Button: The Airwaves Belong to the Listeners

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WBAI is a noncommercial, listener-supported radio station in New York City. It was started in 1960 by the Pacifica Foundation, a progressive nonprofit started by a pacifist, Lewis Hill, in 1949, when he and others began broadcasting on a Berkeley, California FM radio station, KPFA. Back then, there were very few FM stations, and they mostly aired classical music. Few people had FM radio receivers. Gradually the idea took hold in the Bay Area during the politically dark years of the 1950's. Never easy and always a struggle to stay on teh air, depending only on listeners donations, it was a unique experiemnt in noncommercial radio. A decade later, Pacifica was ready to start a station in the largest media market in the country. In 1960, WBAI became a Pacifica radio station. Soon after, Pacifica also began broadcasting on KPFK in Los Angeles. In he later 1960's, they started KPFW in Houston, Texas. The Houston station is the only radio station in U.S., history to have had its broadcast antenna tower bombed. Not once, but twice! By that time, the far right understood the power and potential influence a progressive radioi staion could have in the traditionally conservative Houston region. Pacifica has five member stations, including WPFW in Washington, D.C. Each operates independently, with their own local managemnet and board. On February 11, 1977, New York's WBAI was taken off the air in a heavy-handed effort by local station management to silence the voices of WBAI staffers who supprted a local staff union. During the weeks that the station was off the air, hundreds of listeners from the tri-state area organzed and held demonstrations and organizing meetings in support of the locked-out staff and free speech. The progressive Pacifica foundation was mired in a classic labor versus management struggle, with the additional factor that this was a listener-supported station which counted on voluntary donations from its thousands of listeneers to stay on the air. It immediately was recogniuzed to be a free speech issue as well. The struggle dragged on for a couple of years. We contributed the design for what became our first button. The hand lettered message: "The airwaves belong to the people"was simple and direct. The idea became a rallying focus of the struggle.

The Federal Communications Commission was established as a federal government regulatory agency in 1934. The Telecommunicatiosn Act of that year legally acknowledged this simple idea. It was important to establish that no private or government entity could "own" the broadcast airwaves; just as no one can own the air itself. In a democracy, the airwaves must belong to all the people of the nation. This idea was established in law to protect from a future corporate monopoly of the airwaves. Over time, the idea has been eroded by the likes of corporarte predators like Clear Channel Corporation and Rupert Murdoch. Clear Channel owns over 1,500 radio stations across the U.S., making that one corporation the largest in the U.S. radio industry. A generational later in the late 1990's, another crisis took place at he founding station, KPFA in Berkeley, and again at WBAI in New York. Both due to conservative forces trying to rein in radical voices at the stations. Each year since 2005, the New Press sponsors a national Media Reform Conference which has grown each year. There is now an active media reform movement in response to the enormous media consolidation in both print and electronic media in the country. Today five corporations own the vast majority of media outlets. This concentraion is being challenged on every level, while at the same time independent media is growing at the garssroots level throughout the country. People really are "mad as hell, and ...not going o take it anymore!" as the character Howard Beale shouted in the 1976 film by Padd Chayefsky. Over three decades later, that outrage has become a growing organized resistance with a practical vision of what independently-owned media can be. [See the excellent documentary film "On Air" by Christophe Joly for a look at American indepnedent media today.]