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News Archive: September 2011

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9/29/11 - Occupy Wall Street Makes Its Own Media [link to this story]

One of the biggest stories you've never heard of is unfolding in New York City. For nearly two weeks now hundreds of people have occupied Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan under the moniker of Occupy Wall Street. Inspired by this year's popular uprisings in north Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, OWS hopes to spark a similar movement for democratic change in the United States.

Much of the media have dismissed or denigrated the occupation, with many professional journalists missing its point entirely. The ongoing happening, at present, is not geared toward all-out, head-to-head confrontation with corporate America or the state, but rather to provide a space for folks from all walks of life to talk, listen, and collaborate, in the hope of reaching that point in the future.

This is a period of movement-building. Such things are not built in a day, or a week, or a month, or a year: in the uprising against the Vietnam War, people remember the events of the Democratic National Convention in 1968, but many are hard-pressed to recall the Port Huron Statement which helped to put Students for a Democratic Society on the map six years prior. (Most of its goals remain unattained, but the 1960's anti-war movement was far from a failure.)

Others have questioned whether the "tactics" of the occupation are well-reasoned, and whether Washington, D.C. would be a better target for mass action. Don't worry - two are in the works for D.C.; more than 60 other occupations are happening or imminent; and the idea is catching on around the world. The tactics will evolve.

What began as an ad-hoc event is turing into a long-term action, and the infrastructure to support it is coalescing as well. Occupy Wall Street now has its own media team, which has been streaming live video from the park (and the twice-daily marches on Wall Street) since the first day. The stream's served millions of viewers, with several thousand watching simultaneously at any given moment.

Members of the occupation, armed with laptops, netbooks, and cell phones, give an unprecedented inside, real-time view of this movement-building process. Not only do they stream from specific protest actions, but they also broadcast the daily General Assembly and let anyone who stops by (or has a report to make) get some face-time. In addition to the rabble, I've seen Chris Hedges, Immortal Technique, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Dr. Cornel West, and Amy Goodman address the occupation and/or be interviewed by the media team.

The stream's also served as a focusing agent for those galvanized by the occupation via social media like Facebook and Twitter and want to help. This action developed online before taking physical form, and those outlets remain important tools of communication between activists and the rest of the world. An online chat monitored by the media team buzzes about working to fulfill the needs of the occupiers and the planning of solidarity events.

Many of those that "anchor" the stream engage in direct dialogue with its viewership, answering questions about the occupation and the day's events. Questions scroll by so quickly that only a fraction get answered - but it's powerful nonetheless. Tons of supplies and tens of thousands of dollars in donations have come to New York thanks to the occupation's own coverage.

This is a raw and mostly improvisational affair, but it's also an excellent example of how the Internet has enabled the distribution of skills and support for protest activity and movement-building. "Master control" of the live stream is effectively split between Zuccotti Park and Minneapolis, of all places, and a loose group of people scour the 'net looking for video content to run when the stream drops out of live-mode.

The media team adds new members every day, and it's also working to educate other occupiers about how to use their smartphones as witnessing-devices, which has the potential to be quite a force-multiplier as far as coverage is concerned.

There is some reason for circumspection about activists' over-reliance on information infrastructures which they do not directly control. Social media and free or cheap live streaming hosts are certainly powerful tools of communication, but they're run by corporations who seek first and foremost to make a profit off of their use. There's no guarantee that state or corporate intervention won't modify or revoke aspects of their utility (or even shut them down) going forward. Social media and streaming make most Independent Media Centers look positively anachronistic - but if there was one thing Indymedia brought to the table that social media does not, it's the table.

More importantly is the practice of grassroots journalism taking place among the occupation. The reportage is far from polished, but those involved are breaking new ground by collectively maintaining a live video stream in difficult conditions on a shoestring budget. Most of the effort is spent keeping the stream alive, and they're hurting for help to produce and edit occupation-related content (both on-site and in cyberspace), of which there is a flood generated every day.

Social media as a tool for political mobilization isn't a new story, but combining that with a rudimentary 24-hour TV news channel from inside the protest is, and it certainly lives up to the occupation's revolutionary ethos.

9/22/11 - FCC Mulls Fine Print of LPFM [link to this story]

Reply comments in the FCC's ongoing rulemaking to expand the LPFM service are due on September 27. REC Networks' Michi Eyre has written an excellent (and wonky!) summary of comments filed in the proceeding to date by those who have focused on the elephant in the room - the troubled relationship between LPFM and FM translator stations.

Over the last twenty years, the use of FM translators has evolved dramatically. Once a secondary service, such stations are now being deployed as stand-alone outlets around the country. Following the creation of the LPFM service, broadcasters made a run on spectrum for FM translators which has resulted in seven translators going on the air for every one LPFM station over the last decade.

The FCC is now attempting to "level the playing field" so that the explosive growth of translators does not suffocate any LPFM expansion.

It comes as little surprise that the National Association of Broadcasters favor translators over LPFM stations. Commercial AM broadcasters now use FM translators to compensate for degraded listening conditions on the AM band, and many adoptees of HD Radio are purchasing or leasing translators on which to simulcast digital FM subchannels as entirely new radio stations.

Some of the principals in the "Great Translator Invasion," such as the religious broadcasters Radio Assist Ministry/Edgewater Broadcasting and the Educational Media Foundation, had the hubris to file comments in the LPFM proceeding arguing that they should be allowed to keep their ethically-challenged spectrum windfall.

Radio Assist/Edgewater have sold hundreds of FM translators to other broadcasters and reinvested that money in building a network of 60 full-power religious stations; Educational Media Foundation recently entered into a deal with Clear Channel allowing the latter to program some of the former's translators with otherwise-unheard FM-HD2 program content.

LPFM advocates like the Prometheus Radio Project, REC Networks, and Common Frequency have developed a joint proposal that would restrict the growth of translators and give the LPFM service meaningful room for expansion.

The FCC has already signaled that it's not necessarily comfortable with the explosive growth of translator stations and expects to promulgate further rules for LPFM which may result in an application filing window for new stations by the summer of next year.

In the meantime, the folks at Prometheus are conducting a survey of LPFM stations in order to build an informational resource for existing and future LPFM broadcasters. The survey seeks data on LPFM station financing, management and programming "to serve as a tool in our own work with stations, as well as to help us and other advocates and they make the case for LPFM and community radio. We also hope it will be a resource to stations and future LPFM applicants, allowing them to locate and contact other stations, and see information about how other stations function."

9/15/11 - Satellite Radio "Documentary" In Production [link to this story]

Recently I stumbled across the site of Radio Wars, a documentary on the development of satellite radio in the United States.

It's difficult not to be suspicious of grandiose claims, such as these: "[F]ew of radio’s struggles have been as dramatic as satellite radio’s battle in the stars. This clash turned traditional radio business models upside down, redefined free speech, and put over one million investors on a billion dollar rollercoaster ride as companies Sirius and XM fought to survive."

It would be interesting to see "behind the scenes of the Sirius XM satellite radio story," but the service's impact on the practice of broadcasting is a bit overblown.

A little sleuthing finds that Radio Wars is a production of Sandra Mohr and Rick King. Mohr is a published author who runs a creative public-relations shop "for a variety of Fortune 500 companies, ad agencies, nonprofits and other organizations." King founded, "an online community of investors & financial experts," and who is (not coincidentally) a long-term investor in Sirius XM radio.

In fact, Radio Wars appears to be a re-do of Stock Shock: this flick "follow[s] the wild ups and downs of the American stockmarket through the eyes of Sirius XM investors. [It] reveals the down and dirty schemes behind the glitter of Wall Street. It is a must see for anyone who has ever lost money in stocks...or fears they're about to."

King, who apparently also runs the "official" Radio Wars "fan site," blogged about the documentary's progress in July: "Interviews from a variety of sources seem to be going extremely well and the popularity of this production seems to be shaping up much better than the previous attempt (Stock Shock)." King and his "crew" also appear to be prominent characters in both films.

I'd be interested in a documentary that properly situates satellite radio within the context of U.S. broadcasting history. I'd also be interested in a documentary that illuminates the victimization of satellite radio as an industry by short-sellers and uses that story as a parable about speculative investing in a 21st century finance-capitalist economy.

But I'm dubious about a documentary that claims it can pull off both, especially now that I know more about the project's genesis. It would be a shame if Radio Wars isn't more than a puff piece with Howard Stern featurette and a side of investor gripes.

9/8/11 - "Heroic" Localism [link to this story]

The New York Times recently ran a canonizing profile on the afternoon-drive DJ at WRIP-FM, a locally-owned Top 40-format commercial radio station in Windham, New York. He conducted a 13-hour broadcast marathon during the flooding caused by Hurricane Irene last month, taking phone calls and disseminating emergency information the old fashioned way - listener by listener.

The Times piece is but the latest in a long string of articles that have justifiably recognized the outstanding local service broadcasters have provided in the wake of this year's natural disasters.

I've heard some of this emergency broadcast coverage first hand. After a tornado ravaged Joplin, Missouri in May, I listened to two guys commandeer a cluster of radio stations for the better part of a full day; they were reduced to relaying text messages from the news director's cell phone for several hours after their studio phones were knocked out and their Internet access disrupted.

The following month, I watched a television news anchor in Minot, North Dakota read Facebook posts on the air as river flooding threatened, then washed away, part of the city. During this slow-moving disaster, other station employees, including field videographers, got on camera to relay the stories of their travels through the flood zone.

The praise awarded these broadcasters is well-deserved. There's an instinctual response to jettison the order of business during extreme situations and go into full-on news mode. It has never been uncommon for broadcasters to pull double-digit hours on air during a crisis.

But the sad fact of the matter is that the capacity of broadcasters to adequately cover such crises has been significantly diminished in the wake of the consolidation that ripped through both television and radio news departments following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

15 years ago, during an emergency, teams of reporters from individual stations would respond to breaking news, making for more comprehensive and robust coverage. Today, we herald the lone anchor/reporter/DJ who bravely holds down the fort, often reduced to reading crowdsourced reports, as if this represents the best broadcasting can be.

It's not, and and the praise for what was once ordinary but is now extraordinary is illustrative of just how deep the cuts have gone in local broadcast news operations.

Communities deserve localism from their broadcasters every day, not just during emergency situations where the lack of such behavior would be too difficult to ignore.