Community Radio on the Frontlines

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Pearl River      The Grassroots Radio Coalition is a loose confederation of various progressive community radio stations around the country.  We got involved with them when, to our surprise, they had an annual gathering in Hot Springs, Arkansas, of all places a couple of years ago.  Then, more recently, they screened The Organizer at their convocation in Portland several years ago, which I attended and where I found good company.  The pandemic made this year’s meeting hard to resist since it was being offered in Louisville, Kentucky, and hosted by a low-power sister station that had visited KABF and had ties to Arkansas, and even better on Zoom, making it a cheap thrill, where I could zip in and out of sessions of interest.

One timely workshop was called Riot4Radio, which turned out to be a lengthy and engaging session on how community radio stations, both large and small, were responding to street demonstrations in their communities this summer as Black Lives Matter broke out everywhere after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis and of course Breonna Taylor’s killing in Louisville.  Several of the stations were detailing their experiences in trying to broadcast live from the streets in real time.  The host, Jim Ellinger from Austin Airwaves, had been around community radio for decades and, being in Austin, was a hardened veteran of increasingly persistent demonstrations.  Other folks were from Asheville, North Carolina, and of course Louisville, but most riveting was actually LaGanzie Kale, the station manager of KLEK, our sister station, in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  LaGanzie showed a number of slides and video of his on-the-spot breaking new coverage as often the only news source at actions in Jonesboro, including an amazing 1000-person march several months ago.  He mentioned several times being “triggered” while assembling his presentation, but the real issue was the danger and harassment he had faced in fulfilling the mission of the station.  The most harrowing footage was of a car trying to break through the protest and hit the marchers, one of the more than fifty such incidents that have plagued protests this year already.

In these times when journalists of all stripes have been targeted by police and by rightwing militia-types a significant amount of time was spent by the panel and the Zoombies talking about press credentials, and whether or not they offered any protection against police harassment.  The consensus seemed to be, bring them, make them fancy with QR codes to station info, and, no, they wouldn’t do much to dissuade the police from messing with you.  There was also some discussion of novel police tactics involving bicycle cops going wild to break up crowds in an update on the classic, horse mounted police tactics.  People went back and forth on the question of whether or not flak jackets and gas masks were proper attire for covering these demonstrations as opposed to cowboy hats, jeans and t-shirts.  There was little consensus except that both Ellinger and Kale seemed to argue that their only real protection was being known to the police already through their repetitive and consistent work bringing radio to the people.

One message was clear from Riot4Radio, when a demo chant was repeated that had been a call out to the police: “What’s with all the riot gear, there’s no riot here!”  Listening to the workshop it was clear, low-power or full-power, there’s no question there’s still power and promise in community radio.