The Other black radio: North Carolina Voices for Justice

by Bruce Dixon, Black Agenda Report

When his North Carolina supervisors broke out the nigger jokes twenty or thirty times too many, Bobby Persons filed a workplace discrimination complaint with the EEOC, beginning a process that dragged on for years. But the very next day, he had a more immediate problem. Several of white co-workers showed up outside his home to indicate their displeasure, at least one armed and dressed in Ku Klux Kostume.

“That's just the way things were done around here back them,” says Persons. The year was 1985, and things were about to change.

For more than a generation, development in Monroe County, North Carolina had passed its historic Black communities by. Golf courses, gated communities, posh residential areas and resorts sprung up on all sides of places like Waynor Road during the seventies, eighties and nineties. But water and sewer lines, police protection, broadband access, garbage collection and even the paved roads that serviced this new development all managed to bypass the area's existing Black communities.

“We'd go to public meetings,” said activist Hilton Dunlap, “and ask when our neighborhoods were going to get the water and sewer service our taxes pay for. The answer would always be 'when we get round to it.'”

For North Carolina's excluded communities that could mean never. Dunlap and Persons were two of the founders of Voices For Justice in Monroe County NC. For more than twenty years Voices For Justice has organized public meetings and private strategy sessions, petitioning, picketing and working door to door offering advice, counsel, organizing self-help and collective advocacy for Monroe County's excluded communities.

“We used to get threats and warnings all the time,” says Persons, “but once they know you don't scare, the threats stop... Eventually we got a half hour radio show every Sunday. With it, we found we could reach people in these excluded communities who otherwise would never know about us. We could let them know that other folks had the same problems they did, and were fighting for their interests... We were able to put the heat on state and county officials like never before.

“Through the radio show we found a brother in a nearby community where they were about to put a huge garbage dump in the middle of a lot of Black owned land, in a river basin where people were depending on well water and septic tanks. Those are what we call excluded communities, people nobody cares about.”

“If all the applications from just one of the religious broadcasters had been approved, they would have instantly had more stations than Clear Channel.”

When activists from Voices for Justice took part in the US Social Forum in Atlanta last summer, they discovered that the FCC would be accepting license applications for full power FM community stations in rural areas across the country late in 2007. “We got right on that,” Persons told Black Agenda Report. “If we could make that much difference organizing in our communities, and this one half hour a week radio show was such a big help, imagine the difference we could make with our own radio station!”

The last time the FCC opened the door to license new noncommercial radio stations, a handful of satellite driven, extreme right wing religious broadcasters applied for hundreds of licenses apiece. If all the applications from just one of the religious broadcasters had been approved, they would have instantly had more stations than Clear Channel. “The applications from these outfits were absolute cookie-cutter jobs, with only the frequency and station address different. The board members were all from Montana or somewhere, from where the programming would have been beamed up to satellites and be relayed down to hundreds of repeating stations all over the country,” according to Pete Tridish of Prometheus Radio Project.

Prometheus was instrumental in exposing this attempt by right wing religious extremists to hijack the public airwaves in hundreds of communities across the country. The FCC was forced to trash that wave of license applications and develop a set of new application procedures and criteria that would emphasize local content and local control of new station licenses. This is the wave of applications that North Carolina's Voices for Justice were part of.

While Prometheus Radio played the role in spreading the word that licensing opportunties were available, it was the Pacifica Foundation, that took the lead role in hooking up community organizations, local churches, civil rights organizations and anyone else interested in community radio with the legal and engineering expertise to complete a successful application request. “They hired people to get out on the ground and work with license applicants in more than a dozen cases I know of,” said Rolfe Larson of Public Radio Capital. “There are about a hundred license community station license applications that I know of which came out of their effort.”

Many of those were African American organizations in places like rural Mississippi, in middle Georgia, in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, and of course Voices For Justice in North Carolina.

“It was always a problem getting heard, getting coverage of the organizing we did, of what the problems real people we know are dealing with. You'd see some fella from the county explaining for five minutes about something they are gonna do and how reasonable it is, and then you'd see a couple seconds of us marching or holding up signs against it, and that would be that,” said Persons. “Stations around here don't cover much local news, because they don't want people to know.” The new community station, once on the air, intends to cover local news and local affairs, to be a place where local artists can be heard and where North Carolina's excluded communities can find their own voices. If their license is approved, Voices for Justice will have to raise a few tens of thousands of dollars to get a station and put it on the air. It won't be easy, but they are determined to make it happen.

We may be at the dawn of a new era in black radio. Black noncommercial radio in the rural south. The other black radio.

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