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Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism (Inside Technology)

Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism (Inside Technology)

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Publication Date: November 7th, 2014
The MIT Press
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An examination of how activists combine political advocacy and technical practice in their promotion of the emancipatory potential of local low-power FM radio.

The United States ushered in a new era of small-scale broadcasting in 2000 when it began issuing low-power FM (LPFM) licenses for noncommercial radio stations around the country. Over the next decade, several hundred of these newly created low-wattage stations took to the airwaves. In Low Power to the People, Christina Dunbar-Hester describes the practices of an activist organization focused on LPFM during this era. Despite its origins as a pirate broadcasting collective, the group eventually shifted toward building and expanding regulatory access to new, licensed stations. These radio activists consciously cast radio as an alternative to digital utopianism, promoting an understanding of electronic media that emphasizes the local community rather than a global audience of Internet users.

Dunbar-Hester focuses on how these radio activists impute emancipatory politics to the “old” medium of radio technology by promoting the idea that “microradio” broadcasting holds the potential to empower ordinary people at the local community level. The group's methods combine political advocacy with a rare commitment to hands-on technical work with radio hardware, although the activists' hands-on, inclusive ethos was hampered by persistent issues of race, class, and gender.

Dunbar-Hester's study of activism around an “old” medium offers broader lessons about how political beliefs are expressed through engagement with specific technologies. It also offers insight into contemporary issues in media policy that is particularly timely as the FCC issues a new round of LPFM licenses.

About the Author

Christina Dunbar-Hester is Assistant Professor of Communication in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Praise for Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism (Inside Technology)

Low Power to the People offers a richly detailed exploration of the struggle for low-power FM as it played out both at the grassroots level and in the halls of Washington... Dunbar-Hester offers a convincing argument that an 'old' medium like radio has the potential to be at least as open and democratic as does the Internet, and that we need to more critically examine claims about the intrinsic character of different communications technologies.—Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly

[A] captivating narrative that reproduces the passion, emotions, and tensions of the field....

New Media & Society

In Low Power to the People, Dunbar-Hester delivers a perceptive interrogation of [the] intricate entwinement of technology and politics, and the activist's 'labour of love' (embracing passionate and playful work) to enact inclusive ideals for social change, which is compelling and inspirational for scholars and activists alike working to further media democracy.

Feminist Media Studies