Radio is an old medium that seems to struggle to renew itself. With the switchover from analogue to digital and the necessity to keep up with consumer demand and expectations, radio has been regularly deemed to be obsolete. Radio as a primetime media died, but radio also morphed into something else. During the French occupy movement Nuit Debout in April 2016, people who were walking around Place de la République – the Parisian heart of the protest – might have been surprised to discover Radio Debout (“radio stand up”). Why one should contribute to such a radio when Internet and social networks prevail? With the idea that micro-radio broadcasting holds the potential to empower ordinary people at the local community level, radio-activism is tinkering its way back against the overriding force of computer-mediated technologies. An earlier version of this piece appeared on inaglobal.fr, the online journal of the French National audiovisual institute (INA).
Mastering the different types of media techniques in order to challenge social norms, hierarchies and institutions and eventually engendering social change is a crucial aspect of any kind of activism. Media and communication tools are not only an essential dimension of how to get the world out there to raise issues and spread contentious politics, but also a way to sustain ties between activists, to recruit new ones and eventually solidifying movements for transformative change. Activists are naturally concerned with how their fight is perceived outside their ranks: are the claims sufficiently visible? Are they understandable, understood, valued and even supported? When a struggle is hampered by a limited interest in mainstream media, activists have every incentive to build their own communication strategy and to become more of a media-activist.
Over the past decades, information and communication technologies and social media have risen as prominent terrains where political contestation can play out. Nonetheless, during the French occupy movement Nuit Debout in April 2016, people who were walking around Place de la République – the Parisian heart of the protest – might have been surprised to discover Radio Debout (“radio stand up”). Pop-up radio (or “radio-tract”, literally pamphlet radio, in French) and permanent stations seem to have made a comeback within the activist communication toolkit. Why one should contribute to radio when Internet and social networks prevail? In an era of Internet hype, why some activists are coming back to the old medium of radio technology?
Historically, radio has been a highly politicised media, involved in war-time propaganda but also widely perceived as an inherently democratic tool, holding the potential of empowering people. Radio is an old technology and an established media even if with the switchover from analogue to digital and the necessity to keep up with consumer demand and expectations, radio has been regularly deemed to be obsolete. In France it is still a primetime media though. Boosted by the 1982 communication law abolishing the State’s tight control on broadcasting, generalist radio stations such as France Inter, RTL and Europe 1 managed to retain their attraction for French people. Millions are tuned to the everyday mainstream morning radio shows (les “matinales” in French). For France’s top political figures being interviewed, challenged and criticised by the morning radio shows’ journalists is a must. Journalists, columnists and interviewers themselves are very often caught up in fierce competition when it comes to who should be in charge of one of these prestigious morning radio shows. Even French commercial or radio stations for young people such as NRJ (literally New Youth Radio) are keen on broadcasting breaking news and are therefore playing a role in the game of political communication. Considering how prestigious mainstream radios are for political actors, one could wonder if the umbilical cord which had for so long linked French public broadcasting to its political masters has been entirely severed. Furthermore and more broadly, one could wonder if the domination of large radio groups, themselves part of larger media empires, can be entirely freed from ´Media tycoons’ interests.
This brief account of how radio has been and still is an important political media would not be complete without mentioning radio activism. Beyond the large and dominant radio groups that can claim with a certain success a monopoly on the production of “objective information”, there is also an established and long legacy of various forms of radio-activism where “subjectivity” is assumed and promoted. What these different forms of radio-activism have in common is the idea that there is a need to counterbalance what cannot be objective facts but only false and alienating journalistic information. The causes defended and objectives of these different radio-activists are diverse. Between those who fight for the end of State monopoly on broadcasting (“free radios” in the seventies), those who use radio to promote democracy or insurrection, those who use radio to deceive and those who see radio as inherently democratic and as a tool for community empowerment, radio-activism is far from being an homogenous group (off shore radios, inuit locale radios, South of America indigenous radios…). The variety of terms used to qualify radio-activism further emphasis this variety: citizens’ media, popular, autonomous, alternative, rebel, social, radical, clandestine, community-based or subversive.
Radio activism and social movements
The old medium of radio technology has been part of every single social and political movement of the second half of the twentieth century. In the late 1970s, radio SOS Emploi (radio SOS job) and Radio Lorraine Coeur d’Acier (Lorraine Heart of Steel Radio) were both geared to the steelworkers’ struggles following the redundancy of 15,000 people in the small town of Longwy. Both radios were broadcasting the strikers’ claims and labour struggles which were definitively absent from mainstream media. Stations’ microphones were travelling out of the studio, giving a voice to the voiceless and recording local issues and ordinary people’s views. They broadcasted some poignant testimonies on the social and economical status of the North-East of France. Radio has been a fundamental prerequisite for every subsequent trade union struggle in France: the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts Radio (Radio CNAM) in May 1977, Radio Saint Anne hospital in June 1978, Radio Franche and Radio Franche Inter in February 1979, Radio SAM (Society of Mediterranean Workshops) in Marseille in November 1979, Radio Alsthom in Belfort in 1979 thanks to the equipment of Radio Red Waves (“Radio Ondes Rouges”). When disappointed with the national media coverage of the Union elections in 1979, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), one of the largest trade unions in France, launched a series called “radios-luttes” (radio struggle) across France: Radio Quinquin, Radio Billancourt, Radio Penn ar Bed…
In the history of radio-activism, one should also mention how the beginnings of Gay and Lesbian movements in France started with the disruption of a mainstream radio talk in 1970, followed ten years later by the creation of the very first French Gay radio station (Radio Fil Rose, Radio Mauve and Fréquence Gaie). Among the pirate radios, Radio “Pleine Lune” (literally full moon radio; a broadcast from Radio Zones), broadcasting illegally from Geneva, was key within the emerging French lesbian community and media feminism activism. Emerging in the 1980s, Radio Beur, radio Soleil or radio Gazelle were the very first radio stations to offer a voice to the children of North-African immigrants at a time when the Front National (FN, National Front) was emerging as a serious political force. Radio Occitane (in Occitan) and Radio Gure Irratia (in Basque) promoted regional languages, Radio Active, Radio Plogoff and “radios vertes” (Green stations) opposing nuclear power were also part of this vivid and diversified community of radio activists.
Radio is a rather direct and simple technology but broadcasting illegally comes with its drawbacks. French authorities used all the means they had to counteract radio-activism: radio jammers and frequency blockers, seizing the material, and making illegal the radio organisations usually created under the French ‘1901 law on non-profit organisation’. Yet, in its simplicity radio technology allows easy counter-strategies such as the multiplication of radio-transmitter across national borders. Radio Verte Fessenheim (Green radio Fessenheim), created in 1977 to denounce the creation of a nuclear power plant in Alsace (north-east of France), used its geographical proximity with Germany and Switzerland to multiply the number of transmitters and to broadcast from across the borders. In 1980 the very experimental Parisian Radio Ici & Maintenant (Here and Now Radio) used another ingenious yet equally effective solution. The studio equipment was connected to the transmitter by phone and half a dozen antennas were set up across Paris. The radio transmitter itself was moving around the city in a taxi and with the help of equalizers at both ends, the quality of the sound was kept to a certain standard.
Nonetheless, despite the rather simple technology used, radio activism still requires adequate funding. Pop-up radio (‘radio tract’) is, by its nature, a short-term adventure and can rely on volunteer work only. It is different for permanent activist radios with a longer term strategy. The necessity to generate sustainable long-term financing for their running costs has been and still is a crucial issue for them. This funding may take many forms, including regular donations from community-based societies, fees charged by the station for individual announcements, concert-funding and membership. When it comes to discussion about how to ensure community and/or alternative radio’s long term viability, there is a clear division between those who favour some form of permanent arrangement and those who claim that radio activism is essentially about DIY and therefore assumed to be the poor relation in the media landscape. Since its inception in 1983, the World community radio organisation (AMARC), among other alternative international radio networks, echoed this debate between these two different conceptions of alternative radios. The debate even went further with the new technologies offered by the internet. Over the past decade, radio activism met digital activism up to the point that one could speak of a post radio metamorphosis.
As such, Radio Debout that appeared during the French occupy movement Nuit Debout in April 2016, embodies these different political and technical issues raised above. Radio Debout chose a free and easy-to-use Internet broadcasting application, Mixlr, which allowed them to complement classic radio work with online chats and social media connections. A microphone on one hand and a Smartphone on the other, radio Stand Up’s activists were connecting the dots between classic alternative radio and a Web 2.0 generation. It would have been possible to build a legal FM station for Radio Debout, even a temporary one. However, it implies a certain level of preparation in advance and the submission of a complex application to the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA, the French national organisation in charge of the regulation of radio and television). This application, in which one has to explain the rationale for the proposed station but also provide a clear and extremely precise programming schedule, has to be submit at least three months before. Suffice to say to say that an Internet broadcasting application would have been certainly easier and come with fewer constraints. A non authorised ‘radio Debout’ FM broadcast was implemented nonetheless. With the help of a little truck, a musical version of Radio Debout was broadcast during the short period of the French Occupy Movement. Radio Debout occupied the air with music, interviews and forums through a laptop, a USB key, a couple of microphones and a mixing console.
Independent and ephemeral like the movement itself, Radio Debout provides strong testimony against the too easy dismissal of radio activism as outdated. The idea that micro-radio broadcasting holds the potential to empower ordinary people is still relevant. And it seems to be clear that radio-activism is tinkering its way back against the overriding force of computer-mediated technologies by actually using them rather than fighting them.
To go further:
Lefebvre, Thierry and Sebastien Poulain (eds.), 2016, Radios libres, 30 ans de FM La parole libérée ?, Paris : l’Harmattan
Lefebvre, Thierry, 2008, La Bataille des radios libres, 1977-1981, Paris, Nouveau Monde Éditions/ Ina
Poulain, Sébastien, « Radio Ici et Maintenant, pionnière en expérimentations », Cahiers d’histoire de la radiodiffusion, n° 121, juillet-septembre 2014