Decolonizing the Airwaves

Kristin Schwartz

Reviewed in this article

Islands of Resistance: Pirate Radio in Canada
Andrea Langlois, Ron Sakolsky & Marian van der Zon (eds.)

Andrea Langlois, Ron Sakolsky & Marian van der Zon (eds.), Islands of Resistance: Pirate Radio in Canada, New Star Books, 2010.

When I told people I was reviewing Islands of Resistance: Pirate Radio in Canada they asked: “There’s pirate radio in Canada?” Well, there is. In fact, recently newspapers reported the existence of two such stations, on Vancouver Island and in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, broadcasting without a Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) license. Islands of Resistance is a collection of writings primarily by people who are involved in this rebellious media practice across Canada and two Indigenous territories.

Editors and radio activists Andrea Langlois, Ron Sakolsky, and Marian van der Zon are well positioned to publish on this topic because they have access to other radio pirates. Sakolsky co- edited Seizing the Airwaves: A Free Radio Handbook (AK Press, 1998), and Langlois co-edited Autonomous Media, to which van der Zon contributed (Cumulus Press, 2005). As Langlois told the Montreal Mirror, “We really had to rely on our networks… Pirate radio is such an under-the-radar grassroots affair, it’s rarely a widely publicized effort.”1

The editors believe that FM radio remains an important medium because it is relatively cheap to produce and receive. Their aim is to encourage others to set up pirate stations. They observe that “most everyone has access to an inexpensive radio receiver but not necessarily to a computer, especially in the Global South.” Additionally, “such a widespread pattern of technological dispersion is not true of newer media technologies, and even if it should become so in the future, the decidedly localized impact of low power radio is typically considered a plus rather than a minus in pirate radio circles” (12).

Furthermore, they argue that broadcasting on the FM band without a licence is a valuable form of resistance to state and corporate control of the airwaves. “The very act of boldly taking over the airwaves can be as important as what is communicated and how widely it is disseminated,” they say (11). Certainly Islands of R esistance provides ample evidence of the importance of pirate radio as a forum of expression for practitioners, and offers intriguing examples of how pirate radio is used to build community. Overall, it successfully argues that pirate broadcasting poses a meaningful challenge to state regulation and the privatization of public space.

Empowerment and Community Building

Several of the contributions to Islands of Resistance are framed as “journeys” to pirate radio, and highlight the personal and community empowerment that the writers have experienced. Bobbi Kozniuk’s first foray into radio was as an engineer at CITR, a campus/community station in Vancouver. She learned to build radio transmitters from Tetsuo Kogawa – a media activist credited with introducing free radio to Japan – and has since conducted dozens of skill-sharing workshops across Canada.

Sheila Nopper began her journey to pirate radio as a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) listener. She then started tuning into community radio and became a volunteer programmer at CIUT, a campus/community station in Toronto. She became discouraged by the campus/community radio model when radical programmers were kicked out of KPFA in San Francisco, CIUT, and then Toronto’s CKLN (63). She now works with Tree Frog Radio, a pirate station on an island community off the coast of British Columbia. The station’s programmers, according to fellow Tree Frogger Ron Sakolsky, are composed of a “grassroots assortment of marginalized islanders, drawn over the years from renters, first generation immigrants, Québecois drifters and those culturally disenfranchised because of their youth” (92). Operating costs are covered by fundraisers and donations of returnable bottles, collected at the island’s recycling centre.

Marian van der Zon’s Temporary Autonomous Radio (TAR) broadcasts have brought grassroots voices and independent music to airwaves in Montreal and Victoria, where TAR has organized and transmitted eight-hour-long live music festivals. “TAR is appreciated and welcomed,” writes van der Zon. “Increasingly, more people offer up venues in private homes, in bars and cafes and in artist spaces” (130). In her previous book, Autonomous Media, van der Zon argues that “because microradio has a weak signal, the purpose changes from broadcasting to narrowcasting. Aside from those listening, it inspires inexperienced individuals to get involved and promotes a sense of community or action” (223).

Among the book’s most compelling chapters is Charles Mostoller’s moving description of helping the displaced Algonquin community of Barriere Lake establish their own station. The project’s priority was to strengthen the Algonquin language, especially among youth, thereby contributing to the community’s autonomy. Mostoller shares captivating stories of youth developing interview skills and recording the community’s wampum stories, as told by an elder. According to Mostoller, the Barriere Lake community decided to forgo a CRTC licence because the permit process is too long and expensive. He says that many Indigenous communities claim protection for their stations under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, which guarantees Aboriginal rights. Similarly, in his chapter about Secwepemc Radio, activist Neskie Manuel writes, “as aboriginal people, we did not give up our right to make use of the electromagnetic spectrum to carry on our traditions, language and culture.” Manuel goes on to say “we are not pirates, we are Secwepemc” (71), a statement which the editors unfortunately do not explore.

Amplifying Activism

With these testimonies, Islands of R esistance successfully conveys the power of unlicenced radio as a community-building tool. The book also profiles radio pirates who engage in political actions that directly challenge capitalist institutions and the state. André Éric Létourneau’s article explores the rich history of political pirate radio in Québec from the 1980s to the present. He cites the work of artist Karma Terraflop, who in 1992 interrupted the news program on a major Montreal commercial station by broadcasting several minutes of a choir of voices “randomly yelling and screaming ‘help!’” Terraflop explains, “It was my statement on the quality of the regular programming of major radio stations: a constant noise broadcasting music and information with content that bowed down to the establishment and intended to distract people’s attention from relevant social issues. In this way, the commercial music industry is like an enemy…” (152). This act of deliberate interference with other broadcasters is unusual among pirates, who usually avoid other’s frequencies in order to escape repression by government authorities.

In their contribution, “Amplifying Resistance,” Gretchen King and Andrea Langlois explore the uses of pirate radio within urban street-based activism. They discuss how during the five-day mobilizations against the meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Montreal in 2003, Radio Taktik established a pirate station called Rock the WTO Radio. The station broadcasted 24 hours a day in support of the protests, airing discussions about neoliberal globalization and reports about the protests and police repression. When 240 protestors were arrested right outside the building that housed the radio studio, the station was able to broadcast call-ins, resistance music, and denunciations of police violence on loudspeakers so the arrestees could hear this support as they were being processed. The pirate broadcast was also streamed over the internet and picked up by other community radio stations and webcasters in North America and Australia. While this one chapter addresses the potential for internet broadcasting and pirate radio to reinforce each other, internet radio otherwise receives little attention in this book.

The authors conclude that Rock the WTO Radio “served to document the events as they occurred, as well as helping to mitigate police repression… it is very likely that the protests would have been less co-ordinated if the station had not been there to report… and to inform activists and their allies on what was going on in the street” (110). Unfortunately, the authors don’t provide evidence to back up this hopeful claim. Did protest organizers and participants share those impressions? What about the police and other authorities? And what impact did Rock the WTO Radio have on wider public conversations about the WTO and its neoliberal policies? While the enormous amount of energy that went into this project is impressive, this article does not answer these questions.

Decolonizing Radio Territories

As the first book on the subject of pirate radio in Canada, Islands of Resistance is a valuable historical document, illuminating today’s media landscape from the margins. However, relying on first-person accounts by people who are part of the social and political networks of the editors also creates gaps, which the editors acknowledge. Are radio pirates generally feminist, anti-capitalist, and/or counter- cultural? In late 2009, a 14-year-old in Ottawa named Jayhaed Saade began broadcasting Top 40 and dance music on a powerful FM transmitter. CBC reported that his request line was “ringing off the hook” but his station, MIX FM 91.9, was shut down and his equipment confiscated within weeks.2 There are no stories like his in Islands of Resistance. Pirate broadcasting on shortwave is not even mentioned in the book, despite its long history and well-established practices for communication between broadcasters and listeners.3 Some readers may be frustrated by the book’s limited discussion of the potential for internet radio broadcasting.

Another weakness of the book is that the editors did not find a way to give voice to people who participate in pirate radio as listeners. While pirate broadcasters are presumably listeners too, most of the articles in this collection focus on the broadcaster point of view. We see the role of pirate radio in empowering individuals and communities who have the opportunity to tell their own stories, but it is harder to evaluate the impact for those on the other side of the microphone. In the case of the more explicitly political projects described in this book, radio pirates are making great efforts to amplify the voice of popular movements for affordable housing or against corporate tax cuts, neoliberal globalization, and police repression. However, Islands of Resistance does not tell us how other participants in those movements, or the general listening public, hear their broadcasts. While it is common enough among alternative media producers to prioritize expression over listening, sending over receiving, it is important to overcome this limitation if we are going to be able to assess the reach and impact of the signals we broadcast, and to make the necessary adjustments in cases where we aren’t getting through.

The editors spend a good part of their introduction expanding on the “pirate” metaphor, from which they draw the title Islands of Resistance. It’s a creative effort to evoke the experience of defiance, rule-breaking, and autonomy that most of the contributors celebrate. At the same time, many of the radio pirates who contribute to the book are embedded in established and regulated systems of media production – they work or have worked at licenced community stations or the CBC, or they teach in media departments at colleges and universities; they are hardly islands unto themselves. Furthermore, the metaphor evokes isolation and the illusion of self-reliance, rather than connections to diverse community struggles for self-expression and for social, economic, race, and gender justice. Given these important political priorities, why would a media producer, and particularly a politically progressive one, aspire to be an island at all?

For me, Islands of R esistance is most successful in its assembly of an array of voices that challenge the very idea of the regulation of the airwaves. Sound artist Anna Friz writes that the intent of her current work is “not to stabilize or increase my signal, but to highlight the volatility and unpredictability of radio territories.” She rejects the idea of a radio “spectrum” that can be divided up and owned. “Declaring ownership over such oscillating territories perpetuates the relentless functions of colonialism that have consistently worked towards conquest rather than collaboration or custodianship,” she says (168). We get a glimpse of the practical and concrete relationship between radio regulation and the Canadian colonial project in the final chapter of the book, where a docudrama weaves together voices of CBC announcers, Joseph Goebbels, free radio practitioners, and theorists. Among those “sampled” in this piece is historian Charles Fairchild, who has documented the role of the CBC in promoting assimilation of Indigenous peoples, and media scholar Jody Berland, who observes: “It wouldn’t be Canada without the radio.”4

Media ownership in Canada is heavily concentrated, leaving few venues for communities to present themselves on their own terms and learn facts and stories that challenge capitalism and colonialism. While radio frequencies are public property in Canada, the regulatory system privileges commercial bodies and the CBC while imposing barriers for community projects. As a result, some radio activists, faced with both state regulation and technical challenges, are choosing to focus on podcasting, in the unregulated space of the worldwide web. But those profiled in Islands of R esistance prefer to contest the power of the Canadian state directly, on the FM band, either as a political choice or in order to reach an audience that still tunes in to a terrestrial receiver. In documenting their efforts, accomplishments and insights, Islands of R esistance is informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

Notes

1 Chris Barry, “Dialing for dissent: The secret history of Canadian pirate radio is exposed in the new anthology Islands of Resistance”, Montreal Mirror (May 20-
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26, 2010), http://www.montrealmirror.com/2010/052010/news2.html (accessed January 4, 2011).
2 CBC News, “Ottawa boy ordered to shut down his radio station” (December 3, 2009),http://www.cbc.ca/canada/ottawa/story/2009/12/03/ottawa-pirate-radio- station.html (accessed January 14, 2011) and Kenneth Jackson, “Teen’s pirate radio silenced… again”, Ottawa Sun (January 16, 2010), http://www.ottawasun. com/news/ottawa/2010/01/15/12479971.html (accessed January 14, 2010).
3 Listeners seek out stations on the shortwave band, and send reports of what they hear to pirate broadcasters through anonymous mail-drop services (including one in Merlin, Ontario). Broadcasters acknowledge these valuable reports by sending “QSL” cards back to their listeners.
4 Jody Berland, “Contradicting Media: Towards a Political Phenomenology of Listening,” in Radiotext(e), Semiotext(e), 1993, 209.