New Orleans Lorenzo Milam has died. Long live Lorenzo Milam!
Wikipedia calls Milam an author and activist, which is true as far as it goes, but in many circles, he was seen almost as the father of community radio, and in that sense we all are indebted to him and pay the debts on a daily basis. The Wikipedia entry credits Milam with founding fourteen listener-supported stations “from the early 60’s to the late 70’s,” but I’m sure that vastly understates the number of stations his advocacy and assistance spurred onto the airwaves.
I knew Lorenzo then, so I know what I’m talking about. The first ACORN organizers who opened our offices in late 1975 in Dallas and Fort Worth were Meg Campbell and Steve Holt. Lorenzo’s “experiment,” as he called it, of starting a noncommercial station, KCHU in Dallas at top dollar, rather than the usual chicken scratch of bailing wire, duct tape, and used equipment, was also new. ACORN had a weekly show on the air. Meg and Steve kept lobbying me to meet Lorenzo the next time I was in Dallas. He was having trouble herding the cats, a common problem in those wild times with an all-volunteer crew. He had been impressed with how well organized they were and had gingerly broached with them the possibly of helping run the station. I finally agreed to meet him after we won the lifeline utility rates election in Little Rock, but that I realized might be a fluke when we watched Middle South Utilities (now Entergy) drop hundreds of thousands in radio and TV ads against us in the last two weeks of the campaign. Maybe if we could organize our own radio stations, we could create a voice for our people.
Lorenzo was a tireless promoter of the potential and power of community, noncommercial radio. He wanted to know where else ACORN worked. We were interested in a Little Rock station, so he had his engineer and buddy, Jeremy Lansman, do some research that uncovered the potential for a 100,000-watt station there. He pointed the way, and we ran with it, until we were finally on the air in 1984 with KABF, now 36 years ago. Reading that he passed away in Oaxaca, Mexico, only weeks before his 87th birthday, I now realize that he must have been in his mid-40s when we met.
Before KABF was on the air, he realized we were organizing in Tampa-St. Pete. He told me there was a guy with a construction permit close to expiring. Perhaps, we could take over the CP, get an extension, and save the license. Dewey Armstrong, then head organizer in Florida, and I drove from Miami late one night and found the guy on the beach in St. Pete waiting for his girlfriend to finish a shift at a diner. He agreed to let us run the license, and within several years we put WMNF on the air.
Lorenzo’s plan for us to take over the KCHU fell apart in a vote by DJs, and the station went dark. More than six months later, Terry Andrews, the regional organizer for ACORN Dallas, and I bogarted our seats on the board into a majority of our appointees, and put the station back on the air as KNON, still booming now. By that time Lorenzo had washed his hands of the stations, but I knew he knew.
After more than thirty years with only sporadic contact, once when he was living along the beach in San Diego and we were organizing there, and he was moving to Tijuana, I was able to get his coordinates when speaking to a community broadcasting annual meeting in Portland a couple of years ago. I tracked him down via email, and offered him a report on Dallas, Tampa, Little Rock, New Orleans and other stations in Africa. He replied in a brief but inimitable, elegant, and courteous manner. Several weeks later in response to my having asked what he was up to, a boxed set of his RALPH books showed up in my mail. RALPH stands for Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities.
Typical, Lorenzo. The stories that could – and should – be told are endless. He was both special and, truly, one of a kind. He pointed out the path, and then stepped aside. You sunk or swam. Either way, we could only thank him by staying on the air as the “voice of the people,” and keeping the dream alive. Lorenzo Milam has been missed, but his mission endures. We join many others in both remembering and making sure that it stays evergreen.