Oakland’s Neighborhood Public Radio expands the boundaries of broadcasting
on May 3, 2009
By Samson Reiny/Oakland North
Ever wondered what Oakland’s Lake Merritt sounds like at 4am? Without being there, you could have listened any time of the day if you were within a mile’s range and tuned in to 87.9 FM from April to July of 2007. Normally a jangle of static on the dial, the frequency was temporarily the site of “Talking Homes,” a radio program where 12 to 15 residents living near Lake Merritt volunteered to set up low-power transmitters in their homes in order to pick up the ambient of squawking geese and rustling foliage. The recordings were looped and broadcast nonstop for two months for the enjoyment of drivers-by.
“People could drive around the lake and listen…and hear the sounds of early morning around Lake Merritt, which you couldn’t hear in the day because of the planes and trucks,” said John Brumit, a founding member of the program’s sponsor Neighborhood Public Radio, an Oakland-based group that advocates for greater audio experimentation and more inclusive use of the airwaves for the public.
Calling themselves a “traveling band of guerilla broadcasters,” Brumit, along with fellow co-founders Lee Montgomery and Michael Trigilio, shared their most memorable experiences last Monday night–from confrontations with radio industry bigwigs to community building in underserved areas–as part of UC Berkeley’s Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium, a series sponsored by the university’s Center for New Media.
Founded in 2004, Neighborhood Public Radio has acted like a portable itinerant radio station, criss-crossing the country and the world tuning into the lives of communities one-by-one, urging locals–through flyers, cold-calling, and door-knocking–to set up legal low-power FM transmitters that seek out bands of usable frequency. Often, for the duration of these hyper-local broadcasts, neighborhood folks could not only listen in on the radio but actively participate in on-air experiments. For interested parties situated outside the transmission range, streaming audio was available through the group’s website, NeighborhoodPublicRadio.org.
Neighborhood Public Radio carried out many of their projects in the Bay Area. One popular venture was the “State of Mind Station,” a program that started in San Francisco’s Mission District where people called a toll free number and left messages to say where they were and how they are feeling. The messages were then collected and aired in weekly broadcasts. “Some would say things like, I’m tired…I’m feeling frustrated,” Trigilio said. But he noted that, at a point in 2006, when the Democrats gained a majority in the House, the messages were more positive and uplifting, with people cheerfully saying the country was now “democratic” and “victorious.” He believes the program gave all people a chance to be heard. “It was a way to think about radio practice beyond the booth,” he said.
From broadcasting at the southern tip of Spain in order to talk about immigration issues with the neighboring Moroccans to sponsoring a San Diego porn collective’s airing of their orgasms, Neighborhood Public Radio has undertaken many exploits over the past five years as part of its efforts to break down barriers of communication and give people unadulterated content. “How do we make radio more public and accessible?” Montgomery said. “That’s what we’re always thinking about.” In this regard, Neighborhood Public Radio has been a vocal critic of National Public Radio, and their almost identical monikers are meant to encourage thinking about what constitutes a real public radio that serves the greater good.
In addition to arguing that radio in general is exclusionist and manned by “people of privilege, ” Montgomery criticized National Public Radio’s funding streams. While Neighborhood Public Radio operates through grants and individual donations, its counterpart receives funding from big business. “Some of the top names that come up when you talk about corporate sponsors are pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies,” he said, noting that the content of radio programs are influenced by the interests of its financial backers.
Neighborhood Public Radio is also critical of the Federal Communications Commision (FCC), the federal agency that regulates the use of radio frequencies in the United States. “When they have hearings, they should ban corporate media,” Montgomery said, noting that big businesses, National Public Radio included, have too great an influence in shaping broadcast policy, leaving community low-power FM stations subject to their whims. Indeed, advocacy groups like Prometheus Radio and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters have made it a mission to rescind certain regulations such as the third-adjacent channel protection mandate, which prevents a low-power FM station from setting up shop within three dial turns of a full-power station.
Five years after its inception, members of the grassroots radio project are wondering what’s next. At Monday night’s panel, they asked the audience what more they could do to expand the possibilities of radio. One woman suggested they broadcast from international waters to see what peoples they could connect. Another suggested developing a radio program to help the blind navigate their surroundings better. Yet another went into the mystical, asking them to look into the “ethereal and embodied quality of radio.”
While Neighborhood Public Radio did not solidify any plans for the immediate future, at one point in the presentation, Montgomery acknowledged the breadth of ideas being presented and said, “I don’t think we can close up shop.”
Please visit Neighborhood Public Radio for more information or to leave comments or suggestions.
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