Behind Bars

Speech to the Grass Roots Radio Conference1

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

Ona Move! Long Live John Africa!

Dear friends: Attendees at the Grass Roots Radio Conference! Thank you for your invitation. I join y’all today, this way, by necessity; but we are joined by our common love of radio, still a vibrant medium.

This is a challenging time for all of us, whatever our field of endeavor.

That’s because the new economic pressures of globalization and capitalist acquisition are battering at the doors, trying to buy up everything of worth—to privatize it, to sell it off to the highest bidder.

For many community and non-commercial broadcasters this means precisely what it meant (and means) for corporate media: its destruction as a medium in which people can have any faith and trust. It means its transformation into corporate propaganda megaphones for the state and the wealthy.

We saw what that meant in the disaster that is Iraq: imagine that ten—or a hundred-fold! We need look no farther than England, where one media conglomerate (UK newspapers like The News of the World) virtually selected the prime minister—for decades—and through them, decided what laws would be passed, and social, economic and even national security policy. They hacked thousands of phones, paid off cops for information, and ran politicians with the fear of exposure.

Essentially, this media conglomerate ran the government for its own interests, making a mockery of democracy.

And despite the recent scandals, it’s still been obscured that what this corporate media did went far beyond violations of privacy—it was crimes against democracy.

As grass roots broadcasters, your task is to give voice and life to democracy. That means using your mikes (and cameras) to air the voices at the bottom of the well. Those many people who are hungry tonight—hungry, despite the cornucopia of food that glut supermarket shelves; or that gets destroyed, buried and reimbursed by government grants.

Those many who are homeless—in the richest nation since Rome; veterans who’ve returned home, armless, legless; what do they think of their “leaders” who sent them to war with lies?

If the corporate media’s job is to sell fear, conflict and ignorance (and it is!), yours is to show courage amidst adversity, cooperation, community, complexity and the sheer genius and brilliance that exists in all of humanity. Yours is to show how war is—and has ever been—the sport of kings.

As the national economy craters, we will see the lives of the poor, the working class, and those who used to consider themselves middle class, grow increasingly desperate. Your reporting can show the size and scope of such desperation, and thereby inform and educate about how deeply it goes.

Most media rely on newspapers—but that may be changing. For, papers across the country are losing an average of ten percent of their readership per year. For most young people, TV network nightly news is not only a snoozer, but irrelevant.

Surely, these mediums are feeling the effects of the flight to the Internet. According to recent news reports, for the first time, cable and satellite subscriptions have declined, perhaps a reflection of the economy—pinching pennies.

But, guess which medium is growing? Radio.

NPR (National Public Radio) virtually doubled its listeners in the last few years. Some may question whether their stations, especially community or public stations, can really compete with corporate radio. Under the Telecommunications Act (1996), industry deregulation led to vast corporate station ownership, the abolition of the fairness doctrine, and for many Black radio stations, the end of news.

Why should this be of interest to community, progressive and public broadcasters? A University of Chicago study of Black youth radio listeners found that 60 percent—60 percent—of this audience disliked the stations’ music programming!

In essence, these audiences are being force-fed a diet of music that they barely tolerate! What if, at the end of the dial, they found music, news and information that spoke to them with fundamental respect, that told their stories, that gave them voice, agency and simple, human dignity?

How could that be anything but irresistible?

It would be groundbreaking, and mark the re-emergence of popular radio that discards the cookie-cutter, disrespectful, and lowest-common-denominator corporate approach that has made such radio so empty.

The reason radio works is simple. It is human voices—in the dark. Telling stories—connecting people with people.

Talented musician Macy Gray sings: “There is beauty in the world.”

To show this—to share it—that too is your task.

For it will take far more than mere will to transform this nation; it will take hope, and love, and faith.

People have to be able to see and sense a better way forward. By your work, you can provide glimpses of what that way sounds like.

—August 19, 2011 (Speech written August 14, delivered via audio to conference August 19, 2011)

1Grassroots Radio Conference, August 18-21, 2011, Kansas City, Cansas