On Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden stood by a microphone in Massachusetts to play his violin and read from his bible. It was the first successful audio broadcast and the implications were staggering. Anyone with access to some fairly basic technology had the power to send information, opinion, entertainment and culture directly into people’s homes. Unsurprisingly to some, governments quickly established a firm stranglehold over the airwaves and have kept it pretty tight ever since.
But the magical particles we call radio waves are a glorious gift to the world. Should they be the preserve of state and business? On the streets of the world, activists have claimed their right of access to the airwaves. Community radio has appeared on the front line of revolutionary struggles, with broadcasters literally risking their lives to take their message to their people. It has emerged as unlicensed pirate radio, giving a voice to underrepresented communities in the estates, barrios and ghettoes of the world.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF COMMUNITY RADIO…AROUND THE WORLD…
Although there are many competing claims, it is widely accepted that the world’s first community radio stations emerged in Bolivia during a tin miners’ strike around 1947. Their trade union decided to use some of the emergency strike fund to pay for 27 local radio stations, offering union members and their families access to the airwaves and opportunities for social benefits – now a familiar formula. It is a measure of the power of the medium that over the next forty years these stations (and others in Latin America) faced regular persecution, arrests of activists and seizure of equipment by authorities. Meanwhile in California, the Pacifica Foundation set up the USA’s first ‘listener-sponsored’ radio station in 1950 – a variation on community radio that is still the most common model in North America today.
From these beginnings, the demand for community radio began to take root around the world. Amid the political radicalism of the 1960s and 70s, community radio activists began lobbying for access to the airwaves across the developed world, both through legal lobbying and less-than-legal broadcasting.
Australia – with its small, dispersed population and little in the way of local commercial or public broadcasting in many areas – began licensing community stations in 1972, and now boasts one of the healthiest community media sectors in the world. In Africa and Asia progress was slower, although stations are now widespread in Southern Africa, Vietnam, India, the Philippines and beyond. Although the nature of community radio varies considerably from country to country and station to station, some elements are consistent almost everywhere. Community radio anywhere in the world is committed to:
- Community development rather than profit;
- Providing access to the airwaves to underrepresented voices;
- Being based at grassroots level and serving a distinct local community;
- Being established and run primarily by volunteers and activists rather than paid staff.