Service Broadcasting 229 The irony in all of this is hard to miss.

then. RFA’s founder and station manager. RFA operated out in the open. the FCC shut down RFA. And that was the way that we got a lot of programs. and. news and cultural programming in Spanish. to cease broadcasting. Provizer pulled the plug on RFA. to generate popular support for a local. recalls the enthusiasm for radio generated by those early broadcasts at Herrell’s. free of charge. RFA challenged public perceptions of what radio is and how it might operate in a densely populated and ethnically diverse urban community. 3. In addition to producing public affairs programming that was at once relevant and responsive to the unique social and political needs of AllstonBrighton residents. Finally. and to celebrate and explore its creative potential. Station manager Stephen Provizer recalls: We would go in there everyday. two FCC field agents entered the station and directed Steve Provizer. and Haitian Creole helped immigrants to build a sense of community in an alien. Equally important. In this decidedly grassroots fashion. but productive eight-month existence. and participate in. as ‘pirate’ stations had done in the past. On 28 October 1997.230 Social Movement Studies. in its own distinctive idioms. ´ a popular ice cream parlor located in the heart of Allston at the corner of Brighton and Harvard Avenues. second. foreign-language programming encouraged recent immigrants to learn about. non-commercial station dedicated to serving the Allston-Brighton neighborhood. No. RFA’s objective was two-fold: first. Most notably. fondly known as El Sin: ‘He had young people from the neighborhood lining up behind the microphones to . Like hundreds of unlicensed stations operating across the USA at the time. RFA employed deceptively simple tactics designed to make radio. What’s more. It was the optimum visibility that you could want for a station like this. environment. 2 unwavering commitment to public service broadcasting. sometimes hostile. the ‘invisible medium’ (Lewis and Booth 1990) tangible for area residents. so that the community might speak to itself. to increase public awareness of radio’s potential to enhance community-wide communication. local civic affairs. Rather than expose the station’s board of directors and volunteers to criminal charges. entertainment and information programming that reflected the community’s rich cultural diversity. RFA vividly demonstrated the viability of community broadcasting. Portuguese. For strategic reasons. For instance. A-B Free’s event coordinator. Then we would put our transmitter in the pastry display window. RFA’s eclectic music programming embraced local artists and promoted independently produced material that commercial and public broadcasters typically avoid. RFA aired music. boldly defiant of the FCC’s ban on low power broadcasting. During its abbreviated. Vol. in particular the enormous popularity of a Latino hip hop show produced by a local resident. by originating its broadcasts in full view of the community and inviting local residents to make their own radio. RFA did not broadcast in a clandestine fashion. In this way. RFA re-ignited local interest in radio. run the cable over the potted palm and up to the roof where our antenna was. To this end. Conversely. push three tables together and pile our audio equipment on it. RFA forcefully reasserted broadcasting as a social practice: a way of bringing a community together. Seth Albaum. RFA originated its broadcasts from Herrell’s Renaissance Cafe. and run the risk of having the station’s equipment confiscated. financially strapped community organizations publicized their events and activities over the airwaves of RFA.

Howley: Remaking Public Service Broadcasting 231 take their turns at free style rap and the line would go out the door. when we closed down. non-hierarchical and participatory communication of the sort Rodriquez refers to as ‘citizens’ media’ in sustaining a vibrant local culture and engendering a robust and inclusive public sphere. … Radio Free Allston was like a large boat. RFA consolidated its resources. As further evidence of LPFM’s technical viability. However. and it had a large wake. slow moving but large. Still. coordinated its growing volunteer base. Indeed. In this new setting. the broadcast spectrum can accommodate LPFM signals. Broadcasting at 105. by virtue of their presence and sheer numbers on the nation’s airwaves. the station had earned a reputation for innovative programming and community service that enthralled listeners in Allston-Brighton and the neighboring areas of Cambridge and Brookline. By the same token. Moreover. Provizer believes that WROR’s complaint was less a technical matter than part of the NAB’s effort to pressure the FCC to step up its enforcement efforts in light of the growing popularity of the free radio movement: There was no justifiable reason to blow the whistle on us from an engineering standpoint. Steve Provizer suspects that a third party operating in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood was the more likely source of interference. local commercial operators. A lot of stations followed behind us after we started.7 FM. a local art gallery. With this in mind. Canadian success in this regard is all the more remarkable when one factors is the sheer volume of American broadcast material that the CRTC must account for in its spectrum management activities. this seems unlikely. the effort involved in setting up and tearing down even a rudimentary broadcast facility in a crowded business establishment proved to be an enormous logistical challenge. All of which suggests that the rise of the free radio movement in the USA and elsewhere is best understood as a cultural response to the tension arising from two opposing regulatory philosophies: broadcast systems based on private ownership and . community-oriented radio in the USA. By the time the FCC shut down RFA. talk. Indeed. microbroadcasters demonstrate the fallacy behind the NAB’s and NPR’s technical arguments against LPFM. and a vibrant campus/community radio sector. the FCC likely targeted the station to send a message to other unlicensed broadcasters. and began broadcasting a full schedule of news. therefore.1 FM caused objectionable interference with its transmission. Based on RFA’s transmission power and engineering specifications. including national public service broadcasters. is less a matter of technical quality and engineering standards and more a matter of regulatory policy. RFA moved its operation a few blocks away. further constraining RFA’s program output. longer than the ice cream line. because RFA was the most visible ‘pirate’ operation in the city. they all closed down. The relative dearth of non-commercial. WROR claimed RFA’s signal at 106. even on the ‘overcrowded’ FM band in major urban centers. From a technical perspective. And several stations started up here in Boston. music and cultural programming. to the 88 Room. The one formal complaint lodged against RFA came from commercial radio station WROR. It was done strictly for political reasons.’ All of which underscores the significance of collaborative. the station’s airtime was limited to Herrell’s hours of operation. Chris Fairchild (1998) observes that the Canadian broadcast authority (CRTC) has for years accommodated a variety of users. Provizer’s point is well taken.

and its basic responsibility. In words and deeds. informed and engaged citizenry.232 Social Movement Studies. CMC volunteers joined hundreds of microbroadcasters in a march on the FCC’s main offices in Washington. with the public interest. low power stations like it. the CMC’s community organizing efforts underscore the constitutive role that participatory communication and. to operate in the public interest. 3. Equally important. and of communications policy more generally. employing ‘public’ values. one that suggests the value of a critically informed. DC to demand an end to the agency’s ban on low power broadcasting. and the historic levels of public comment received by the FCC in support of the LPFM initiative. despite the seductive rhetoric of free-market competition and consumer choice. By the fall. the emergence of RFA. In the process. using economic judgments. Vol. say they are. the American people have made a choice regarding broadcast regulation. the CMC held public demonstrations on radio production. No. Lessons Learned Throughout the winter and spring of 1998. Inc. and about the residents of Allston-Brighton. On the weekend of 4–5 October 1998. and policy as the ad hoc result of a myriad individual choices with the collective good and interest in effect being what the public. commercial interests are not necessarily consistent. the American people have chosen to reassert broadcasting’s fundamental role. and hundreds of unlicensed. 2 motivated by capital accumulation versus public systems predicated on promoting an active. a choice based on the realization that. serving the ‘public’ interest. Indeed. the collective changed its name to the Citizen’s Media Corps (CMC) and began to organize throughout the city of Boston. Rather than succumb to the pressure and intimidation of government regulators. for. participatory model of community communication. From a theoretical perspective. then. the CMC articulated a new vision of public service broadcasting. Steve Provizer and the volunteers of RFA regrouped and embarked on an even more ambitious public education campaign to promote public service broadcasting by. members of the now defunct RFA established a non-profit media production and education organization: Allston-Brighton Media. Media historian Michael Tracey puts it this way: Here then are two models between which the audience-as-citizen is being asked to choose: policy guided by the hand of ‘public’ regulation. (1998: 11) As evident by the meteoric rise of the free radio movement. acting at the behest of commercial interests. cultural production play in social movements. So deeply felt is this conviction that the organizers and supporters of RFA did not abandon their efforts. offered free media literacy workshops to local community groups. nor compatible. and hosted information seminars on the local implications of national communication policy. indicates a profound dissatisfaction with the contemporary state of radio broadcasting. In addition to exploring legal means to reconstitute RFA. more generally. for grassroots media activists the CMC’s approach offers valuable lessons in the struggle to remake public media into a more inclusive and relevant community-oriented service. Taking up the rallying cry of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—’direct action gets the goods’—LPFM enthusiasts reasoned that the only way to get the issue of community radio to the top of the .

role in shaping the future service. Following the rally. For instance. which. DC. The main objective of that 19 February 1999 meeting was to solidify local support for the CMC in anticipation of its bid for an LPFM license. and through its own Website. legal. the FCC’s LPFM proposal was unveiled to the delight of free radio advocates and the stunned disbelief of commercial and public broadcasters. That is to say. and financial supporters. This commitment to public service and the considerable efforts made at community outreach were crucial for maintaining popular support for Allston-Brighton’s community radio project. the CMC sponsored a major public event to update Allston-Brighton residents on the proposed regulatory changes. the rally was a watershed moment for microbroadcasting inasmuch as it helped convince FCC chairman William Kennard and others of the growing political influence of the free radio movement (Ruggiero 1998). occasional reports in alternative weeklies like the Boston Phoenix and The Allston-Brighton Tab. The CMC’s efforts before and after the Washington rally indicate the importance of education and grassroots organizing in effecting change in public policy. local residents played a modest. as well as the streets. Likening their efforts to the social and political struggles of the late 1950s and 1960s. In the weeks leading up to the national demonstration. participants. the CMC kept local residents apprised of the situation through op-ed pieces. microbroadcasters took to the air. works with local communities across the country to establish low power stations (Manekin 2001). Based on the technical. Allston-Brighton residents helped craft the CMC’s formal statement to the FCC regarding low power FM. the CMC continued to monitor the progress of the FCC’s LPFM proposal. these radio activists perceived their efforts as a form of electronic civil disobedience designed to challenge and ultimately change the law of the land (Howley 2000). In doing so. Throughout the weekend. but nonetheless important. Throughout 1999. the CMC began to expand its focus to other areas of communication policy. In addition.Howley: Remaking Public Service Broadcasting 233 FCC’s agenda was by seizing the airwaves. in submitting its statement to the FCC. Culminating over a decade of grassroots resistance to the FCC’s ban on low power FM. and the FCC’s subsequent notice of proposed rule making concerning the legalization of low power FM broadcasting. the CMC enlisted the help of two ‘pirate’ broadcasters from outside the greater Boston area: Pete Tridish of Radio Mutiny in Philadelphia and Amanda Huron from the Mount Pleasant Broadcasting Club in Washington. on 25 August 1999 the CMC co-sponsored . In the absence of news updates on FCC deliberations in the major media outlets. Equally important. with their call for democratizing the nation’s airwaves. by the station’s listeners. and the mounting opposition it received from commercial and public broadcasters. Within a matter of months. a non-profit group. the CMC held a public meeting at AllstonBrighton’s Jackson-Mann School to alert the local community of the upcoming rally. the meeting served as a forum for community members to construct the station from the ground up. administrative. In addition to generating financial support for the CMC’s participation in the demonstration. in large part. with the help of financial support from the Ford Foundation. the CMC was providing a blueprint for the reconstituted RFA: a blueprint that was designed. these meetings kept the promise of community-oriented radio alive in the hearts and minds of local residents. The two free radio activists are founding members of the Prometheus Radio Project. To that end. and logistical advice they received from representatives of the Prometheus Radio Project.

the CMC’s participating members support Atton’s contention that cultural production and. Part 15 transmissions are not subject to the FCC’s licensing requirements and procedures. the collective production and distribution of knowledge lends coherence to and helps sustain social movements. 2 a meeting with the Washington. Vol. No. to publicize community events and political action campaigns. however. as a Part 15 AM station. Whereas RFA’s signal reached almost six miles in some directions. As a result. ostensibly to take advantage of the recently extended AM band. In December 1999. At first blush. social service agencies. or one-tenth of a watt.5 miles. The meeting helped generate local support for public hearings to determine how broadcasters might compensate local communities for their use of the digital spectrum. A-B Free subsequently moved its broadcast signal to 1670. Thus. To that end. This long. and media production training. A-B Free signed on the airwaves on 11 March 2000. A-B Free has an effective radiating power of a scant 1. the CMC’s energies were focused primarily on reconstituting RFA. A-B Free is nothing if not a challenge to tune in. by forging strategic alliances with likeminded media reformers. participatory and non-hierarchical character of this activity is vital to the growth and development of a robust and expansive public sphere. In addition. more specifically. by mounting a broad-based media literacy initiative featuring policy analysis. DC-based activist group People for Better Television (PBTV). to enhance communicative democracy within and between Boston’s diverse communities. this time to enlist programmers. pragmatic. this meeting offered area residents a primer on digital television. AMNET is designed to coordinate the efforts of alternative media outlets and help community groups.234 Social Movement Studies. at its annual meeting on 14 October 1999 the CMC’s agenda expanded once more. Complicating matters further. this time to promote the establishment of the Alternative Media Network (AMNET). Furthermore. akin to garage door openers or electric shavers. whole sections of Brighton are unable to pick up the station’s transmission. the CMC constructed a network of media reformers working collectively to reclaim the airwaves and. Although this move helps establish a . Among the issues covered were the $70 billion spectrum giveaway and the need for the FCC to provide more substantive protections for the public interest in a digital media environment. and flexible approaches to community-oriented broadcasting in an unfavorable regulatory climate. the collective. the CMC has partnered with the aforementioned WMBR and Boston Neighborhood Network News. Following another public meeting. That is to say. a milliwatt AM station might seem to be an exercise in futility. as Rodriquez suggests. direct action campaigns. Specifically. Because it operates at low power levels. the CMC’s media activism vividly demonstrates several theoretical points alluded to above. at 1580 AM. 3. the city’s public access television newscast. and brainstorm ideas to publicize community radio’s return. more broadly. In the midst of all of this activity. set up training sessions for community producers. and local progressives get news of their work out to wider publics. CMC offers free workshops on creating effective public relations campaigns and helps non-profit groups establish contact with various media outlets throughout greater Boston. With its diminutive transmission power and limited coverage area. And. Broadcasting at 100 milliwatts. As we shall see. difficult and ongoing process underscores the importance of creative. the CMC announced its decision to ‘go legitimate’ and begin operating legally. the renamed Allston-Brighton Free Radio (A-B Free) would pick up where RFA left off.

Conversely. by exploiting synergies within and between media outlets and technologies. a program produced entirely in Cantonese. however. Equally important. All of which suggests that despite the station’s technical limitations. The CMC reasoned that a successful AM operation would put A-B Free in an excellent position to apply for an LPFM license. let alone Internet access. and Eritrean are some of the languages heard over the airwaves of A-B Free these days. A-B Free conducts experiments whereby the station’s Webcast is re-transmitted over the air. As the prospects for such a license dimmed. and get their feature reports broadcast to wider publics. Cantonese. the FCC might look favorably on A-B Free’s LPFM license application. and retirees produce programs such as Pets & Their People. the costs involved in these technical solutions are prohibitive. a handful of A-B Free’s public affairs programs are rebroadcast every Saturday night on WJIB (740 AM). In sum. These arrangements permit A-B Free reporters to work alongside their colleagues at WMBR. A-B Free expands its listenership and enhances its program offerings. Still. continue to make extensive use of the station. However. public interest.Howley: Remaking Public Service Broadcasting 235 non-commercial presence in this portion of the band. Wireless links between transmission points have likewise been explored. A-B Free enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with the news department at WMBR (88. MA. However. and Boston Seniors Count. With evidence that A-B Free did in fact promote broadcast diversity and serve the local. It is a story . By special arrangement with Bill Bittner. Aside from providing a valuable community service in the short term. Likewise. the owner/operator of a Cambridge-based radio station. would not be awarded any LPFM licenses. Immigrant groups. Thus. to selected areas that are unable to pick up the original broadcast signal. Ever mindful that many potential listeners do not have computers. A-B Free streams its broadcast signal over the World Wide Web. despite the station’s reduced transmission power. area non-profits. youth groups. Radical Youth. should the FCC approve the new service. or marginalized by. And yet. A-B Free retransmits the Boston Chinese Radio Show. A-B Free nonetheless provides a vitally important public service to the residents of Allston-Brighton. in particular. A-B Free manages to produce and distribute programming for wider audiences without the hi-tech assist. major media outlets are eager to use broadcast media any way they can.1 FM). Portuguese. like Boston. community outreach efforts indicate that groups and individuals are keen to produce programming on A-B Free. Conclusion A-B Free’s evolution is a remarkable story of perseverance and determination. only receivers made within the last several years are capable of picking up these signals. as the broadcast industry lobbied Congress to turn back the FCC’s initiative. A-B Free looked to other alternatives that might extend its reach throughout the local community. operating with limited resources and under a hostile regulatory regime. populations whose views and perspectives are either absent from. that originates from WJDA (1300 AM) in Quincy. the establishment of an AM station also served a long-term strategic objective. Like other stations eager to deploy digital technologies. via translators. it became clear that major urban centers. share resources.

Vol. As Chris Atton and others have observed. In his reassessment of the media strategies and the New Left. and ease of use—all of which make radio an ideal medium for community communication. as well as the scholars who study and support their efforts. Fortunately. itself an outgrowth of Pacifica radio’s earlier success with community-oriented broadcasting. to re-evaluate the critical and decisive role mass media might play in promoting progressive movements. Media scholar Robert Hackett puts an even finer point on it when he suggests that ‘social movements are to a considerable extent communication phenomena’ (2000: 61). its relative low cost. the microradio movement in general and A-B Free in particular demonstrate an impressive facility for dealing with the press and managing media perceptions. This contention is consistent with the position taken by Armand Mauss (1975) and others . A-B Free articulates a vision of public service broadcasting that reasserts broadcasting’s role in community building and maintenance: a vision shared by thousands of community radio advocates around the world. Indeed. radio is helping to build a sense of community in one of the city’s most diverse and densely populated neighborhoods. to its current incarnation as a milliwatt AM station. and more recently the free radio movement of the 1990s. the community is coming together to wage a difficult struggle: a battle against the hubris of entrenched media interests. As we have seen. In the Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston. Through radio. participatory communication of the sort engendered by A-B Free and likeminded media access projects contribute to the production of knowledge in social movements and are essential to forging a collective sense of support and solidarity within movements. Organizers also need the media to mobilize support from citizens. (2000: 131) Raphael’s objective here is to encourage activists and organizers. Equally important.236 Social Movement Studies. the community radio movement of the 1970s. and of democratic ideals clashing with economic imperatives. At the local level. As was noted at the outset. No. communication and mass media play a pivotal role in social movements. From its origins as a ‘pirate’ FM operation. Chad Raphael argues: Social movements must use the mass media. A-B Free’s efforts have important implications not only for popular struggles to democratize the media but also for social movement studies as well. A-B Free’s story also suggests a renaissance for this once ‘forgotten medium’ (Media Studies Journal 1993). In its earliest incarnation. More than this. A-B Free’s experience confirms the theoretical positions outlined at the outset of this discussion. 2 of technological possibilities confronting contradictory public policy. A-B Free’s history reveals how inadequate and sadly irrelevant the medium of radio has become to the civic life of local communities. to demonstrate the movement’s power and win recognition from its adversaries and government. it is a story that speaks eloquently to the woeful state of contemporary radio in the USA. and to broaden the scope of conflicts in hopes of drawing in potential partners or mediators. radio was perceived as a means to create a sense of national community in an increasingly complex and divisive society (Douglas 1986). a fight to reclaim the public airwaves. This situation is all the more troubling given radio’s ubiquity. 3. likewise articulate the community-building potential of the medium (Dunifer 1998). and not simply to communicate their goals.

one which seeks not only to understand and evaluate popular movements. its day-to-day operations. serving the Cape and Nantucket Islands. I have been involved with various community media organizations in New York City and. on WRNI. During the broadcast. arises out of popular struggles to reform existing media systems and to create more egalitarian forms of communication at the local. WGBH operates at 100. I spoke at length with Provizer and Album about the station’s origins. Indeed. For example. media reform movements vividly demonstrate the centrality of communication to social movements generally.Howley: Remaking Public Service Broadcasting 237 who argue that social problems do not exist in objective reality. effectively serving the greater Boston area. WBUR likewise retransmits its signal on the Cape and as far south as Providence. All three stations draw heavily on program syndication services including NPR. the microradio movement. these efforts underscore the relationship between communication. The other NPR affiliates are WGBH and WUMB. (Mauss 1975: xvi) From this perspective. publicize and ultimately resolve social problems and conflicts depends first and foremost on communication processes’ (1999: 5). the diminution of public service broadcasting. Still. and its future viability as a medium for community communication. in Bloomington. then media reform efforts of the sort described above ought to be at the top of the research agenda. movement studies might fruitfully investigate these reform efforts for clues to understanding the communicative dynamics at work in other social movements. but rather originate in public opinion: No social condition. articulates popular concerns over media concentration and the deleterious effects that media deregulation. and democratic principles. 2 3 . More critically. This social problem. both WBUR and WUMB retransmit their broadcasts beyond Boston. socio-political movements. Given that popular struggles to democratize the media take public communication as their focus. for example. Indiana. a crisis of democratic communication. national and international levels. and hyper-commercialization have on democratic processes. Viewed in this light. Specifically. then. WUMB operates translators on both the AM and FM band to increase their reach to Cape Cod. but also to encourage and facilitate progressive projects.000 watts. Thus. which succeed in winning over important segments of public opinion to the support of a social movement aimed at changing that condition. respectively. debate. It is made a problem by the entrepreneurship of various interest groups. For its part. As Laura Stein puts it. Data for this study are based upon participant observation of A-B Free. PRI and the BBC. however deplorable or intolerable it may seem to social scientists or social critics. if movement studies constitutes an interventionist enterprise. Rhode Island. ‘Our ability to define. the comments of Steve Provizer and Seth Album included herein are taken from the 5 June 2001 broadcast of A-B Free’s weekly public affairs program The Allston-Curmudgeon. Massachusetts (1997–2001) I had occasion to work with Steve Provizer and A-B Free on a number of projects. In addition. During my time on faculty at Northeastern University in Boston. Notes 1 Since 1984. more recently. is inherently problematic. social problems are best understood as social movements. WGBH rebroadcasts much of its programming over WCAI and WNAN.

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The Author Kevin Howley (PhD. http://www. (1998) The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting. J. Indiana University. 2 Soley. L. cultural politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Tracey. 60(3): 3. Journal of Film and Video. L. The New Republic 12 February 2001. (2000) ‘Deja vu at NPR’.org/pubs/pas/pa-277. political economy of media industries. His work has appeared in Television and New Media. N. International Journal of Cultural Studies. Online.html (20 October 1999).240 Social Movement Studies. (1999) Free Radio: Electronic Civil Disobedience. Wildman. and Ecumene. 277. Peace Review. (2001) ‘Mixed Signal—NPR Sells Out’. Stein. 1998) is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at DePauw University. 11(1): 5–8. Cato Policy Analysis No. His forthcoming book Community Media: People. (1997) ‘With Friends like These: Why Community Radio Does Not Need the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’. Solomon. Vol. S. His research interests include critical-cultural analysis of community media. The Humanist. (1999) ‘Media and Democratic Action: Introduction’. media history. 3. M. Places and Communication Technologies is being published by Cambridge University Press. Boulder: Westview Press. .cato. Walker. No. and emerging technologies.

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