When radio and television first began to emerge as cultural forces, many people realized the important role that these mediums could play in a future society. Education, the free exchange of information, the exchange of creative ideas could all be democratized through the powerful new forms of communication. A cultural dialogue flourishing amid the common airwaves would enrich and enliven the lives of those who embraced it. Labor groups, religious groups, educators and philosophers all looked to the promising new media to see what it might bring. Additionally, useful information could travel quickly in the event of national or local emergencies, so that people could learn what was happening and what they could do to protect themselves and help others.
At the same time, however, other people realized this could be a way to enrich not the culture, but themselves. The same wealthy elite who owned the newspapers of the day saw their grip on the American mind and pocketbook slipping unless they could wrangle tight control over what would be expressed in the new media and by whom. A struggle immediately ensued over control of the airwaves.
The Radio Act was enacted in 1927, largely due to pressure by the new broadcasting industry. This act gave away the public broadcast spectrum. A few years and a mighty struggle later, in 1934, the Communications Act was passed. According to this compromise, the spectrum is acknowledged as belonging to all of us. The broadcasters would simply be "public trustees" of our airwaves, and would be expected to use them for the good of all. Their mandate from the FCC and later from the Supreme Court was that they would have free use and control over the broadcast spectrum soley to manage it in the interest of the people. Broadcast licenses would not grant ownership, and could be revoked if broadcasters did not perform their duty of public service.
I believe the time has come to pursue that revocation and take back our own cultural voice. The storm that rages in our city as I write this inflames that belief. For three solid days, the corporate media has been "reporting" on the storm. They haven't stopped to even take a breath (except when advertisers need to sell us something). They've told us that it's cold outside. They've told us that the snow is falling. They've told us that planes are flying late, and that some woman is enjoying it all from her hot tub sipping champaign. And yet in all that reporting, nothing has been done to help the people who have been imperiled by this cold.
Several days ago, a KPTV reporter stumbled accidentally on a homeless man freezing in the cold and unable to get into a shelter. A real story had actually come up and bit her on the ass. And, as reported here on indymedia, she awkwardly ignored it. Yesterday a man froze to death under a bridge, and all KOIN could say about it was that "foul play wasn't involved." Other stations never said a word. Could it have been the same man? Who knows. How is it that people are dying in the streets outside and all our television stations are allowed to blithely ignore it? Where is their service to the public? Why are they being allowed to waste our valuable airwaves?
Yesterday, someone posted an article on indymedia asking what we could do to help people who don't have hot tubs to retreat to and who can't afford to care whether the planes are flying on time. Within hours, the community came together to open the doors at Back to Back cafe as a temporary port in the storm. People were out on the streets in the ice and snow looking for people who needed shelter. I'm told by those who participated that at least two lives were saved by this effort.
The beauty and simplicity of this solution cannot be overstated. Once informed about the problem, people could use the public forum here to organize, come together, and do something about it. THIS is what television should have been doing. But they were not. They ignored the problem, and when it demanded to be heard anyway, they turned their backs.
With all their resources, with faces firmly planted in the trough of free public air, the corporate broadcasters did less than nothing for the people of this city. They turned the storm into an entertainment piece. They ignored the important story of people literally freezing to death in the streets, even when that story walked right up to their cameras. In short, they failed to perform the public service they are required to perform in exchange for their use of our, yes OUR airwaves. Isn't it about time we took those airwaves back?
Look what this community was able to do when they had access to real democratized media. When they could tell their own stories and not rely on fluffy commentary about icicles hanging from birdhouses and cozy hottubs. Imagine what we could have done if we had control over the television stations as well. Let's take that control. It's our right.