Making Waves

Making Waves is documentary that tells the story of low-power FM radio and micropower radio broadcasters in the United States and their struggles with broadcast regulators and media lobbies to retain access to their public airwaves. Kooks, visionaries, religious groups, artists, DIY technology hobbyists, and people of all ages spanning the political dial are profiled to form a narrative of how low cost, low power, lo-fi technology can enrich communities and provide a unique voice in the frequencies.  The documentary is essentially answering the question, “if the radio airwaves are publicly owned and it is legal for citizens to start a radio station, why are  citizen radio stations shut down“. After I watched this documentary I recalled an interview by publicknowledge.org with Ken Freedman of WFMU in which he refers to the economics of one-to-many broadcasting on the internet:

The way the Internet is built right now, there’s a catch 22, which is that the more people who use it, the less well it works. And that’s just not the case with FM, or broadcast television …

… FM is a better technology, but it’s been ruined in this country just through policy. And I don’t think there’s any way of turning that back. The decent stations on the non-commercial end of the dial are packed in so tightly together that they come in really badly. They don’t have good enough coverage. And the commercial band, you’ve eliminated almost all the independent stations through the Telecom Reform Act. It’s not the technology. It’s the policy that’s been ruining the technology.

As I reread the Freedman interview I recalled Jaron Lanier‘s concept of “lock-in” in the evolution of technologies that he outlines in You Are Not a Gadget,

The fateful, unnerving aspect of information technology is that a particular design will occasionally happen to fill a niche and, once implemented, turn out to be unalterable.  It becomes a permanent fixture from then on, even though a better design might just as well have taken its place before the moment of entrenchment.

I used to be a community school administrator and teacher in the High Arctic community of Aklavik in the late 1990’s.  I often reflect back on my years living in Aklavik and am so grateful for the incredible experiences and wonderful people that shaped my first few years as a public school educator.  Among my memories is my involvement with low-power FM radio and how integral it was as a voice of the community.  The “station” was a small closet in the hockey arena/bingo hall and was used primarily to broadcast bingo to the small arctic hamlet of 600.  In between the bingo games people called into the station to request all manner of announcements to be made: messages to hunters out in Mackenzie-Delta hunting cabins, messages of births, condolences, upcoming events, and community news.

One of the after school projects I got going with high school students was a student radio show to take advantage of the freely available airtime to allow the voices of students from the school to take to the air.  We had some fun with the after school club and managed to integrate some English, ICT, and Social Studies assignments into some radio programming but the vast majority of our programming consisted of hip hop shows run by students after school and leading up to the start of the bingo broadcast – about 2 hours a day of student radio.  I taped many of the shows and I am hoping that these cassettes will magically emerge soon from the great diaspora of my worldly possessions.  The student radio show on the low-power FM was very meaningful for Moose Kerr School high school students and provided them with a strong voice in their community … all powered by a wild assortment of Radio Shack equipment,  a battle weary 50 watt FM transmitter, and ever rotating stacks of students’ portable CD players.

The track that was always played at end of the show was Ani Difranco and Utah Phillips’ song Bridges.  I recommended this to the student radio group one day at school while we were all brainstorming show ideas.  The students liked the beat and I thought the message in the story was very apropos for our time and place.

Ani DiFrano & Utah Phillips – Bridges

anidifrano_utahphillips_bridges.mp3

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3 Comments

  1. You are a man of many talents, Mr. Potter. Now we can add LPFM DJ to the roster. I loved my time in community radio and the people involved in it. True grassroots media.

    That Ani/Utah CD was one of my faves at that time as well. My favorite quote from Utah on that CD is “No matter how New Age you get, old age is going to kick you in the ass.”

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