Radio Rising:  Social Change at the Speed of Sound

Radio Rising: Social Change at the Speed of Sound

Arts September 10, 2012 / By Lawrence E. McCullough
Radio Rising:  Social Change at the Speed of Sound

Even in the Age of Skype and Tweet, community-based radio remains a vital medium for social change.

“The message of radio is one of violent, unified implosion and resonance.”
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964.

“Some years ago, a child was asked whether he liked radio or television best. The boy said radio, because the pictures were better.”
— Jack Gilbert, “A Man in Black and White”, Collected Poems, 2012.

* * *

RADIO WAS THE FIRST personal mass communications system. A human voice simultaneously addressing thousands, perhaps millions … yet each listener hearing that voice through an electronic box as it if were a personal conversation mere inches away.

Toward the end of the 20th century, that conversation became a cacophony, as commercial and non-commercial radio programming fragmented into infinitesimal niche formats seeking to bring swarms of advertisers to the ears of an infinite number of niche consumer targets.

Some observers warned that radio had become less personal, less listened to, less relevant to the daily lives of its audience — a fading dinosaur in the evolutionary parade of communications technology.

But as of Dec. 31, 2011, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission tallied a total of 15,790 licensed broadcast stations operating across America. That’s a 30% increase from the 11,062 stations on the air at the end of 1991, two decades earlier. 1

In the 21st century, radio remains a highly personalized, imagination-stimulating medium well suited for reaching out and establishing an individual bond between announcer and an unseen listener. By virtue of the internet, a small-town station can be heard anywhere in the world; by virtue of the podcast, radio can be carried by anyone anywhere they travel.

And in surprising, inspiring ways around the globe, radio is used more potently than ever as a unifying, not atomizing force.

The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (French: Association Mondiale Des Radiodiffuseurs Communautaires, AMARC) is a Montreal-based non-governmental organization founded in 1983 to support the global network of community radio broadcasters. AMARC lists close to 4,000 members and associates in 110 countries and is one of a plethora of multi-national NGOs such as Radio for Peacebuilding Africa, Developing Radio Partners, National Federation of Community Broadcasters, Grassroots Radio Coalition.

Some agencies are specialized in scope, such as Ottawa-based Farm Radio International that provides rural radio organizations in sub-Saharan Africa with news and resources for small farmers and farming families.

Other community radio efforts publicize immunization days in Uganda, women’s rights in Mozambique, equality for ethnic and religious minority groups in Tbilisi, the plight of homeless children in Kosovo, anti-gang efforts in Rio de Janeiro, literacy for youth in the Phillipines, the struggle for clean water in Western Orissa, India.

In societies where more than half the people cannot read or write and very few have televisions or computers, radio remains a vital medium.

“Community radio is not just about producing good radio programs,” says Denise Gray-Felder of Communication for Social Change Consortium located in South Orange, New Jersey. “It is a social process, more than a series of products or programs. Community radio stations spring up and survive because they can make positive contributions to societies, often to societies in turmoil or during periods of growth.” 2

Among the valleys of northeastern Tennessee just west of the main crest of the Appalachian Mountains, those positive contributions circulate via Women On Air, a two-hour show emanating weekly from campus station WETS-FM at Eastern Tennessee State University in Johnson City.

“The physics of how radio waves go from point A to point B is pretty straightforward,” says Women On Air producer Susan Lachmann (see photo above). “But what’s completely mysterious and amazing is how the content carried on those waves can spread out in a hundred directions and affect thousands of lives.”

What began in 1987 as a women’s music hour has evolved into a springboard for community outreach and organizing in an area where social and physical isolation often dominate the cultural landscape.

Women on Air presents features on local women of all ages involved in a broad range of the Arts – music, poetry, essays, theatre – along with segments on education, business, and numerous community initiatives geared to women in the region.

Lachmann has also interviewed dozens of global arts and science notables including Odetta, Emmylou Harris, Lily Tomlin, Helen Caldicott, Madeline L’Engle, Jane Evershed, Nikki Giovanni, Barbara Kingsolver, Lee Smith, and Susan Stamberg.

“For young women in this area to hear a show promoting the voices and works of accomplished women in their own words is important and motivating,” says Lachmann.

How far does the impact of the show extend beyond the hills of East Tennessee? Women On Air was the creative cauldron for the birthing of the spoken word anthology Voice Like a Hammer featuring poet Mendy Knott and a group of women writers from North Carolina. The anthology was sent to Iraq as part of the international Books for Soldiers project.

Women On Air has hosted students participating in The Ulster Project, the nonprofit group working to reconcile Catholic and Protestant youth from Northern Ireland. It’s been the catalyst for a score of local public events including the annual WindieFest, an eclectic springtime Arts festival held in nearby Jonesborough that promotes connections among women entrepreneurs, educators, business owners, and cultural creatives.

Susan Lachmann sees Women On Air as an extension of her longtime career as a public school educator and corporate trainer. “Radio is still the most effective mass medium for inspiring people at the gut level to explore new ideas, look at issues differently and – most critically – meet other people and talk about how we want to live as a community. Because radio demands that you use your imagination to a heightened degree, it makes you even more open to innovative thinking.”

Here in the United States, it appears that more Americans will have the opportunity to hone their imagination via radio since President Barack Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, allowing individuals to apply for licenses to create low-power community radio stations of 100 watts or less. 3

Danielle Chynoweth, director of strategic planning at the Prometheus Radio Project, says the legislation opens the door for a wave of new broadcasters across the country, not just in remote rural areas but in cities where “neighborhood radio” can keep urban audiences informed about issues and opportunities affecting their lives. 4

The radio unit itself has benefitted from new developments in 21st-century technology. The Lifeline Radio is a portable radio that can be powered by a solar panel, a hand crank, and a DC input pluggable into either a wall socket or car battery.

Described as an “iPod for the global poor”, the Lifeline and its updated Lifeplayer companion were designed by Kristine Pearson, the South African CEO of Lifeline Energy, to be given for free to the nearly 1.5 billion people in the world living without access to electricity. 5

The organization believes this simplest medium of communication access can be the foundation for delivering education and energy services to remote and impoverished populations around the globe, estimating that over the last decade more than 500,000 self-powering radios have been distributed to nearly 20 million people.

Let’s do the math: 20 million from 1.5 billion … equals a lot of imaginations yet to heightened.

Time for way more women, men, and children on Air.


Click the link below for information on how to start your own community FM station:

To see if low-power FM frequencies for community radio will be available in your area, go to


1 “Broadcast Station Totals as of December 31, 2011”. News release, Federal Communications Commission, Jan. 6, 2012.

2 “Why Assess Community radio? It Works, Doesn’t It?” by Denise Gray-Felder. Nov. 2006: The Communication for Social Change Consortium. Page 1.

3 “Advocates rejoice as Obama signs Local Community radio Act: by Hayley Tsukayama., Jan. 7, 2011.

4 “Two Clicks on the Dial: the Fight for Urban Community radio Continues”, Prometheus Radio Project. April 30, 2012.

5 “Kristine Pearson on the Founding and Future of Lifeline Energy” by Rahim Kanani., Nov. 1, 2011.

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