The Grassroots Radio Movement in the U.S.

This position paper was authored in 2000 by the "midwives" of the Grassroots Radio Coalition and Conference, Marty Durlin of KGNU, Boulder CO, and Cathy Melio of WERU, East Orland, ME.


More than audio outlets, volunteer-based community radio stations are cultural institutions in their communities, reflecting the unique concerns and passions of the people who live there. With a system based on openness and collaboration, and diverse programming produced by volunteers and funded by listeners, these stations are cornerstones of participatory  democracy, offering ordinary citizens the chance to exercise First Amendment rights in a mass medium and audiences the opportunity to directly support the programming that is of interest to them.

-Mission Statement, Grassroots Radio Coalition

Our mission statement goes to the heart of what we are about. A global coalition of community broadcasters, producers, volunteers, activists, and community members, we are unified in our commitment to the "community" in community radio, encouraging openness and accountability in governance, as well as programming.

What is Grassroots Radio?

Grassroots Radio is an offshoot of public radio, characterized by community access and volunteer involvement in every aspect of station operations. Reflecting the varied interests of their communities, grassroots radio stations have diverse formats, including eclectic music and information from a variety of sources.

Some of the programming comes via satellite or Internet from independent producers around the country. By "independent," we mean that the producers, for the most part, are not affiliated with any large distribution or production house, like National Public Radio (NPR) or Public Radio International (PRl), and that the programs are not underwritten by corporate interests.

What sets grassroots radio apart is that local citizens are the programmers, producers, and hosts of the programming. The average grassroots community station will have anywhere from 40-100 citizens on the air each week, sharing their many interests, musical knowledge, passions, issues, concerns, ideas and information with their communities. They have been trained, often free of charge, in the art and craft of radio production. Our grassroots radio stations are training grounds for radio broadcasters, journalists, audio artists and activists. In the culture of the grassroots station training should be a very conscious part of what a community radio station does. The broadcast licenses, issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), are "non-commercial and educational" – two important aspects to focus on when considering the diverging viewpoints, in terms of what community radio's primary mission is.

As stated in the mission statement, grassroots radio stations are more than audio outlets; they actually help create community in their listening areas. Civic participation fosters community and identity. There are magic and power in the concept of community radio. In exercising their First Amendment rights, people are bringing issues to the airwaves that are often misrepresented, if represented at all. Listeners are educated, uplifted, activated, enlightened, frustrated, surprised or empowered by grassroots radio programming. These grassroots stations become a lifeline in a community. They are interactive radio stations. With community members sharing their various interests over the airwaves of our stations, we create programming schedules that no program director could dream up. Our program directors work with volunteer programming committees (usually elected by volunteers) to create our broadcast schedules, with community input encouraged. Some stations have no program directors, only program committees.

You can recognize a grassroots community station anywhere in the country. There is a freshness you'll not hear elsewhere due largely to the variety of voices and connections the station has with its community. The non-commercial nature of these stations allows us independence uncommon in media controlled by commercial or corporate interests.

We strive for an engaging, professional air sound without sacrificing individual programmer's eccentricities. Sometimes the performances of inexperienced programmers are rough at first, but the beauty of the very idea of community radio comes across with each new voice you hear: people from the community, ordinary citizens, on the radio. And those new voices become competent and creative broadcasters before our very ears.

Many of the mission statements of grassroots stations refer to: giving voice to the voiceless; serving those not fully served by other broadcast media; providing a place for community dialogue; being the voice of many voices; exploring alternative issues; promoting freedom of speech, etc. Since its beginnings in the U.S. half a century ago, grassroots community radio stations have been a magnet for progressive causes and organizations, as well as political and artistic freedom.

While local programming is the backbone of community radio, another element that connects grassroots stations are the independently produced national programs many of us broadcast, including "Alternative Radio," "New Dimensions," "This Way Out," "Counterspin," "TUC (Time of Useful Consciousness) Radio," "Loafer's Glory," "Democracy Now!," "WINGS" ("Women's International News Gathering Service"), "National Native News," and "Making Contact." Along with local public affairs programming, these programs exemplify the alternative programming which provides voices and issues not fully heard on other broadcast media. These national programs connect the grassroots stations, while our local programs ground us in our own communities. While radio consultants find much to criticize about grassroots radio's often "patchwork" programming, we realize that diversity is a strength, not a weakness, and most people who support grassroots stations cite diversity of programming as one of the reasons they contribute financially.

The myth often promulgated by radio consultants relates to how people use radio. They tell us that people need to know what they'll find when they tune into our stations. We think it is insulting the intelligence of people to think that they cannot accept or appreciate variety of programming, especially at a station owned by the community. We believe in expanding the audience for the variety, not reducing the variety to expand the audience.

We also broadcast long format discussions, interviews and lectures which counter the sound-bite mentality of much of today's corporate media. Our stations engage communities in dialogue about issues, local and global, and encourage thought, debate and action.

Grassroots radio stations foster community by sponsoring events on- and off-air, events which bring community members and other non-profits together. Musical events, lectures, fairs, festivals, book and music sales, auctions, etc., are common fundraisers for grassroots stations. WERU FM's annual Full Circle Summer Fair and WMNF's Tropical Heatwave bring together thousands of people in celebration of community as well as creating awareness of the stations and their diverse programming. KGNU's fundraising lectures with speakers like Noam Chomsky and Amy Goodman help reinforce the mission of the station while raising funds and awareness. Most grassroots stations host events like this which actually help create community. Grassroots stations often have community rooms at their facilities, which are used for meetings, events, and live on air concerts with studio audiences in attendance.

Important principles to maintaining a community-involved grassroots station are: participatory governance, with active committees involved in decision-making, community and volunteer involvement in all major decisions; openness on the air (no gag orders!); elected volunteer representatives serving on the board of directors; open access to the airwaves; active recruitment and ongoing training of volunteers; commitment to diversity; consideration of those underserved by other broadcast media; and diverse programming.

Grassroots stations generally have 100-200 volunteers each, depending on the size of the communities they serve. These volunteers become ambassadors for community radio in their broadcast areas. The sense of ownership increases as the number of involved community members increases. That is the crux of an important issue for grassroots stations: the more people involved in your station, the better off you are. If grassroots stations are to truly be cornerstones of participatory democracy we need to engage as many people as possible in our operations. Grassroots radio fosters democracy, both in its programming and its governance.

When we make major decisions, our governance structure provides plenty of time and forums for discussion which involve the community. We broadcast call-in programs about important community issues and decisions, as well as station issues and decisions. Our governance structure has checks and balances built into it, to avoid some of the pitfalls we have seen at our own stations and others.

Grassroots stations are media outlets which keep the public informed about bills and issues in national, state, and local government which directly affect them. Our stations encourage people to become more active citizens. The programming often fosters and stimulates activism.

Grassroots stations facilitate and activate culture in their communities. From live radio drama to high school jazz bands, the airwaves are open for the creative expression of all community members.

Unhampered by commercial interests, art can take place on the radio in areas with community radio that is open and willing to be creative. Commercial interests do not dictate what music gets airplay. You'll hear a wide range of music from all parts of the world. You'll hear music produced by small labels and independent artists that you are not hearing on other radio stations. You'lI hear live music and interviews with musicians regularly on grassroots radio. Many musicians who travel the country feel welcome and at home at grassroots stations. They appreciate the role our stations play in helping their music to be heard. Our stations will take chances with our programming that other types of radio stations would never take. We broadcast original comedy and satire. Our airwaves sing with poetry, drama, music and dreams. People of all ages become involved and excited about the fact that a community has its own radio station. Grassroots stations are alive.

Our public affairs programs often awaken people to take action on issues, to get involved, sometimes to start new organizations to work on specific issues, all inspired by the programming on their local grassroots community radio station. Our stations are advocates for other nonprofits, conduits for their missions and messages. Environmental organizations, social justice groups, students, labor organizations, schools and many alternative entities find that grassroots stations will give them airtime when they want it, to get the message out about their actions, meetings, events, etc.

Grassroots stations broadcast call-in programs on important topics, giving the listener a chance to be heard, enabling community dialogue about topics that deserve full discussion. Some grassroots stations cover large areas and create cross pollination between counties.

Access is key in community radio, and there need to be many entry points for that access. When there is a climate of accessibility you 'II find that the community itself fosters access to the airwaves. People think of their grassroots stations when issues come up that they feel should be explored or aired, because they know that access is not only possible there, but necessary, since much of the programming comes from the community through letters, e-mail, phone calls and visits to the stations. When people understand how grassroots radio is different from other media, that understanding is shared and more community involvement results. When people share their excitement about grassroots radio they are usually excited about the concept itself, about access to the airwaves, access to training, access to information, access to free speech and access to the governing of the station. The fact that grassroots stations can be competitive with radio stations with much larger budgets speaks well of what that access represents. There is a wealth of knowledge, creativity and passion in every community. Grassroots radio helps a community share those gifts in many ways.

When you assess the vital role these stations play in their communities you see that the impact is broad and deep, especially when you consider the number of people involved in the grassroots stations on the air and behind the scenes. Many times a person who calls in to a community radio program or is on the air as a guest will become a volunteer and before long a producer or programmer. In areas with grassroots radio everyone knows someone on the radio, or has been on the radio themselves... or will be.

The flexibility of roles is an interesting and important aspect of grassroots radio. Individuals easily move in and out of the organization. A listener may become a volunteer, and later a board or staff member. Volunteer programmers end up working on events or writing for our program guides. Some maintain our buildings and grounds. The fact that these roles are so accessible and flexible demonstrates the organic nature of these organizations as well as their ability to grow, change and flower in their communities. It also demonstrates how much choice volunteers have for involvement, depending on their own interests. Many of the volunteers are involved in other organizations, which they help connect to the stations. True ownership by the people engages community in a very real way.

Grassroots stations have their problems, and challenges are many, but if the structures and systems are in place to keep fostering open, collaborative governance, it can be heartening to watch the changes occur in these organizations.

When volunteers get involved, they are not usually aware at first just how much they will participate in different levels of station operations, but time and time again, volunteers are drawn to help these stations thrive by giving more of their time and talents.

Many people are drawn to the stations to learn broadcasting and find themselves willingly becoming involved in fundraising, governance, concert production, training and many of the other important tasks involved in running a grassroots station. Volunteers serve on many different committees: programming, personnel, development, finance, engineering, public affairs and others. This active participation of volunteers sets grassroots stations apart from other types of radio stations.

We'd like to see grassroots community radio flourish and thrive, creating more space for dialogue in the public's interest, not the corporation's interest. We'll continue to encourage grassroots radio stations to speak out about the self-censorship permeating mainstream media, corporate control of media and the need for increasing the number of community voices heard in all media. People deserve and need their own media, media that tells what is going on in the real world, not just what is being bought and sold. Grassroots radio will continue to work in collaboration with alternative press, cable access television, Internet media, micro-broadcasters and other nonprofits. We hope that the number of grassroots community stations will increase with LPFM and other media, and that the exponential potential of grassroots radio will be more fully realized.

We close with a quote from a promotional announcement in support of "grassroots" community radio:

''I hope you'll support this community radio station, and if you do, maybe the 21st Century will be the Century of the Democratization of Technology. This is Pete Seeger signing off and saying  don't forget to make music yourselves."

The airwaves are a precious natural resource, much of which has been given away to commercialism, corporate control and censorship. The Grassroots Radio Coalition hopes to continue to provide a forum for shining a light on this corruption, for not only preserving what has been saved thus far, but to hopefully help create more public space on the airwaves, to, as Pete Seeger says, "democratize technology" in small, but important ways.

Marty Durlin KGNU FM

Boulder, CO

 

Cathy Melio

Stockton Springs, ME.