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Sharing the Joy of Resistance Through Radio
by Fran Luck
Political feminism barely exists in corporate mainstream media. Shows like “Oprah” and “Tyra” – boasting female audiences in the tens of millions – owe their existence to space opened up by the feminist movement, but rarely, if ever, acknowledge that such a movement has existed and is responsible for vast changes in the lives of women. When this is referenced at all, it is usually in the context of a backlash attack against feminism -- of the “Has Feminism Made It Harder to Find a Man?” variety. The lack of historical consciousness, sensationalism, the emphasis on “individual therapeutic solutions” to social problems and the continual channeling of women’s anxieties into the search for the “perfect look” make these shows in many ways worse than useless to women.
All of this underlines the case for feminist media of the non-corporate variety. Radio, especially with its low cost accessibility, can create a mass sense of “community” when large numbers of people tune to the same show at the same time.
Joy of Resistance: Multicultural Feminist Radio, which I co-host with Maretta Short, on WBAI in New York City (99.5 FM) has been airing for almost eight years with the mission to cover, as we describe it, “the ongoing and world-wide struggle for the full liberation of women as it continues to unfold dynamically in every country and culture on the planet." I describe our on-air feminism being “radical” in the sense of the original meaning of the word: “going to the root” of things–which we try to do in all of our shows.
WBAI’s signal reaches three states–making it an important vehicle for bringing feminism to a large number of women, including those who the movement has not previously reached. Shows also reach audiences across the globe through Internet streaming and 90-day archiving. WBAI is part of Pacifica, a five-station network that is the largest non-commercial radio network in the U.S, and because it is funded by its listeners it does not have to dance to the tune of corporate commercial sponsors.
Born in Flames
Sisters, Can You Hear Me?
My tale of being active in such media starts with a particular memory: I’m sitting alone in my apartment on the Lower East Side sometime in the 1970s, the radio is tuned to WBAI, and I’m hearing women talking passionately about their lives. It’s only a few years since the “big bang” of the beginning of the Women’s Liberation Movement (as it was then known) and the waves are still spreading outward at a fast rate. At that time there were at least five different shows on WBAI that could be described as feminist, lesbian-feminist or woman-identified.
The station had a “Women’s Department,” and “consciousness raising” was regularly broadcast live and uncensored. It felt like a cork had been popped and the anger women had suppressed for a very long time–anger at men and sexist institutions, anger at the demeaning ways that women were treated–was flowing freely.
I had not known that women were “allowed” to think these things,–much less say them on the public airwaves. These shows helped give me the courage and support to form a conceptual framework for thinking about and classifying the sexism I was experiencing as a young woman. To this day the exciting “shock” of these radio experiences inspires me to want to be that kind of voice for some woman “out there” who may be struggling and isolated and needs to know that there are other feminists around (and how she can find them).
Jump ahead from the '70s to the '90s. By this time I’m a “seasoned” feminist – and have become involved in saving my neighborhood from gentrification. I’m working in an anarchist-inspired “squatting” movement that is occupying and rehabilitating abandoned buildings to challenge an inadequate housing system. This movement is dominated by men with construction skills, and macho posturing abounds. Squatter women keep the homesteads going on a day-to-day basis, but stay in the background when it comes to making speeches, talking to press and other public aspects of the movement. (Sound familiar?) I am shocked that, after 30 years of feminism, young women “on the left” are still enduring the kind of sexism I had to put up with as a “hippie chick.” When squatter men start a “pirate” radio station, I get myself a program and fight back with a weekly feminist radio show.
The program was called: “Out of the Shadows: Radical Feminist Radio with Pirate Jenny” and aired on “Steal This Radio” from 1995-1999. Every week I was able to explore and express whatever was on my feminist mind – very little was off limits. Once a group of women came to the studio and talked about their experiences of rape – and “forgot” that they were on the air. Feelings and memories that were excruciatingly painful were aired without censorship. At other times we explored political topics such as women in post-revolutionary societies or women in Anarchist Spain. A regular feature was a faux "Science Report" satirizing sexism in the movement. For instance, annoyed by the tendency of squatter men to let their attention wander whenever women spoke at our weekly “soap-boxes,” I announced the discovery of a new “disease”: “Male Attention-to-Women Deficit Disorder” and described it in great detail to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” With the signal covering only a few square miles, we had a small but dedicated audience – including some of the men who told me they learned a lot from the show.
The “pirate radio movement” was begun in the 1980s after activists spread information about how to build a radio transmitter for under $500. In short, other people throughout the country were setting up unlicensed stations and broadcasting to their immediate vicinities. This was a direct challenge to corporate ownership of the media. By the 1990s there were over 1,000 such stations.
In 1998 at an “East Coast Pirate Radio Conference” in Philadelphia more than 40 women attended a women-only workshop. In consciousness-raising style, the women shared information about the sexism they were experiencing at their respective stations. It became clear from their testimonies that “he” who controlled the technology controlled the radio. One woman told of a station shut down at the whim of the guy who had built the transmitter–and was the only one who knew how to operate it.
It was obvious that women needed to master this technology to be equal in pirate radio; we started planning apprenticeship programs where women with these skills could teach others. Unfortunately the plans never came to fruition because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched a systematic attack on the pirate radio movement in the late '90s. By 1999 our station had been driven off the air by threats of huge fines and possible jail sentences (although it proved impossible to wipe out “pirates” completely and many still exist).
The creation by the FCC of a new class of legal low power radio station licenses (LPFM) in 2000 was a limited victory that took place because of the pirate radio movement; the government needed to make a concession to head off another grassroots radio uprising. Women had used this pirate technology in many creative ways; one group actually set up a mobile transmitter and toured the country jamming the signals of Christian Right radio stations with pro-abortion rights programming (while moving too fast for their location to be pinpointed by the FCC).
Meanwhile, in 2001, Pacifica underwent a major upheaval and the ensuing reorganization at WBAI brought with it openings for new programs. There had been no dedicated feminist program at WBAI for at least five years. The once flourishing feminist environment had collapsed in stages during the '80s – in tandem with what the radical feminist group Redstockings described as “the liberal takeover of the feminist movement.”
Rocking New Air Waves
Building on four years of pirate radio broadcasting, I organized feminists Manijeh Saba and Byllye Avery to join me in proposing a weekly feminist show. We were given a once-a-month “tryout” slot. We took the name “Joy of Resistance,” inspired by Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, a novel in which the main character, when asked how there can be any joy in a world filled with oppression, replies: “The secret of joy is resistance.”
We began each show with a “worldwide feminist news” segment, providing a broader context for each featured topic. We covered the Bush Administration’s misuse of feminism to promote Middle East wars; the issues dividing Black and white feminists; secular feminists in the Middle East fighting both Islamic theocracy and U.S. occupation. We did consciousness-raising on the air, investigating “looks pressure” and “the real working conditions of motherhood.” We incorporated a wide array of feminist music, from folk (Sandy Rapp) to rock’n’roll (Anne Feeney) to grrrrlpunk (Le Tigre), as well as producing live theater, such as an in-studio production of Words of Choice, a pro-choice theater company.
We were determined to go beyond mere reporting. Taking seriously Santayana’s injunction to know your history, lest you be forced to repeat it, we wanted to place a historical “floor” under each issue so that its roots and underlying causes would be exposed. I had been influenced by Kathie Sarachild’s essay, “The Power of History,” originally published in Redstockings’ Feminist Revolution, which traced how the erasure of feminist history had been an intrinsic part of subduing the radical feminist movement.
The historical approach led to exciting radio of the kind that the corporate media with its a historical attitude was not going to provide. For instance, we interspersed actual recordings from the 1969 speakout where women risked arrest to speak publicly of their then-illegal abortions with reports from the front lines of contemporary abortion-rights struggles. In our coverage of the recent healthcare bill fight, we contextualized the Obama Administration’s bargaining away abortion access by looking at the Democratic Party’s 2004 decision to back anti-choice candidates, as well as the 1976 Hyde Amendment. In an oral history project we interviewed women who had been in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and found many of the roots of modern feminism in the Civil Rights Movement. More than anything, we wanted to cover events so that women listening would realize that feminist history was still unfolding - and that they, too, could be part of it.
We’ve gotten many gratifying responses from listeners: from appreciative phone calls after the show on “beauty pressures” to a report by a feminist group -- New York Women’s Liberation -- that it had gained active members because we announced their meetings.
Yet, even at WBAI – home of the political Left – all was not as we might have wished. Repeated attempts to gain more airtime were refused for years with the explanation that feminism was only a “specialty interest”of a small group and could not “build a large audience.” Only recently, after protracted struggle and a change of management, has our broadcast time doubled to twice a month.
In the early '70s, feminist utopians dreamed of a day when we would control our own mass media a la the iconic woman-in-headphones in Lizzie Borden’s 1983 post-revolutionary fantasy Born in Flames. In today’s increasingly privatized neo-liberal environment, radical feminists must fight hard to maintain even the small amount of public media space that we have. Alternative networks such as Pacifica, imperfect as they are, can be platforms for feminist media, even as they also are endangered due to lack of financial resources.
The takeaway message is that the existence of feminist media is precarious, even on the left – and can be held hostage to a host of material conditions. It must be supported – including financially – by feminists if it is to continue to exist and to fulfill its function of helping to grow the movement.
Fran Luck is the founder and Executive Producer of Joy of Resistance: Multicultural Feminist Radio @ WBAI, which airs on 99.5 FM on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of the month, at 11am to noon (and streams live on the web at www/wbai.org. Fran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She asks that feminists support Joy of Resistance by supporting WBAI during its fund drives and pledging during the show’s time slot.
Also see Women’s Liberation Consciousness-Raising: Then and Now by Carol Hanisch in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Media Literacy: Piercing Content and Who Controls It by Jennifer L. Pozner in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
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