Seizing the Airwaves
Radio by and for the people
Community-driven radio has always played a significant role in winning the hearts and minds of people in movements for social change, economic justice and human rights. But the history of dramatic media consolidation in this country has made it extraordinarily difficult for all but an elite few to control their own media.
Today, after years of activism, a new law on low-power FM (LPFM) radio is paving the way for the greatest expansion of FM radio in decades. This is a huge victory for media justice: Communities across the U.S. now have the power to transform the media landscape and fight corporate media owned and controlled by the 1 Percent. It’s an unprecedented opportunity for historically marginalized communities of color, immigrant and low-income folks to own and operate their own means of media production and infrastructure—through their own LPFM radio station.
During the civil rights movement, radio provided a crucial platform for African-American leaders to disseminate information and to educate and organize others to join the struggle. During the 1950s, television overtook radio as the most lucrative entertainment medium, leading to the abandonment of radio stations. Local radio station owners found themselves with more autonomy to experiment with local programming. Suddenly, African-Americans with some financial means were able to own and operate their own mass media.
In Atlanta in 1949, African-American banker Jesse Blayton used his entire savings of $50,000 to buy a 1,000-watt station, WERD, from a white owner. His programming featured black voices and R&B, and addressed issues of the day like the racist Jim Crow laws and the civil rights fight. Blayton hired the head of the Georgia state NAACP chapter to produce a news series.
The WERD station was housed one floor above the main offices of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leader-ship Committee. Station DJ Jack Gibson described the close relationship between the station and SCLC (News for All the People, 2011):
If Dr. King wanted to make an announcement, he’d take a broomstick and hit on the ceiling…. If I was on the air, I’d say: “We interrupt this program for another message from the president of the SCLC, Martin Luther King Jr. And now here is Dr. King!”