National Radio Project
Broadcasts Unheard Voices
Radio Activists are "Making Contact"
by Peggy Law
RESIST, October 1997
Could progressive activists develop a national and international
radio voice? How would they organize it? Would anyone pay attention?
Would it make any difference?
For the past three years the National Radio Project has been
struggling to answer these questions. The answers are encouraging.
Producing Progressive Radio
The media problems are clear: hate radio, the corporatization
of mainstream media- and increasingly of public radio. To confront
this alarming trend, activists and journalists asked: why not
produce and distribute a progressive weekly public affairs program,
Making Contact, that would have broad appeal and would be devoted
entirely to the unheard voices-or as Ben Bagdikian says, the "moved
and shaken" instead of the "movers and shakers."
Lacking money, infrastructure or models, it was unclear just
how to pull this off. So a small group just began-building creative
partnerships between activists and journalists at every step.
The first question was how to secure top quality audio material
on a flimsy budget.
Many professional journalists generously gave their time,
advice, and contacts. They produced tapes. They encouraged activists
to get the audio material themselves.
We operated with the principle that activists know best where
to find the unheard voices. So with written production guidelines
and interviewing tips in hand and borrowed professional-quality
recording equipment slung over their shoulders, some activists
became radio journalists. Others, who were already organizing
speaking events and conferences across the country, started making
sure that those voices were recorded on broadcast-quality tape.
Hesitatingly at first, the notion grew- don't just complain
about lack of media coverage, get involved in producing it. There
were added incentives. Organizations that provided tape could
broadcast their phone numbers on the air, providing a possibility
of drawing in additional supporters.
Editing with an Activist Eye
The editorial process presented the next questions. Should
activists back off at the editorial level, where the script is
written and the raw tape is cut and shaped into magazine format
programs? Activists see the world through particular lenses. Clearly
that perspective would both enrich as well as complicate the editorial
The first specialized editorial unit to be formed was the
Women's Desk. Women have always been a majority at the National
Radio Project, but there was no focused way for women to collectively
frame programs through a "women's lens."
With input from the Women's Desk, stories on the injustices
of the growing prison industry became "Mothers Behind Bars."
Programming on the human havoc created by the globalizing economy
specifically addresses how it fuels "Sex Trafficking of Women
and Girls." Stories about the economic gender gap looked
at why "women's work" is completely discounted on the
global economic ledger. "Women's Work and the World Economy"
was picked up and distributed worldwide by the Women's International
Network of the World Association of Community Broadcasters.
What if there were other desks, each focusing the specialized
knowledge and passion of activists and journalists: Environmental
Justice, Youth, Labor, Indigenous Rights. . . ? Wouldn't stories
on these topics be even stronger if these desks had a part-time
paid coordinator instead of relying only on volunteers? We're
asking activists to make it happen.
Boosting the Range
Now that activists and journalists were producing quality
political shows, we faced a new challenge: how to get more stations
to air Making Contact?
We had a three-step plan. First, offer it absolutely free
of charge. Partly this is a philosophical issue; just as money
should not determine whose voices are heard, money should not
determine which communities have access to a wide range of voices.
Partly this is a practical strategy. It is hard enough to get
progressive voices heard; why not eliminate the hurdle (or excuse)
of financial constraints?
Second, make it free to any interested non-commercial station:
National Public Radio stations, community stations, university
and high school stations, unlicensed microbroadcasters who are
battling the FCC to insist that unused airwaves belong to the
public. Of course we celebrate gaining a new station that reaches
a vast listening audience. But it is equally valuable to take
on a vocational high school station in Gary, Indiana, or a microbroadcaster
in Kansas, states that have precious little access to progressive
Then involve activists. They are the ones who know local programmers.
They are the ones who know how to organize their communities to
lobby local stations. They are the ones who will benefit if progressive
voices and analyses are available to local listeners-it makes
It's working! After only two and a half years, Making Contact
is heard on 128 stations in 37 states plus Canada, Haiti, South
Africa and around the world via international short wave and Internet.
And Making Contact is sparking other ideas. A few stations
follow Making Contact with a program about how those particular
issues are reflected in their local
communities. A Kenyan woman is interested in starting a sister
program. A commercial programmer in Massachusetts is starting
a daily program modeled after Making Contact and has asked the
National Radio Project to get him in contact with the powerful
progressive voices we feature.
Beating the Progressive Drum
To shape public consciousness, create the sort of understanding
and outrage that make people willing to speak out and create change,
voices must be heard again and again. There needs to be what Holly
Sklar calls a drum beat of progressive voices.
Making Contact is not time-dated. Programs remain viable for
months or years. For example, corporate welfare today is corporate
welfare next year, only the details change. Why not use a pertinent
program again and again. Could it contribute to that drum beat?
Making Contact tapes and transcripts are going to school:
a high school in Lincoln, Nebraska; university classes from New
Zealand to Florida; advanced ESL classes in California-including
classes for international business students!
Tapes and transcripts are in libraries from Sudbury, Ontario
to Gainesville, Florida.
Organizers are using Making Contact materials for campaigns
concerning Nike, Farming without Harm, the Prison Industry, Corporate
Welfare, among other topics.
Every organizing group in the nation knows a few progressive
teachers (with tenure), has newsletters, has organizing activities
that could both make use of and feed material back into National
Radio Project materials.
The drum beat will grow as more activists make these connections.
Paying the Bills
Of course, the hardest question has always been how to get
the financing to hold all this together.
There are satellite uplinks, tapes, postage, phone bills,
printing. Even the most dedicated journalist has to eat.
The National Radio Project accepts no government or corporate
funds-they would be too likely, explicitly or implicitly, to shape
programming. While, as beautifully detailed in a recent report
from the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, conservative
foundations have concentrated on using media's power to shape
public consciousness and public policy, most progressive foundations
do not fund media. RESIST joins a short list of foundations that
have moved this project along.
How much farther can a project go with only one full-time
paid employee? That's a significant worry. But the activists keep
coming through-with donations, major donor contacts, house parties,
speaking engagements, co-fundraising events. They do so because
it is clear that voices that aren't heard will not exist in the
public consciousness, will not enter the arenas of public debate,
will not even be at the table when public policy is being formed.
Making a Difference for Activists
Is it making a difference? It certainly seems to be.
Listeners call: "I never heard that, but it intuitively
makes sense given my own life experience." "I never
heard capitalism criticized before on the radio. Are there others
like you?" "I gotta have a tape of that one to send
to my brother."
Program directors like Maxine Kenny (WMMT) write: "We
broadcast to the coal fields of Kentucky and Virginia in central
Appalachia, and also to rural mountain communities in West Virginia,
North Carolina and Tennessee. This is a region whose people and
natural resources have been greatly exploited. As survivors, people
here have a great interest in what is happening to oppressed people
in other parts of the United States and in other countries in
the world-the kind of information that your programming provides."
Teachers like using Making Contact. "Students report
that they are getting information that is new and exciting. .
. that they are thinking about things they never thought of before
and that they are thinking of familiar subjects in new ways,"
said Michelle Wolf, professor at San Francisco State University.
Activist organizations benefit: "We have had several
. . . programs featuring the work of United for a Fair Economy
distributed through the National Radio Project. I was amazed at
the response. We could tell each day where programs were airing
by the dozens of phone calls that would follow each program,"
writes Chuck Collins, the group's director.
Yes, it seems to be working, growing, making a difference-this
unusual, often a bit chaotic but endlessly surprising and creative
partnership between progressive activism and progressive media.
What next? Ask the organizers-at the National Radio Project,
in your own community. Better yet, why not join them?
Peggy Law, an activist and writer, directs the National Radio
Project. NRP has received several grants from RESIST, including
one this year. For more information, contact. National Radio Project,
830 Los Trancos Road, Portola Valley, CA 94028; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Control and Propaganda