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Conference Calls: the case for community radio


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New York, LA, Lincoln, Nebraska--all have community radio stations. Chicago will too if the Peace and Justice Radio Project can get the word out about what we're missing. Frustrated by inadequate media coverage of the gulf war, community, political, and labor activists started PJRP in 1991 to provide Chicago with a progressive perspective. PJRP aims to establish a community radio station in Chicago that's free from commercial control, where individuals and organizations with no connections to mainstream media can get their issues heard--by covering those issues themselves.

A do-it-yourself approach is what makes community radio different from public radio. Though both are listener supported, public radio also depends on corporate sponsorship and funds from the government, which can make it vulnerable to those interests when choosing what news to cover.

"What we're about is teaching people how to use the technology, how to use the media for their own goals in order to tell their own story," says Tyehimba Jess, a PJRP staff member. "How to go out, conduct an interview, track people down, do some investigative reporting, formulate your questions, come back with your information, go to a studio, edit tape, cut tape, make a program, and get it on the air. That's an empowering process."

PJRP produces two programs, which have been picked up by four local college stations: Real World Radio, a 30-minute weekly show that covers local, national, and international issues, and Our Voices/WimminSpeak, by participants in PJRP's women's radio collective, which airs once a month.

PJRP's vision of a community radio station is based on the understanding that community activists get short shrift from mainstream media and that they can better connect with the public and each other through an outlet of their own making. Radio seems the ideal medium: it's readily available to a wide spectrum of people and much cheaper and easier to produce than TV.

PJRP has organized this weekend's Conference on Community Radio for Chicago to bring together community activists, people in media (with a special invitation to those in college radio), and others interested in alternative media to discuss ways to make community radio happen in Chicago.

One of the biggest challenges is funding. There are two ways to legally acquire a radio station: apply to the FCC for a license or buy an existing station (a third option is starting a "pirate" radio station, such as Springfield's Black Liberation Radio, which has broadcast without a license for about 10 years; its founder Mbanna Kantako will be at the conference to tell about it). The first, and cheapest, option, is nearly impossible in a crowded market like Chicago, where there's very little space left on the dial, though various attempts have been made in the last 20 years. Buying a station requires anywhere from $100,000 to $4 million, and though raising that kind of cash is daunting, it seems the most feasible route to getting community radio in Chicago. Community radio advocates think it's possible, and more necessary than ever.

"I feel similar to the way I felt at the beginning of the Reagan years," says Darlene Gramigna, cofounder of PJRP. "I thought, well, this is a wake-up call, one more time we've taken a turn to the right and what are we going to do about it? Does it make progressive people want to sit up and give money to a community radio station? I hope so."

Jess says that one of the goals of the conference is to "get some dialogue started around what are the things we aren't even hearing about. It's kind of a strange conversation, because in a way we don't know what we're missing." Gramigna adds: "Unless people travel to other areas and hear good community radio, it's hard to know that it exists."

Guests at the conference include keynote speakers David Barsamian, producer of the nationally syndicated program Alternative Radio, and Araceli Garcia of Radio Bilingue, a community radio station in California; Johanna Zorn and Carl T. Wright from WBEZ; journalist and WNUA talk-show host Stan West; C. Douglas-Ubarra, who produces a lesbian feminist show on KZUM in Lincoln, Nebraska; Lisa Johnson from KFAI in Minneapolis; and other alternative media producers, community organizers, and community radio advocates from Chicago and across the midwest.

"I think that for the last four years we've been planting seeds and running into people who have interests both in radio and in progressive politics or community organizations that feel they need more access to media. So we're kind of calling in the seedlings," says Gramigna.

The conference takes place from 9 AM to 5 PM Saturday at DePaul University's Lewis Center, 25 E. Jackson, 14th floor. The $15 registration fee includes lunch. Call 427-2533 or 427-0510 for details.

Real World Radio and Our Voices/WimminSpeak are broadcast over four local stations: WLUW (88.7 FM) Sundays at 7:30 PM; WXAV (88.3 FM) Mondays at 11 AM; WHPK (88.5 FM) Tuesdays at 8:30 PM; and WZRD (88.3 FM) Thursdays at 7 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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