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Low Power to the People
The United States ushered in a new era of small-scale broadcasting in 2000 when it began issuing low-power FM (LPFM) licenses for noncommercial radio stations around the country. Over the next decade, several hundred of these newly created low-wattage stations took to the airwaves. In Low Power to the People, Christina Dunbar-Hester describes the practices of an activist organization focused on LPFM during this era. Despite its origins as a pirate broadcasting collective, the group eventually shifted toward building and expanding regulatory access to new, licensed stations. These radio activists consciously cast radio as an alternative to digital utopianism, promoting an understanding of electronic media that emphasizes the local community rather than a global audience of Internet users.
Dunbar-Hester focuses on how these radio activists impute emancipatory politics to the “old” medium of radio technology by promoting the idea that “microradio” broadcasting holds the potential to empower ordinary people at the local community level. The group’s methods combine political advocacy with a rare commitment to hands-on technical work with radio hardware, although the activists’ hands-on, inclusive ethos was hampered by persistent issues of race, class, and gender.
Dunbar-Hester’s study of activism around an “old” medium offers broader lessons about how political beliefs are expressed through engagement with specific technologies. It also offers insight into contemporary issues in media policy that is particularly timely as the FCC issues a new round of LPFM licenses.
About the Author
Christina Dunbar-Hester teaches in Journalism and Media Studies in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, where she is also affiliated faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies.
“Never mind the Orwellian forces of corporate radio—a new generation is quietly tinkering its way toward a far more democratic world. In this clear-eyed, closely observed account, Christina Dunbar-Hester gives us a compelling glimpse of that generation and with it, a new way to see how technologies and people can make one another political.”
—Fred Turner, Associate Professor of Communication, Stanford University; author of The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties
“Christina Dunbar-Hester’s Low Power to the People will challenge what you think you know about media activism. Blending ethnography, technology study, and cultural and policy history, Low Power to the People shows how technological politics are never just about technology. As activists fight for greater media democracy and access, they come up against issues of expertise, identity, and exclusion. Dunbar-Hester demonstrates that in itself, technology is never enough for social change. Rich with ethnographic detail and political insight, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the politics of media and technology today.”
—Jonathan Sterne, author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format and The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction
“In this compellingly argued, well-written work, Christina Dunbar-Hester offers an ethnography of the radio activists who helped birth low-power FM radio and also successfully challenged FCC media ownership rules. She probes the expressive culture of left-wing activists who see radio as inherently democratic and a tool for community empowerment, and technical competence as a challenge to socially embedded expertise and elitism. While sympathetic, Dunbar-Hester deftly underscores the contradictions of their politics and practices.”
—Robert B. Horwitz, University of California, San Diego, author of The Irony of Regulatory Reform: The Deregulation of American Telecommunications and America’s Right: Anti-Establishment Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party