Mountain Area Information Network

The State of the Alternative Media:

a conversation with Wally Bowen

by Michael Hopping

THE INDIE. March 1-15, 2007. Vol 5, Number 46

"So if we need to know what is happening, and Big Media won't tell us; if we need to know why it matters, and Big Media won't tell us; if we need to know what to do about it, and Big Media won't tell us, it's clear what we have to do. We have to tell the story ourselves."

-Bill Moyers, 1/12/07,

This ringing mission statement from one of America's most revered progressive voices set a lofty tone for January's National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis. 3,500 people, including some 25 activists and concerned citizens of Western North Carolina, spent the following two days trying to figure out how to accomplish it. The task isn't easy in a media culture where a few voracious conglomerates busily swallow or squelch the remaining competition when not engaged in attempts to dominate the Internet.

Wally Bowen, Executive Director of the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) was a panelist participant at the conference. In addition to MAIN's local dialup and high-speed wireless Internet Service Provider (ISP) business,, MAIN also has WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, and IndyLink Access & Webhosting Bowen and I recently sat down to discuss the health and future of the independent alternative media.

In one sense, times are good for independent content. The Internet has opened a door for ordinary people to publish and find an audience. But Bowen believes that the alternative media is also at great risk. He sees corporate and big-money interests moving to gain control of the Internet as they did earlier technological breakthroughs including radio, television, and cable TV. "Each of these new technologies had great expectations for broadening our democratic conversation, but they were co-opted and undermined it instead."

A History Lesson

Commercial radio is a case in point. Soldiers returning from World War I brought radio technology home with them. In the 1920s, Bowen says approximately 250 listener-supported nonprofit stations operated alongside commercial stations owned by corporations that have since become household names: RCA, GE, Westinghouse, the Mutual Broadcasting System, AT&T, NBC, and CBS. But the number of frequencies allocated to radio was small. Signal interference became a major problem to the corporate owners, who allied themselves in an organization called the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and demanded regulation-a richly ironic request given the NAB's current anti-regulatory stance.

A new federal agency, the Federal Radio Commission (now the FCC), intervened on behalf of the NAB by regulating signal strength and conferring preferential signal treatment on some stations at the expense of others. Radio stations were divided into two classes.

  • General public service stations were the for-profit, and often corporate, type. They strove to reach the maximum number of people and supported themselves with advertising revenue.

  • "Propaganda" stations were the 250 nonprofits, stations with a point of view often directed toward a specific audience. One of the largest was WCFL, Chicago's "Voice of Farmer-Labor."

In 1928, the Radio Commission gave regulatory preference to the general public service stations. When the signal from a nonprofit interfered with that of a general service station, the nonprofit had to cut power or go off the air. When NBC's Seattle affiliate, KJR, complained of interference from WCFL, the Commission ordered WCFL to reduce power to 1000 watts and cease broadcasting at sunset. The ruling crippled WCFL. Other listener-supported stations met a similar fate. Large newspapers, many of which initially supported the "propaganda" stations, abandoned them after corporate radio bosses made a temporary agreement not to compete with newspapers in the news arena. The budding radio moguls also invited newspaper magnates to cross-invest in radio. Such decisions became foundation stones of the Big Media that Bill Moyers now decries.

The Internet

AT&T, one of the corporate players from the radio days, has also been in the forefront of attempts to gain control over the Internet. At issue is the concept of "net neutrality." To date, the limiting factor for the speed that information travels online is the speed of a user's dial-up, DSL, cable, or wireless connection. But the so-called "Internet pipelines," AT&T, other phone companies with landlines, and cable television outfits, want to change the game. With over 95% of the broadband market currently in hand, they're in a commanding position to demand another pound of flesh. They propose new toll charges on content providers. "Fast lanes" and "slow lanes" would be created. The pipeline companies would also be able to entirely block content they find objectionable. Amazon, Yahoo, and Google could afford the toll for fast lane privileges. Individuals and smaller providers, not so much. In practical terms, Bowen says, the little guy would lose audience on the toll roads of a high-speed world dominated by cable and DSL connections. It's the dawn of radio regulation all over again.

Google, Yahoo, and Amazon oppose the imposition of toll charges. But a 2006 attempt to legislate continued net neutrality failed in the House. The Republican Senate blocked a vote on the measure. It has been reintroduced this term, but Bowen isn't optimistic about the chances for passage given nearly solid Republican opposition and the threat of a presidential veto. Net neutrality remains in effect today because of an FCC fluke. The most recently appointed Republican commissioner had a conflict of interest on the proposed merger of AT&T and BellSouth. He made the laudable ethical decision not to vote on it. This gave the FCC's two Democrat commissioners the leverage to force AT&T to agree to a two-year net neutrality provision in return for approving the merger.

Bowen is more excited about the prospects for the Wireless Innovation Act of 2007, The Act would greatly aid the cause of community-based wireless alternatives to DSL and cable. In the hands of community providers (not corporate subcontractors) large scale wireless has the potential to limit the impact of the toll booths proposed by AT&T, Charter, etc. At present, wireless broadband has severe distance limitations because it has been consigned to the 900 MHz frequency spectrum along with cordless phones and other consumer devices. Frequencies in the 900MHz range don't penetrate buildings or bend around mountains. But the lower frequencies used by broadcast television don't suffer this limitation. Wireless in these frequency ranges could go large-scale. And modern broadcast technology means there is room between existing signals to permit it.

TV signals are better "focused" than in the past. A signal that once wobbled across the frequency equivalent a four-lane interstate might now find plenty of room on a single lane. This leaves three lanes vacant. In the biz, this unused frequency space is called white space. But, although TV stations are using only about a quarter of the frequency range allotted by their licenses, they still control the white space they no longer need. Bowen says they are "warehousing it," hoping to lease at a profit what the FCC awarded them for free. The Wireless Innovation Act would derail that by allowing unlicensed operators-such as community-based wireless providers-to use white space. Bowen estimates that MAIN could provide high-speed wireless service out to a radius of twenty miles if the Act becomes law.

Cable TV

Bowen isn't much of a fan of the North Carolina Video Service Competition Act of 2006. Cable television providers won the right to negotiate statewide contracts, cutting local authorities out of the loop. One result, he says, will be less pressure for cable companies (or telephone-based broadband service providers) to serve less profitable areas including rural communities. These communities may not get, or lose, access to cable and DSL hookups.

Bowen and proponents of public access TV successfully lobbied to retain funding for existing public access, educational, and government (PEG) channels. These include Asheville's URTV. But new startups will be eligible for only a fraction of the funding available to existing channels. To remedy that deficiency, Bowen says a bill or amendment will be proposed this year to set aside $5 million/year for new and expanded PEG channels.

Telling the Story Ourselves

The stacked legal and regulatory deck enjoyed by Big Media isn't the only impediment to the growth of non-corporate media voices. Money, or the lack of it, is another critical issue. Bowen says the media reform movement has largely failed to devise business models capable of sustainably supporting alternative media. One of the most heartening things he heard at the Media Reform Conference was that other presenters, including Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, are beginning to join him in raising what he calls "The Progressive Paradox" Progressives work hard for media reform but most continue to send their monthly Internet service checks to a corporation that actively opposes media reform.

A successful alternative business model would retain those dollars locally. Bowen proudly states that MAIN is a pioneer in this area. "It isn't rocket science," he says. "The idea is to give people the option of spending their Internet dollars to support alternative media in their community. We still have over 2000 dialup subscribers and a nationwide IndyLink dialup service with superior privacy. If you own a community radio station, you already have your own tower. All you have to do is put antennas up and you can become a wireless Internet service provider. It's also web hosting. Why are people sending their dollars to GoDaddy when they could have MAIN hosting [their websites] for virtually the same price and get local tech assistance?" In addition to funding local journalism, Bowen says MAIN can also offer revenue-sharing deals with progressive organizations in return for subscribers.

Thinking big, Bowen concluded by extending MAIN's business model nationally. "Using Amy Goodman's existing (DemocracyNow) network of public access stations, we've got the makings of our own sustainable national network. If George Soros or somebody put up the initial grant money for DemocracyNow stations to become wireless ISPs, there'd be dollars in those communities to support local journalism." Bowen says he's drafting a prospectus for organizing and funding such a network.

Back to the Conference

What better way to end than where Bill Moyers began his conference speech, with an anecdote. "Benjamin Franklin once said, 'Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.'

"'Liberty,' he said, 'is a well-armed lamb, contesting the vote.'"