Radio

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

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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.

NEXT: Brickbat: Women's Work

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  1. I never knew Jesse regularly rubbed elbows with hardened criminals! Mad respect!

  2. Me and uncle Dave went fishing…

  3. Well I for one have never had a problem determining when Reason writers are acting as journalists versus activists. And if you’re not smart enough yourself, you should just give them the benefit of the doubt from article to article until you figure it out.

    1. If you were wrong, how would you know?

      1. Lol. I’m rarely wrong. If you have any cites of me being wrong I’d love for you to post them.

        1. We can start with your statement you’re rarely wrong.

          No offense.

  4. “Even after Rebels came out, I kept walking that delicate line between journalism and activism.”

    From what you wrote, I don’t think you were anywhere near the line – – – – – – – – –

  5. So I assume this is cover for antifa terrorists who slap “journalist” on their shirt to legitimize their actions fire bombing buildings.

    What I’ll take from this is all journalists are lying activists and nothing they say should be believed. Doing your profession proud Jesse.

    1. I take it as the opposite. Mr Walker isn’t pretending to be unbiased- and he isn’t lying. That is the whole point- he’ll tell you the story he wants to tell, truthfully, and you can take into account the messenger. Whether you believe that our broadcasting system should be anarchy or merely different (or even stay the same), none of Mr Walker’s bias invalidates what he reported, assuming he was truthful.

      Indeed, when everyone acknowledges biases, it makes it harder to get away with the “Multiple unnamed sources” BS. I always preferred British news because no one ever hid who they were. The Guardian was going to be socialist claptrap and the Telegraph was going to be more right wing. And if the Guardian tried to write a takedown of a right winger, no one except their echo chamber would accept reporting with “Multiple unknown sources”. Compare that to Dan Rather whose reputation as unbiased straight shooter allowed him to try and pass off MS Word forgeries as authentic typewriter military letters from the 60s. Prior to the rise of the blogosphere, he would have been able to stand behind those documents forever just on his “Unbiased arbiter of truth” title.

      Today, the obsession over “Bias” in reporting does more harm than good. Because the US hasn’t internalized that someone can be Biased and still Honest, we constantly see people call different perspectives “misinformation” just because it is from a different camp on the political spectrum.

      1. “Prior to the rise of the blogosphere, he would have been able to stand behind those documents forever just on his “Unbiased arbiter of truth” title. ”

        You’re assuming that those who supplied Rather with the documents needed the blogosphere to expose the forgeries. They could have used other means, though it’s hard to imagine something as speedy as the internet.

      2. Because the US hasn’t internalized that someone can be Biased and still Honest, we constantly see people call different perspectives “misinformation” just because it is from a different camp on the political spectrum.

        The issue with bias becomes a problem when the entire industry becomes captured by people of one particular bias, and then works to shut out or marginalize anyone who attempts to challenge that.

        1. Indeed. They create a hostile work environment. I tell conservatives/libertarians to file a harassment report to their employer when they get harassed and they fall back to, “I have my principles.” It’s a tool. Use it.

    2. Heh — Antifa “journalist”. That’s part of Antifa in general. Muddy the waters, make people believe nothing, make people overreact to everything. Just another version of having a can of soup in your pocket so you can feed your family.

      From the other side, though, there was an article here last year from a trans girl… I forget her name, so I’m afraid that’s her signifier.

      She “embedded” in Antifa. Went with them on their black block missions. Told a very straight forward, honest depiction of what she saw, including the types of people in the actions she attended and why people would do such a thing. It might have been one of the better things Reason ran, and about the easiest way to understand Antifa for a non-anarchist.

      1. Erin Smith is who I think you’re talking about, and Erin is about as based as it gets. One of the most insightful current commentators on American political culture I’ve read.

  6. So you take the chance to plug one of your books? That’s OK, we still love ya, Mr. Walker! The ending was even touching. Keep it coming, Jesse.

    1. It’s a great book, full of surprises, like the US Navy being desperate for radio experts during WW I because it was still so new that they had no radio experts of their own; how early broadcasters treated radio like long distance telephone, because too few people had radios for mass broadcasts to make any sense; how the radio corporations got the government to bureaucratize radio with licensing with unfounded scare stories. Lots of good interesting stuff, even the KPFA/B wars.

      1. WBAI has one of those wars every few years. But WFMU, run by a benevolent dictator, gets along extremely well; the truly disgruntled may never be gruntled and just leave, and frequently even manage a friendly divorce.

  7. It explains a lot about their coverage of 2020 riots.

  8. If you are reporting, then you should strive for impartiality. If you are unable, then full disclosure. Always. Anything less and you are unethical and worthless as a reporter. never assume that the people reading or listening to you will understand what is not stated. Full disclosure.

    1. No no no. The whole point of not pretending to be impartial and unbiased is that it is impossible for anyone to know their own biases so well that they can adjust for them. The only way to be a reporter is to admit your biases up front and trust readers to be adults who can pass their own judgments.

      1. “The only way to be a reporter is to admit your biases up front”

        Why trust these reporters to truthfully admit to their own biases? Or that a reporter is best qualified to assess his or her own biases? How about other teams of reporters reporting on the biases of the original reporters. That will give us a more objective and hopefully accurate assessment of the their biases.

        1. How about other teams of reporters reporting on the biases of the original reporters.

          As we have seen, the media frowns on any attempts to shine light on how they do business. It’s an outward-directed business. Not much use for anything inward.

          1. “the media frowns on any attempts to shine light on how they do business. ”

            I don’t think any business likes to have close scrutiny of its practices. I think much of the problem with the media lies in the fact that those who buy the papers and read the stories are the product which the media sells to the advertisers. That’s bound to create some perverse incentives. Another problem is the introduction of the internet and the end of the 24 hour news cycle. Deadlines and competition are much more pressing and errors will abound.

        2. I wasn’t clear. I meant not to know and disclose your biases, but to admit you have unknown biases and stop trying to be impartial by pretending to cover up the biases you mistakenly think you have. Just say what you will and be done with it.

          1. When a reporter covers both sides of the story, while he is biased, by covering opposing viewpoints, he at least ensures that the entire body of information is put before the reader. How many have the self-awareness to recognize their bias? However, it is best to always include opposing viewpoints, seek verification of assertions and know the difference between an assertive opinion stated as a fact and actual factual information. Avoid statistics because those are easily manipulated and delivered to present the message of the interviewee. Definitely, when having strong opinions or bias, disclose if you consider yourself a reporter.

            1. ” Definitely, when having strong opinions or bias, disclose if you consider yourself a reporter.”

              We want reporting, not navel gazing. The onus is on the reader to get a fuller picture than any one reporter is capable of giving. And (the horror!) statistics may be a part of that.

  9. 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

    How long was your ponytail?

    1. LET THE RECORD SHOW: Aside from that period last year when all the barbershops were shut down, I haven’t had long hair since about a year after college. And I didn’t wear a ponytail then either.

      1. Beard?

        I grew one at age 30 for a few months, because my father thought I’d look good with one.

        1. I had a beard for the bulk of the ’90s, and one creeps back onto my face periodically just because I think shaving is a pain in the ass.

  10. 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.

    This description now applies to the internet.

  11. I have mixed feelings on the activist/journalist/bias/impartiality debate.

    I don’t have a problem with some simple biases, especially when they’re disclosed and I’m not being gaslit (not sure if I’m using this hipster term correctly so feel free to let me know) by the journalist.

    Bias can become so pervasive that the journalist may find him or herself an activist, without really even knowing it or admitting it.

    This is where the journalist needs to keep himself in check, and I don’t see a bright line system for doing that, except for the journalist to be continuously self-evaluating.

    We’ve seen what happens when ordinary journalism morphs into rabid activism after 2016. It makes the profession ugly and makes people distrust it.

    We get it, you wanted Hillary Clinton to win. We get it, you don’t like Donald Trump. We get it, you wanted Joe Biden to win. But show some decorum.

    1. Further, the activist/bias/journalist line being overly blurred is how we got months of “mostly peaceful” protests in 2020, and the worst attack on the capitol since the British burned the capitol in 1814. Worse and more deadly than 9/11.

  12. No mentions of Art Bell and Coast-to-Coast AM?

    1. Now I know how old you are. Get in line, boomer.

      1. Funny thing is I never listened to him back then, but his archives are online.

        1. Did you listen to his successors? It’s complicated. If you follow only the line of C2CAM, you’re missing most of it, which really got hairy starting in 2015. It’s…complicated…and branches out a lot, to where the term “Art Bell legacy” is a bit of a running joke among the fans. I listen somewhat regularly to the Tim Weisberg branch of the tree, The Midnight Society.

  13. No thinking observer of current events cares about ‘journalists’, because they’re willing enablers of the narrative. To be sure, their employers will be subsidized by the uniparty, so no need to mourn their loss.

  14. Bullshit.

    The moment you inject ANY of your own beliefs into what you are writing for public consumption, you are an activist.

  15. I miss the type of journalism where the reporter doesn’t insert himself into the story.

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