Broadcasting from various points around Williamsburg and other parts of Brooklyn, and with a home base/performance space deep in south Williamsburg, microradio—aka “pirate radio”—station free103point9 is more than just a transmitter of music: it’s also a multi-media arts collective, a loose-knit political organization, and an information dissemination unit. The mobile and hybrid dimension of its activities may be one reason why it’s eluded the Federal Communications Commission for so long, unlike its more famous brethren Free Radio Berkeley and the Lower East Side’s Steal This Radio, and despite receiving publicity in The Village Voice, New York Magazine, Shout, and various other publications. An additional reason is that, unlike those two microradio stations, free103point9 has decided not to publicly challenge the FCC, but has gone about its business in a less confrontational manner.
Of course, it was FCC suppression that forced Free Radio Berkeley and Steal This Radio into taking legal action, a struggle that in the former’s case went on throughout the ’90s with court rulings variously in favor and against it being upheld and overturned until finally in 1999 the FCC and Congress stepped in and reached a decision regarding the regulation of microradio. They did so, as one might assume, with lots of input from one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the United States, the National Association of Broadcasters (with National Public Radio in Faustian alliance with it). The NAB argued that microradio should be banned, because it potentially endangers the reception signal of corporate-controlled commercial radio (or, in NPR’s case, semi-corporate controlled, ostensibly non-commercial radio).
Allied on the other side of the divide was a motley bunch consisting of microbroadcasters and their legal supporters, church groups, Native American tribes, the National Organization for Women, a handful of celebrities, etc., all of whom wanted the federal government to create a sanctioned, legal structure for the licensing of local, low-wattage radio stations. Some microbraodcasters, such as Free Radio Berkeley’s Stephen Dunifer, wanted no part of seeking governmental approval and oversight of microradio, believing the fix was in. In many ways, he was right. Not surprisingly, policies concerning the regulation of microbroadcasters mostly favored the NAB, though not entirely, and the fact that the NAB had to compromise at all was seen by some as a shocking victory against such an influential monolith. In 2000, the FCC was supposed to begin a staggered acceptance of applications for a limited number of licenses. The application windows were all of five days. Call it democracy, but with a strict deadline.
As various details of the FCC plan were squabbled over in Congressional committees, and as the NAB continued lobbying hard for more changes favorable to it, the plan’s launching was delayed for two years. One of the major issues was whether or not the new stations would need to be three channels away from pre-existing stations. For example, according to previous FCC regulations, a station broadcasting from 94.1 on the FM dial shouldn’t have another station closer to it than 93.5 or 94.7. Maintaining this kind of space while licensing new radio stations is nearly impossible on the crowded New York City FM dial or, for that matter in most urban areas (which is why media conglomerates are so hot to buy NYC “community-owned” Pacifica Radio-affiliated WBAI’s prime 99.5 location, and have helped stir up so much trouble there). This, in turn, leads to one of the dirty secrets of the FCC/Congressional/NAB plan for establishing microradio stations, or, in FCC parlance, Low Power FM Radio (LPFM): there’s only enough FM room for them in rural areas. And what do rural areas have lots of besides unemployed agricultural workers? And aging demographics? And bars?
You guessed it: churches! A quick perusal of “Public Notices” posted on the FCC’s website (http://www.fcc.gov/lpfm/) reveals that more than half of the applications for LPFM licenses are from religious organizations, many of which appear to be right-wing Christian fundamentalists (they sure are organized, those right-wing Christian fundamentalists); the rest of the applications are a bland stew of transportation authorities and educational associations (not that the latter don’t have their obvious practical purposes). An argument could be made that this is in keeping with the FCC’s guidelines for eligibility: “LPFM stations are available only to noncommercial educational entities, and to non-profit public safety or transportation organizations. Licenses are not available to individuals or for commercial operations.” It also coincides nicely with Bush Jr.’s faith-based initiative to turn over important components of the public sector—like education and social welfare programs—to religious organizations. In this instance, segments of the airwaves would be turned over, though one wonders whether any mosques will be receiving LPFM licenses in the near future. If the hidden bonus track on its Audio Dispatch 02 CD entitled Constructive Engagement is any indication, free103point9 fits the FCC’s category of a “noncommercial educational entit[y].” The CD’s final track, “unscrupulous Politicians,” slices and dices snippets of a Ronald Reagan address to the 1992 Republican National Convention, to which DJ Dizzy, Transmaniacon MC, and Count Zero respond with a couple of lines from Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead of Alive”:
It’s all the same, only the names will change.
Everyday it seems we’re wasting away.
Then dead silence for five minutes. The audio starts back up with a straightforward report originally broadcast on Columbia Radio News that describes a free103point9 project to teach elementary school children from Harlem how to produce their own, ultimately illegal, microradio programs. Interviews with teachers and children’s recordings are followed by a brief history of commercial radio, the FCC, and mircrobroadcasting. Next, a discussion with DJ Dizzy, one of the original founders of free103point9, outlines some of the motivations behind microbroadcasting: to serve as a resource for local communities whose informational and cultural needs and interests aren’t being met by commercial radio, and to reclaim the public airwaves, even if it means committing civil disobedience.
Somewhat paradoxically, this hidden track is the most direct and clearly articulated section of Constructive Engagement. It’s also the only part—besides the opening and closing tracks and Seth Price’s global-geopolitical/futuristic-dystopic spoken word text “Probable Future”—that doesn’t rely almost entirely on audio recordings from recent political protests: demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000, “the war on terror” peace protests at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa in January of this year, and World Economic Forum protests in NYC in February. Though the style is consistent on most of the CD (a mix of sound collage, turntablist, ambient, and clicks and cuts), each of the eight pieces has its own set of concerns.
The opening title track establishes Constructive Engagement’s strategy of both dismantling and rebuilding, with scratching and beats echoing what sound like sawing and hammering, respectively. “Foment Revolution” repeats lines containing that phrase over a soulful groove, paralleling a similar conceit utilized in DJ Shadow’s “In/Flux” on Preemptive Strike. The third track centers on the illegal arrest and detaining of political puppetmakers at the Republican National Convention, when Philadelphia police busted into a warehouse where puppets for the demonstrations were being made and stored, destroying all the puppets and hauling almost 100 people off to jail. The piece layers protester stories, street chants, and news reportage. Out of bits and pieces of audio collage and over a reggae riddim, “L.A. Rage” slowly builds a narrative about the police crack-down on protesters at the Democratic National Convention. Tracks five and six are spoken word texts: first Price’s studio recording, and then a one-minute parody of an army drill sergeant’s “sound off” by the “Radical Cheerleaders” that end with them chanting. “Kiss the back of my butt. Uh-huh.” More than any other portion of Constructive Engagement, it captures the humor, imagination, and spontaneity that are among the most exhilarating aspects of recent political protests.
“New York Rebuilds” is an almost 20-minute sound collage consisting of recordings from the World Economic Forum protests. All over the place yet interconnected (like many of the recent protests), the piece captures the constant movement, dead spaces, overheard conversations, muffled voices, and outbreaks of noise, chants, music, drum playing, and clapping—accompanied by the constant background of police sirens and radios—that constitute the experience of being on the streets during the protests. The protesters’ drums provide most of the manipulated beats on this track. After the halfway point, it incorporates a section of reportage from the NYC branch of the Independent Media Center that describes the police roughing up a group of protesters that includes representatives from the media. Fans of politicized audio experimenters such as Ultra-red and Bob Ostertag will appreciate this track and the disc as a whole.
Like the protests themselves, Constructive Engagement doesn’t present an easily-generalized or isolated message, other than that there are a variety of ways to resist repressive institutions and hegemonic ideologies, and that there’s a wide range of issues represented by the protesters. This diversity of interests is one of the strongest, but also occasionally frustrating, aspects of recent political protest. The strengths exist in coalition-building and in understanding that oppression is refracted through intersections of ethnicity, gender, lass, health, age, ecology, etc.; the difficulty rests in trying to bring these issues forward in a coherent and unified way that can spark widespread change. But while waiting for that change to occur, and in order to help instigate it, there’s a need to continue constructing alternatives on the margins. The FCC’s decision to license a limited number of Low Power FM Radio stations is neither an example of change nor does it allow for meaningful alternatives. For now, free103point9 and its projects such as Constructive Engagement provide provisional and useful maps for charting other terrains.
Constructive Engagement, along with other Audio Dispatch volumes and a variety of recordings, is available from free103point9’s website at http://www.screwmusicforever.com/free103/freemenu.html.
Alan Gilbert is a poet and critic whose writings on art, poetry, culture, and politics have appeared in a variety of publications, including the Rail.