Copyright © 2012, 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Miriam Raftery (file photo)
The passing of the torch from one set of community media activists to another was the big story behind Activist San Diego’s February 23 screening of the film Save KLSD: Media Consolidation and Local Radio as a fundraiser for its own radio project, KNSJ 89.1 FM. The combination of the film and the panel discussion afterwards — including its co-producer, Jennifer Douglas, and local media activists Mike Hancock, Miriam Raftery and Enrique Morones — contrasted two approaches to breaking the Right-wing domination of American media in general and political talk-radio in particular.
One was the approach of KLSD and the Air America network of which it was part. Launched in late 2003 and funded largely by financier George Soros, Air America was an initially well-funded attempt to influence the 2004 Presidential election by getting liberal and progressive voices on talk radio and challenging the extreme Right’s virtual monopoly on on-air talk. The idea was to get established media conglomerates like Clear Channel Communications, owners of thousands of radio stations across the country including little KLSD, to broaden their market so people put off by the ardent Right-wing propaganda of hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Roger Hedgecock would have more congenial talk stations to listen to — and hear their advertisers’ commercials.
The hope behind Air America was to convince the moguls that have taken over virtually all America’s radio stations since the 1996 Telecommunications Act lifted limits on how many stations a single company could own that liberals and progressives are also consumers, and their money is just as green as Right-wingers’. But Air America never got anywhere near the coverage of its Right-wing rivals, and after George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 Soros decided it had been a failure and pulled the plug on financing it. The limping attempt at a progressive talk network finally went out of business in 2010, but by then almost all of its stations had dropped its programming. Clear Channel and their other corporate owners had instead either changed them back to Right-wing talk or moved them to other formats, including the so-called “sports talk” to which KLSD was converted in November 2007.
Douglas and her producing partner Jon Monday — he was credited with directing Save KLSD and she with writing it — were conscious that their film needed to be something more than a cautionary tale about one radio station in one major city whose format change left San Diegans without a liberal or progressive voice in its mainstream media. To them, the short life and ignominious death of KLSD’s “Progressive Talk” format is a case study in what media consolidation — the concentration of newspaper, radio and TV station ownership in fewer and fewer hands — has done to the American people. Not only has media consolidation narrowed the spectrum of political voices on America’s airwaves, they argue, it’s also virtually eliminated local content on the air.
As their film points out, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, virtually all the radio stations in the area either went off the air altogether or kept broadcasting national programs with no information about the local emergency. It took an independent low-power station whose owner literally had to carry batteries through the floodwaters to power his transmitter and stay on the air to give local residents badly needed information on available shelters, sources of food, evacuation routes and the like.
It’s just this sort of small, community-based radio station Activist San Diego (ASD), an organization founded in 1999 whose slogan, “Networking for Social Justice,” generated the call letters for KNSJ, is working to set up. The project began six years ago, when ASD director Martin Eder and then-board member Jay Jayakumar noticed that for the first time in 14 years the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency that regulates broadcasting and telecommunications in general, was making new FM licenses available in San Diego County. They ended up with a construction permit to build a station in Descanso, a remote town in San Diego’s East County. The permit expires in June 2013, meaning that KNSJ must be broadcasting by that date. As the group races towards the deadline, it has purchased the antenna, transmitter, and rental space on a tower from which to broadcast. Test signals have already gone out, and ASD is currently working on an eclectic mix of locally produced news, health and culture shows which it will broadcast.
Part of ASD’s plan in the first place was to put their station not only on the air but also online. Internet-based radio stations aren’t hampered by the limits on frequency and broadcast area of their terrestrial counterparts. Sample programs of the shows KNSJ will air are already available on the station’s Web site, www.knsj.org, and the idea is that Internet listeners will be able to stream the exact same content as is going out on KNSJ’s airwaves. That way listeners in the city of San Diego, far out of KNSJ’s range, will still be able to hear it.
Local Media vs. Corporate Consolidation
ASD’s screening of Save KLSD February 23 began with an introduction by San Diego Unified School District board vice-president Kevin Beiser. “I’m a very strong advocate for social-justice issues, especially anything that helps ensure that we do not move forward with the monopolization of media,” Beiser said. “As all of us know, the media actually control the discourse and the conversations we have as a society. We have to have honest and open dialogue. Thousands of years ago in Greece, they knew that for any democracy to survive it was essential to have that clash of ideas, to listen to different ideas, so we can think about what is the best thing for our society. When we only hear one point of view, or different shades of one point of view, we really can’t continue to have a strong and vibrant democracy.”
That’s exactly what’s happening in the contemporary media, added Douglas. “The problem of media consolidation is a national story; the case study is right here in San Diego,” she explained as she was introducing her film. “We need local radio to have diverse voices.” She added that, despite the relative freedom (at least for now!) of the Internet, “we’re talking about terrestrial radio because we still need real radio.” There is still no substitute for broadcast media in reaching not only people who don’t access news and political commentary through the Internet but also people who can’t, either because they don’t have enough money for computers and broadband connections or because the giant cable and telecom companies who control most Americans’ access to the Internet haven’t decided that their communities offer enough profit potential to be worth wiring.
Douglas participated in a panel of four speakers after the film was screened. All the people there had some sort of media experience. Douglas herself has “a news production background” from Washington, D.C. Mike Hancock joked that he works “in the belly of the beast” — he does news, weather and traffic for local stations owned by Clear Channel. Miriam Raftery worked for 30 years as a freelance reporter locally until the San Diego Union-Tribune and other local newspapers decided her material no longer fit what they wanted, either ideologically or financially. So she got what she joked was “the world’s smallest grant” and launched her Web site, www.eastcountymagazine.org, which has attracted hundreds of thousands of readers and won local journalism awards.
Enrique Morones is best known as an advocate for undocumented immigrants. He founded the “Border Angels” to leave caches of water and blankets for migrants crossing through the desert, and organized the annual pilgrimage from San Diego to Washington, D.C. to protest the continued persecution of undocumented immigrants. But he’s also had two talk shows on local radio stations, one in English and one in Spanish. What’s more, he’s produced a series of documentary films on the plight of migrants, at least two of which — Beyond Borders and Harvest of Empire — are available now, while others are still in production. He’s also been willing to be interviewed on the air by Right-wing hosts like O’Reilly and Hedgecock.
Asked by ASD radio project activist Marie Ida Johnson how he handled himself on shows like that, Morones said, “I probably watch and listen to Bill O’Reilly as often as you do, which is never. I did his radio show, and he put me on TV that very afternoon. They don’t make advance stipulations on what you can and can’t talk about, but they yell at you. I tell them if they interrupt me I’ll walk off.” Morones said that he knows about 60 percent of O’Reilly’s and Hedgecock’s audiences are convinced partisans who will immediately turn off to everything he says (when he’s referred to Morones in his absence, Hedgecock has frequently made an obvious and tasteless pun on his name) and 25 percent are “people like us, who might be channel-surfing or might know someone who’s going to be on there, so they’ll watch it.” Who he’s interested in reaching is the remaining 15 percent or so, “people in the middle who really haven’t made up their minds.”
Morones’ recollection of a recent debate he and Hedgecock had on UTTV, the cable TV station recently launched by San Diego Union-Tribune publisher Doug Manchester, led to a general debate on Manchester and his growing influence in what San Diegans know about local news and politics and how they’re encouraged to think about it. While the Union-Tribune’s previous owners, the Copley family, were often accused of slanting their paper’s news coverage to promote the Republican party in general and its more Right-wing elements in particular, Manchester and his managing editor, John Lynch, not only do that but boast about it. What’s more, Manchester made his fortune as a developer — and he’s not shy about slanting the news to help not only his own projects but giant developments in general, Raftery said.
“We all know Doug Manchester is Right-wing, but a lot of people don’t realize his less visible bias because he’s a developer,” she explained. “For example, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors recently appointed a so-called ‘red-tape reduction force,’ all but one of whom were developers. They recommended that the Board eliminate all community planning groups countywide. The Union-Tribune didn’t report it, but we did. We e-mailed all these community planning groups, and they mobilized so much opposition it switched one vote on the Board of Supervisors and the bill to eliminate them didn’t go through.”
According to Raftery, the power of corporations in general and the corporate media in particular is so great it even influences supposedly “non-profit” and “independent” media like National Public Radio (NPR) and its local outlet, KPBS. Because KPBS receives so much money from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Raftery said, she has literally been censored from discussing controversial SDG&E projects like the Sunrise Powerlink when she’s appeared on KPBS. “When I appeared on the Editors’ Roundtable [a KPBS program], they would interrupt me whenever I mentioned anything against the Powerlink or the Ocotillo wind farm,” she recalled.
For most people who saw Save KLSD under the auspices of Activist San Diego and KNSJ, the lesson was that rather than try to change or worm their way into the corporate media, progressives and radicals have to create their own media and tell the stories both profit-making and so-called “nonprofit” mainstream media aren’t telling. For example, Raftery said that so many people who live near the Ocotillo wind farm she wasn’t allowed to criticize on KPBS are getting cancer that UCSD has accepted it as a “cancer cluster” and is studying it. But you wouldn’t know that unless you read her and her contributors on East County Magazine.
“Our mission is to get these vital stories out,” said Hancock about KNSJ.
Full disclosure: Mark Gabrish Conlan is a board member of Activist San Diego and has contributed articles, including a column called “Political Reflections,” to www.eastcountymagazine.org
To listen to KNSJ programming, or to contribute to the station financially, please visit their Web site at www.knsj.org