Praying for Air

Recently I’ve been irritated by the over-professionalization of American culture. We rely on professionals to bring us our music, our entertainment, even God—which causes our own creativity to wither, and leaves us lacking different ways to see the world. This is most prominent in the state of radio broadcasting today. But I find some hope for an opening of communications in the model of the church.

Most American radio today is a top-down form of communication—much like the Church in the Middle Ages. Then, Bibles were written in Latin, a language few people knew, and chained to the altars so only priests had access to them. Not until the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press did people start getting direct access to the Word of God. Communication, which had been from God to priest to ordinary worshipper, was now opened up. The Reformation and the new mass communication tool of the printing press disrupted the hierarchy of the church.

Today, a similar response to the hierarchical control of the mass media is being generated through low-power radio. According to Felix Guattari, an Italian radio activist, "’popular free radio’...aims at changing the professionally mediated relationship between listener and speaker, and even challenging the listener/speaker dichotomy itself." In America, we generally accept radio as a one-way communications tool: We have music played at us and hundreds of ads beamed at us each day. The average listener rarely helps determine the actual content of a radio show.

With the low-power radio movement, this is beginning to change. People are realizing that, with a few hundred dollars, they can start their own radio stations, broadcasting to a radius of a couple of miles. They can invite their neighbors on the air to talk about local issues. They can play whatever music they want to hear. They can promote local causes. The standard communication order is being disrupted.

THE CHURCH I grew up in inspired me in local activism, as well as in our efforts to start our own low-power radio station. This church was founded in the late ‘60s by people who wanted an ecumenical worship and a spiritual community. They didn’t have the money to hire a pastor so they took responsibility for worship leadership as a group. Growing up in this church, I was enveloped in a community of people who trusted each other with the responsibility of creating an environment in which to worship God.

I see parallels in our current attempt to increase dialogue in our community through our own radio station. We envision a small station that reaches a few neighborhoods, with programming ranging from multilingual news shows to live broadcasts of community meetings to in-studio performances of local bands. We don’t have money to buy our own full-power radio station and hire engineers, DJs, and producers. We are turning to each other to provide the experience and energy for broadcasting to our community, enabling all of us to have access to our neighbors’ ears, to share our music, opinions, and conversations. Just as the church I was raised in is rather small, we plan on remaining small too. In order to be non-professional and effective, we must stay small. Our goal is not to get bigger. Our goal is to get better at what we do, to allow for greater amounts of creative expression over the few square miles we reach.

It is still unclear if the FCC will ever legalize low-power broadcasting and make the airwaves truly accessible to ordinary people. But I’d like to think that in freeing the air for community access, we are part of a greater movement of people creating their own culture based on shared trust and a common vision of meaningful—even spiritual— communication.

AMANDA HURON works locally with the Mount Pleasant Broadcasting Club in Washington, D.C., and nationally with the Microradio Empowerment Coalition. For more on the microradio movement, see "Radio Rules" (Sojourners, January-February 1999) and visit the Web site for updates on low-power-radio activism around the country.

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