Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism. By Christina Dunbar-Hester. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T., Nov. 2014. Hardcover, 320 pages, $36.00
Reviewed by Donna Halper
As American commercial radio became increasingly dominated by corporate interests during the 1980s and 1990s, some community activists determined to preserve radio’s local and independent character. In Low Power to the People, Christina Dunbar-Hester, a Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University, offers an in-depth look at one particular group of activists, the Prometheus Radio Project. Unlike some academic studies, this book is written from the perspective of both a participant and an observer: Dunbar-Hester not only studied the history and accomplishments of Prometheus; she immersed herself in the activities of the group. She worked in their offices, accompanied members on trips to Washington, DC, as they lobbied the U.S. Congress; and attended their events, as they trained local community groups interested in setting up low power FM radio (LPFM).
Back in the ham radio era, the hobby was first dominated by what we would today call “radio geeks,” a large number of whom were middle-aged white males who loved to tinker. They read every technical magazine they could find, and they enjoyed demonstrating the equipment they built for their ham shack. As Dunbar-Hester points out in chapter 1, these first experimenters were totally neutral about politics: they avoided discussing current events over the air, and they took no stands on the hot-button issues of the day. Rather, involvement in ham radio was about friendship and camaraderie: talking over the air with hams from distant cities and countries, setting up local ham radio clubs, and getting together at conferences to discuss advances in the technology.
But while the LPFM movement had its share of geeks and tinkerers, the Prometheus philosophy was far from neutral. These activists believed that low power radio could be an effective vehicle for political organizing, and could give a voice to those who felt marginalized by the corporate media. As Dunbar-Hester explains, radio geeks like the ones who belonged to Prometheus, “…were committed to raising political consciousness above all else; they did not value technical virtuosity in and of itself.” In fact, they wanted to make technology less mysterious, in order to enhance participation in what they hoped would be an egalitarian movement. And even though the common wisdom by the early 2000s was that radio was yesterday’s news, replaced by the internet and social media, these activists disagreed: for them, there was power in being on the radio, a power they could use to promote social justice in each community.
Years before the LPFM movement began, Prometheus was a pirate radio collective, working outside the system. But gradually, the group’s focus shifted; they decided to work within the system by advocating for non-commercial. low power FM licenses, an idea that the Federal Communication Commission favored. Unfortunately, there was strong opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which claimed the creation of LPFMs would interfere with established FM signals. The NAB wanted to allow only a limited number of LPFM licenses; they also lobbied Congress heavily, trying to prevent legislation that would allow greater access in the future. In 2000, the NAB and other opponents of LPFMs got their way: low power stations were created, but a much smaller number of licenses got approved. It would be another decade before Prometheus and allied groups were finally able to persuade Congress that LPFMs were not a threat. In 2010, President Obama signed a bill to expand the number of LPFM licenses.
Throughout this book, Dunbar-Hester takes the reader behind the scenes as Prometheus strategizes around how to promote the benefits of LPFM radio. We follow the group to Tennessee, Oregon, Florida. and elsewhere, as they plan events, build or refurbish equipment; and offer workshops. But the strategic planning sessions are often messy and complicated: while the author clearly has affection and respect for the activists, she doesn’t shy away from pointing out their flaws, one of which was that as in any volunteer organization. different people came to the group with different agendas. Many members of Prometheus had left-wing political beliefs, and they wanted to make sure the new LPFMs strongly reflected that point of view. Others were more concerned with making sure various voices were heard; their chief interest was promoting ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity, as well as gender equality. And others wanted to teach as many local people as possible how to do radio, so that they would then be empowered to “create their own media and effect local and global social change.” As a result, sometimes. the group could not make up its mind as to which goals were achievable, and which were based on an aspirational view of what community radio could do.
As we get to know Prometheus better, we see how the group tries to stay true to its core values, often with mixed results. There are some impressive successes, leading to community radio stations going on the air not just in the United States but also in other countries, including one in Tanzania. But in chapter 3, the author discusses how Prometheus, an organization committed to egalitarianism. tries to overcome the tendency towards “dude culture” by finding women and minorities with technical expertise, and encouraging them to teach other women and minorities. rather than relying on the stereotypic all-knowing white male teacher who imparts his wisdom to those who know less than he does.
But wishing for gender equality, or even actively trying to achieve it, doesn’t always make it so. Many Prometheus events devolve into traditional gender roles, with the women doing most of the cooking, and not expressing much interest in learning how to build a transmitter. Still, the attempt to redefine what is “masculine” or what is “femlnine” about building a successful community station is interesting: the male radio activists sincerely believed in the “emancipatory power of tinkering.” and they tried to encourage more women to give it a try. However, not everyone took them up on their offer. Also, some of the women who did become excited about learning to use a soldering iron or helping to repair equipment then felt they were letting the men down if soldering didn’t become a passion. One woman whom the author interviewed remarked that she felt as if she had to make a choice between some of her female colleagues, who preferred knitting or cooking, and the expectations of her male colleagues. who hoped she’d become more involved with engineering. On the other hand, a number of women who were given the opportunity to learn how to repair equipment did find this knowledge useful, and they were eager to learn more.
Low Power to the People is filled with interesting anecdotes about the growth of the LPFM movement and we see how some of the Prometheus members learn to lobby Congress as effectively as they had learned to build community radio stations. Dunbar-Hester is generally a fine story-teller, conveying the excitement of creating a new station, the frustration with a Congress that often seems unwilling to listen, and the sense of pride Prometheus feels about how they advanced the LPFM movement.
My only quibble is that at times, the author slips into a dense academic jargon that is more suitable to a journal article than to a book with mass-appeal. Also, we are never told whether these community stations become successful, or whether they end up going off the air. Perhaps that kind of follow-up is outside the focus of this book, but it would be interesting to see what impact greater access to LPFM has really had. Still, for readers seeking proof that an “old” medium like radio can be relevant to a new generation and can make a difference in a community, this book will brighten your day.
Donna L. Halper is an Associate Professor of Communication at Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org