THE STAN IVERSON MEMORIAL LIBRARY

 



Rhizomatic Radio and the Great Stampede

by Ron Sakolsky

 

Seizing the Airwaves

Seizing the Airwaves: Free Radio Handbook

 

Let us conjure up a vision of a Wild Radio Stampede disrupting the territorialized lines of Authority artificially drawn in the air surrounding Mother Earth. The seismic flows of land, sea, and air waves reconceptualized as rhizomatic possibilities. Let the leaden segmentary lines imposed by capitofeudalism explode into detached shimmering lines of flight. Rampaging sound wave tubers where each stem is itself a rootstock emitting new roots everywhere along its sonic path. Unstoppable drifting planetary waves of radio sound laughing in the sedentary face of the dominant mediacracy's uniformity. Immersion then becomes a metaphor not for entrapment, but for escape as receiver and producer become one in an oceanic roar sounding in its composite signal like a combination of Hiroshi Yokoi's 24 hour FM radio transmissions in Japan programmed according to tidal patterns and Tetsuo Kugawa's micropower radio broadcasts, inspired by the radio experiments in "direct speech" of the Italian Autonomists. The Autonomist trick of The Serpent of Desire Eating Its Own Tail as performed by Felix Guattari and the Schizzes on a mixtape.

Kugawa and Guattari, entwined in the worldwide free radio rhizomes proliferating not underground but in the air; the technician and the theorist both inspired by the heady days of the Italian Autonomia (Autonomy) movement of the late Seventies. Using a hard-won 1975 Italian Constitutional Court's ruling declaring that the state monopoly of the airwaves was illegal, the Autonomia movement remained highly visible in the hundreds of diverse and unregulated miniaturized stations that engaged daily in a guerrilla warfare of the airwaves, such as Radio Alice in Bologna, the station whose programming was chronicled by Guattari himself. Unlike conventional radio (which in a US context means commercial, public or, increasingly, community), what Guattari called "popular free radio" does not seek to impose programming on targeted segments of a mass audience using marketing criteria. Instead, it aims at changing the professionally-mediated relationship between listener and speaker, and even challenging the listener/speaker dichotomy itself. In one sense, then, it is an expansion upon Bertolt Brecht's 1927 proposal for democratization of radio which called for the apparatus of radio to be changed over from distribution to communication, making it possible to transmit as well as receive. From an Autonomist perspective, Italian radio would be opened up to non-professionals and the hierarchical one way flow of messages would be replaced with egalitarian multiple flows. This new arrangement stood in marked contrast to the authoritarian approach to radio as a vehicle for the shaping of opinion either by the dominant culture or by an oppositional political party. In the latter case, Guattari was going beyond Brecht in concerning himself with the potentialities of radio for creating new spaces for freedom, self-management (autogestion) and the immediate fulfillment of desire rather than merely disseminating the party line and/or mobilizing supporters in the traditional leftist manner.

What better way to accomplish this immediacy goal than the phone-in! In fact, what we today refer to as "talk radio" owes an unacknowledged and probably unknown debt to the Autonomists. Typically, the potentially radical phone-in vehicle is drained of its potency within the contemporary authoritarian radio context of pre-screening, censorship, and the use of such control technology as delay devices by swarmy radio windbags like Rush Limbaugh. Yet phone-ins to Autonomist radio collectives in the Italian context took the form of people reading their poetry, singing their songs, playing their instruments, or shouting their manifestoes into the air. They called from their squats to deride their would-be landlords, their housework to skewer their husbands, their workplaces or picket lines to attack their bosses, or from their beds to denounce work itself. Unmediated communiqués, expressed in a popular language that was lively, direct and often ribald. As one caller to Radio Alice put it in defense of charges of obscenity against the station, "Desire is given a voice, and for them, it is obscene" (Lotringer and Marazzi, p. 131).

Speaking truth to power in terms of desire not only targeted capitalists, but, as in Bologna, where the Communist Party held public office and yet promoted policies of law and order and austerity; it was the authoritarian left itself which was challenged. In its own words, "Radio Alice will give a voice to anyone who loves mimosa and believes in paradise; hates violence but strikes the wicked; believes they're Napoleon but knows they could just be aftershave; who laughs like the flowers... to smokers and drinkers, jugglers and musketeers, the absent and the mad" (Lumley, 1990, p 305). As to the youth revolt component of Autonomia, in some ways, 1977's "Generation of Year Nine" (as they called themselves in mock reference to the year 1968 in the Jacobin calendar) sought to connect with and update the libertarian impulses of the Sixties that had been reterritorialized in later years. This quest then was not a search for roots, but what Guattari has called rhizomatic links that would deterritorialize the airwaves and offer a way out of the oh so manageable bureaucratic box constructed for radio. Beyond Italy, the resulting free radio movement surfaced not only in Japan as previously noted, but was in evidence throughout Europe in the Seventies and Eighties playing itself out on the airwaves in a plethora of pirate radio stations that erupted in the Netherlands (e.g. Vrije Keizer Radio), West Germany (e.g. Radio Dreyeckland), Spain (e.g. Radio Luna), Denmark (e.g. Radio Sokkeland), France (e.g. Radio Libertaire), Belgium (e.g. Radio Air Libre), and the United Kingdom (e.g. Radio Arthur). Today, some of these pirate stations continue to exist, while others have been legalized and hence restratified, still others have disappeared. Yet new ones have been born all across the planet in the flames of the Nineties. Circling somewhere in the aether remains the vision of nomadic radio pirates whose transmitters navigate the air waves liberating them on behalf of the voiceless, marginalized and downtrodden and viewing those waves as treasures in themselves which have unjustly been confiscated and debased by the rich and mighty; a touchstone image for current free radio activists throughout the world.

This analogy, of course, brings up the controversy that surrounds the term "pirate" in micropower radio circles. Personally, I have never objected to the term pirate. When they asked John Dillenger why he robbed banks, his reply was, "That's where the money is." Wobbly folksinger Utah Phillips says his mother used to call bank robbers "class heroes," and Queen Latifah seems to agree. Now since I do not believe that the money that has been privately accumulated by banks is any more the result of an equitable distribution of wealth than that the oligopoly over the airwaves that presently reigns is a fair distribution of a public resource, I would contend that the term radio pirate as it is commonly used is a positive poetic metaphor relating to the redistribution of resources between the haves and have nots. Sure, the naive vision of piracy is often simplistically based on an image of heroic swashbuckling romanticism, but the history of piracy is itself very complex. Real life pirates have ranged from despicable slave traders and imperial guns-for-hire to radical adventurers and utopian visionaries. While I make no apology here for the former, it is, of course, the latter type of pirate with which most free radio advocates, including myself, identify.

In historical terms, piracy often offered seafarers an alternative to the hierarchical rigidity of naval life or the exploitative working conditions of the commercial ships. In fact, pirate ships were often characterized by a share the wealth ethos and allowed for a degree of gender equality and sexual freedom unheard of on both land and sea. Prominent women pirates who took to the high seas in pursuit of liberty include: Grace O'Malley, Mary Read, Ann Bonny and Cheng I Sao (Stanley, 1995), and homosexuality was often an accepted part of shipboard life. (Burg, 1983). Pirate utopias have existed in the Bahamas (Nassau), the Caribbean (Hispaniola and Ranters Bay), Madigascar (Libertalia), and among the corsairs of North Africa (Republic of Sale).

Peter Lamborn Wilson makes a strong case on behalf of the idea that because of their anarchic forms of organization, the Moorish pirates could be considered our democratic forefathers, both on shipboard and in their commonwealths and intentional communities on land. Often "Articles" or "ships constitutions" unlike those of government man-of-wars or merchant ships called for the election of officers, including captains and quartermasters who received as little as 1 1/2 times the share of the booty as received by crewmen. In spite of the walking the plank Hollywood trope, corporal punishment was often outlawed and disagreements resolved at a drumhead court or by duels on shore. As Wilson puts it, "Pirate ships were true republics, each ship (or fleet) an independent floating democracy... The Buccaneer way of life had an obvious appeal: interracial harmony, class solidarity, freedom from government, adventure and possible glory" (Wilson, 1995, p 191). Making an earlier case for democracy under the Jolly Roger, radical historian Marcus Rediker has emphatically noted, "Pirates constructed a culture of masterless men. They were as far removed from traditional authority as any men could be in the early eighteenth century" (Rediker, 1987, p 286).

Of course it's certainly true that pirates could be violent. Yet apart from the privateers employed by the nation state, the replacement of the outlawed non-state violence of the pirates with the legally sanctioned military violence of the sovereign nation states which banded together to crush piracy as a threat to their own monopoly on violence in international affairs, was hardly an improvement. (Thomson, 1994). In the system that has evolved, pirates are seen as stateless, and so, in terms of international law, do not exist except as terrorists, while competing nation-states are seen as legitimate global actors; albeit within the current context of multinational shadow governments.

Are radio pirates plundering and hijacking the airwaves from their rightful state and corporate owners, or are they better conceived of as state-free rebels using culture jamming tactics to challenge the power of the media monopoly and the authority granted by government's normalizing regulations which have created a new interlocking system of enclosure, not merely on land, but in the air itself. Whether called pirate radio, micropower radio, low watt radio, liberation radio or free radio; collectively we constitute a movement that has the capability of bridging the gap between the social and individualist strains of anarchist theory and practice, and offering a libertarian alternative to both corporate and state controlled radio that has an even broader appeal.

Michel Foucault's strategic advice on "living counter to all forms of fascism" prizes "mobile arrangements over systems" (Foucault in Delueze and Guattari, 1983, p XIII), and brings to mind the image of Stephen Dunifer beginning his then clandestine broadcasts with a mobile radio unit in his backpack in the Berkeley hills or that of Mbanna Kantako defiantly vowing to run his Springfield, Illinois radio station off of a bicycle, if necessary, should he be busted by the FCC. These radio activists have in turn inspired countless others in their wake so that presently a virtual free radio stampede is underway as new micropower stations go on the air every day. A stampede can be envisioned as mobility called into being by spontaneous action. "Every animal knows, and humans are no exception, that when there is a stampede you must join in or get out of the way. Try to stop it, and you will be crushed." (Doe, 1996, p 181). Join the Great Radio Stampede!

 

Excerpts from Seizing The Airwaves with permission by the author. Please see the complete text for the bibliography.

 



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