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 process.

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 voices.

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 organizing easier.

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;

Media Control and Propaganda