Alternate Views
An Interview with the Creator & Producer of Alternative Radio
Jason McQuinn of Alternative Press Review
Courtesy to “EDucate

Alternative Radio is an hour-long, weekly public affairs program heard around the world on community and public radio, presenting views, perspectives and analyses that are ignored and distorted by the dominant corporate-controlled media. Programs most often include talks by or interviews with notable political, economic and cultural critics like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Helen Caldicott, Michael Parenti and Philip Agee. Alternative Radio was conceived by David Barsamian, who continues to produce and distribute it across continents by satellite each week. This interview, conducted by Jason McQuinn, took place in Boulder, Colorado in July, 1995.

Jason McQuinn: What I'd be most interested in asking you about is your experience with starting your radio show, getting it syndicated and dealing with other radio stations. And maybe partly since this magazine is really dedicated to fostering alternative media and helping people get their projects organized and done better - maybe you could give people some hints about the problems you faced, your original inspiration and how you got going?

David Barsamian: Well, I think first of all I don't come from any background in journalism. I have no training in radio. My skills are rather modest to say the least. I started this quite haphazardly, quite serendipitously. I moved to Boulder. The local radio station just started and they were looking for people to do programs and I started to do a world music program, which I politicized fairly quickly.

JM: When did you start that?

DB:1978. And there was a lot of interest in my program locally. I was able to develop the skills that I have today, pretty much doing that local program - on-air skills to engineering, mixing, editing, interviewing, the whole thing - with no news sources, and not a lot of talent. I'm not being humble here. I'm not a tech whiz. I mean even today I'm not online. But I'm being pushed to get online. They want to order tapes, they want to deal through email. I'd rather hear your voice quite frankly. I'd rather talk to people. I'd rather meet them whenever possible like this. Imagine us doing this interview by email. I'm digressing here for a second, but there's a certain sterility to that, which in an era of increasing dehumanization I find not good. We need more contact, not less contact.

JM: More direct contact, less mediation.

DB: Yes, everyone's going to be in front of a screen. If not the television set, with it's sex trials and scandals, there are the other screens. The smart people are in front of computer screens, and everyone else - the masses - are watching television. People started locally asking for my programs. And I'd give them the tapes free of charge. I was pleased, you know. This continued and, because of my experience at a very small bilingual community radio station that I was the first program director of in Alamosa, Colorado, I figured out the satellite system, that there was this whole network. No one told me about it. I didn't know about it. There was no way to find out about these things. KGNU, incidentally, didn't have a satellite. Nobody knew about it. But I figured out what it was, how it worked, and how cheap it was - extraordinarily cheap, ridiculously cheap. I said, "Well, why don't I distribute some of these programs?" And that was my start. You know, a real hesitant first start. I had no idea what I was doing. I made a huge blunder initially. But I learned from these mistakes and pretty soon, by the late '80s I was doing more and more independent programming.

And then in 1992, I went weekly and that's when things really turned around for Alternative Radio, because then stations saw me as a regular, real entity. You know, it's like publishing a magazine. For radio broadcasting, scheduling is crucial. You have to know in advance. Also I made it available free of charge, which was a political choice on my part. NPR, for example, charges for its programs. So does Public Radio International. So does Pacifica. My programs are free, because again, there's less mediation, it's direct to the listener. So the whole project is supported by people like you that hear a program and order a transcript or a cassette, and then get my catalog, and hopefully order more things. So it's entirely supported by listeners. There's no foundation money. There are no grants. There's no underwriting. I don't seek any. I make a joke of this: the only thing I'd accept is a MacArthur, which I'm very unlikely to be nominated for. But you know, that's the dream grant, because there are no requirements. There's no accountability. You can do anything you want.

So since I went weekly with this one-hour program it's gotten on more and more stations. In Canada, particularly, I'm on in every city from Halifax to Victoria, from coast to coast. Because Canadians are very interested in the world and they're very interested in what's going on with their giant neighbor to the south.
And the point is that this can be done by anyone. I'm not a genius. And I have no money. I entirely went into the red. In fact, every program I do goes into the red. I have to produce the program. I have to rent the satellite time. I have to distribute it. I have to Fed-Ex the tapes to the satellite uplink. And I do all these things - it's all expenditures - in the hope that enough people will buy the cassette and the transcript to justify it, to cover for it.

JM: In your opinion what are the reasons why there aren't a hundred different people and groups doing some kind of political programming that has some sophistication and intelligence to it? Why is it totally absent?

DB: Well, I think it's lack of information. People don't realize how easy it is to do this. And how economical it is, radio being supremely a media of economy, unlike TV where you have astronomical costs and distribution costs. Radio is relatively simple. Just sit down with someone with a microphone to do an interview and put it on the air. I was just in Chicago in June and there's a group there that wants to start a community radio station.

JM: ...and then there have historically been battles of control for Pacifica stations and other stations around the country - there's this huge pressure to become more conservative and I'm wondering if you're noticing that its a widespread phenomenon? Is that something that's going to cause problems for you at all?

DB: Well let's take the example of KOPN. Alternative Radio used to be broadcast there on a regular basis, on a weekly basis, free of charge. As far as I'm aware the last two years, maybe longer, they're not putting the program on the air. Now why? Is that because I charge them? No, it's free of charge. So there must be something in the content of the programming that they find objectionable. And I wonder what that is? And yet you tell me that they had money and interest to broadcast Marketplace. It is grotesque. It is the business report of corporate capitalism. It's really obnoxious.

JM: Is there anything that people can do on a local basis for their radio stations?

DB: Yes, they can get actively involved. These radio stations are supposed to have community advisory boards. They can become members of those advisory boards. They can attend the board of directors meetings.

JM: Do you need more help for what you're doing to get Alternative Radio together on a bigger scale? Or do you have adequate support in your community here? Do you have any economic or organizational problems?

DB: Well, I'm not very organized, believe it or not, even though I do a weekly satellite program. That forces me to be organized. I've got to produce a tape every week. There's no two ways about that. But I don't have a mailing list. I don't have a donor's list, like a Fortune 500 list that I can dip into. And I definitely need help with computer skills so that I'm able to identify people that are interested in something, like say, environmental issues or indigenous issues and alert them that I've got these two new programs out, would you be interested in hearing them? I'm not that organized at this point. I'm a two-person organization.

JM: And nobody's coming forward to say, "Hey, can I get involved?"

DB: That hasn't really happened too much. I've got one person working for me, and then I do a lot of it. I answer the phone a lot. What has changed in the last couple of years though, it's been very positive, is that I've developed a network of producers around the country who are sending me tapes. I'm also a hunter and gatherer. I'm out there hunting stuff, bringing it back and cooking it - producing it, and then distributing it to a wider audience. I'd rather encourage people. It's easy to throw up your hands in despair and say, "The odds are overwhelming. I can't possibly make a difference." Well, if that's what you subscribe to, then indeed that will be the result. And you'll never even have the satisfaction of resisting, of trying to create a genuine alternative, to posit something that's outside the corporate domain, that's really proactive rather than reactive.

JM: Why do community radio stations not have talk radio programming?

DB: It has a lot to do with corporate capitalism and corporate control of the media. Would you put me, if you were a Capital Cities/ABC - which owns Limbaugh incidentally..., would you give a program to someone who would undermine your position of power and authority, who is saying that corporate capitalism leaves a lot to be desired, that corporate control of media is anti-democratic and is narrowing public debate? It's very unlikely. And if you did, you'd probably lose your job at the next board of directors meeting when the shareholders would turn out and vote you out of office for your insane decision of hiring a radical.

JM: If you could suggest one format or approach to somebody else starting something similar, working up towards doing a weekly show that could be carried by satellite, what would it be?

DB: Call-in. Absolutely. A live call-in show with an 800 number. Get the disenchanted. Get the disaffected on. Get the right-wingers on and challenge their assumptions, that the media for example are run by left liberals, that welfare cheats are destroying the country. And engage them in dialogue. You can't turn away from these people. The reason I love being on... some of these other mainstream stations, is because I am reaching the non-converted at that point...I mean, you and I are sort of kindred spirits, and I don't want to ignore you. I want to share the information I have with you. But if it only stays with you, if it doesn't get to your grandparents and parents who may have completely different political views, and I suspect they do if they're like mine, then I haven't really expanded the spectrum. I'm talking to myself. You know, "I'm great." "You're great. "Terrific." "Good work." "Love your journal." "Like your program." That's good too. I'm not dismissing that. We need that. We need encouragement.

JM: Especially when you're not getting much help doing the things you're doing.

DB: And the converted need information. They need analysis, too. They can't just be left dangling. But at the same time I think we need a broader strategy to reach a wider audience... You have Alexander Cockburn writing in the Wall Street Journal for ten years. He wrote a column every three weeks. Did he change corporate capitalism? Probably not. But that's not a reason not to do it. We need to have a multiplicity of these voices in these types of areas. And there are a lot of other people... I don't think there's a lack of talented people. There is a lack of opportunity. I think there's somewhat of a lack of imagination.

JM: That's what I always perceived as the main problem, is a lack of imagination, a lack of audacity to go out and try something, maybe beyond what they might have thought they could do, but to work up to it.

DB: Yes. I mean it requires an enormous leap of faith here. That's how Alternative Radio happened. Not because I looked at the books and said, "Okay, I've got to generate X amount of income to pay for X amount of expenses." I didn't even know anything about it...It grew and expanded. Not to say to be oblivious to those considerations. You have to be aware of certain things. But that shouldn't be a driving factor. If you're thinking about obstacles, you'll come up with a million of them. And the people you're working with will come up with another two million. So, it's more about solutions. It's more about doing things, and more about activism. Also I think these have enormous effects psychologically in a very positive way. To do something proactive is very empowering to you as well as to others. And that's very salutary. I'm talking about mental health and the spiritual well-being of a community. It's important that people are given meaningful work and are doing things that matter. I think that's vital. And a lot of the dysfunction that you see - postal clerks shooting their supervisors and husbands beating their wives until they're black and blue and those kind of things, I just picked two random things - is partly a result of a lack of meaningful work, work with integrity.

JM: A lack of meaningful work, it would seem to me, along with a lack of genuine, direct communication among people. Getting your own voice out to people, and not just completely being bombarded by commercial media.

DB: Images. We need to create what Gramsci called a counter-hegemony. We know what the hegemony is. We know what the paradigm is. It's corporate capitalism. It's unadulterated, unfettered consumerism and materialism, way beyond anything described in the Old Testament, which was considered sort of the milestone of that kind of thinking. And we need institutions. Progressive people in this country need institutions. We don't have institutions.

JM: Institutions of what sort?

DB: Institutions of learning, colleges, universities, think tanks, radio stations, TV stations, cable access, computer networks and bookstores. We need those things in order to grow. Otherwise we're completely fragmented. Otherwise we're just that leaf on that branch next to the top of the tree there, not connecting to anything else. See that's also a part of the genius of thought control, the manufacture of consent, and the kind of engineering of opinion that goes on, that you are told through the media, mainly through TV, "Go for it", "Do your own thing.”, "Concentrate on that", "What feels good, go for it”. Right? So if you're interested in one particular subject, you focus on that. You start a support group. If you've got desktop publishing skills, you start a newsletter. And you don't connect with anything else. So forever, you remain that leaf on that branch of the larger tree that never connects to the rest of the trees of the forest.

JM: There's no community left so people look for false communities.

DB: It's my community. There aren't bridges being built to other groups. So then you just get into your cocoon. And that I think has had a very debilitating effect. I mean there are more newsletters now than there have ever been before. There's no shortage of newsletters. You don't even need two people any more to get a newsletter out. So those kinds of structures need to intersect with others. There need to be alliances. I'm doing that through the programming I'm trying to get out to the stations. E.M. Forster said it best: "Only connect.

About David Barsamian

David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio - an award winning weekly radio program. Alternative Radio is broadcast to more than 125 public radio stations around the world and presents information and perspectives that are either ignored or distorted in the corporate-controlled American media. Barsamian is regarded as an "ace interviewer" and "an ingenious impresario of radical broadcasting", and was presented the award of "Top Ten Media Heroes of 1994”. Barsamian's socially challenging interviews and articles appear in the Progressive, the Nation, ZMag and other leading journals and magazines. He is the author of numerous books with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Eqbal Ahmed, Edward Said and Arundhati Roy. His latest book with Chomsky is "Propaganda & the Public Mind".