Going ga-ga over local radio

By Justin Doran

The media business is booming. Now that our brave capitalists have determined how to turn a profit on the American imagination, we no longer need to worry about the standard of our entertainment. Because we all cherish the acquisition of property above any sort of transitory taste or fashionable favorite, we should derive comfort from this new kind of art that is just palatable enough to be consumed by a taxable majority.

Although the contradiction in this description may be striking, it remains representative of the undercurrents in modern media. We balk at the idea that the music, stories and current events we are exposed to is determined by how much revenue it will generate for some cabal of media tycoons. We rightly see that how profitable something is should not be the deciding factor in how much artistic value it has. But for some reason, we see this as an inevitability: mass media need a solid foundation in the economy to survive.

Not so. For the past two years a low-power radio station has been broadcasting out of the old post office in downtown Urbana. It tells the tales of the community, plays its music and covers its happenings. What makes it so important to this story, however, is that it doesn’t make a profit. Radio Free Urbana (104.5 FM) is a subsidiary of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The IMC owns the actual station that RFU operates out of, which also houses a library, a stage and a meeting hall.

So, how does the U-C IMC, and by extension RFU, support itself? By harnessing the motivations of its members and fostering a community within the community it represents. It receives donations from its members and raises funds through public events, and not only manages to stay afloat; it is thriving. Why then, if our greater media infrastructure is so dependent on making money for more powerful interests, is a grassroots media organization so successful?

Because it is what media and the arts are supposed to be.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    Because our standard of living is so enhanced by a capitalist economy, we rarely consider whether or not it should be involved in every kind of activity. For me, this has become particularly apparent in the area of news media. With the advent of the 24-hour news network, I have noticed a significant downturn in the quality of reporting our journalists produce. They present stories that are provocative for the sake of increasing viewers, and their newsworthiness is a secondary concern. This trend continues into mainstream television, movies and radio, in which the quality of entertainment is fundamentally decided by its profitability.

    RFU transcends this problem by reaching into the soul of the American community, and subsisting on our hopes for improving ourselves and our neighbors. Attending a general meeting, which happens twice a month, will make it obvious why this is so effective:

    As you go down into the basement of the old post office, you’ll find a room full of couches, chairs and motivational posters. Not the kinds with silly photographs and one-word phrases. The kinds with Martin Luther King, and tanks in Tiananmen Square.

    On those sofas are every kind of person. Don’t let their differences fool you though, they all have the same thing in common: a dedication to you. Through their hard work they enable you to have your voice heard on the airwaves over Champaign and Urbana, no matter how unpopular your opinion, or how obscure your taste.

    Oddly enough, they don’t feel like they’re doing you a favor. Every member is equally represented in the government of the group, and anyone that wants to become a member is permitted to do so. So really, every one of them is exactly like you.

    I encourage you to experience it for yourself. If for no other reason than it will make you reconsider what the meaning of popular media is.