WTRA (radio)

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Date: 1986

Region: North America

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Radio, Mixed Media


Artist: Black Liberation Radio - M'banna Kantako/producer

Confronting Bodies: (FCC) Federal Communications Commission

Dates of Action: 1986-present

Location: Springfield, Illinois

Description of Artwork: "During the mid 1980's, the John Hay Tenant Rights Association (TRA) [representing a housing project which is almost exclusively comprised of people of African descent] was formed to do issue-based neighborhood organizing. In 1986, angered and dismayed by media coverage of its actions and organizing campaigns, the TRA hit upon the idea of a community-based radio station to represent its point of view directly to its constituency and to communicate more effectively with a black community which has an oral tradition and a high rate of functional illiteracy." TRA founder M'banna Kantako established WTRA as a one watt radio station, with a broadcast radius of between 1 and 2 miles, which covered 70% of Springfield's African American community. Part of WTRA's broadcast included "airing personal testimonies of police brutality... and broadcasting local police communications live from the police scanner he [Kantako] had set up in his apartment to monitor the police." WTRA was symbolically linked to Zoom Black Magic Radio in Fresno, CA for approximately one year before dissociating due to Zoom's "more radical" nature, and ultimately changing it's name from WTRA to Black Liberation Radio.

The Incident: The Federal Communications Commission has jurisdiction to regulate all airwave broadcasting within the US which exceeds 250 microvolts per metre ( which can be received at a maximum distance of 25 yards). All broadcasters who exceed this minimum must attain an FCC license in order operate legally, however the FCC does not grant licenses to stations broadcasting below 100 watts. Therefore Black Liberation Radio, broadcasting at one watt, is beyond FCC exemption, but would need to increase its wattage one hundred fold to qualify for a license. "The FCC's broadcast licensing rationale is based on scarcity. Asserting that the electromagnetic spectrum is finite, the FCC 'benignly' agrees to act in the public interest as the 'impartial' gatekeeper for access to the airwaves." Ultimately this gap, a space more and more frequently used for community radio, creates a situation wherein the FCC has the option to take action against illegal broadcasters or look the other way. In the case of BLR, the FCC initiated attempts to terminate Kantako's broadcasts only after police brutality became a feature topic.

Results of Incident: Kantako first argued his case against the FCC in terms of the Bill of Rights; the First Amendments guarantee of free speech and the Fourth Amendment which provides equal protection under law. However, "Providing equal protection by waiving license requirements or by setting up a separate category for low power community broadcasting licenses is a political choice which the FCC seems unwilling to offer at present. Yet, the 1934 Federal Communications Act calls for 'fair, efficient and equitable' distribution." "Interested in the educational value of the publicity associated with requesting an international forum for discussing radio censorship in the USA, the National Lawyers Guild has been researching his international rights." Though the international arena may not be utilized until domestic channels have been tapped, "the basis for this discussion is Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which specifies the right to receive and impart information through any media... Other possible international fora include the Commission on Human Rights, constituted under the UN Economic and Social Council; its Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities; or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an off-shoot of the Organisation of American Black States, whose American Convention on Human Rights bans government restrictions on news media."

Source: Index On Censorship - 2/93