I just finished watching Pirate Radio USA, a great little independent documentary about pirate radio and free speech over the airwaves. It makes one major, fundamental point: although freedom of expression is guaranteed by the US constitution (and by similar laws in many countries worldwide), because the medium of that expression has changed over time, there are often tight controls on how that medium is used. The film concerned itself with radio broadcasting; low-range, local radio stations can play vital roles in communities, but larger broadcasters have succeeded (using disinformation about things like the potential for signal interference) in making them largely illegal. The same media companies are visibly attempting similar things with the Internet as a medium, and the principle is the same: free speech is protected, and that involves not just the right to think and talk, but also to disseminate.
Although I don’t have much time for the commercial, national stations like BBC Radio One, in general I like radio a lot. Blogs, videos and podcasts are all well and good, but there’s definitely a place for live, local information; although I spent a lot of my late teens and early twenties reading websites and newsgroups, the local Oxford and Edinburgh stations were my soundtrack. There’s also a potentially much larger audience with radio: a cheap radio can cost $5, whereas a laptop and Internet connection are still not within everybody’s reach. I’ve spent some time this evening thinking about networked solutions for free speech radio, but they involve peer to peer networks, special software and broadband connections. A transmitter and an AM receiver are still much more realistic in many places.
I recommend Pirate Radio USA, by the way. I saw it on public access TV, but you can buy a DRM-free video at bside.com. (I couldn’t find anywhere that would stream it online legally; if you can, please leave a link in the comments.)