Walking the Delicate Line Between Reporter and Activist

Telling a century's worth of stories about the people who had done creative things on the radio dial—and their opponents


I spent the second half of the 1990s hanging out with people who operate unlicensed radio stations. That was partly because I was covering them as a reporter, and it was partly because I was active in a movement to legalize their illicit transmissions. I didn't see anything wrong with that dual role—I wasn't pretending to be objective, and anyone who read my articles could see where I stood—but sometimes the lines got a little blurry.

Like the night in 1998 when I found myself standing on a nondescript West Philly block with a crew of crunchy anarchists. An outlet called Radio Mutiny was hosting an East Coast gathering of pirate broadcasters, and we had just been through a day of workshops, speeches, and press interviews; now some of us were about to get a tour of the station's makeshift studio. One of the local pirates looked around to reassure himself that there weren't any interlopers. "OK, all the reporters are gone," he said. "We can go up now."

One of my scruples kicked in, and I raised my hand. "Uh…you guys do know what I do for a living, right?"

They laughed. "Oh, you're OK, Jesse," one said, unlocking the door and ushering us inside. I hadn't set out to do immersion journalism, but evidently I was immersed.

* * *

It wasn't the first unlicensed station I visited, and it wasn't the last. In 1999, as I was crossing the country to start a new job, some pirates in Texas even put me up for the night in their transmitter room, which meant sleeping on a stack of dirty mattresses next to a machine that emitted the most high-pitched sound I'd ever heard. Eventually I published a book about all these broadcasters and the history that had shaped them. Rebels on the Air came out in September 2001—not, in retrospect, the best month to sell a book about radio—and now it is turning 20.

I had two big goals when I set out to write Rebels. One was to relate a century's worth of stories about the people who had done creative things on the radio dial. The other was to expose the forces that kept quashing that creativity: the corporate consultants who imposed dull and standardized radio formats, and the government regulators whose entry barriers made it harder to offer alternatives to those formats. So much harder, in fact, that some of those creative programmers felt the need to vault the barriers and broadcast illegally.

In the early chapters, I mostly synthesized other people's work. One group of scholars, who tended to be libertarians, had written extensively about the ways established economic interests used the Federal Communications Commission to fend off competition. Another group of scholars, who tended to be leftists, had written about the nonprofit broadcasters who got cleared off the air in the process. There had not been much cross-pollination between these two tribes, so I weaved their accounts together.

Then I added to their accounts by writing about the rebels who kept broadcasting even after the nonconformists had been moved to the margins. I interviewed retired DJs, read old program guides, visited archives, and looked around for people who were still doing creative things on the air, some legally and some not. If I picked up an interesting radio transmission as I drove through an unfamiliar part of the country, I might look up the station's address and drop in. Someone was always happy to show me around.

There's no shortage of things I wish I'd done differently. Did I really need to spend 18 pages unpacking the civil war then unfolding within the leftist Pacifica network? And when I was writing about the nonprofit stations the government herded off the air in the 1920s and '30s, I should have said more about another crackdown that happened around the same time: The same regulators who cleared away stations that didn't depend on ads also made life hell for small, independent outlets they deemed excessively commercial. (In 2005, happily, Clifford Doerksen's American Babel told that part of the story.)

But Rebels was fun to write, and its closing words feel even more resonant in 2021 than in 2001: "If there's also been an explosion of drivel, smut, and paranoia, so be it: at least it's our drivel, smut, and paranoia. These voices come unvarnished."

* * *

Even after Rebels came out, I kept walking that delicate line between journalism and activism. In 2003, five years after my visit to Radio Mutiny, I went back to Philadelphia to cover the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

The NAB had been urging the feds to crack down on the pirates, and the enmity was mutual. At the association's 2002 convention, members of the Prometheus Radio Project—an organization formed by some of the same folks who had launched Radio Mutiny—had slipped onto the trade-show floor and set up a stall as "Cheap Channel," a parody of the huge radio chain Clear Channel. There they invited browsers to subscribe to their automated "Digital ShlockJock system." ("Delight in the witty repartee, tailored to YOUR HOMETOWN, and delivered by warm 'human-sounding' voices.")

Now reporters from several low-power radio operations were requesting press credentials for the Philadelphia convention—and they were doing it via the Prometheus Radio Project. What's more, the person putting in the request was the ringleader behind the Cheap Channel prank. Unsure if this was another trick, the NAB decided the thing to do was to contact me. I don't remember the caller's exact words, but it boiled down to: "You criticize us all the time, but we know you're an actual reporter. Do you happen to know if these people are real reporters too? Are they planning to punk us?"

Well, I ain't no snitch but I'm willing to be a diplomat. I said I hadn't heard anything, which was true, and then I rang up the Cheap Channel prankster and told her about the call I'd just fielded. If Prometheus wanted to reassure the NAB, I said, I'd be happy to relay the message. If it preferred to stay mum, I'd keep out of it. Just don't ask me to lie.

She told me these really were legitimate reporters, I passed along the news, they got their credentials, and they covered the event. The only person on the request list who was barred was the prankster herself. As I collected my own press badge at the entrance to the convention hall, the lady handing them out lowered her voice and thanked me for my help.

After the convention ended, the prankster told me something in a low voice too. "I had a plan to slip in and do another stunt," she confessed, "but I didn't want to make you look bad." There go those blurred lines again.