Low Power to the People! Sneak Peek

At the invitation of Culture Digitally and with the permission of my publisher, MIT Press, I am thrilled to provide the introduction of my just-out book, Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism(With bonus pictures not in the book!) Though the book is centered on FM radio activism, issues of digitality loom large. Technologically-savvy activists clamored for small-scale broadcasting as a platform for community media (while cautiously embracing Internet-based technologies they could link to their broader political project). This suggests a rich interplay between old and new media, of interest to anyone concerned with the politics and social life of technology.


On October 4, 1998, a raucous group of protesters assembled in front of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) building in Washington, DC. Seeking legal access to the airwaves for small-scale broadcasting by citizens and community groups, they engaged in established street theater tactics, including puppetry, chants, and speeches. In a less traditional move, they also flouted the regulators by broadcasting their protest into the building using a portable transmitter (it goes without saying, sans license). Of course this transmission was symbolic; the activists did not so much wish to instrumentally broadcast to the commission as to declare their presence on the airwaves and demand regulators’ attention.

By 2000, their efforts had borne fruit. The FCC slowly began to issue licenses for new low-power FM (LPFM) stations; this was the first time in more than twenty years that would-be micro-broadcasters had a legal option for getting on the air. Several hundred new stations were broadcasting by the late 2000s. In the decade following the protest, a burgeoning movement for media democracy regarded LPFM licensing as a victory and mounted efforts along a number of other lines, including Internet governance, combating media consolidation, and securing support for public and independent media, to name only a few.

Rallying in celebration of LPFM. Florence, MA, 2005. Author photo.

Rallying in celebration of LPFM. Florence, MA, 2005. Author photo.

Yet low-power radio remained a primary concern for some. Many who had pressured the FCC to license “microradio” broadcasters continued to work to expand LPFM, albeit from a different position vis-à-vis the regulatory framework: with the possibility of legal broadcasting, efforts shifted to getting licenses into the hands of community groups, building new stations, and shoring up LPFM’s status within telecommunications policy. The latter goal was attained in 2011, when President Obama signed into law the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, authorizing the FCC to grant licenses to additional new LPFM stations.

In the book, I examine the practices of a small activist organization focused on LPFM during the early period of the institutionalization of LPFM, from approximately 2003 to 2007. The group had its origins in the mid-1990s as a pirate broadcasting outfit. But by the early 2000s, they had morphed into a non-profit organization to promote LPFM. The group engaged in a combination of advocacy to expand community media and hands-on technical work to build new stations (having ceased broadcasting themselves after being shut down by the FCC in 1998). I trace their activities with an eye to the intersection of technical practice and political engagement.

I specifically investigate how the radio activists imputed emancipatory politics to radio technology—notably, an “old” medium—against a shifting technical and political landscape that included increasing attention to Internet-based technologies. What is meant by “emancipatory politics”? Activists claimed that FM radio tinkering and broadcasting held the potential to empower everyday people through increasing democratic participation, autonomy, and self-determination at the community level. Their notion that expertise was accessible to all contrasted with more common conceptions of expertise; technology is more often constructed as the province of elite experts, and wider political, moral, and social issues are collapsed into seemingly narrow technical ones.

The politics of technology in media activism is a topic of more than academic interest. These radio activists are important because of their mediating position, situated between “upstream” regulators or policy makers and “downstream” user communities; they are not mere Luddites nor nostalgic hobbyists. Often, they attempted to exert influence in both directions, and their work to interpret, define, and propagate technologies has the potential to affect how ordinary users might understand, access, and make use of the technologies in question. Advocacy work to construct radio as highly local, noncommercial, and accessible to ordinary people had an impact on how policy shaped low-power radio. But the radio activists also exhibited a strong commitment to hands-on technical practice and work with radio hardware.

Volunteers unwrap a transmitter board. Florence, MA, 2005

Volunteers unwrap a transmitter board. Florence, MA, 2005. Author photo.

At the core of their technical practice was a commitment to a participatory politics, with attendant challenges and contradictions. In essence, though the radio activists claimed to favor radio as a medium for expression in part because of the ostensibly low barrier to access, attaching an emancipatory politics to tinkering and hands-on work was fraught. Though they valued technical practice as a means to demystify technology and create a political awakening in users, they struggled with the fact that patterns of inclusion and exclusion had already formed around electronics; historically practiced by elites, whites, and men, tinkering was not equally appealing to members of other groups. This tension between participatory ideals and expert forms of knowledge recurs throughout much of the book.

Anthropologist Jeffrey Juris, writing of anticorporate globalization movements, contends that “activists increasingly express their utopian imaginaries directly through concrete organizational and technological practice.”[1] This is a useful starting point for understanding the practices of these radio activists, who were uniquely focused on technology and technical practice as the foundation for their vision of social change. In this book, I conceptualize the radio activists as “propagators” of technology. I draw on the meaning of propagation as reproduction and replication and also its sense of creating an effect at a distance (and of course the entendre with radio wave propagation suits this group especially well).

Although it is not unusual for activists to orient themselves around technologies as a part of a more extensive agenda for social change, there are features that make these propagators unique. Propagators are special in how they combine mediation or interpretive work with a commitment to material engagement with an artifact. The radio activists hoped to place radio and their prescription for its use into as many hands as possible. Their goal was to set into motion social dynamics through the diffusion of radio technology and associated practices and then step back; they did not seek to oversee the these dynamics on an ongoing basis, instead believing that idealized social relations (including idealized media content) would flow from the act of propagation alone. Propagation was an act of knowledge production; in the radio activists’ imagination, it produced not only hardware but also social relations. Propagation is thus articulating artifacts to politics and vice versa: while the radio activists were building technical artifacts, they were simultaneously building a politics of what might be called “participatory expertise.” They strove to open up technical practice to people who were not technical experts. They understood this form of expertise to extend even beyond the domain of technology itself.

Put differently, activists turned to technology to express their political beliefs. At a typical technical workshop, people would spend hours in a basement soldering cables, then move to a rooftop to measure an RF (radio frequency) signal, before returning to the basement to try to fix a faulty connection or recalibrate equipment. One summer evening, radio activists and I moved from an electronics repair project in a basement to a scavenging project at a university engineering building slated for demolition. Having deemed it late enough to roam around the bowels of the building undisturbed, we spent hours digging through equipment that was being cast off. Cables, ammeters, and a horn antenna were among the haul. It was unclear what uses this gear would be put to, but its acquisition represented the values of reuse and repair, sharing, preparedness, and, of course, the requisite technical expertise to identify and imagine uses for the various pieces of equipment we uncovered.

Reading a draft of this book, one activist commented to me that I “had written an anthropology of the basement.” Her remark has a double meaning: the radio activists’ office was literally in a church basement, a fact they made much of (and that served to distinguish them in their minds from more established nonprofit organizations). But she also marked the basement as a symbolic space of activism activism, which was not the halls or streets of Washington, DC, but the ubiquitous, grimy spaces of do-it-yourself (DIY) work and leisure. Radio activism was everywhere, and you didn’t need more to participate in it than a soldering iron, your neighbors, and a basement. It was separate from but contiguous with everyday life, and accessible to everyday people. It challenged the separation of technical expertise from lay know-how, and technical practice itself was held to be transformative at the individual and societal levels.

Electronics tinkering in a home. Philadelphia, PA, early 2000s. Volunteer photo.

Electronics tinkering in a home. Philadelphia, PA, early 2000s. Volunteer photo.

Radio activists are not alone in tying their work with technology to politics. Internet governance geeks and free software developers can also be understood to engage in activism and deeply technical projects.[2] However, in spite of their similar technical commitments and normative claims, they largely differ from the radio activists: they usually achieve a consensus in which technical participation is limited to technical experts, which means they can focus more exclusively on debating and solving technical problems. They frequently leave the job of articulating the meaning of their technical work to mediating groups; mediators, rather than “techies,” tend to translate technical projects and engage in advocacy. (The division of labor between Debian developers and the nonprofit organization Creative Commons within the free culture movement is one such example.) Propagators (who engage in technical practice and ongoing advocacy and mediation) are distinct.

Although a commitment to egalitarianism is not a criterion for the category of propagator, this commitment, however elusive in practice, further marks contrast between some other forms of activist technical projects and the radio activists. Plenty of activist projects around technology simply are not concerned with issues of unequal expertise. In many free and open source software projects, participation may be “open” in the sense that anyone who can contribute to a project is welcome to contribute. But a uniformly expert status among participants is unquestioned. By contrast, the radio activists were highly committed to drawing novices and laypeople into technical practice. However, they routinely found themselves confounded by the potential for conflict between engineers and laypeople, as well as by patterns of exclusion that ran against the egalitarian values they hoped to tie to technical practice.

Simultaneously, the radio activists were attuned to the fact that their project seemed anachronistic to some; their concentration on an “old,” “dinosaur” technology seemed to belie their relative technological competence and sophistication. And yet “new media” were in many ways deeply and self-consciously implicated in the activists’ propagation of radio. Radio activists—many of whom were well-versed in digital politics and activism—were concerned with alternatives to digital utopianism, resisting Internet-based communication as an analog (no pun intended) for what they understood to be salient and desirable about radio. This led to a situation in which they were, in some ways, defining radio in contrast to dominant ideas about digital media. They were especially interested in propagating an understanding of electronic media that emphasized local- or community-scale purposes, which stood in relief to the ostensible global reach of Internet-based technologies.

Though centered on radio, the dynamics the book explores are much broader. If we listen, articulation of values and political agendas to artifacts becomes audible. This radio case study is a model for other studies of technology. Too often claims about what the Internet is or does unquestioningly locate values and politics “inside” the artifact. Breathless exultations such as, “Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony” (as stated by Wired magazine’s Nicholas Negroponte in 1995) are ubiquitous across punditry.[3] The unbridled enthusiasm for “the digital” is not the only reason we should not accept these statements at face value. We need to recontextualize such declarations as part of a dynamic of articulation; they are rhetorical claims whose effect is to crystallize particular notions about what the Internet is. Radio activists’ evangelism exemplifies how links are actively forged between politics and the technologies they engage. This phenomenon is as relevant to “the digital” as to older technologies such as radio. Indeed, it is only hype-driven Internet mythology that causes us to think of anything associated with the Internet as new and anything analog-related (like radio) as old.


[1] Jeffrey Juris, Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008, 17.

[2] See Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012; Laura DeNardis, Protocol Politics: The Globalization of Internet Governance, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009; Christopher Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

[3] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, New York: Vintage Books, 1995, 230. Scholars, too, have advanced such claims: Yochai Benkler writes that “the networked information environment offers us a more attractive cultural production system in two distinct ways: (1) it makes culture more transparent, and (2) it makes culture more malleable” (The Wealth of Networks: How Production Networks Transform Markets and Freedom, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006, 15); see also Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture; The Rise of the Network Society. Vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. Thanks to Lucas Graves and Tom Streeter for comments and conversations about these issues.