Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Texas Weeklies Praise KAMP Radio Efforts
[3 great stories from The Austin Chronicle (7/29/05), The Houston Press (7/15/05) and The San Antonio Current (9/15/05)]
Katrina Aftermath Radio: A Brief, Dysfunctional Life
By Wells Dunbar The Austin Chronicle
Jim Ellinger (in cap, holding bottle) stands in front of a giant message board in the Astrodome, showing the critical need for communications among Katrina evacuees, a need that Ellinger and others had hoped to meet with an ill-fated low-power radio station. (Photos courtesy of Houston Independent Media Center)
"The first radio license I got from the FCC, for KOOP radio, took 11 years," said Austin Airwaves activist (and former Austin Chronicle writer) Jim Ellinger, whose interest in community media extends back to KOOP's founding. "The next three licenses took two hours over the Labor Day weekend." The atypical speed with which the feds moved on those three was in response to the proposal of a low-power FM radio station for the benefit of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in the Houston Astrodome, a short-term station with which Ellinger and Houston activists sought to disseminate "rudimentary, life-saving information." Thanks to professional legal assistance, the FCC moved quickly in granting the licenses for radio broadcast inside the Astrodome. "The FCC doesn't do anything in two hours," Ellinger said. "It's unheard of."
Too bad the licenses were never put to use.
Things seemed to be going smoothly at first. Due to a call for LPFM transmission at Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey – which was ultimately decided against because of licensing problems – all the equipment Ellinger needed was already assembled. Sony promised thousands of personal radios, while the Pacifica Radio network program Democracy Now! made possibly the biggest dollar-store purchase in it's history, buying thousands of the tiny receivers. It wasn't long, however, before "political hacks from Harris County" began to interfere. Despite FCC approval and support from the governor's office and members of the Houston City Council, county officials made it their mission to tune out the LPFM station, Ellinger said.
Not that there wasn't a need for greater communication. Once thousands of evacuees began flooding into the Astrodome, it became apparent information was as valuable as shelter. Allies from Houston Pacifica station KPFT-FM and the Houston Independent Media Center, in interviewing evacuees, discovered that basic services and benefits were a mystery to most. "They don't know how to get a new Social Security card," said Ellinger. "'What do I do if I have a warrant in Louisiana? Can my kids get into school without shots or IDs? Can I drive my car without a license?'" FEMA and the Joint Information Center, a multi-agency task force overseeing evacuee services, communicated with the dome's new residents via the arena's PA system and a newsletter.
"That worked for some things," said Ellinger, "but it wouldn't work if, say, you had to have a five-minute interview with the head of the school district."
Out of talks between Ellinger and media activists like Houston Independent Media Center's Tish Stringer and KPFT's Renee Feltz, came the proposal of an LPFM Astrodome broadcast. He appointed himself "guy-on-the-ground" to run day-to-day operations and made his nonprofit group, Austin Airwaves, Inc., the station applicant.
The subsequent wrangling with the newly minted masters of disaster overseeing Astrodome services would've been a hilarious window into bungling bureaucracy, if not for the troubles that could've been prevented. Pandemic confusion over the availability of FEMA debit cards, which nearly resulted in a riot, is the sort of sad instance Ellinger hoped the broadcast could avert. However, claiming public safety concerns, Harris Co. officials said radio would do more harm than good.
"'You have 25,000 radios to give these people? … You have to have one for everybody, otherwise they'll steal them from each other,'" Ellinger recalled the fortuitously named Rita Obey, a "midlevel Harris Co. PR flak," saying. "They're virtually worthless," Ellinger said. "The batteries are worth more."
"We had 27,000 residents," Obey told the Chronicle. "He called me and said he could get 10,000 radios. We can't do that; how could we determine who would get the radios and who wouldn't?" Obey admitted she "didn't see the practicality" for LPFM but nonetheless took the request "up through unified command." Ellinger said Obey, an African-American, then "brought up the gangsta rap thing": fear that the ghetto braggadocio of urban laureates would agitate evacuees into an animalistic frenzy of violence. "It was very difficult not to react to that… There's some pretty strong racist overtones there," Ellinger said. Obey denies confronting Ellinger with the spectre of 50 Cent. "No. I did ask him if they would be able to access other stations," trying to ascertain the viability of Ellinger's project, she said. Despite FCC licensing, the station application was ultimately rejected Sept. 7 by the Joint Information Center. Ellinger returned the next day to reapply, flanked by two attorneys from the ACLU, requesting "one table, and a wire," Despite his pared-down request, four hours later, the application was again denied sans explanation. As Ellinger left Houston defeated, however, the FCC issued a new, fourth license to Houston IMC to broadcast out of the press section of the Astrodome parking lot. The parking lot, apparently, is under the more sympathetic jurisdiction of the city, while Harris Co. controls the buildings. "This is so petty, it's unbelievable. But they couldn't block us from the parking lot," said Ellinger, who by that time was back in Austin.
Katrina Aftermath Media Project radio, KAMP 95.3 (official call sign KH5X-IM), began its mighty six-watt broadcast Sept. 13, from a shiny, half-size Airstream trailer filled with Houston IMC's audio gear. The bare-bones studio – a miniature tower, LPFM transmitter, mixer, microphones, and not much more – provided information to evacuees, and let them tell their own stories. "Real quickly," said Ellinger of the human drama on display, "it gets kinda heavy." Or rather, it did: On the 17th, JIC asked that all those stationed in the parking area where KH5X-IM sat (mainly other media vans) move to a different lot. With the Astrodome's population steadily dwindling, the station decided to clear out a couple days early, rather than break down, move, and set up again to serve far fewer evacuees. Ellinger was clearly upset that a bureaucratic crapshoot kept 95.3 off the air when it could have been of most assistance.
"I did not have Republican credentials," Ellinger said of his brush with the Harris Co. arm of Bush's security corps. "The very idea of allowing these scruffy poor people from Louisiana to speak to themselves, for themselves, unabated and uncensored, was not a part of the FEMA PR plan."
City, County officials silence a proposed radio station inside Dome
By Todd Spivak The Houston Press
Jim Ellinger, head of Austin Airwaves Inc., distributes free transistor radios outside the Astrodome.
James Ellinger scuttles to a parked van, lifts another heavy cardboard box nearly half his size and hauls it through the Astrodome parking lot. The 52-year-old Austin native takes temporary refuge from the heat under a tree and pauses to draw a breath.
Re-energized, he snaps to his feet and takes on the role of mad carnival barker.
"Free radios! Get your free radios!" he shouts in a radio voice. "Come on, people! What about 'free' and 'radio' don't you understand? We got 10,000 radios here to give away! Get your free radio! Come get your free radio!"
A throng of people quickly encircle him to snatch their very own shiny piece of cheap plastic on this Friday afternoon. Some are willing to hang around and listen. Between barks, Ellinger launches into a harried, convoluted assault on the Harris County Republican Party. He rages on in rapid-fire staccato, saying something about the Federal Communications Commission, an information blackout and evil Republican power brokers. Audience members mostly look on in perplexed fashion, thank him for the gift and shove off.
A typical hippie Austinite blathering on, you might think. Except Ellinger actually has a story to tell.
Ellinger is a veteran of noncommercial television and radio stations. His résumé includes a short stint in 2003 with Houston MediaSource, the local public-access station now embroiled in controversy. But he's best known as founder of Austin Airwaves Inc., which he says began as a newspaper column then morphed into a radio and TV show, and three years ago was incorporated as a nonprofit community radio group.
Over Labor Day weekend, Ellinger's Austin Airwaves led an effort to build a temporary 30-watt radio station inside the Astrodome that would broadcast to the thousands of people holed up there and inside the adjacent Reliant Center. The benefits of such a venture, he says, are obvious. Since the Eighth Wonder of the World was resurrected as a homeless shelter, emergency officials have largely disseminated information to evacuees through use of cluttered, makeshift bulletin boards and a paging system that draws complaints as often being unintelligible.
A radio station, as Ellinger and community-radio activists at the Houston Independent Media Center imagined it, would help reunite family members and link evacuees to jobs, schools and health care. It would be a place to announce urgent information and clear up some of the misinformation that has added to people's frustrations.
For instance, last Thursday thousands of evacuees from across the city descended on Reliant Center to obtain FEMA-issued debit cards. But the cards were not distributed until the next day. Then, a day after that, the debit card program was discontinued altogether. In a frenzied atmosphere where new decisions and protocols are announced daily, a live radio broadcast could prove essential.
"It's a tool that for some reason they haven't thought of," Ellinger says. "It's not rocket science; it's a tiny radio box and a bunch of tiny radios."
And he nearly pulled it off.
The FCC took less than 24 hours to approve Ellinger's application to install three low-power FM radio transmitters inside the Dome and Reliant Center. This is extraordinary, since the FCC often takes as long as three years to grant such a license, according to Hannah Sassaman, an organizer for Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, which helped facilitate the effort.
"It's extremely unusual under normal circumstances, but this is an emergency situation," Sassaman explains. "Communication is something that the displaced residents are asking for almost as much as food and water."
But city and county officials overseeing the emergency management command system nixed the effort late last Wednesday afternoon. That decision was made by Robert Royall Jr., assistant fire commissioner for Harris County, according to Gloria Roemer, a spokeswoman for Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.
Roemer, who declined to arrange an interview with Royall, insists there's no need for a radio station inside the Dome because "there's been no problems getting information to evacuees." She says that Ellinger made unreasonable demands that included a large office, several computers and printers, Internet access, phone lines and unlimited access to the Dome.
"If we gave one radio station access, we'd have to give them all access," Roemer reasons.
Ellinger denies having made those requests. He says he needs only a "small quiet space" to set up a 40-watt transmitter, a plug-in cassette, a microphone, headphones and an antenna, all of which he would provide. Roemer faults Ellinger for not getting the county's thumbs-up before approaching the FCC and says it's important that people know who's in charge at the Dome.
"The FCC does not influence the operations of our emergency management system," she says. Ellinger "put all the wheels in motion with no approval from us. Now he's going bonkers over this. He started a national campaign to bad-mouth us."
What she means by this comment is unclear, since the effort to bring radio into the Astrodome has received scant attention, apart from tiny mentions in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and a handful of blogs.
And it seems that Ellinger isn't quite the lone ranger that Roemer describes.
Asked about launching a radio station in the Dome, Houston mayoral spokesman Frank Michel says, "We would support that; getting better communication out to these people is very important."
The effort even received the written endorsement of at least one elected official. Councilwoman Ada Edwards wrote that she is "in full support of the efforts of Mr. Ellinger in setting up a radio service for the victims of Hurricane Katrina" and hopes "that this service will be able to be extended to other areas where the residents of New Orleans have found shelter."
According to Sassaman, technology activists are now working to complete another engineering study that would enable them to broadcast from outside the Dome. They would again have to win FCC approval before moving forward.
"We're not dead yet," she says.
But Ellinger is less hopeful. As he sees it, bureaucratic bungling will continue to keep people in the Dome from receiving crucial information.
Just before he learned that he would have to scrap his plans, Ellinger says, a Harris County official told him that he also would have to provide the 10,000 transistor radios for evacuees. As a result, the only people to benefit from Ellinger's efforts are those who got the little radios he passed out on Friday.
They, and the lucky owner of the dollar store where Ellinger bought them.
Radio Free Astrodome
By Elaine Wool The San Antonio Current
Prometheus Radio Project and Houston's KPFT/Pacifica Radio believe that Low Power FM is just the tool for a community in need.
Prometheus Radio, the low-power FM advocacy organization named for the Greek Titan who gave fire to man in defiance of Olympian bureaucracy, has found a human face that could broaden support for and understanding of of indy media and micro radio. LPFM service was introduced five years ago, and while the FCC has issued more than 600 licenses to non-governmental and community organizations, it remains largely under the radar and on the fringes.
But the FCC, Zeus' present-day stand-in, understands its potential for humankind. On September 10, the FCC approved a frequency for the Houston Astrodome's media parking lot, where Prometheus and Houston's Pacifica Radio station, KPFT, plan to operate a radio station until all evacuees in the dome are relocated. The 6-watt KAMP 95.3, for Katrina Aftermath Media Project, can broadcast news and public-information programming in a 1-2-mile radius, with an emphasis on helping evacuees find missing family members.
A temporary Low Power FM radio station, KAMP 95.3, is broadcasting news and public information to the dwindling number of Katrina evacuees still living in the Houston Astrodome. (Photo by Indymedia.org)
The temporary station is operating out of a rented Airstream trailer using equipment donated by the Houston Indy Media project and KPFT. An all-volunteer staff mans the facility around the clock, and dome residents can pick up the frequency on radios that Prometheus volunteers distributed last week. Community-media activists from around the state have been involved in the project, including Austin KO.OP radio founder Jim Ellinger and former KO.OP engineer Jerry Chamkis. KPFT News Director Renée Feltz said that volunteers in Houston and Dallas are recording public-service announcements with evacuees in their cities that can be broadcast through and exchanged with KAMP.
Feltz says that KAMP can provide crucial information to evacuees, including how to navigate bureaucratic hurdles, rumor control, and a sense of connection with their uprooted former lives. "Almost everyone you ask says they want to hear about what's going on back home," said Feltz in interviews at KPFT's offices September 10 and by phone September 12. KAMP also will offer some musical programming "if people want us to," Feltz added.
Strangely enough, fears about music programming may be one reason that Houston officials blocked Prometheus' first requests to operate inside the dome despite the FCC's quick action and the reported support of Governor Rick Perry's office. Feltz said JIC Public Information Officer Rita Obey told her that the JIC, which turned down Prometheus twice, was concerned about "incendiary gangster rap," but Obey said in a telephone interview that she does not remember that conversation.
JIC Incident Commander R.W. Royal Jr, who authorized the denials, could not be reached for comment. Feltz said neither Royal nor any other JIC staff met with Prometheus to discuss their plans in detail. "I think the communication was so poor that they never understood what programming we sought to provide," said Feltz.
While KAMP's primary goal is to provide public-service information to the evacuees, radio is a powerful venue for survivors to tell their stories. KPFT has aired firsthand accounts since evacuees first began arriving in Texas, some of which starkly contrast with official reports. Feltz recalled an interview she recorded with a group of children who had been without food or clean water for seven days after the hurricane hit. "That was a really different story than what we were hearing from Mayor Nagin, who said, We have all the resources we need, people are getting rescued, it's just a matter of agreeing to leave," said Feltz. She added that KPFT has received significant listener response to their coverage. "I can say that every time I get on the radio to do an update, the survivors call, especially if we're talking about New Orleans."
But even as KPFT's Katrina audience is growing, the population that can participate in and benefit from KAMP is dwindling. The delay caused by the JIC's denial drained some of the enthusiasm of the media volunteers and donors who jumped on board the project as soon as it was announced, and every day there are fewer evacuees left in the dome. On September 7, the day Royal denied Prometheus' request, volunteer Jacob Appelbaum posted his frustration on the Houston Indy Media website. "I told [the evacuees] that I was with a group helping to bring emergency radio information to them. Broadcast from right inside the dome. Those people were overjoyed to hear that they would get a radio station ... It breaks my heart."
"Just like everyone else in the city, people were asking, What can I do" said Feltz. "Here we had an opportunity to reach out with people that wanted to do something with media." Prometheus had a tentative agreement with Sony to distribute 10,000 walkman radios, but when the JIC rejected the original applications, volunteers distributed between 700 and 1,000 inexpensive receivers instead. Some frustrated volunteers wanted to set up a pirate station, but Prometheus has a working relationship with the FCC that has brought significant gains for LPFM. "We felt like we had this relatively positive working relationship with the FCC and we didn't want to step on anyone's toes for the next time around," said Feltz.
By Monday, September 12, when KAMP was setting up in preparation for going live Tuesday morning, the dome's population had shrunk to 1,400 residents from a high of 17,500 on September 4, the day the FCC approved Prometheus' original application. Feltz said that the station will likely operate for about a week because Houston officials plan to relocate all evacuees from the Reliant Park complex, which includes the Astrodome, by September 18. KAMP may go off the air at that point, but Feltz said the activists have discussed transferring the license to one of the area groups that is working closely with the relocated evacuees, such as Shape Community Center or the Shrine of the Black Madonna. Any such transfer would have to be approved by the FCC.
In the meantime, KAMP will be broadcasting at 95.3 to any listeners in the Astrodome area and uploading missing-persons PSAs to the Houston Indy Media website (houston.indymedia.org) or a linked site. "This is an opportunity to see micro radio as a tool relevant to people's lives," said Feltz. "This isn't a radio station that's being set up to prove a point, or for people that already have access to the internet. It's something that could provide an essential service."