Welcome to Activist Land!

Activist Land provides tools and a pragmatic forum for the progressive activist community. It aims to complement traditional political blogs by emphasizing how you can get involved in specific issues and how to integrate activism into your life in an effective and sustainable way. Therefore, in addition to calling for action on a particular issue, it encourages people to post "activism opportunity" posts that describe the nuts and bolts of how one would, or did, take action in a particular instance.

My main area of focus is media reform. I've been working with Save Boston's Progressive Talk to help bring progressive talk radio to Boston, and I've written interviews to publicize "The Real News", an independent international news network. My secondary area of focus is election integrity. I maintain a set of Voting Rights pages with an emphasis on an election integrity timeline. I've written pieces on these and other subjects for Daily Kos and my local newspaper. For more info, see my first post. Come and join the community!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Potato Chips, Prometheus, and the Blogosphere

[completed on December 30, 2007]

I give the blogosphere a great deal of credit for countering my isolation as a progressive in a conservative country, familiarizing me with political figures, prepping me for debate, introducing me to issues. It's hard to imagine another medium that could have gotten through to me with the message that indeed I could make a difference. Magazines? Canceled my subscriptions long ago to avoid the clutter. Posters on bulletin boards? Never saw them after college. Conversation at parties? Too few and far between. Not since grad school had I been in contact with anyone who might even try to explain to me how I could get personally involved. So without both the technology and the electronic appeals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it might have been difficult indeed to find my way back to activism. But now I often wonder whether the blogosphere's fast-paced, salty commentary on the state of our world has lost its ability to satisfy me. It's as though I've passed through a phase where I compulsively worked my way through mounds of potato chips but now simply stare at the half-empty bag.

In 2003 and 2004, MoveOn.org, Meetup.com, TextPad.com, and DailyKos.com led me in a straight line to personal involvement. MoveOn invited me to the worldwide rally protesting the imminent Iraq War, then urged me to support the presidential candidate of my choosing (Howard Dean). Meetup told me where I could find meetings devoted to learning about and supporting his campaign, and then, after his campaign was torpedoed, where I could find, and eventually set up, meetings for Kerry. TextPad let me set up a little blog for friends and family to try to coax them into political activism. But it was Daily Kos that had the biggest effect on me.

In January 2004, I came across Daily Kos while doing a net search on behalf of my parents who had heard that Dean had made an anti-Israel remark. It turns out that the quote had been taken horribly out of context. But even after I found the answer to my question, I continued to read the site hungrily until late at night. Over the next few days, I began to use Daily Kos as a "link pad", a place where I could post information that people could read without a password (unlike my friends-and-family blog). Since I assumed that no strangers would read what I wrote, I decided I could post whatever scraps I wanted to keep for reference, either for myself or people I knew. My first post looked like this:

Favorite Links
Tue Jan 13, 2004 at 07:12:53 PM EDT
Favorite links:



Political blogs:





I posted a few more diaries that were really glorified sets of links, then discovered that people actually were reading and commenting on them. Some chastised me for not including my own commentary. Others looked at my cut-and-pasted implicit criticism of Wesley Clark and speculated that I was a Republican "troll". (One person commented "Ugh. It's about time Kos do a little Freeper-like cleaning of the rolls to expunge the Republicans from this board," to which another responded "Unfortunately... This guy's a Deaniac and, even more unfortunately, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.")

In those days, one could post roughly whatever one wanted. Shortly thereafter, standards would be introduced, many enforced either by software or by vigilante "diary police". Diaries had to be of a certain length and could not cite more than a few paragraphs of copyrighted material, and one could not post more than one diary a day. Eventually, the concept of "recommended" diaries was introduced: if enough users hit the "recommend" button for a diary, it would enter a special prominent list.

In any case, after my first spurt of short diaries, I began posting less and reading more. And I soaked up quite a bit during that time. Earlier in my life, I had distanced myself from politics partly due to distaste but also due to a reluctance to reveal my ignorance. Here, in this anonymous, constantly changing environment, it was possible for me to learn simply by watching. Only then did I try my hand at writing again.

The high point for me was when my piece The hat and the hamster, about the difference between the Bushes and the Kerrys as dramatized by their daughters' speeches at the Republican and Democratic Conventions, reached the top of the recommended list and received a number of enthusiastic comments. One responder asked whether he could send it to friends and family. But diaries that I published subsequently only attracted a small amount of interest.

The diaries I most enjoyed reading during those wary but hopeful days preceding the election included encouraging anecdotes of once-diehard but now defecting Republican family members. I also enjoyed reading optimistic predictions along the lines of George W. Bush is toast. Alas, when the election was called for Bush, and Kerry conceded, the warm feelings evaporated, replaced by a nasty battle between those who placed their hopes in investigations of election irregularities and those who felt that the best use of our effort was to move on. When I saw a comment from a site administrator comparing "fraudsters" to the Swift Boaters who had maligned Kerry, I felt betrayed, and stayed away from Daily Kos for months. Eventually, I came back to find that the conflict had faded. But its nastiness had soured my fondness for the site. I felt that the commenters who were primarily irritated with the "fraudsters" for interfering with their reading pleasure were extremely short-sighted in missing the most important threat to our electoral system: attacks on election integrity itself. It felt as though there were a lack of wisdom on both sides: those who were calling for investigation of the fraud were unsavvy in the repetitive, shrill, and ineffective way they appealed to the readership, but those who shouted down and eventually banned their diaries were making an unsavory decision to bolster the attractiveness of the site at the expense of its greater reach.

In later days, the site's founder showed a predilection for insulting groups (feminists, for instance) and chasing their supporters away. I explored other blogs, some of which made a conscious effort to be more harmonious, but none had the same level of activity that could be found at Daily Kos. A post might attract a handful of comments, not enough to get the adrenalin pumping. But as Daily Kos's readership soared, its popularity caused some unfortunate side effects. The size of the recommended diaries was held constant, so the competition for the recommended list grew more fierce. The snowball effect grew stronger, so diaries that acquired early momentum due to the reputation of their writers or the outrageousness of their headlines were able to shoulder out the rest, which scrolled ever more rapidly off the page.

A friend of mine wrote in her piece DailyKos Fiddles while America Burns that we tended to focus on salacious issues such as Cheney's hunting accident while ignoring more important issues such as the impending appointments to the Supreme Court. Prominent members rushed to assure the community that, in fact, Daily Kos is doing fine and its recommendation mechanism did the job, even if it led to a focus on repetitive diaries on some subjects while others went unnoticed. But the romance was irretrievably broken for me in January 2007, when I posted a five-part interview, "Go big or go home", with Paul Jay, head of Independent World Television. Two Daily Kos diaries on the network years earlier had attracted a great deal of attention, and later in 2007 I was to see another diary on IWT land on the recommended list. But my series attracted relatively little attention, despite the substantial work I invested in it and my intense efforts to "market" it by sending e-mail to people who had expressed interest in the subject before. The lack of response was probably due to overshadowing by a transitory controversy over whether a particular well-known blogger was correct in defending an accused troll, a discussion that received thousands of comments. (I've described this process in more detail in So how does Daily Kos measure up?)

I came to feel that Daily Kos was failing to serve me as an effective message board, or a reliable way to find the most important news, or a place to find wisdom or even necessarily a good read. But it's worth remembering that this may be due not only to changes on the site but to my own evolution. When I first started reading Daily Kos, I knew relatively little about politics. Hence, just about anything I read was new and worthwhile to me. I also was unprepared for the possibility that anyone would comment on my diaries (which I initially intended merely as placeholders for my own future reference), so when I received a few notes, I was surprised and gratified. When I began, there was no need for a recommended list; later, when such a list was introduced, and I once found myself on it, I was thrilled; only in the following years did it begin to feel that without landing on the recommended list (which felt ever more difficult), I would attract virtually no notice at all. Early on, the genres distinctive to the partisan blogosphere -- the snarky "modest proposal", the personal narrative, the photo collage, the call to arms -- were new and exciting to me; later, they lost their novelty.

I must also admit that I wanted not only to read about effective ways to get involved, but to be the one to bring these messages to others, to serve as Prometheus, carrying fire to the world. But every time my diaries failed to attract attention, I shared in Prometheus's torture: having my liver torn out as my diary scrolled into oblivion, only to have it grow back as I hoped that my next diary would meet a different fate.

I also began to believe that my blogging was preventing me from being an effective activist if there were other tasks competing for my time. A post would take me at least three hours to complete, and it often seemed as though the audience were too small to merit the effort (though the fact that I could cross-post it and post a link to it even years later helped to balance out the equation). Without posting frequently, I could not build the name recognition that would allow my pieces to gain the early cumulative attention that would save them from oblivion. And my full-time job would not allow me to carve away blogging sessions, in addition to the fact that I simply did not have something new to say every day. In early 2004, I felt free to simply post whatever I ran across; by 2007, it became clear to me that there was already more than enough content being recycled across the blogosphere, and most of it originated within the mainstream media that the blogs frequently reviled.

Over the course of 2007, I became more and more deeply involved with an organization attempting to bring progressive talk radio back to the Boston airwaves. I felt good about this, as I took to heart Hillary Rettig's advice in her book The Lifelong Activist (which I've frequently mentioned here): one can be much more effective when focusing on one or two areas of activism than when spreading oneself over a great number of activities. The work has been a great education to me, both inspiring and sobering. I had never worked my way deep enough into an organization to realize that there was a place where the grassroots had to reach out to resources where money and political power were concentrated. The real challenge, beyond getting those resources to listen to us with the appropriate urgency, was in figuring out how to deal with them in a way that did not compromise our ideals. I also discovered that transparency, laudable as it might be, had its limits. We could not make important decisions on the message board itself -- too many hostile outsiders could read it. And as the number of relevant things we could discuss on the board dwindled, the filler material grew. So did petty spats between readers. Constructive posts to the board (for instance, links to relevant Daily Kos diaries) went largely ignored.

On a more upbeat note, however, I must point out that today, after spending hours discussing my growing dissatisfaction with the blogosphere, I came across an e-mail from one of the leaders of the Columbus, Ohio progressive talk radio group. He was calling attention to a diary that he had written about their station and to his comment about my dKosopedia (Daily Kos Wikipedia-style) progressive radio timeline and list of progressive radio stations. All of a sudden, I found myself energized. I added a few comments to his diary, posted links to it on the dozen or so progressive talk message boards, and watched for a while as a few more people added their comments and recommendations. Once again, I felt hopeful. What if we could get a diary on Columbus's success, the most inspiring development in progressive talk radio in many months, rise to the top of the recommended list? That might well require the building of an external network (phone tree?) to break through the inertial forces (campaign fever, etc.) that keep the issues and names on the recommended list largely static and limited, but it's worth a try. It's true that Daily Kos is dedicated to those who are devoted campaign-watchers, but occasionally another subject gathers mass interest. And in fact, Daily Kos is where I found out about the movement to save progressive radio in the first place, so even the sparsely-visited diaries serve some purpose.

So hand me another plate of potato chips. My liver has grown back and I'm getting hungry again...

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Real News (July 2007): TRN Junkies Get a Fix

link to my July interview

The Real News (January 2007): "Go big or go home"

[I originally posted this series at Daily Kos in January 2007. In order to make it more readable, I split it into five parts. To save space, this diary links to the final four parts of the series. See also the later interview that I posted in July.]

Now that we've broken a corrupt party's stranglehold on political power, it's time to put the corporate Goliaths of the media on notice. I was pleased to see a healthy debate two days after Election Day about restoration of the Fairness Doctrine. Whether you find yourself pro or con, it's great that the subject is being discussed. However, I want to tell you about an entirely different approach toward reclaiming truth on the airwaves.

IWT/TRN crew with Paul Jay seated in front

While we political activists have been fighting to regain our democracy, an intrepid TV network named Independent World Television, which accepts no corporate or government funds, has been quietly getting itself off the ground. Some of us heard about IWT in 2005. In late February of that year, coldfusion announced "New TV News Network Coming!" with the accurate observation that "This could be HUGE, but it will take time." Then, in June and July, a spate of diaries gathering much more attention (among these, diaries written by tribe34 and m16eib) encouraged us to take IWT's survey and donate to the network. The news attracted attention from a few other blogs such as BuzzFlash, from a student newspaper at Lakehead University in Ontario and from several mainstream newspapers in Canada, the UK, and the US.

Months later, on March 22, 2006, I caught an interview with Paul Jay, the chair of IWT, on the Stephanie Miller radio show. That night, I visited the IWT website and asked why they'd been quiet for so long. I received a personal e-mail from Paul, asking me to sign up for their mailing list and telling me to watch for the new business plan they'd be posting in the coming week. Once I saw it, I wrote back with a few questions and offered to do an interview, which I would post here at Daily Kos. Paul eventually responded to the questions but somehow neglected to mention the interview offer, though he said rather cryptically "Help on the blogs would be appreciated."

In late August came the announcement that IWT and its flagship news show, "The Real News," was "entering an exciting new phase" and conducting a "world-wide talent search" for hosts. Encouraged, and figuring that perhaps my original offer had gotten lost in the shuffle, I wrote another e-mail offering to interview Paul. I was excited to receive a positive reply from his assistant: "Paul would very much like to set this interview up." Not only was I thrilled to have my offer accepted, but I was glad that there was at least one other member of the crew to handle communication with The Public. We set up the interview for mid-September.

The call was very energizing. Paul is persuasive, as you will see, and assuaged many of my fears about IWT/TRN. He did want me to hold off posting the interview, though, until they had a better infrastructure for dealing with mass interest, inquiries, and subscriptions. They had been swamped by our enthusiasm in 2005, when they didn't have enough staff to handle the unexpected flood of communication, so they didn't want to go public prematurely. New infrastructure, including a redesigned web interface, is now in place. So without much more ado, I will present you with first few paragraphs of the interview. I'll be bringing the rest to you as a series.

In the meantime, please:

(a) visit the site

(b) contribute (it's tax-deductible!), preferably as a monthly sponsor (warning for dialup users: short video at this link, but if you hit the pause button quickly, it will stop)

(c) urge your friends to join you in steps (a) and (b). They may be sick of being asked to support candidates or sign petitions, but a chance to reach the masses via a new television network is something quite different.

(d) if you live in or can move to Toronto, where production will begin, consider contacting IWT/TRN to help out as a volunteer or apply for a position on the crew

(e) write to volunteer@therealnews.com if you can help out in other ways (such as hosting an IWT event)

And here we go!

AF: A lot of people would like to see you on the air yesterday, if not sooner. But your current timetable suggests that you won't be launching until late 2007. Could you give us an idea of how things are going and why the process might take so long?

PJ: We've been trying to balance two things: how you prepare the conditions so that you can come out with enough substance and big enough to make a difference, and how you sustain it. Even if we raise enough money to get started with the daily world news show and get it out for a month or two, the worst thing would be to start something big and then three months later go black. So from the very beginning, our internal slogan was "Go big or go home." We need to be a real source of world news, a place for front-line breaking news reporting and analysis and debate. And that's expensive. We want to compete with CNN, even if it's a ten or fifteen-year arc to get there. We're fundamentally about being able to speak to a mass audience. We're not trying to be another source that supplements the kind of information sources that already exist for very politicized people. If you're very political and you're at all web-savvy, there are actually a lot of places you can go to get information right now. In the final analysis, that's not our target audience. Of course we want those people to be with us, and we're very much going to depend on them for financial support, for spreading the word, for helping us get angles on stories, and even for citizen journalism. But we want to get to that thirty, forty, or fifty million who know there's something wrong, who know the television news they're getting is bad, who know the country is headed in a very dangerous direction -- not just the country, the world. In the U.S. there are at least forty or fifty million people out there who do not believe Saddam was connected to 9/11, who don't think that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. If you look at the polls, 40% or 50% of the country is quite clear on the issues. We want to be big enough to make an impact.

If you read our business plan, we talk about the rollout of sample content. We are going to start a weekly show by January. You're the first to hear it: it's called "The Real News Beta." We're going to let people in on where we are in our development, to give people a taste of what's coming. We're going to take the big story of the week, take clips of how other news shows have covered that story. If the show was the war in Lebanon, for example, we'd show how CNN covered it, ABC, Fox, but we'd also show how BBC, CBC [Canadian Broadcast Corporation], Al-Jazeera covered it. then go to a journalist in the field and ask the journalist how they think television is covering the story, and what is the real story. We will be starting a regular short newscast.

Much more to come. Stay tuned...

Update [2007-1-5 11:54:5 by AlanF]: Later installments in the series:

"Oh, you mean the REAL news!": Interview with Paul Jay, IWT/The Real News, Part 2

"We'll go where the facts take us": Interview with Paul Jay, IWT/The Real News, Part 3

"Seeking truth, not balance": Interview with Paul Jay, IWT/The Real News, Part 4

"We want all of you!": Interview with Paul Jay, IWT/The Real News, Part 5

Saturday, September 8, 2007

PWGD.org: People Who Give a Damn

Last Saturday, I spoke with Ben Melançon of PWGD.org. I met Ben earlier this year when he hosted an event for FreePress.org, a really good national media reform organization. Robin, the founder of the progressive talk radio group that I belong to, and an expert networker, had sent me his way. Although only one other person showed up to the meeting, we had a really good conversation.

Ben lives in a town adjacent to mine, so I offered to drop by his house and discuss things as we went for a walk. He liked the idea, especially since it meant he could bring along his dog Zelda. When I arrived at the house, however, Zelda was not so enthusiastic. She barked and growled and muttered. When we left the house and started actually walking, however, she was able to focus on her environment rather than her distrust of me. We headed up an old railroad line whose rails had been recently removed, and he told me about both Agaric Design, his web design collective, and PWGD.org, People Who Give a Damn.

PWGD is all about building an open-source, nonproprietary infrastructure for giving progressive organizations the ability to set up their own website, communication tools, and databases, and to communicate with other organizations. Our interests overlapped quite a bit, though Ben is more propelled by enthusiasm for open-source software (a fairly new concept to me), while I am driven more directly by frustration with the deficiencies of the existing blogosphere. We both have noticed the lack of diversity of topics and authors that results from the current method of handling community recommendations of posts. Ben had some novel programmatic ideas for avoiding this problem.

We then came back to the house and talked in the yard. By this point, Zelda, having seen that I had failed to bite her or Ben or Ben's mother, decided that I could be trusted, and morphed into The Tongue. Or perhaps she had felt excluded by the conversation, and decided "If you can't join them, lick them." In any case, she licked me seriously and methodically, circled the table, came back to cover my other leg with saliva, then fueled up with a long drink from her water dish and licked me yet again. I did my best to defend myself from the tongue bath by rubbing her under her chin so she couldn't open her mouth, but this required vigilance that I could not always maintain.

More about PWGD in a later post.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Activism Opportunity: KLSD, Part 2

On Sunday, I interviewed Jon Elliott about KLSD. Jon is a talk show host based in San Diego whose show is broadcast on KLSD and also nationally. From my diary at Daily Kos, Jon Elliott Wants You to Save KLSD:

The fact that Jon Elliott commented [here at Activist Land] on my previous post got the wheels turning in my head, and it occurred to me that perhaps I could ask him about the situation at KLSD myself. So I sent him e-mail and invited him to call me back on my cell phone, then went ahead with my day. To my surprise, as I was in the supermarket, the phone rang and there he was. I got a kick out of the idea of conducting an interview right then and there over the cell phone in the frozen foods aisle -- hey, didn't Bob Woodward speak with Deep Throat in a parking garage? -- but realistically speaking, I knew I was better off going home, throwing the food I'd bought into the freezer, sitting down at my computer, and calling Jon back. Fortunately, Jon was agreeable.

I'm going to use this diary to analyze the whole activism opportunity rather than recapitulate the diary.

The high point of the experience was definitely the interview with Jon. I enjoyed speaking with him, but, somewhat surprisingly, I thought it was kind of neat that proposing, conducting, and writing up the interview felt so comfortable and almost ordinary, while five years ago, I would have never thought of doing it at all. I credit the blogosphere for giving me both a place to publish and an audience.

That said, I don't think the blogosphere does nearly as much as it could in terms of paying attention to the right subjects. And hence the low point: waiting for more people to visit my diaries.

My first interview with Paul Jay, founder of Independent World Television/The Real News, inoculated me against some of the disillusionment I would experience later. I had spent half a year chasing Paul down, preparing the interview, conducting it, refining it, passing it by him, and finishing it up. Then, in accordance with their wishes, I waited until they had revised the website and prepared it for new visitors. I also marketed the diary very energetically. I even ended up sending e-mail notices to a list of a hundred people who had written or commented on IWT a year and a half earlier. I had laboriously harvested their addresses from their profiles -- that is, from those profiles that provided addresses at all.

It got some eyes, but not nearly enough, certainly not as many as the blogosphere soap opera taking place that week along the lines of "Is X really a troll?" As a result, there are still many people out there who don't know about IWT/TRN.

So that experience, frustrating though it was, taught me a lot. In the short term, if I want to get a message out, I need to go beyond Daily Kos. (Fortunately, this isn't too hard to do. I've cross-posted on Political Cortex, Booman Tribune, Diatribune, ePluribus Media, and COAnews.org. I've been astonished to see how many more views are reported for the stories I post at COAnews than the ones I post at Daily Kos, even though Daily Kos is the biggest political blog around.) In the long term, I need to help build a better message network. That will be a major focus of Activist Land. In my next post, I'll tell you about my conversations with Ben Melançon of People Who Give a Damn. If all goes well, Ben, the other PWGD-ers, and I can make progress toward the goal of constructing a powerful message network for everyone.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Activism Opportunity: Save KLSD in San Diego

KLSD in San Diego is in danger of losing progressive talk. Learned about this from Robin on the Boston Progressive Talk message board, who posted information about the website, the message board, the upcoming rally on Monday, and the planning meeting today (actually, it's taking place as we speak). That info:

Website (with planning/rally info): http://www.saveklsd.com
Message board: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/saveklsd/

As soon as I got that info, I posted a diary at Daily Kos, which probably took about 20-30 minutes. Aldous at NonStopRadio.com had posted about the threat beforehand, but without the concrete information, so I hadn't acted on it.

I did the following, in this order:

(1) Posted a diary at Daily Kos:
Time: 20-30 minutes.

(2) Posted a diary at Calitics:
Time: 15 minutes (including registering for the site)

(3) Searched for progressive San Diego blogs but couldn't find anything suitable.
Time: 10 minutes

(4) Found the one San Diegan who had posted his location on the Daily Kos Frappr map. Wrote e-mail to him. Got a nice reply. He had been at the planning meeting.
Time: 15 minutes

(5) Posted on various radio message boards: Fresno, Duluth, Cincinnati, central Ohio, NE Ohio, Connecticut, Boston. Time: 20-30 minutes.

(6) Came here and posted as well.
Time: 20 minutes

(7) Added the San Diegan's reply to me as an update to my diary.
Time: 10 minutes

Wow, a comment from Jon Elliott, one of the KLSD talk show hosts! See below, where he asks San Diegans and out-of-towners alike to sign the petition. I did, and so did at least one of the members of the Boston group.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Lifelong Incremental Activist?

On Thursday, I introduced you to Hillary Rettig's book, The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way. Today I'm going to talk about the challenges I face in integrating activism into my life. They differ from the ones she addresses in her book, but her approach is still helpful to me.

It's hard to find a volunteer opportunity that simultaneously:

- involves working with people one likes
- calls on one's strengths
- lets one contribute chunks of time that fit around around one's other commitments
- finds a nice balance between bursts of activity and "downtime"
- makes one feel essential without being the only one keeping things running
- allows one's efforts to be recognized
- supports a purpose that one feels is important
- does not feel like a hopeless cause

Hillary (whom I'm calling by first name because I've met her in person) aims her book at idealistic people who have trouble recognizing that they have the right to demand that these requirements be fulfilled. By contrast, I already am comfortable with demanding those conditions. I just find it frustrating when they're not met.

The problem of incrementalism comes up everywhere. Even in writing a blog entry, one needs a certain minimum amount of time to express the basics, even if one is planning to add more later (either by updating the post or by continuing the discussion in a new post).

Speaking of which... it's time for me to bring the discussion to a pause for the day.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"The Lifelong Activist" in Activist Land

I'd like to introduce you to Hillary Rettig and The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way, her guide to living a sane life as an activist. Her ideas are both provocative and comforting. I've been grappling with them ever since I encountered the book. I plan to explore her ideas in future posts on this blog.

I first heard about The Lifelong Activist through a diary on Daily Kos:

Book Review: Hillary Rettig's "The Lifelong Activist" by SusanG (December 4, 2006)

Susan begins with a short introductory quote from the book:

Activism is the act of influencing a person or group of people with the goal of eliciting a desired behavioral change.

and continues:

If I had but one book to spend hard-earned cash on this year, this one would be it, hands down.

Lifelong Activist is a unique and luscious hybrid, part inspirational tract and part practical textbook on sustaining effective and dedicated activism over the long, long haul.

The author, a business coach involved in progressive causes, brings her approach in training entrepreneurs for success to the realm of political involvement, adapting pragmatic and measurable exercises to the personal realm.

Admitting from the get-go that one of the biggest problems facing progressive activists is burn-out with its accompanying guilt and joylessness, Rettig begins the book by walking the reader through the logic of taking care of yourself, which includes your health, your personal relationships and – yes, it’s true, despite the pushback Rettig admits she gets on this final issue – your financial stability.

Intrigued, I bought the book. Later, I found this Daily Kos review, which expands on the first one:

The Lifelong Activist by Kossack Hillary Rettig by OrangeClouds115 (January 18, 2007)

I wrote my own review on Amazon:

"The Lifelong Activist" is clearly written and a pleasure to read. But reading it is the easy part. Hillary Rettig, the author, is an animal activist who periodically refers to "companion animals" (the non-hierarchical version of "pets," I suppose), and the book reminds me of having a friendly but persistent snout being wedged into my hand to remind me that it's time to get off the couch and out the door.

The goal towards which the book nudges the reader is not necessarily full-throttle activism, but rather a searching examination of oneself followed by a dedication to whichever level of activism makes sense. Definitely a worthy goal. But by no means simple.

One of the ways in which Rettig helps out the reader is by giving some ideas of potential blocks and how they can be overcome. She aims mostly at target readers who are young, idealistic, and suspicious of anything suggestive of the corporate world. They dream of being consummate activists -- throwing themselves with complete abandon into every cause under the sun -- but feel guilty about their desires for a comfortable personal life. Rettig, by contrast, insists on finding balance between activist work and material needs, and spends about a third of the book promoting marketing concepts for activists as a means for convincing audiences. I can imagine such readers being struck by her insight, and channeling their newfound energy into a more productive approach toward engagement with the world.

Readers who are not as hard to persuade might not find the book as much of a catalyst, however. And a catalyst is clearly what is needed to get a disorganized person organized enough to do the exercises that will take one the rest of the way. Rettig does offer help in that regard: compassion, thought-provoking anecdotes, downloadable charts, exhortations to be playful. The book itself, however, is rather earnest. Those who are used to reading activist blogs may find Rettig's book lacking in snark (humor with an edge). I actually found that a selling point, however. While snark is entertaining, it can ultimately be distracting. And Rettig's book is about acknowledging the limited number of waking hours in a week (112, more or less), writing up a schedule, and then getting to work -- in a healthy way, of course.

If Rettig writes a second edition or sequel, in addition to choosing a more colorful cover (the path winding up the grassy hill is a great image, but why must it be in black and white?), I would like to see her address the central question of WHY to structure one's life around activism -- or not. In this regard, readers are mostly on their own. Of course, Rettig can't answer those questions for her readers, but she could spend some more effort marshalling insights and anecdotes, much as she does in her attempt to convince would-be martyrs that self-denial is not a sustainable strategy.

Rettig makes frequent appearances in the Boston area, where she lives and works as a life coach. (In fact, tomorrow I'll be going to hear her speak at a local vegetarian restaurant.) She maintains a blog, where she posts short essays, information about her schedule, and clips of interviews. Check out her site if you'd like to learn more. But do it now. You only have so many hours in a week...

And indeed, my hours for this day have run out. But I will tell you more about the book soon.

Friday, July 27, 2007

"The Real News" Junkies Get a Fix

SUMMARY: Introduction to "The Real News", an exciting independent daily news outfit under development.

[cross-posted at Daily Kos, Political Cortex, COAnews, Booman Tribune]

Withdrawal symptoms are brutal, especially when they last for decades. And we've been jonesing for something approaching journalism on the evening news for a long, long time.

What would you say if I told you that there's a network bursting onto the scene that's going to present you with real journalism untainted by corporate or governmental money -- because it refuses to accept any? That's staffed with "unbought and unbossed" journalists from around the world -- Pakistan, Brazil, Canada, India, as well as the United States? That could have told you in real time that Colin Powell was making things up before a war broke out? I hope you'd respond as I did...


In January, I posted a five-part interview with Paul Jay, the founder of Independent World Television network and its flagship daily news show, The Real News. Paul is a wonderfully insightful person and extremely persuasive. After speaking with him, I was convinced that this network knew what it was doing. This month, I've finally had the satisfaction of seeing an explosion of people who are suddenly finding out for the first time what The Real News is all about.

And I do mean explosion. I've watched the The Real News group on Facebook grow by literally hundreds of members from one day to the next -- and it's still going. I've seen the number of viewings of their video "The Promise" on YouTube go from 1590 yesterday to 2560 today -- and that's before each and every one of you clicks on the video below, uprates it, marks it a "favorite", and tells your friends about it, thus sending the number of viewings through the roof and into the "Director Videos" circle. Right? Right??

Last week, I interviewed Paul again. He had already given us all so much to chew on in the first interview that I didn't need to ask him about the whys and wherefores of the network. Instead, I wanted to focus on what's going on now and what we can expect for the rest of the year. So here's Paul!

A: It looks like there's a lot happening at "The Real News" right now. Would you say that you've entered a new stage?

P: Yes. For one thing we really just started our public membership campaign. We emailed our list and we got 140 donations in the first four days. Before this, the site was not changing much, so we would only get two or three a day. But more importantly, we're starting to produce content that will lead to a regular daily news in September. That's when we think the membership campaign will take off. There are three things we'll be doing regularly by then.

One will be to start the day with five or six minutes of news headlines. We want people to get into the habit of going to us to find out what are the big stories today in the world.

And we're going to do a show called "The Real Story", where we take one, maybe two of the major stories of the day. We'll take a look at how other television news is covering it, both in the US and other parts of the world. Then we'll go to journalists that are on the front lines and see what they have to say.

The third thing we're doing is something we're calling "The Real Raw News". We have a feed we bought from Associated Press Television News. It's really quite interesting coverage of breaking stories. You're lucky to see eight seconds of a four-minute APTN story on a normal newscast. And when you do, the reporters who cover the story never stop talking. You don't get a chance to actually just see and feel what's happening. We're going to give written context for these clips, but then we're going to let them play the way we get them over the wires. People can come to their own conclusions about what they're seeing.

We'll add to that some of the specific segments, coverage of climate change through "Global Warning", political corruption through "Skewer!", and "Follow the Money", questions of global corruption. Then the other segment we'll be working on in the fall will be "Organize This!", about working people and unions. If people watch our promos on the website, they'll get a pretty good idea of what's going on.

A: I see that you have a big focus on Ning.com, which is a social network site. Looks like there's a huge amount of content, and a lot of people posting messages. It seems as though it's a real place to hang out.

P: The news will be on the main Real News site, which is our home base. But we have a Ning community and a Facebook site. We already have a lot of our content on the Real News YouTube channel. And every day, we're going to be putting up everything new we have. YouTube actually contacted us to propose that we become a content partner. That means they give us extra functionality on our web channel on YouTube, and they also promote us. For instance, our promo next week will be one of their director's choices. When we start doing daily material, they'll be promoting us every day. All these platforms, from YouTube to Ning, to Facebook, to MySpace, are important to us. In fact, we've hired some staff who are solely focused on developing them. But people will wind up coming to the main site to watch the programming. However, we don't care about where you see it, as long as you see it.

A: Do you think that the political climate has changed in a way that's either better or worse for "The Real News" since last year, when we last spoke?

P: There's a funny thing that's going on in the U.S. right now. People are more engaged politically because the presidential campaign has started so early, but on the other hand, people are almost already getting tired of it. But the main thing for us is that we want to connect with people's real concerns, not just at the level of following the horse race of political partisanship. The real question facing us is finding our voice. Finding a way to speak to ordinary people, and take complex issues, make them understandable, and make them connect with people's sense of their own interest.

The desperation on the part of viewers who saw the media were shielding Bush regardless of what he did -- that's lessened. But most of the people who are likely to support us early on, such as your readers, understand that the media offering any critique is a temporary phenomenon. The way the media rally around the flag and can support a war based on lies -- that's a structural problem that won't change. And it will happen again. So most people will see the necessity for us. And then when they get a taste of our programming, they will find they're getting insights and a picture of the world they won't get anywhere else.

A: What I saw of that AP feed really brought home to me how filtered the news is. It was just showing a funeral in Bosnia, but you heard the people speaking in their original language, you saw the people grieving for more than just a quarter of a second at a time. It was pretty remarkable.

P: We got a lovely comment from somebody on the website who said that for the first time she got to feel the emotion of the story. She hadn't realized what this constant talking of the journalists does to remove you from the emotionality of the moment. They actually dehumanize the experience because they don't shut up.

A: That's right.

P: And that funeral was an experiment for us that really proved something for us. Just settling into that footage was like a minidocumentary. This experiment with the Bosnian piece was like a foot in both worlds. You get that emotional connection you would do in a documentary, but it's short, it was produced the day the thing happened, within the news cycle.

A: Are you finding that there are people who are becoming "Real News groupies", even outside of your Toronto office? People who have really latched onto it and communicate with you all the time?

P: Yes. People all over the world. We have hundreds of people who are e-mailing all the time. A majority are and will be Americans, but it gives Americans a chance to connect, not just with Canadians, but with people from all over the world, who are already starting to come into the social network.

A: Have you started to see defensive moves from more traditional media, or do you think that will happen once you're a bigger presence?

P: We're not really on their radar yet. What's interesting is that they're doing reports with a bit of critique in them, a bit of oppositional feel. I must stress "a bit". But clearly they know people want it. These are the same networks that were parroting the pro-war arguments for so long. Now that the majority of Americans want that war to end, the networks follow public opinion. But public opinion says "We don't want to be lied to anymore." And I don't think the CNNs and ABCs, because of what they are structurally and economically, can really answer that desire for truth. So if we do it right, the situation's very good for us.

The other thing that's very good for us, which has changed since we last talked, is the maturing of YouTube and Facebook and these other social content platforms. Because now it's not just a question of trying somehow to get people to our website. It's now relatively easy for us to go where people already are. And we can do it in a way conventional news sources can't. If CNN or NBC starts regularly putting their stuff on YouTube, how do they make money on it? The advertising goes to YouTube, not to them. They want to bring people back to their site or TV network to watch the advertising that they make money on. But because our model is not based on advertising, we don't need you to come see our advertising. All we need you to do is to see our content and like it.

We think only about 2-3% of the people who watch us will actually need to give money. We need the more advanced people, like your readers, to give money in much higher percentages. But when we get to the more general population, we just need a lot of people to watch, and then the more conscious people will understand the necessity of supporting it. Our nonprofit, non-advertising model is perfect for the exploding social content on the net.

A: That's great. Is there anything you want to say before we conclude?

P: I would just say that now is the time we really need people who think this is necessary and see the importance of it to donate and get engaged. Tell their friends, spread the word. Go watch us on our site, watch us on YouTube, join the Facebook site, come to our Ning site. Donate. If possible, sign up for automatic monthly donations. We really need a kick-start now. In the early stage, we need big donor funding to get to the next level. But we can't trigger that money if we can't show that there are ordinary people who are willing to make regular contributions, whether it's ten bucks a month or more. Now's the moment that will make a difference.

A: Okay. Let's see whether people rise to the challenge. It's been a pleasure speaking with you, as always.

P: You too, Alan.

And here are some links to send to your friends:

- "The Promise", The Real News's video on YouTube

- Real News YouTube channel

- The Real News (main website)

- "Go Big or Go Home" (my first interview with Paul, posted January 1-6, 2007)

- The Real News group on Facebook

- Ning community

- UPDATE: July 24 BuzzFlash interview with Paul

Now let's make sure the world can get The Real News!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Robin's Testimony at the FCC Hearing

SUMMARY: A written version of the testimony delivered by the leader of the Boston progressive talk radio group at the FCC hearing in Portland, ME, on June 28, 2007.

(Please see Little Miss Sunshine at the FCC Hearing for background.)

FCC Hearing
Portland, ME
June 28, 2007

Good evening... I'm here from Massachusetts to testify, as this is the only FCC hearing scheduled in New England.

As happened similarly, more recently, here in Maine, on December 21, 2006, our only Boston all-Progressive-Talk-stations (two simulcasting Clear Channel AM stations, WKOX and WXKS) were suddenly cancelled, without warning. In Boston, which is about 70% liberal, there are numerous right wing conservative talk stations, programs with centrist talk, but no progressive talk. Does this serve our local and public interest?

I would like to present the Commissioners with a copy of our petition with more than 2400 signatures and comments that illustrate that indeed there is an enthusiastic audience and willing advertisers for progressive talk despite being told the opposite. It is not surprising that there was little local advertising on the stations. We've heard from local businesses that tried to advertise only to have their calls ignored or refused. Station management admitted they had no interest in local advertisers; they preferred to sell one package to national advertisers for large numbers of their stations at the same time. A group of active listeners is currently working to get a progressive talk station back on the airwaves.

There are six large media companies who own virtually all of the stations in Boston. The few remaining privately owned stations are mostly on the auction block, feeling squeezed by ever-spiraling costs and fees continually being driven upward by the big corporations. Additionally, many of the large radio corporations who own the conservative programming they broadcast would be reluctant to compete with their own programming so would naturally act to protect their own market shares. Does this serve our local and public interest?

Many corporate media giants look to make short-term profits, running stations by satellite feed from a closet with virtually no local personnel at the expense of local, independent programming. Does this serve our local and public interest?

Progressive programming is thriving across the country, where it gets a decent signal, includes local programming, is given adequate time to grow the audience, AND if it can find available stations to carry it.

We ask the FCC to:

1. Hold a similar FCC hearing in Boston.

2. Limit the number of stations and other media outlets a company can own in one market and roll back the consolidation caused by the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

3. Create incentives & protections to nurture more small, locally owned stations.

4. Prioritize enforcement of "serving the Public Interest" by allowing the public to be part of the licensing process and review renewals more frequently (every three years rather than the current eight years).

5. Ban repeated propaganda and false news presented as real news and fact.

A thriving Democracy requires dialogue and an exchange of ideas to inform its citizenry. "We the People" own the airwaves, and it's time for radio to serve the local and public interest first and renew its role as the fourth estate!

My Testimony at the FCC Hearing

SUMMARY: The revised text of the testimony I delivered at the FCC hearing on localism in Portland, ME, on June 28, 2007.

(Please see Little Miss Sunshine at the FCC Hearing for background.)

FCC Hearing, Portland
June 28, 2007

I came from Massachusetts today to testify about why localism and diversity are life-or-death matters.

But before I begin, I want to thank the commissioners for offering the public a chance to provide their input. I especially thank Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, not just for being here, but for doing their best to prevent the disaster that almost ensued in 2003, when a majority of the FCC under then-chairman Powell voted to further roll back the media ownership rules that have been undergoing erosion for decades. Fortunately, the public and Congress were so irate that a bipartisan group of legislators passed a law undoing the damage. I want the commissioners to know that their efforts were noticed.

Now back to localism and diversity, life and death.

In January 2002, a train derailed in Minot, North Dakota, spilling its load of anhydrous ammonia. As fumes filled the city, a train operator called 911 so the city's inhabitants could be warned to stay indoors and close the windows. But there was a problem. All six radio stations in this city were owned by the same company, Clear Channel, which ran them remotely. So no one could get a lifesaving emergency announcement out to the people. One person died, and hundreds were injured or hospitalized. That train wreck should wake us up and prepare us for emergencies. September 11, 2001 prompted changes in homeland security. But what does it mean if a town like Minot can't protect itself against a chemical spill?

There are other kinds of train wrecks, such as the war in Iraq. Now, many people at the time thought it was a bad idea to start a war against a country that COULDN'T have attacked us in order to get back at a group that HAD. Or that if we WERE going to go in, we needed enough troops. But they couldn't get on the air. Clear Channel was busy mounting pro-war rallies and censoring opponents, as were the other media.

Now this evening, I've seen an unending parade of Maine broadcasters march up to the microphone and tell us how, even though many of their bosses are not local, they take localism very seriously. They live here, as one after another has pointed out (and one even added that her infant daughter lives here, too). They bravely covered the ice storm of 1998, and they generously support local charities. In fact, they've even managed to persuade members of those charities to testify here.

A handful of people testifying in that vein might be persuasive. But by the time you have a solid column of twenty broadcasters in a row offering identical testimony, it begins to have the opposite effect. It's like a microcosm of our current TV and radio, when you turn the dial, but nothing changes. You have to ask yourself questions. Isn't there something strange about an official from a public library coming to an FCC hearing on localism to sing the praises of the TV station that acts as the library's patron? Or to have a woman from the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital attempt to tug the audience's heartstrings with the tale of a nine-year-old cancer patient who is grateful to the local broadcasters for their beneficence? Isn't it chilling for a nonprofit to beg for favors from a media oligopoly while ignoring the societal ills that force public libraries and hospitals to scrounge for money in the first place?

Even if Maine was better served by its broadcasters during an ice storm nine years ago (predating a hefty amount of media consolidation, by the way) than Minot was five years ago, they have done nothing to show us that they'd do anything to help this country avoid the Iraq train wreck that took the lives of soldiers from their community.

What do I want the FCC to do? That's pretty simple. No need to come up with brand-new policies. It just needs to enforce the ones it's already supposed to enforce, and in fact did enforce, not so long ago.

For instance, the license review process can't continue to be a rubber-stamp process conducted only once every eight years. It needs some teeth and public input, and it needs to be performed every three years.

And we need to make sure that a lesson was learned in 2003, when the public told Congress loud and clear that it didn't want loosening of the media ownership rules, and a bipartisan group of legislators wrote this into law.

Finally, we need to make sure that when the FCC uncovers threats to localism, the chairman cannot bury the findings simply because he finds them inconvenient.

I want to close by paraphrasing Commissioner Copps from 2004: We have enough studies, we have enough comments. Now we need action.

Thank you very much.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Activist Opportunity: New Report on Talk Radio

SUMMARY: Starts with a suggestion by "daulton" from Columbus, OH, that we write a report that talks about all the strengths of the progressive talk radio is. Uses this as starting point for an "activist opportunity analysis".

A Daily Kos diary by "daulton" from Columbus, Ohio, begins as follows:

The Center for American Progress released a 35-page report in June, full of facts, charts, and statistics incontrovertibly demonstrating:

1. 91% of commercial talk radio is right-wing.

2. Right-wing bias is directly tied to ownership; and mega-ownership = mega bias.

These are two sharp arrows in the quiver for those in D.C. arguing for ownership rules.

BUT I WANT ANOTHER STUDY for those of us in the trenches (such as at OhioMajorityRadio.com ) appealing to local station owners to carry progressive programs.

Sure, we can tell them about the unfairness--but they don’t care.

What WE need is a study that proves something else we all know; that PROGRESSIVE RADIO KICKS ASS!

I suggested contacting ePluribus Media, since the people there are experienced at writing such reports. I also posted a link to the article on the Save Boston's Progressive Talk message board.

Activist Opportunity: Abe Foxman Must Go

SUMMARY: Takes a blog post critical of the director of the Anti-Defamation League and uses it as a starting point for an "activist opportunity analysis" (analysis of what could be done and whether it is worthwhile).

Yesterday, I came across the post Abe Foxman Must Go, by blogger "Red Sox" on Daily Kos. The diarist was critical of Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, for failing to support efforts to induce Congress to pass a resolution acknowledging Turkey's role in the genocide of the Armenians from 1915 to 1917. He thought that Foxman should be fired. I posted the following comment:

So what are the action points?

How should pressure be applied? How is the director s/elected?

I went to the ADL site and looked at their annual report, but didn't see that info. However, the ADL's national chair's name is Glen S. Lewy. If you are looking for someone high in the organization who can apply pressure, that might be the one. Didn't see any individual contact info for Lewy, but it might be possible to ask for him by name at one of the numbers listed in the report.

I think the media route could be effective. Develop a mailing list. (My e-mail address is in my profile; you can collect other addresses from other commenters' profiles.) Consider forming a Yahoo! message board (go to http://www.yahoo.com to find out how to do it). Get people organized to write editorials and, once they're published in newspapers, send copies of them to the ADL (and to you). I'll think about doing one myself. Then you can write follow-up diaries.

If you want, I can post the text of this diary (credited to you) on my brand-new blog, Activist Land. This type of campaign is just the kind of activism that the blog was designed for.

Good luck!

"Red Sox" responded:


Not sure exactly how best to go about applying pressure. My guess is that unless some major donors were to get involved, nothing much would come of it. If you would like to post this diary on your blog, I think that would be great. I appreciate your contribution here.

If "Red Sox" or anyone else would like to take this further, please let me know.

This is an example of the kind of thing I'd like to do on this blog. I want the blog to be not only about outrages, but about how to combat them. The mental exercise of evaluating how we would build an activist campaign is useful even if the evaluation results in our deciding not to take on the cause at the moment.

Community and Communication (and Phone Trees) by Kate Donaghue

SUMMARY: Guide to building political community with an emphasis on phone trees, written by Kate Donaghue (active in the Massachusetts Democratic Party).

Ideas for Committees - It's about Community and Communication

I grabbed this from Kate Donaghue's "Democratic Dispatch", which she sends to thousands of Democrats across Massachusetts. Kate is one of the most politically effective people I know. She really gets how to connect to both the grassroots and the establishment. I'll tell you a story sometime about how she got me to lead Kerry meetups after the Dean campaign came to a halt.

This hint could have been entitled "Phone Trees", but it is much more than that. I'm urging you to build a phone tree as a way of building community. You can use e-mail to communicate with a lot of people. But a personal phone call increases the effectiveness of your communication, by a full order of magnitude. In addition to effectively conveying the message that your organization thinks an issue, meeting or event is important enough to make a call, you build COMMUNITY when people TALK TO EACH OTHER.The mechanics of building an effective phone tree:
1) You need an administrator committed to maintaining a list and making sure that calls go out.
2) You need team leaders who are ready to call the people to whom they are assigned.
The Committee Chair determines when the phone tree is utilized. Once that decision is made the administrator sends out an e-mail to each of the team leaders. The team leader then calls the people on the list by the deadline listed.
a) The complete list for the whole committee should be sent to all the team leaders when the phone tree kicks in. The easier you make it for people to do their job, the more likely that it will get done.
b) The administrator should ask for an e-mail response by a specific time from each team leader. The idea is that the leader will say, yes, it will be done or no, turn my calls over to someone else. It the administrator doesn't hear back, then the administrator tries to reach the team leader. If the team leader can't be reached, then that team is called by someone else.
c) Each team leader should be assigned five to ten calls. The idea is that you want to encourage chatty communication, as well as disseminating information. Like in so many efforts, you need to balance how many people you want to manage. The more effective you are in getting people to take on smaller tasks, the stronger your team will be.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine at the FCC Hearing

SUMMARY: Description of my impressions on an FCC hearing on localism held in Portland, Maine. Includes links to testimony from me and the leader of the progressive talk radio group.

Last Thursday, a group of members of the Save Boston's Progressive Talk coalition drove to Portland, Maine to testify at an FCC hearing. Little did we know that, like the desperate family in the movie Little Miss Sunshine, we'd end up having to push our car to get there. Nor did we realize the degree to which the hearing would resemble the pageant depicted in the film. But, in the best Hollywood tradition, we learned a lot from our little road trip.


First, a little background. In my diaries "Invisible Airwaves Crackle with Life", "Who (Almost) Killed Progressive Radio?", and "Grassroots Meet Rainmakers: Boston Progressive Talk Radio", I've told the tale of the demise of progressive talk radio in Boston and our group's struggle to bring it back. Clear Channel began broadcasting progressive talk in the Boston area in 2004, but tried to run it as cheaply as possible: weak signal, virtually no local staff or promotion. Sometimes the computer-in-a-closet that was running the station would simultaneously broadcast two different shows. Clearly, no one was home. Although progressive talk attracted a loyal following among those who managed to discover it, Clear Channel switched it off abruptly in 2006, replacing it with a Latino music format ("Rumba"). Despite the fact that Clear Channel suddenly managed to find local staff for Rumba, Rumba has done worse in the ratings than progressive talk. This pattern that has been repeated across the country. As an added insult, in Columbus and elsewhere, the "placeholder" format now broadcast on the former progressive talk station is conservative talk. Even though ratings have been abysmal, management has openly admitted that at least it serves the purpose of keeping competitors from broadcasting the same hosts. Meanwhile, on those stations that give progressive talk a decent signal, such as KPOJ in Portland, Oregon and WHLD in Buffalo, New York, it does remarkably well.

By law, broadcast radio and television are regulated under the "scarcity rationale". The number of stations who can broadcast within the available bandwidth is limited in order to prevent interference between signals, so the government issues licenses to broadcasters, who must demonstrate that they are serving the public interest, which includes diversity. To protect the public's access to information, there are restrictions on a company's ownership of multiple stations, or cross-ownership of print, radio, and television outlets. Finally, until fairly recently, the Fairness Doctrine limited the ability of broadcasters to attack persons or to editorialize on the air without offering the opportunity for rebuttal.

However, over the past few decades, all of these types of regulation have eroded. The Fairness Doctrine has been effectively dead since 1987, though some argue it was never taken off the books. (Its removal was certainly a boon to conservative talk, but many -- perhaps most -- fans of progressive talk actually don't want it back. What about you?) Media companies have consolidated to an astonishing degree, leading to a situation in which only a handful of companies control most of the country's airwaves.

Although the FCC, under its Republican chairman, has stalled as long as possible in terms of holding public hearings, it has been forced to hold a few in the recent past. Members of our group assumed that the liberal Northeast would never get a hearing, but in fact, pressure from Maine's moderate Republican Senators as well as its Democratic Congressmen apparently did the job. So when we heard from Common Cause and Free Press that there'd be a hearing, we made plans to attend.

Although our love of progressive talk radio was what compelled us to make the trip to Portland, it almost did us in. I had argued that we should take my car, but our leader Robin ("rougegorge" on Daily Kos) wanted to listen on the way to Air America on XM Radio, and her connector required a tape deck, which my car doesn't have. We were doing fine on the road until Robin noticed that the car was having trouble accelerating. (Later, we discovered that there had probably been water in the tank.) As long as we kept up our speed, we were okay. But five miles from our destination, we ran into a traffic jam. This is where "Speed" meets "Little Miss Sunshine". We didn't explode, but we did stall. Repeatedly. Only by traveling in the breakdown lane were we able to keep on moving. We stalled three times on the hill leading off the ramp. Then, when we were about half a block away from our destination, the car stalled again. George and I jumped out of the car and pushed it the last few feet into a parking place, and then I ran inside to sign us up, fearing that we were already too late.

I burst into a room full of people to ask whether we were too late to sign up. "Oh, no," a woman reassured me. "Just go over to that table in the hall." I did. The woman at the table warned me that we'd have to offer my testimony in the second batch rather than the first, but I was just relieved that we'd be able to testify at all.

However, I didn't realize just how long it would be until we got a chance to do that. The hearing began twenty minutes late, the commissioners spoke, politicians had their turn (via either aides or videos) and then twelve panelists spoke for five minutes apiece. Some were impressive (most notably Chellie Pingree, former president of Common Cause and now candidate for Congress -- I know I'd vote for her!), but some were not. And it would be about an hour and a half before any private citizens could offer their opinions. Poor Bill in Portland Maine, who also attended the hearing, had to leave before then, so all he heard were the men and women in suits. And I'd been looking forward to meeting him. Oh well, another time...

In fact, "private citizens" was a bit of a stretch. Many of those who took their turn at the microphone were broadcasters, executives, or representatives of charities who happened to get donations from the big media companies. They put the pageant in the movie "Little Miss Sunshine" to shame. As Dan Kennedy writes in a Media Nation post that vividly describes the atmosphere:

The industry folks who took part in the hearing addressed this in several ways — by stressing the amount of local coverage their TV and radio stations offer; by soliciting testimonials about how cooperative they are in covering such local stories as severe storms, disasters and health risks; and by gushing, endlessly, about their devotion to charity.

Let me deal with the last point first, because, after a while, it started to give me a queasy feeling. Surely the next-to-last refuge of a scoundrel, after patriotism, is to boast about your charitable endeavors. Think of how loudly Don Imus beat the charity drum when he was trying to salvage his career.

Well, there was plenty of that last night. One industry executive waxed enthusiastically that broadcasters have "a public-service gene." Cary Pahigian, president and general manager of Saga Communications' Portland Radio Group, whose past includes running a hate radio station on Cape Cod for the late car dealer extraordinaire Ernie Boch, added, "We're here to contribute to the community at all times."

The bottom was reached when a woman from the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital, speaking from the floor, told the commissioners about 9-year-old Joshua, described as a cancer patient, who supposedly said the local broadcasters' charitable efforts were invaluable "because there are kids here and they want to go home."

Thus was a seriously ill young boy drafted into the cause of preserving Big Media. A later speaker got it exactly right when he called the constant references to charity "distasteful" — a demonstration of "a complete lack of humility ... not in touch with the humble folks of this state."

The only thing missing from Kennedy's description was the feeling of being bored to death by a gang of broadcasters armed with cheery smiles rather than billy clubs. Due to the order in which they signed up, one came right after the other, and they had absolutely no problem with essentially repeating each others' testimony. It was almost like, well, scanning the radio and hearing the same thing no matter where you turned.

The private citizens who made the most impression on me came from an organization of homeless people. They testified about what it was like to know that some national syndicated morons were actively inciting their listeners to attack the homeless. The idea that this hatred was being piped in from out-of-state to dissociate Mainers from their own neighbors encapsulated everything I thought was deadly about national conservative talk radio.

I had written up testimony that was going to focus heavily on the case in Minot, North Dakota, where the operator of a derailed train carrying anhydrous ammonia was desperately trying to warn the community to stay indoors and close the windows. The problem was that all six radio stations belonged to Clear Channel, which was running them all remotely -- and no one could be reached. But after hearing so many broadcasters pat themselves on the back for the way they responded to the 1998 ice storm in Portland, I thought that might not go over as well. I also felt bad for the commissioners, whom no one had explicitly addressed as individuals. So when the time came (probably somewhere around 9:30 p.m., after most of the suits had gone home) to deliver my testimony, I put my notes aside and winged it. I began as follows:

... I came from... Massachusetts today to testify about why localism and diversity are life-or-death matters.

But before I begin, I want to thank the commissioners for offering the public a chance to provide their input. I especially thank Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, not just for being here, but for doing their best to prevent the disaster that almost ensued in 2003, when a majority of the FCC under then-chairman Powell voted to further roll back the media ownership rules that have been undergoing erosion for decades. Fortunately, the public and Congress were so irate that a bipartisan group of legislators passed a law undoing the damage. I want the commissioners to know that their efforts were noticed.

I did see Copps and Adelstein sit up. In fact, an aide had chosen that moment to walk up behind Copps and start whispering to him. I can't read lips, but if I understand facial expressions (and if I remember The Pink Panther correctly), Copps' response to the aide was along the lines of "Not now, Kato, not now!"

One consequence of winging the testimony was that I didn't manage to get in everything I wanted to before my time was up (and two minutes is a really short time). In fact, I said I was going to talk about two train wrecks, but only mentioned the first. Still, I think Copps and Adelstein appreciated the fact that I spoke to them directly.

You can find a synthesis of my planned and actual testimony here.

As I stepped away from the microphone, still awash in adrenalin, I heard Robin and George, my fellow travelers (and I use the term literally since we all made the nerve-wracking trek together) deliver Robin's testimony (which they split between them). I was proud of them both.

Outside the hearing, we talked to a local guy who listened to progressive talk in Portland before it was canned. Then we headed home. Thankfully, Robin had had some dry gas added to the tank and the car worked fine. So our apprehension about whether we would get home at all began to subside, and we began to analyze the heavy brew of emotions that were left: disillusionment in the way our political process can be gamed, pride in the efforts of those who are trying to save it. At 2 a.m., I crawled into bed.

To learn more about what you can do to promote progressive and independent media and halt media consolidation, see these resources:

If you live in the Boston area, please check out Save Boston's Progressive Talk, where we're organizing to buy a station of our own. If you live elsewhere, please see:

Progressive radio stations

and while you're at it, take a look at:

Progressive radio timeline

Also see:

- StopBigMedia.com
- NonStopRadio.com.

and if you're interested in organizing nationally to promote independent and progressive media, please let me know!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Welcome to Activist Land!

SUMMARY: Introduction to Activist Land: tools and a forum for activists. My areas of activity: media reform, election integrity. Links to pieces I've written, my contact info, other resources.

Welcome to Activist Land! This site is about enabling you and me to find our own most effective way to help save the world. It will supply tools that are broadly useful to activists (a calendar, a goal-tracker, a petition manager) and a forum in which we share guidance on how to best to reach our goals. In this effort, as with all the ones I'll mention on this blog, I would love help, so please contact me (alanf333 AT-SIGN yahoo DOT com) if you're interested.

I'll start by telling you what I'm up to. My two major areas of concentration are media reform and election reform. Most of my effort these days goes into a coalition to save Boston's progressive talk radio , a group trying to establish a solid presence for progressive talk, ideally by buying a station. We want to build a national coalition with similar groups across the country. I've described our efforts here:

Grassroots Meet Rainmakers: Boston Progressive Talk RadioMay 1, 2007
Who (Almost) Killed Progressive Talk Radio?April 16, 2007
Invisible Airwaves Crackle with LifeApril 15, 2007

If you live in the Boston area, please visit our site (http://www.bostonprogressivetalk.net) and sign the petition! Once you do, you'll be added to a mailing list that will inform you of events for our group -- but don't worry, it's a very low-traffic list. In addition, you can join our message board (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Save_progressive_talk_Boston), which will give you breaking news about our progress.

I also do everything I can to help the Independent World Television network, which will be airing a daily news program called The Real News. You can read my interview with the founder, Paul Jay, here:
"Go big or go home": Interview with Paul Jay, IWT/The Real News (January 1, 2007)

I also build the dKosopedia pages on election integrity. The dKosopedia is a wiki (easily editable collaborative website) associated with Daily Kos, the progressive political blog. The introduction to those pages can be found at Voting Rights, and a timeline of events up to the present can be found at the Election integrity timeline.

Please enjoy your visit... and get involved!