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When did you last use radio technology? If you’re straining to remember when you last turned on the AM/FM radio broadcast receiver in your car, you’ve probably gone too far back. Although it might not come to mind when we think about radio in the digital media era, things like GPS, wireless computer networks, and even our mobile phones use radio waves.
Far from being outdated, this century-old technology is still integral to much of what we do. “On the one hand, it’s very ambient. We don’t notice it,” says Rick Prelinger, an archivist and professor emerit of film and digital media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “But radio is also deeply engaged with the world.”
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Perhaps no forms of radio are more engaged with the world than what Prelinger calls “useful radio,” meaning “radio with a job to do … like the coordination and regulation of labor, coordinating the work of infrastructures, producing and distributing commodities, transportation, or finance.” Useful radio, including radio technologies used for communication, navigation, and identification, and some noncommercial broadcast radio, like community radio stations, have also been tools of justice movements since radio emerged as an accessible, low-cost, often portable communications technology in the mid-twentieth century.
These days, when radio makes the news in the United States, it is often cited as a tool of far-right paramilitary groups whose missions are far removed from those of historical justice movements. The far-right extremists who, in 2016, seized and occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, relied on two-way radios or walkie-talkies to communicate with one another. Militia groups like the Three Percenters, which had members at the Malheur refuge stand-off, and the Oath Keepers, whose founder was just sentenced in connection with the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, have used walkie-talkies and two-way-radio-like phone applications, such as Zello, to coordinate their actions.
The aesthetic of radio is attractive to these groups, says Hampton Stall, a senior research specialist with the Bridging Divides Initiative, a Princeton University–based project tracking political violence in the United States. “There’s a little bit of a cultural thing to it, like, it feels as if you’re doing tough-guy military stuff.”
Walkie-talkies also “allow for a performance of a quasi-military coordination for groups that are often a little chaotically organized,” says Stall. This was true of many right-wing groups seen wearing earpieces or carrying walkie-talkies as they confronted Black Lives Matter demonstrators during the racial justice uprising of 2020 sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
However, radio’s connection to movement organizing has a much longer and richer history than the technology’s latest appearances among fascist militia groups. Cheryl Higashida, a scholar of ethnic and American literatures and sound studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, studied radio use among African American civil rights organizers in the Deep South in the 1960s. She found that Black activists appropriated citizens band (CB) radio, a two-way radio system for short-distance communication, to coordinate actions and for “sousveillance,” a form of counter-surveillance, to protect themselves from police and vigilante violence.
“Sousveillance is people at the bottom looking at, tracking, and protecting themselves from surveillance by the people over them,” explains Higashida. These acts of witnessing form a central part of the Black radical tradition, and radio provided a new means in the 1960s. “It was such a powerful and accessible way to communicate,” adds Higashida.
Later, Chicano activists in the farmworkers’ movement in states like California also used radio technologies to organize and share information. Independent Spanish-language stations like KDNA in Yakima Valley, Washington, angered bosses when they broadcast information about workers’ rights to farmworkers listening on transistor radios in the fields. “It was an extension and a tool of a movement happening on the ground with farmworker activism, the Chicano movement, and women’s activism,” explains Monica De La Torre, author of Feminista Frequencies: Community Building through Radio in the Yakima Valley.
The state and its enforcement arms—like the police, prisons, and military—then as now also use useful radio in the form of two-way radios, radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, and radio navigation technologies. Prelinger says in many ways these institutions contribute to a history of useful radio as a tool of white supremacy. “It is about how nonwhite bodies are controlled on the street and on the job. Radio is a key part of racialized social control,” he says. “It expresses power relations and embodies them at the same time.”
But Prelinger also warns against thinking of radio as a technology that belongs to or is synonymous with the state. “Policing is one prominent aspect of useful radio, but it is not the entire story—with radio as in life, we should think beyond policing.”
Even today, radio technologies have a vibrant life in collective action, community organizing, mutual aid spaces, and revolutionary movements. Organizations like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd use radio communications and navigation technologies to facilitate their marine conservation activism. The Ruckus Society offers training in radio communication as part of its mission to provide the tools, preparation, and support to build direct-action capacity for ecological justice and social change movements.
The use of the medium is far from just a Western phenomenon. Two-way radios also made appearances during the Arab Spring, when governments across the region increased internet surveillance or executed total internet shutdowns in their attempts to quell protests, and protestors turned to alternative means of communication. In Egypt, Sweden-based net-activist group Telecomix shared instructions on how to build makeshift two-way radios for short-range communications using parts from deconstructed clock radios that many Egyptians already had at home.
“When it comes to political organizing, often we’re trying to come up with alternate forms of infrastructure when state or corporate infrastructure is either insufficient or actually oppressive,” says radio and transmission artist Anna Friz. “These smaller circuits enable activities that can be enormously helpful in terms of mutual aid organization.” Higashida says even with new platforms, organizers ought to keep radio technologies in their toolbox. “There are so many who don’t have access to these platforms, whether that’s about generational differences or cultural differences or material access … and there are times when cell phones don’t work,” she says. By depending too much on one platform or technology, “we cut ourselves off from protecting ourselves and mobilizing ourselves by any media necessary.” Radio also remains a relatively accessible technology. “You can always find a cheap radio receiver at the Goodwill or in the garbage,” says Friz.
Community radio stations like KDNA also provide vital community services. Beyond supporting farmworker organizing in the 1980s, De La Torre says KDNA also offered Spanish-language cultural affairs shows, programming tailored to women or children, and on-air classified ads. “They used radio not just to create content for Spanish-speaking listeners, but really to create community through the programming.”
KDNA is still on-air and continues its community-building tradition, as do many other independent and community radio stations nationwide. One unique example is WGXC in New York’s Upper Hudson Valley. A program division of the nonprofit arts organization Wave Farm, WGXC is the only station in the country that dedicates significant airtime to radio as an artistic medium.
The station mixes community and creative programming with transmission arts, encompassing a range of practices and media that engage with the idea of transmission or the physical properties of radio waves. Wave Farm’s executive director, Galen Joseph-Hunter, says the station grew from the organization’s core belief that “radio should be accessible to the people who live among it.”
These stories point to opportunities to disrupt the top-down deployment or fascist appropriation of technologies like radio. Prelinger says that listening in to radio communications helps illuminate the inner workings of oppressive systems. The airwaves are “filled with insights into the day-to-day work of policing and the surveillance of, regulation, and control of infrastructure and people’s bodies.”
As with the civil rights-era actions that Higashida studied, engaging with and reconceiving technologies designed to control can be vital to resisting oppressive institutions. Recently, activists involved in the Stop Cop City struggle in Atlanta have done just that, publishing intercepted police radio transmissions to reveal what may be evidence of coordinated efforts to target activists.
Charlie Macquarie, a California-based artist and archivist, records radio transmissions along Highway 33, also known as Petroleum Highway, to document the human side of the oil industry in the southern San Joaquin Valley. He says that while the industry “can seem like just huge machines that operate on machine logic, they are maintained by a bunch of people doing really dangerous work.” Documenting the everyday transmissions of those workers makes visible their otherwise often invisible labor.
Currently, Macquarie is using his audio recordings to create a transmission art project called “Telephone Hills,” composed of visual poems to be transmitted over slow-scan television (SSTV), a radio-based picture transmission method. He also hopes that in the future his recordings might serve as a means of remembering old energy systems and the sacrifices of those who labored in them after transitioning away from fossil fuels.
Whether as a means of documenting uneven power relations, building community, or creating art, today radio technologies continue to be used in activist spaces in meaningful ways. Prelinger suggests the larger lesson to be learned from radio technology’s dueling uses as a tool for both oppression and liberation is that “it’s not about radio, it’s about community.”
Marianne Dhenin is a YES! Media contributing writer. She covers social and environmental justice and politics.