A mother’s voice stretched over the air to a son spending the holidays in a Virginia prison: "Keep your head up. I love you. Just do what you gotta do to survive."
The hushed message was one of dozens featured on Calls from Home, a project of Mountain Community Radio in Kentucky. Each December, the call-in program helps families of prisoners reconnect through holiday shoutouts, aired on stations across the country.
Since the first mass broadcasts crackled over the country’s airwaves in the 1920s, radio has defined itself as a democratic medium, providing communities that have few resources–from inmates to immigrant workers–a conduit for news and civic communication.
But today, media activists say commercialism has reduced a vital institution to an industry of white noise. In response, alternative radio projects and media-justice movements have emerged to resuscitate a flagging public sphere.
Jammed with shock jocks, manufactured gangstas and formulaic news bites, the FM dial allows scant room for critical thought. Activists say that’s no accident. The broadcast industry has become heavily consolidated and commercialized since the 1990s, thanks to the dismantling of federal regulations on corporate ownership. Those trends, critics argue, have systematically silenced the voices of women, people of color, youth and other underrepresented communities in the public sphere.
It wasn’t always this way. A generation ago, radio was fueling activism in Black communities nationwide.
Broadcast veteran Glen Ford, now editor of the online journal Black Agenda Report, recalled how Black radio news helped anchor civil rights movements in the 1960s and ’70s: "They would be the ones to cover the folks who were protesting police brutality or advocating cleanups of the Black community or speaking about Black issues in education."
Today, mega-broadcasters like Clear Channel Communications, which controls more than 1,100 stations nationwide, are fixated on ad revenues and economies of scale. Since it’s more profitable to centralize content, local affiliates run mass-marketed music and news, generally at the expense of independent artists and community oriented
The homogenization of radio plays out in ownership patterns as well. A recent study by the media reform group FreePress found that "ethnic minorities" and people of color control less than 8 percent of full-scale commercial stations, while making up about one-third of the population. Black radio ownership hovers around 3.4 percent, while about 13 percent of Americans are Black.
Paul Porter, an industry veteran, who now leads the media think-tank Industry Ears, believes the issue goes beyond just the demographics of owners: even Radio One, the country’s leading Black-owned broadcasting network, follows the standard corporate formula of commercial Black music and minimal news.
Across the dial, Porter said, "Radio is shaped for stockholders instead of listeners."
As broadcast conglomerates narrow radio’s political scope, activists are recasting the medium to once again empower underserved communities.
For decades, WMMT Mountain Community Radio has been the only progressive news source covering the working-class coalfield communities of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. When two Supermax prisons moved into the area, the station suddenly faced a new constituency: Black, male prisoners transplanted from cities into mostly white Appalachian mining towns.
WMMT’s parent organization, the Appalshop arts center, turned the impending culture clash into an opportunity for dialogue.
"We considered the prison audience as part of our community," said WMMT producer Nick Szuberla. "And then we began to figure out ways to use community radio to address what was happening and to make space on our station for their family and supporters."
The station began investigating local prisoners’ complaints of abuse in 1999 and soon developed Holler to the Hood, a call-in program that explores the viewpoints of inmates and their families, along with local community members. In addition to reconnecting separated families, the program has helped launch grassroots civil rights campaigns and musical collaborations between hip-hop and country artists.
Even in the so-called digital age, stations like WMMT remain a key resource for communities isolated from the technological grid.
"We don’t have broadband, WiFi, cable access," said Szuberla. "Community radio is a huge part of rural communities’ civic discourse."
For indigenous communities wrestling with poverty and social marginalization, media access is a human rights issue.
Loris Taylor, executive director of Native Public Media, which advocates on behalf of the country’s 33 American Indian-owned public stations, said that tribe-run broadcasters are typically the sole source for community-based cultural programming and news.
"If you don’t have access and ownership and control of a media system, you really don’t exist," she said. "You don’t matter in terms of being citizens in a democracy who are entitled to the ability to tell, and have a conversation about, your own stories."
With its gritty do-it-yourself ethos, grassroots radio offers a platform for personal storytelling on a mass scale.
Thandisizwe Chimurenga, cofounder and cohost of Some of Us Are Brave on the California-based Pacifica network, approaches radio as a "mobilizing medium." Since 2003, the weekly show has been a rare space for Black women of diverse political backgrounds to reflect on topics such as domestic violence, immigration, mental health and imprisonment.
"The show aims to be a resource for the communities that we come from," she said. "Black women’s voices are so under-represented, so absent in media."
To advance the show’s mission, Chimurenga’s organization, the Ida B. Wells Institute, is developing a media program for young women of color. By giving youth opportunities to produce their own stories, she said, the training is designed to "demystify the workings of media for people–show them they can actually do this also."
At Atlanta’s Latin American and Caribbean Community Center, grassroots media-making has shone a spotlight on Latino perspectives that establishment media routinely ignore. The group’s Radio Diaspora project, broadcast in English and Spanish on WRFG Radio Free Georgia, covers the plight of African descendants throughout the Americas who have long struggled for visibility.
While corporate news often segregates coverage of "Latino" and "Black" issues, Radio Diaspora draws connections between different forms of oppression and structural racism across the hemisphere. A recent trans-border call-in program examined internal displacement in the Black diaspora, linking Hurricane Katrina survivors with a community of African-descendant earthquake survivors in Peru.
Defying the foreign correspondent model, Radio Diaspora’s unconventional press corps relays news straight from the source. Local community members and activists record and produce their own stories as they happen on the ground.
"Our audience, and our participants–they really dictate the shows that we do," said coordinator Janvieve Williams.
The country is dotted with more than 9,000 full-scale FM stations, but fewer than a third are designated noncommercial and educational broadcasters. While the Federal Communications Commission recently moved to grant some new non-commercial licenses, activists are looking beyond the standard radio spectrum to carve out fresh broadcast venues.
Some see promise in low-power FM radio, a new class of frequencies with a range of a few miles. The FCC has allotted a limited number of low-power licenses to community groups in recent years, though advocates say not nearly enough.
One of the newest low-power ventures is WMXP in Greenville, South Carolina. The volunteer-based station launched last summer as a partnership between the South Carolina Affiliate of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a national organizing network, and the media advocacy group Prometheus Radio Project.
Engaging local youth as listeners and operators, WMXP works to counter the generic news and music that dominates local radio. "The only real way to make sure that there are diverse voices on the airwaves is by really having stations that are committed to community access," said cofounder Efia Nwangaza.
Local spoken-word poet Preston Walker is developing a free-form talk program inspired by the Black radio hosts and hip-hop artists who shaped his identity growing up–
influences that have all but vanished in his community.
"I’m looking forward to introducing them to something new, something different," he said, "something that they could grab hold of, and become a part of."
While alternative institutions like low-power FM encapsulate what grassroots organizing can accomplish, some radio activists focus on compelling broader changes within mainstream media.
"We need to grab our people wherever they are," said Chimurenga. "In terms of activists, in terms of people of color, we need to build alternative institutions, but we also need to fight where we are. And we need to hold these mainstream institutions accountable because they hold influence in our communities."
FCC policies broadly mandate corporate broadcasters to serve community information and educational needs. But activists are skeptical about the regulatory system’s will to uphold those standards. In December, topping years of rollbacks to media-ownership rules, the FCC moved to further gut anti-monopoly protections by unraveling a long-standing ban on ownership of both a radio station and a daily newspaper within one market area.
Activists in communities of color have meanwhile grown frustrated with the scope of the media reform debate. Groups like FreePress reflect their mostly white, liberal leadership, critics say, by focusing on regulatory changes and not grassroots outreach to communities shut out of corporate media.
"When we talk about ‘media diversity,’ we’re not simply talking about diversifying media choices or voices," said Malkia Cyril of the Oakland-based Youth Media Council. "We’re talking about eliminating the structural oppression and racism at the core of consolidation."
Aiming to bridge grassroots activism with policy advocacy, Youth Media Council sees the media infrastructure as both a target and vehicle for activism. By training youth to frame their political messages and build media campaigns, the group has helped youth of color publicize their actions in mainstream outlets. The Council’s media-accountability monitoring projects have scrutinized local coverage of youth and social issues, pushing broadcasters like Clear Channel to provide more community-oriented programming.
"Who has the right to participate in and regulate this media system is a question of citizenship," Cyril said. "And the question of civil enfranchisement is an issue for everybody."