Cement Roots: Activists take to the airwaves

Members of the Prometheus Radio Project help underserved communities set up their own low-power FM radio stations. Now that celebrity reporting is the norm, it’s about time someone else’s voice is heard.

When I was a kid, Nickelodeon’s sketch comedy show KaBlam! was one of the best reasons to plant myself in front of a TV set. Its slightly off-color humor and bold creativity (come on, Action League Now!) made it a 10-year-old misanthrope’s dream. Prometheus and Bob played a big role in that.

The short feature, filmed in Claymation, followed the struggles of a highly advanced, time traveling alien (Prometheus) as he tried to teach a prehistoric caveman (Bob) about modern technology and life, with little success.

There’s no real connection between Prometheus and Bob and West Philly’s Prometheus Radio Project, but I do have a point. The Prometheus Radio Project is a small nonprofit that promotes community radio and provides technical support to low-power FM radio stations around the country – kind of like a highly advanced group of cavemen.

Most of us think of radio as a thing of the past, a prehistoric relic far inferior to iPods and Last.fm. But members of the Prometheus Radio Project feel that radio still has relevance and impact in today’s world, especially if it’s used as a vehicle for social change.

“In this age of media consolidation, as media become increasingly more homogenized and boring and sponsored by for-profit corporations that aren’t trying to meet the needs of communities, there’s a growing need for alternatives,” said Cory Fischer-Hoffman, Prometheus’ campaign director. “Low-power radio is a great alternative.”

Low-power FM radio stations are easy to build and operate, have a range of three to five miles and operate on 100 watts of power – the same amount of power used to light a light bulb. For all of these reasons, they’re great tools for community organizations that want to produce their own media. Unfortunately, they’re not available to everyone.

In 2000, Congress granted non-commercial organizations the right to apply for low-power stations. Nine months later, it passed the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, which limited the service to small towns and rural areas. If you live in a city and want to start your own radio station, you’re out of luck – at least for now.

“One of our biggest goals is to pass a piece of legislation that will open a new filing window and allow groups in urban and suburban areas to apply for low-power FM licenses,” Fischer-Hoffman said. “So many people have been denied the opportunity to start their own community radio stations, and we want to change that.”

Prometheus’ battle began well before 2000. In 1996, the current director of electromagnetism, Pete Tridish, and his friends started their own pirate radio station. They were inspired by the story of a man in San Francisco, who went on the air illegally to protest increased media consolidation. When he was caught, he was fined $20,000, but an injunction wasn’t filed against him for four years. This allowed him to continue his operations and teach others how to build their own stations.

Tridish and his friends bought a radio kit from the man and within a few months, they were on the air, broadcasting live out of West Philadelphia. Soon after, the Federal Communications Commission confiscated their transmitter and forced them to shut the station down.

In 1998, they founded the Prometheus Radio Project out of a need for community radio activism. Since its inception, the organization has fought hard to give individuals and groups access to airwaves.

While they haven’t yet been able to bring community radio back to Philly, they’ve helped organizations in small towns build their own radio stations and get them up and running.

“There are a lot of different ideas and opinions out there that aren’t represented by the mainstream media,” Tridish said. “We like to give smaller communities the chance to have their voices heard and to create a social and cultural identity for themselves.”

People who are interested in joining the Prometheus cause are encouraged to volunteer or intern with the organization. With a small staff of only seven people, the Prometheus Radio Project relies on its interns to help with research and campaigning.

“Prometheus operates as a collective, with all decisions made by consensus,” Fischer-Hoffman said. “So interns are given a unique opportunity to be a part of that collective and have a real say in what the organization does.”

And what Prometheus does could determine a lot for America’s future. This is an age in which Sarah Palin’s copper highlights and Britney Spears’ mental breakdowns make front-page news. It’s hard to find information that is unaffected by newsroom politics or dollar signs anywhere.

With community radio, people can create their own fresh, informative, alternative media. They can change the course of elections, trends and celebrity hairstyles everywhere.

It’s high time for a little low-power FM.

Anna Hyclak can be reached at anna.hyclak@temple.edu.

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