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volume 3
october 2000

Featuring the voices that challenge the conventional wisdom


  Ten questions to David Barsamian about his Alternative Radio project
by Thomas Völkner
  David Barsamian is the individual behind the well-known syndicated Alternative Radio show. Since 1986 his programs offer analyses, lectures, speeches of and interviews with progressive thinkers from accross the United States. The topics addressed in these programs are normally ignored or distorted in mainstream media. Barsamian's non-commercial Alternative Radio project was recently described by Pulitzer Prize winner Ben Bagdikian as "an essential service for the communication needs of a democratic society." Earlier in the year 2000, Thomas Völkner had the opportunity to talk with David Barsamian about his work.
1 Thomas Völkner: David, I'd like you to introduce yourself to our readers.
  David Barsamian: Well, I'm an independent broadcaster in Boulder, Colorado, at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the very majestic mountain range in North America. I began doing radio in 1978 on a local community radio station in Boulder, and I started doing a world music program called "From the Ganges to the Nile". I was doing music and poetry and politics from the countries from India to Egypt. Then gradually, I dropped the music content and concentrated on politics only.
  I increasingly developed my skills as a broadcaster, producer, interviewer, and editor, until 1986 when I started distributing my program nationally via a satellite system in the United States. Since 1986, I have been producing this weekly program called Alternative Radio.
2 Thomas: ... And what is Alternative Radio?
  David: What is Alternative Radio? It features the voices that challenge the conventional wisdom, that go against the mainstream ideology. The mainstream ideology now of course is that capitalism is the most wonderful economical system ever devised. That we should all belong to the World Trade Organization and to these free-trade agreements, that we shouldn't think about common good or the collective, we should only be focusing on individual profits, individual wealth, individual growth. A kind of me-to-ism.
  Well, Alternative Radio challenges that. It's a radical program, and by radical I mean going to the roots of issues about corporate control, about environmental issues, about the media, about international relations, about trade agreements and so on. And every week, I feature voices like Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Angela Davis, Barbara Ehrenreich, and many others that put out perspectives that are not easily found in the corporate-controlled media in the United States.
3 Thomas: Can you name a few of the topics that you have covered recently?
  David: Last year, the World Trade Organization had its meeting in Seattle, Washington, and I did a special three-part series on the WTO with Noam Chomsky and with Benjamin Barber, who talks about "McWorld" and the threat to civic culture. I did a two-part debate on the WTO with pro and con, and I also did a program on what is to be done now after the WTO in Seattle, what is the agenda for the progressive movement in the US.
  I've been doing a whole series of programs on the global economic scene, because of the tremendous power that the United States has to direct and control the global agenda. I mean, what decisions are being made in New York and Washington, are being felt in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berne, Rome, and Milan, all over Europe, all over the third world. And who are these people that are making decisions? Do they have the interests of Europeans and Africans and Asians in their mind? Ore are they just interested in increasing their profit? I mean, these are things we need to discuss.
4 Thomas: I can imagine it's not that easy to distribute your programs for you are not following the scheme of programs that are normally distributed on US radio and TV networks. How do you manage to get all these diverse voices to your audience?
  David: The United States has a very mixed media. It's a complex society like all societies, you know, there are different streams, different textures. In the media area — as bad as the corporate-controlled media are in the United States — there also exists probably the most extensive community radio network in the world. So here we have this dichotomy: Here is the US which is the center of the global media with Viacom taking over CBS, with AOL taking over Time Warner, and you have all these big conglomerates. At the same time, there exists a vast network of community radio stations. So that means, in towns like Boulder, Colorado, or in Berkeley, California, or in Houston, Texas, or in Madison, Wisconsin, all over the United States, in small towns, in cities, in large cities, there exist community radio stations.
  So, how do we distribute our program to these stations? There is also a very inexpensive public radio satellite system that we can use. So, for example, for approximately $100,- I can distribute my program, a weekly program, one hour, to all the public and community radio stations in the US. I can reach 500 stations.
5 Thomas: How many of them actually carry Alternative Radio?
  David: About a hundred, so one fifth — but you have to understand how technically advanced the satellite network distribution system is. Before, to send our program out, we had to send individual tapes to each station. So you had to make 500 tapes, take them to the post office, post it, it arrives at the station a few days later, it sits on someone's desk, you know, they'll be on vacation. Then they open it, "Oh, it's too late now. This is dated programming. We can't use it."
  Now, we have instant distribution via satellite. And even that technology will now undergo a new revolutionary change when we can distribute what is called MP3 audio files. On the computer, we will be able to distribute audio files that are broadcast quality. And stations will be able to download the files ...
  Thomas: ... In such an audio quality that it is possible to immediately broadcast them.
  David: They can be streamed immediately on air.
6 Thomas: Nevertheless, you also try to reach some radiostations that are located outside the United States. Is this still done by the usual way of distribution?
  David: In this case, I moved in the last year from sending cassettes to CDs. So, for example, Canada, which also has a very vast campus and community radio network, does not have access to the US satellite which is called Galaxy 6. So I have to send each of the stations in Canada a CD of the program. And that's how I also distribute to Radio For Peace International, to Australia, to South Africa and to other countries.
7 Thomas: After all, all this has to be financed somehow. How does it work, David?
  David: It's financed directly from listeners buying cassettes or printed transcripts of the broadcasts. Now, this seems a very odd way to conduct a business. Because it is what we call "back-funded." Usually, businesses are "front-funded." For example: If you want to do a project, then you get the money for it in advance, and then you produce the work. So, there is no danger of losing money since you have the money already in advance. But my system is quite radical in that it reverses that traditional mode. I incur expenses initially, and then produce the program, broadcast it, hope that enough listeners will buy a tape or transcripts in order to sustain the project. And so far that has worked.
8 Thomas: This also seems to be a way of getting feedback from listeners. Do you get feedback on the contents of the programs? Is there an interchange between you as a producer and your listeners?
  David: Indeed, we get lots of e-mail, and also in the US we have what is called an "800 number," a toll-free number. And so people are calling all the time with their opinions: "Oh, this is wonderful" or "I don't like this." Mostly, the response is very favorable.
  I find, not only in the United States but around the world, that people have a real instinctive feeling in the gutt that something is wrong. You know, what the corporate media, what the traditional media are saying, there's something wrong with their picture about how everything is wonderful in the world, that the natives are happy and dancing and singing. There is something wrong with this picture. And when people hear Alternative Radio, when they hear progressive perspectives and ideas, they resonate with those ideas. And they feel "Right, I feel that was actually the fact. And now, I am glad to hear someone say it for me."
9 Thomas: Do you get ideas about topics for future AR programs from the listeners' feedback?
  David: People are constantly making suggestions. You know, "Why don't you make a program on digital broadcasting?", "Why don't you do a program on social security in the United States?", "Or health care?" All these different issues. There is tremendous interest in the environment. This is a global issue, it's not an American issue, and it must be addressed globally. Global warming is another issue that is going to effect millions of people around the world. People who are at tremendous risk living in low altitudes, for example in Bangladesh. Many of the island countries of the Caribbean and the South Pacific could be in great danger. So, these are the types of issues that people are interested in.
10 Thomas: When I listen to all these issues and I hear how you describe your work, I imagine you are working on a seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day schedule? Are you the only person working for Alternative Radio?
  David: Initially, I was the only one. It was slave labor. When you work for yourself, you can work an indefinite number of hours. There is no such thing as time off or overtime. I worked at home, I made all the copies at home, so all of my cost, all of my what we call "overhead cost", they were all absorbed by me. It was my telephone, my equipment, my labor. And now, I have an office in Boulder where I have two fulltime staff that are helping with the production as well as responding to listener requests for programming and making copies. And I also have a part-time staff that's helping me. But I also have producers around the United States and even in Canada that send me tapes of recordings that they made, and I then produce the programs and broadcast them.
  We have a saying in English called "Thinking globally, acting locally." But I am also reversing that, I am thinking locally but acting globally. I'm trying to do both ...
  Contact: Alternative Radio, P.O. Box 551, Boulder, Colorado 80306, USA; E-mail: ar@arci.com; Phone (inside US): 1-800-444-1977, Fax: +1-303-546-0592. Website: www.alternativeradio.org. Photo: 2001 © Thomas Völkner. A German language audio version of this interview can be found on the website of Radio For Peace International.
  2000 © Soundscapes