How to advance democracy on community radio

Print More

This essay first appeared in the newsletter of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and is republished here with permission.

As a Japanese American, I was born into a community that lost its constitutional rights because of ethnicity. I understood from an early age that democracy mattered. The underlying community message was that if we do not participate in democracy by voting in every election, “they might put us back in camps.”

Fully 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were incarcerated in American concentration camps during World War II. Fred Koramatsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, from California, Washington and Oregon, respectively, lost their cases against the U.S. government at the Supreme Court. Decades later, their cases were reversed by a corum nobis technicality, and they received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mitsuye Endo Tsutumi protested in a different manner but was never recognized for her courage. Today, 80 years later, community leaders are seeking a posthumous Medal of Freedom for her.

Despite three years of government incarceration, my immigrant grandfather studied very hard to pass his citizenship test. After succeeding, he had a big party with a large cake surrounded by miniature American flags. For his first election, he took my sister and me to the polling place. He wore a suit, and we were dressed in our Sunday best. He closed the curtain and lifted me up to push the lever he designated.

From that moment, I took my responsibility literally. I became a campaign volunteer at 14, a legislative page, Girls State and Girls Nation delegate in high school, followed by Model Congress and student body office at the University of Washington. I was an organizer for Students for Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign … and the rest is history.

I am truly a political junkie and have volunteered on hundreds of local, state and national campaigns. That is why I was incensed that a person who had not registered to vote until she was 37 was recently appointed to fill a vacancy on the Seattle City Council. Even my career transition from public school teaching to media was when I began to understand the power of telling our own stories.

Access and control of the airwaves is power 

In 1984, Pacifica Radio won a landmark decision on behalf of all noncommercial broadcasters. We believed that if commercial broadcasters, whose livelihood depended upon sponsors, were allowed to editorialize, noncommercial broadcasters that had no such outside influence should have the right to editorialize as well. This case started before I became Pacifica’s executive director, but I was there for the Supreme Court hearing. It was an absolute thrill to see the legendary Justice Thurgood Marshall in action.

Pacifica leadership agreed that we would only editorialize on a subject of significant importance agreed upon by the board and all five stations. The first editorial clearly showed the power of community radio to make a difference. Near the 10th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising against apartheid in South Africa, a Pacifica reporter said that President Botha’s government was staging his military troops just outside of Soweto where a 10th-anniversary commemorative event was about to be held. Pacifica’s board chair and longtime civil rights leader, Jack O’Dell, wrote and voiced the editorial.

The editorial was broadcast every hour on the hour for the entire week leading up to the Soweto commemoration. Aside from the five Pacifica stations in the Berkeley/Bay Area, Houston, Los Angeles, New York tri-state area, and Washington, D.C., many Pacifica affiliate stations followed suit. The editorial was tagged with the White House phone number, thinking that President Reagan could influence Botha. We learned that the volume of calls kept coming for the first few minutes each hour and eventually blew up the White House comment line! We will never know if lives were saved, but Botha’s troops backed away from Soweto, and the commemoration was peaceful.

NFCB stations: take action!

Although Pacifica’s victory was important to protect free speech for all noncommercial broadcasters, it has rarely been utilized. Stations with the capacity to editorialize should do so. But for many stations, it may be a hard sell to get your board to agree to broadcast an editorial. And by the time some college licensees get through multiple levels of permission, the 2024 election might be history.

There are plenty of legal and low-barrier things that all stations can do. In the April NFCB Newsletter, CEO Rima Dael set the tone for the role of NFCB stations in the upcoming election cycle.

“Democracy is messy and we must continue to work at it. It is messy because of its intersectionality. We must embrace it. Structural racism is ugly and needs to be confronted head-on. We must rebuild the infrastructure in our communities and restore norms around civility. We must educate ourselves on how to be a good citizen in our country, a good neighbor in our communities and an ally to the oppressed and marginalized.”

Dael went on to say:

“It isn’t about balance, it is about fairness. It isn’t about equality, it is about equity.”

People here and around the world have died for the right to vote. We all have an awesome responsibility to advance democracy. We must rise above the noise, misinformation and disinformation, AI trickery, apathy and distrust. We are bridge builders, and that starts with sharing basic information.

The good news is that no station has to reinvent the wheel and everyone can participate at whatever level fits your station and community. As progressive radio commentator Thom Hartmann ends his daily program, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Here are a couple of examples that can be adapted to suit your community.

In his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, the Rev. Jesse Jackson often registered many new voters at his campaign rallies, specifically targeting young Black men. Because of the disproportionality of young Black men being arrested, they are more likely to need a jury of their peers. He would then explain that if a jury skews toward white retirees, it is because they are the largest group of registered voters. The reverend’s statement really shook Black youth in his audiences, and they usually lined up to register on the spot.

During a past election cycle a popular youth band in the Seattle area offered high schools free after-school concerts. The price of admission: All 18-year-old students had to register to vote before entering the auditorium. This band registered over 1,000 new voters, and school officials loved the no-cost event. This could be replicated in small towns and major cities alike.

NFCB member stations can access the Solution Center for webinars and other information. Sample PSAs and other examples of legal and low-barrier ways to be a part of advancing democracy are posted on the NFCB blog. Also, there’s a short list of organizations that share voter registration and election resources. Stations can continue to add to that list by emailing [email protected].

Some of us can’t go as far as John Lewis’ “good trouble,” but every station can share voter information and amplify the information that will ensure a more informed local electorate. No matter your community’s perspectives on issues, voting in elections is the best way to advance democracy for the future of our country and the planet.

(A friendly disclaimer/reminder from the NFCB staff: Editorializing should not be confused with endorsing a political candidate or campaign, which is prohibited by the IRS for 501(c)(3) organizations.)

Sharon Maeda is a board member of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *