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Democracy Now?

09/30/03 12:00AM By Ellen David Friedman
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(Host) Commentator Ellen David Friedman reflects on the FCC, mainstream media and dissident voices.


(Friedman) In early September, in Burlington, an earnest young man named Jerri Kohl got a knock at his door from two agents of the FCC - that's the Federal Communications Commission. They'd apparently let themselves in to his backyard, made a surveillance of a radio antenna on his house, and were now demanding to see a transmitter they insisted was in his basement. Jerri let them look. No transmitter. One of the agents started to threaten him. He yelled that things would get much tougher for Jerri if he didn't comply. But the agents had no search warrant, and Jerri produced no transmitter, so eventually they left.

Nevertheless, the agents pinned Jerri with an FCC violation: the crime of running an unlicensed micro radio station. It's a crime that can carry a fine of up to $100,000, one year in prison, or both. They'd been looking for the ten-watt transmitter that had been broadcasting under the name Free Radio Burlington. The transmitter itself was modest. It reached perhaps only half of Burlington. Even the volunteers running the tiny station were amazed by the wide enthusiasm it generated. A similar FCC shut-down of a micro-station in Brattleboro met with an avalanche of public protest. That station is now back on the air, in defiance of the FCC.

At Free Radio Burlington, there were all kinds of local shows being aired, but to hear it from Jerri Kohl, the risk of running an unlicensed station was apparently considered worthwhile especially because of one program in particular: a program called "Democracy Now!" It's been on the air since 1996 and has built a serious following. When its host Amy Goodman came to speak in Burlington recently, she packed the house and got several standing ovations. Democracy Now! has won dozens of awards and airs online and on more than 140 stations around the country, including 14 stations that also run NPR programming. It carries an unabashedly progressive view of world events and is funded entirely through contributions. No advertisers, donations from corporations, or donations from governments.

I'm among those who consider Democracy Now! to be indispensable. At this moment, with a most extreme right-wing president in office, supported by the most powerful corporate class the world has ever known, I need to hear the point of view that questions, that is critical, that gathers the voices of those harmed and marginalized by this administration.

The grass-roots struggle against the latest round of FCC deregulation rules should show us one clear thing: we are a people who still believe in, and still want, a diversity of views in our media. Against the background of Clear Channel Communications - with its right-wing slant carried on more than 1,400 stations, against the reality of commercial media dominated by just six corporations, it is critically important that dissident perspectives not be silenced.

I'm Ellen David Friedman.

Ellen David Friedman is vice chair of the Vermont Progressive Party. She has worked in the labor movement in Vermont for more than 25 years.
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