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In September 2000, extraordinary events took place in San Francisco, where the National Association of Broadcasters held its annual Radio Convention. For the first time, people took to the streets to voice their concerns with the state of the media.
As rapid consolidation in the American radio industry drastically reduces the diversity of voices on the dial, listeners are noticing the change. More ads, less information. A booming bottom line, but nary a pipsqueak of real news and issues we need and can use.
It’s a dangerous trend. When the people can’t communicate with each other on a mass scale through a free and democratic media, then just how free and democratic can a society be?
So as the American radio industry met in its annual confab to celebrate profits and product, thousands of activists converged on the city for what we all hoped was the start of a real Media Democracy movement.
Like other protests around the country in 2000 (and ever since), the NAB events were well-chronicled by San Francisco’s Independent Media Center; dozens of independent journalists worked together in the impromptu workspace of the offices of the Media Alliance to get their side of the story past the corporate mainstream filters.
I ended up spending more time than I expected to at the IMC – it turned out to be a home of long hours and scratchy eyes. But it was worth it.
The IMC had print, audio and video teams working all of the week’s events surrounding the National Association of Broadcasters’ convention; teams were loosely organized and one did what they could to keep the operation running. It’s amazing what can be done with drive alone.
Even so, I was able to get out and fill eight minidiscs with audio from the events, and burned off six rolls of film. What follows is a personal blow-by-blow account of what it’s like to rage at the real rogues of radio.
Wednesday, September 20:
The first organized protest at the NAB’s convention site (the Moscone Center) was hosted by the National Organization for Women. Several chapters of NOW marched at noon with picket signs and chanted slogans blasting corporate radio for turning women into pieces of meat for marketing purposes.
Dozens of NOW activists showed up for the event; they were led by NOW Foundation President Patricia Ireland, who pointed out several pitiful examples of the way the radio industry has used and degraded women.
Ireland herself made several comments not only in favor of general diversity on the airwaves, but expressed specific enthusiastic support for the FCC’s new low power FM (LPFM) service and, surprisingly, for pirate radio and the people who engage in it.
Several radio convention attendees came out to ogle the women, but all kept a respectful distance.
Later that afternoon, I had a chance to visit Stephen Dunifer and Free Radio Berkeley. While Dunifer’s no longer on the air himself, having lost his federal court case, he’s stocked with supplies – Free Radio Berkeley’s ‘workshop’ is more like a warehouse, with shelves piled high filled with boxes of old electronics, components and tapes of FRB shows. It’s a room full of history, and I could’ve spent the whole week there rummaging through it all.
Just because Dunifer’s not broadcasting anymore doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have the potential; he showed me some of the new transmitter designs he’s been working on, including a 300-watt FM transmitter about the size of a suitcase.
Then, almost as if on cue, visitors arrived bearing gear in need of Dunifer’s touch; the amplifier for Humboldt Pirate Radio was sick, and the station ops were at a loss.
Dunifer took one look at the box of jumbled wires and solder, and with much rolling of eyes and a few sighs, immediately went to work – immersed in his element. I snuck back out at that point, and began the long walk back to the train. I slept well that night.
Thursday, September 21:
The festivities began in earnest today; this was the official kick-off morning for the NAB convention, and at 8:30 a press conference was held outside the Moscone Center.
But this event wasn’t for the benefit of the National Association of Broadcasters; it was for the "National Association of Brainwashers," the media activists’ parody group.
All of the "anti-nobles" were there, mimicking and aping their real-world counterparts: Howard Sternum (whose penchant for profanity was hilarious), Eddie Frittz (the NAB’s own "Corprate Extortion Officer"), Lawly Mays (a female verson of Clear Channel’s head honcho Lowry Mays), and various other characters.
The press conference ended when the ‘National Association of Brainwashers’ got bum-rushed by the "common folk," who commandeered the sound system and brought the point home:
“This is no joke. Billions of dollars are being made off of our airwaves, but the real cost is in the exchange of ideas we’ve lost since commercial radio became big business.”
The police presence at the Moscone Center certainly ramped up this day, too. San Francisco’s finest knew something was in the wind, but for now they just sat back and watched the parody (and tried hard not to laugh).
Inside the real NAB convention, General Colin Powell was giving the keynote speech; ironically, his contract for the speaking engagement prohibited any audio or video recording of his remarks.
Thursday is also when Ted Coopman of Rogue Communication arrived; we were splitting an 8×10 room at a nearby hotel, and it was nice to finally truly meet someone you’ve known virtually for a long time. Definitely a kindred spirit.
We made our way to the activists’ Convergence Center (located in San Francisco’s Mission District, where free food and other helping hands were always available) to try and get a preview of what Friday’s day of "direct action" would entail.
Friday, September 22:
The shit hit the fan bright and early: around seven in the morning, more than 100 protesters converged on the front doors of the Moscone Center. While they made a ruckus and the police were still setting up a line to keep them out of the complex, four activists darted into the lobby and locked themselves together with thick steel bike locks around their necks.
The NAB couldn’t deny it now. We were here, and we were in its face. The police immediately retaliated; they forced the protesters outside the Moscone Center all the way back to the street, established a line of barricades, and began negotiations with the ‘lockdown team’ in the lobby.
Meanwhile, FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth was about to take the stage to address conventioneers; two more media activists beat him to the podium and expressed their displeasure with the state of corporate radio before being escorted away.
And in one the convention center’s parking lanes people were playing "Media Monopoly" – making some improv street theatre with a message.
Eventually the crowd of protesters outside decided to abandon their demonstration at the Moscone Center – but they marched on to a new target: The San Francisco headquarters of Clear Channel Communications, the largest radio station owner in America.
The police did not expect the masses to move several blocks; their reaction to this was not pretty. At least two protesters were beaten and arrested while while cops attempted to herd everyone onto the sidewalks.
Still, the throng arrived at the Clear Channel building relatively intact, voices were raised and there were more scuffles between police and protesters as the cops attempted to form a blue barrier between the activists and their object of wrath.
Little did they know that members of one of the stations were watching the commotion outside. Soon after they arrived, the crowd was assaulted by two thuggish men – "personalities" from 94.9 KYLD‘s "Dog House" shock-jock morning show. Some shoving ensued, profanities flowed like water, and if anyone caught some on videotape, there’s a good chance those Dog House boys could be the focus of an FCC investigation and felony indictment for assault.
Friday, September 22 (II):
Back at the Moscone Center, the four protesters who locked themselves together in the lobby of the convention hall were prepared for a long stay. The police attempted to negotiate their surrender, but to no avail. Finally, NAB executives got tired of seeing the demonstration, so they ordered police to put up a portable curtain around the activists.
This was not a smart move. All four immediately began shouting anti-NAB chants at the tops of their lungs, further embarrassing the radio elite. Eventually, the San Francisco Fire Department was called in, and with a buzzsaw-like cutting tool (plus lots of sparks) they "unlocked" the protesters, who were then hauled off to jail.
By this time, the demonstration at the Clear Channel building had broken up, and word was beginning to filter back that people had been. Some made their way to the city’s "Hall of Justice" to express their displeasure at the incarceration of their colleagues.
Fortunately, there was legal aid available: members of the National Lawyer’s Guild were dispatched to represent those behind bars.
Here, the police made another mistake: they refused the lawyers access to the building. Claiming a "security risk" existed, they had locked down the "Hall of Justice. Those activists arrested were hence denied their constitutional right to legal representation.
The attorneys knew they had the upper hand; all attempted to run the police line. One went with a (verbal) fight, and two went peacefully; all were arrested for "assaulting a police officer."
It took until early Saturday morning before everyone was finally free again.
During all of this, yours truly was in the IMC, keeping the tabs on news from both outside and inside the convention while helping reporters with tape get their field audio online.
There was even a small ‘war of the spins’ going on; the NAB had its own press team trying to put a lid on the day’s events while continuing to spew forth their propaganda. IMC reporters worked throughout the day to counter some of that, too.
News from inside the convention building itself was tough to come by, as the NAB had begun revoking the press credentials of not only independent journalists, but even those of some of mainstream news outlets in San Francisco. The NAB had been rattled. That, in itself, constituted a victory.
Saturday, September 23:
The first half of the day involved two major events. The first was the Micropower Council of War. Stephen Dunifer led the meeting, which produced a detailed strategy for free radio activists well into next year.
The microradio movement has absolutely no intentions of fading away even though others have co-opted some of their ideas and phraseology; they know that LPFM’s potential is still nebulous at best, and pointless at worst. There is still much to fight for.
Ironically enough, on Friday the FCC came out with a revision to its LPFM plan. Under increasing pressure from Congress, the NAB and National Public Radio, the FCC reinstated all the normal channel spacing protection in several potential LPFM service areas, robbing the public of some of the radio crumbs they’ve been promised.
Of course, most people attending at the Council of War meeting were already on the air, so the motivation to do more wasn’t hard to come by.
At noon, a bunch of us gathered outside the Hilton hotel, where coincidentally National Public Radio’s Board of Directors was meeting.
Some had secured a half hour on the agenda to speak about NPR’s opposition to LPFM, and before going inside we held a press conference kicking off a nationwide "Un-Donation" campaign against NPR and its member stations, suggesting people stop pledging money to public radio until it agrees to support more public access to the airwaves.
The NPR Board ended up giving us extra time to call them on the carpet about their opposition to LPFM, and afterwards, NPR CEO Kevin Klose himself and another Board member came out to engage a handful of us in some one-on-one dialogue.
It’s not so often access like that falls into your lap, but the conversation didn’t seem very fruitful. Klose and other NPR big-wigs didn’t say anything new, simply re-packaging standard arguments of opposition to low power radio – going through the motions of dialogue.
At least now, though, NPR can’t deny the dissent among its grassroots ranks on the issue.
At four p.m., a crowd of thousands gathered in United Nations Plaza for a media democracy rally. Energized by speakers, poets, music, and theatre, most compared notes about their experiences over the past three days while others paraded around with special signs and costumes made especially for the event.
It was supposed to be a final battle call, as everyone who’d been working the citywide protest of the past couple of days finally converged in one spot. Invigorating would be putting it mildly – but it was nothing compared to what would happen that night.
Saturday, September 23 (II):
A little after six p.m., the entire rally took to the streets. It captivated the downtown; the bustling stopped and all focused on the first-ever Media Democracy March.
But it was only a few blocks of bliss before we heard more music: there, waiting in Union Square for us, was a stage and concert. Now began the party – singing, dancing and laughing were the order of business as we celebrated twisting the corporate ear.
However, the action wasn’t over yet. Wordsmith punk Jello Biafra headlined the show, and he railed on the NAB and corporate media in his uniquely deviant style. His satirical soliloquy got to us all, and when he ended with, "To the Hilton….CHAAARRRGE!," many did just that.
So it was to the Hilton we went. Tonight the hotel played host to the NAB’s annual Marconi Radio Awards show. While the commercial broadcast elite gave each other crystal trophies and smoked stogies (Rush Limbaugh was an honored guest this year), a crowd of a couple hundred congealed in front of the hotel’s lobby doors.
The police, who had followed from the concert, knew what they had to do. Several dozen motorcycle cops were dispatched to ring the outer fringes of the crowd, while riot-gear-clad officers formed phalanxes between the protesters and the hotel.
As jewel-studded guests inside looked on, a rag-tag impromptu lark became a full-fledged demonstration. The chanting and shouting began as people pressed closer and closer to the lobby door, the crowd growing larger as well.
Then the riot batons came out – an uneasy ‘no man’s land’ formed between the front wedge of the protesters and the Blue Line. Staring contests ensued. A battle of wills began.
Some of the organizers and motivators from the past weeks’ events worked their way to the front of the demonstration and declared their intent to try and get through the police line. They were quickly blocked, and as the crowd inched forward the police pushed back with their batons.
Any more physical contact with the cops after this would mean arrest; the no-man’s land reappeared and tensions ramped up.
But it had been a long and joyous day: for the first time in history, the masses had successfully organized to shout down the media. Rather than escalating the situation, the demonstration slowly evaporated and the police started acting human again.
Ted Coopman and I headed back to the IMC for one final visit; we commandeered the live webcast, gave an eyewitness report from the streets about the events of the night, and played Jello Biafra’s speech for the world to hear.
Memories and Momentum:
Shortly after midnight on Sunday morning found me in the San Francisco International Airport, where I caught a redeye back to Madison, Wisconsin. There were some wrap-up events planned for Sunday that I missed out on, but it had already been an exhausting and exhilarating experience.
However, after 36 straight hours awake to tell you this story, I can honestly say that the battle to take back the airwaves is no longer a fringe issue. While the "mainstream" might not yet be up to speed, there’s a whole lot more voices in our camp now than there were this time last week. This was no Seattle, but it was a start.
Corporate control of the media is a cancer on our society. If left unchecked, it will choke us off from each other. Some might say the process has already begun.
But people are starting to recognize the price they’re paying for hyper-commercial speech, and – more importantly – they’re starting to raise their voices in dismay.
Don’t stop the shouting now.
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