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Radio Re-Volt hopes to start a revolution
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A one milliwatt Radio Re-Volt transmitter attached to a tree branch. Radio Re-Volt is a Walker project designed to democratize the radio airwaves and make radio more community oriented. (MPR Photo/Chris Roberts)
Have you ever wanted to run your own radio station? Play the songs you want? Say the things you want to say? Now you can, thanks to a radio revolution underway in Minneapolis. The Walker Art Center has organized a group of artists and free radio advocates to teach people how to run their own low wattage micro-radio stations. "Radio Re-Volt" is designed, in part, to widen access to the local airwaves and raise awareness of the growing media consolidation in America.

Minneapolis, Minn. — At Aardvark Records in Minneapolis, about a dozen micro-radio enthusiasts are hunched over tiny transmitters. Doryun Chong, a curatorial fellow at the Walker Art Center, is teaching them how to go from being mere recipients of radio to radio creators. Holding a transmitter in the palm of his hand, Chong points out its components.

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Image A Radio Re-Volt workshop

"You see the power switch, which is pretty self-explanatory," Chong says. "And there's a round thing at the corner, and that's the microphone."

This is part of a Walker project called "Radio Re-Volt: One Person .00One Watt." Its goal is to democratize the airwaves, one milliwatt transmitter at a time.

The idea was conceived by Walker Artists in Residence Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Allora and Calzadilla, based in Puerto Rico, specialize in creating interactive art projects that deal with issues related to the public domain, in this case the public airwaves. Allora prefers to emphasize the "re" in Radio Re-Volt.

"The idea of Radio Re-Volt was to re-think the voltage, or in other words, who has the power to transmit and who owns that power," she says. "And also that power might be re-formed or re-directed."

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Image Brick radio

Allora credits the Walker's Teen Arts Council with coming up with Radio Re-Volt. She says members complained about the lack of musical diversity on local commercial stations. They also objected to the one or two broadcast monopolies which decide what they hear, and which groups come to to town.

"Also, we were thinking about doing something in this year that would be leading up to the elections," Allora says. "And we thought that because it's such a media-saturated election, that it would also be an interesting time to talk about issues relating to free speech and democracy and things of that nature."

Radio Re-Volt is sponsoring at least 13 workshops through October. They're happening all over Minneapolis, to train what organizers hope will become an army of micro-radio broadcasters. The transmitters, supplied free of charge by the Walker, are legal under Federal Communications Commission rules.

On a good day, their signals cover about a block, and barely register on the radio tuner. But the transmitters are so portable you can operate them just about anywhere. Plug in a Walkman, CD player or iPod and you have the makings of a music show.

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Image Witt Siasoco

Or you can just talk, as another facilitator, Witt Siasoco, points out at Aardvark Records.

"You'll need a radio to hear what you're broadcasting, so we have a radio over here. I hope everybody brought a container. If not, we have some containers in the middle of the room."

Siasoco shows participants how to attach their transmitter into a container of their choice. Siasoco advises them to broadcast on 97.7 FM, a frequency reserved by Congress for extremely low power transmissions. He then helps them tune in the signal, and check the microphone.

Among the workshop participants, a few, such as Conner Donnelly of Minneapolis, are there to protest what they believe is corporate control of the radio dial.

"I think the concentration of media ownership is a big problem," Donnelly says. "And this seems like it could be an antidote to that."

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Image Noah Wilson

Some, in spite of the minute wattage of their transmitters, feel a sense of responsibility about what they broadcast. Craig Phillips of St. Paul originally wanted to do a music show, but now thinks his content should be more serious.

"Especially in the situation where a listener is perhaps driving by, and is listening for 15 seconds -- maybe that could be 15 seconds of something that means something, as opposed to another pop song," Phillips says.

But most have come because they're curious about radio, and want to experience the thrill of a live broadcast. Noah Wilson of Minneapolis says he's long had a dream of being stuck in traffic and making everyone listen to his music. He's thinking of painting 97.7 FM on his car.

"If I happen to be driving around I'm going to make sure everyone's listening to me," Wilson says.

Does that mean he plans to broadcast from his car? Possibly, says Wilson.

"If I happen to be driving it. But it's still summer out. So I might be broadcasting from my bike and probably just when I'm walking around," he says.

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Image Glenn Austin

Radio Re-Volt organizers say micro-radio transmitters are obviously too weak to be an alternative to commercial radio. But they hope the project spurs more people to get involved in what they view as the fight to make radio more community oriented and available to the public.

Glenn Austin has long been interested in what he describes as media democracy issues, and helped the Walker develop Radio Re-Volt.

"A lot of people who come to these workshops probably think it sounds cool to have a little FM transmitter, and what they might be able to do to play around with that and broadcast to their neighborhood, or whatever," Austin says. "But maybe that's a way to draw them in and teach them about some of the political issues that surround access to the airwaves."

Radio Re-Volt culminates on Oct. 28, 2004, with the "University Avenue Broadcast." It will feature micro-radio station operators broadcasting in unison from noon to 9pm along University Ave., from northeast Minneapolis to the State Capitol in St. Paul.

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