Toward Polymorphous Radio
We understand the end of something all too easily in the negative sense as a mere stopping, as the lack of constitution, perhaps even as decline and impotence, the end suggests the completion and the place in which the whole of history is gathered in its most extreme possibility.
Throughout its history, despite efforts by the Futurists in the 1920s, radio has been considered largely a means of communication rather than an art form. Therefore, it is ironic that just as traditional forms of radio are in decline, its possibilities as an art form are reaching extreme potentials. If, as Heidegger suggests, extreme possibilities are reached at the end of something, what then ends with radio? What is radio's "most extreme possibility? "In order to rethink these questions, I will talk about my experiences in Japan with free radio, which developed out of the mini-FM movement.
The term mini-FM was first used in a mass-circulation newspaper in 1982, when a very low-watt FM-station movement started.Mini-FM stations have very little power judged by any standard-usually less than a hundred milliwatts. Although such a weak signal may seem to be of no use for broadcasting, the purpose was not broadcasting but narrowcasting.
The birth of mini-FM is related to the peculiar situation of radio in Japan. When mini-FM originated in the early 1980s, most cities in Japan had only one FM station, if any at all, because only government-operated stations could obtain licenses;station administrators tended to be retired government officials. The situation is not so different today, although there are seven stations in Tokyo now instead of two. In this constricted atmosphere many people wanted more open programming. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, we had become familiar with American popular and countercultures, since American films and records were easy to obtain. People were longing for diversity in culture yet there were no radio or television stations in Japan covering subcultures. When mini-FM started, therefore, it became a cultural craze.
In addition to a desire for diverse culture, there was another motivation for those of us who started the free radio movement-to resist the commodification of subculture. Political activists for alternative culture in Japan had been involved traditionally with underground newspapers and magazines rather than electronic media. When youth subcultures started to develop mini-FM there was no immediate concern among political radicals since radical political groups tended to critically dismiss youth culture/ However, certain industries began to develop new commodities for the subculture market and targeted young people as the new consumers. This created a dilemma for radical activists because we were aware of the tendency of postindustrial institutions to co-opt diverse culture and society. The Italian free radio movement and Felix Guattari's approach to it presumably solved our dilemma. It provided thrilling examples in which politics and culture creatively worked together and gave us hope with which to cope with the dismal state of Japanese mass media. Guattari stressed the radically different function of free radio from conventional mass media. His notions of transmission, transversal and molecular revolution suggested that, unlike conventional radio, free radio would not impose programs on a mass audience, whose numbers have been forecast, but would come across freely to a molecular public, in a way that would change the nature of communication between those who speak and those who listen.
Based on these events, friends and I began experimenting with radio transmission in the early eighties. At that time we intended to establish a pirate FM station with a leftist perspective. However, there were few people who could help us build an appropriate transmitter and it was difficult to find a ready-made transmitter, at a reasonable price. Even a techno-freak friend, instead of giving me the instructions, warned me that within half an hour of breaking the radio regulations, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication would discover it. This negative attitude had resulted largely from the psychological stigma attached to breaking the law during World War II when the authorities strictly banned the use of short-wave radio receivers, to say nothing of transmitters. Still now, there is a general feeling that the airwaves belong to the government. In fact, Japanese mass media always use the term national resource to describe the airwaves. However, we had a different idea about airwaves-that they should be public resources, not monopolized by the state. Nevertheless, the fact remained that it was difficult for us to get a transmitter. As a result, I embarked on an independent study of transmitter technology.
In the meantime, an interesting thing happened: I stumbled upon Article 4 in the Radio Regulations Book. It permits transmitting without a license if the power is very weak and is intended to accommodate wireless microphones and remote-control toys, for example. Under this regulation, quite a few wireless transmitters were sold in toy stores and electronic markets. Also, several audio-parts makers sold the wireless stereo transmitters to link amplifiers to speakers without wires. My idea was to use this type of tiny unit for radio transmitting.
At the beginning, I was dubious about the power of this level of transmission. During several tests of small ready-made FM transmitters, however, we found that some of them could cover a half-mile radius. Presumably, the sensitivity of radio receivers had increased beyond the Ministry's estimation when they established the regulation in the 1950s.
I started to make this idea public in various kinds of periodicals using the opportunities that I had in popular magazines. My book This is Free Radio  provoked strong responses. The next stage transpired quickly and dramatically. In late 1982, my students and I started Radio Polybucket, a station using a small transmitter on the university campus. At the same time, a group of young musicians, advertising agents, designers and so on, started a station called KIDS, intending to promote their new businesses-shops selling goods for the young. They were so eager to advertise themselves to the mass media who looked for new youth cultures that the news about the radio station was widely published and televised. This news had a strong impact on young people and the media.
Whenever popular journalism addressed this kind of news item, the number of mini-FM stations increased. Many stations with a similar aim as KIDS appeared. Even major advertising agencies tried to open mini-FM stations. The exact number is unknown, but it can be estimated from the number of small transmitters sold that, in a year, over one thousand stations appeared in Japan. People on college campuses, in housing complexes, coffee shops and bars, stalls at street fairs and even local offices started mini-FM stations. More than ten companies, including Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Hitachi and Sony, sold a transmitter labelled" For mini-FM use".
The boom was fantastic, in a sense, but it puzzled us. We had intended to establish a free radio station, not to transmit a one-way performance that disregarded listeners as most stations did. During the boom, most mini-FM stations were able to communicate to a handful of people only. Many of these stations seemed to us be naively copying professional radio studio work. To the contrary, we paid attention to constant and serious listeners. We wanted to provide a community of people with alternative information on politics and social change.
The radio station that my students and I had started on the campus re-established itself in the centre of Tokyo when the students finished school in 1983. The new station was called Radio Home Run. Every day, from 8 PM to midnight, one or two groups aired talk or music programs. Themes depended on who was host and who were guests. The members always invited new guests who were involved in political or cultural activism. Also, listeners who lived close to the station hesitantly began to visit. To repeat the telephone number during each program was our basic policy. Guests sometimes recorded cassette tapes of our programs and let their friends listen. Radio Home Run quickly became a meeting place for students, activists, artists, workers, owners of small shops, local politicians, men, women and the elderly.
Theoretically, I had argued that mini-FM stations might be linked together to extend the transmission/reception area. Since the cost of each unit is cheap, one could have a number of radio sets and transmitters to relay to each other quite inexpensively. Radio Home Run was not so eager to do this but some stations succeeded in establishing a very sophisticated network to link together and extend their service areas. Through a number of experiments to remodel the transmitting system, create programs and pursue a new way of getting together, we came to the conclusion at Radio Home Run that we must work within a half-mile service area. Tokyo is densely populated so even a half-mile area has at least ten thousand inhabitants. This meant that mini-FM could function as community radio. Moreover, we realized that in the process of transmitting we were more conscious of our members than(possible)listeners. The action of transmitting together changed our relationships and feelings in a way that seemed distinct from the effects of other collective actions that did not involve transmitting. Further, we surmised that relationships differed because we were narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. We decided it had something to do with the limited area of our transmission signal.
We tried to think about radio in a different way, as a means to link people together. To the extent that each community and individual has different thoughts and feelings, we believed there should be different kinds of radio-hundreds of mini-FM stations in a given area. If you had the same number of transmitters as receivers, your radio sets could have completely different functions. Thus radio transmission technology could be available for individuals to take control of their transmission and reception. This block radio could reactivate diverse cultures and politics, "micro-politics," in the , words of Felix Guattari. Guattari once expected "des millions et des millions d'Alice en puissance." However, I think that if you expect molecular revolution via radio, size is important. In my opinion, even Radio Alice in Bologna, the symbol of the free radio movement in the 1970s, was too large.
Conventional radio and television is generally eager for as large a service area as possible:from nation-wide to global networks. According to these models, communication is considered as a way of conveying information as a material entity from one place to another. Mass media has functioned(and still does)as strong catalyst of industrialization, characterized by the transportation of solid material, integrated homogeneous grouping and an industrious work ethic. However, as Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela have argued, such a notion of communication is forced and distorted. Human communication is based on tube conveyance but on structural coupling.
It is in this context that I gradually understood the meaning and potential of mini-FM. Radio could serve as a communication vehicle not for broadcast but for the individuals involved. Even if they have few listeners, these stations do work as catalysts to reorganize groups involved in mini-FM. Those who were familiar with conventional radio laughed at mini-FM because it had only a few listeners, listeners within walking distance of the station, and no consistent style. However, even if one overlooks the dramatic effect on society, one must admit that mini-FM has a powerful therapeutic function:an isolated person who sought companionship through radio happened to hear us and visited the mini-FM station;a shy person started to speak into the microphone;people who never used to be able to share ideas and values found a place for dialogue;an intimate couple discovered otherwise unknown fundamental misunderstandings. At that time nobody talked about such a psychotherapeutic function, however, given the number of people involved in mini-FM, it must have been understood unconsciously. Indeed, the 1980s in Japan saw the transition from conventional banzai collectivity to electronic individuality, where people needed different media and locations in which to replace traditional togetherness like eating and drinking with family and friends, in schools and workplace.
Mini-FM is idiosyncratic to Japanese society, especially that of the 1980s. When you consider a unit of a social and cultural idiosyncrasy, the size will be equivalent to the size of mini-FM's transmitting area-it has something to do with geography and culture. In an Australian city like Canberra, the size of an idiosyncratic unit would be relatively large. Even if you wanted to narrowcast, you would need at least a ten-kilometre radius for the service area. On the other hand, in Manhattan, even one block would constitute a mini-FM unit.
In my experience, the standard power of mini-FM been one watt. The area that a one-watt transmitter covers is within walking or bicycling distance, which is ecologically sound.Also, there is airwave pollution to consider-the twenty-first century pollution. As Paul Brodeur and Stephan Steneck have warned, electromagnetic pollution is strong but it is not made public because it is connected with the economic interests of corporations and states. Electromagnetic radiation from the antennae of microwaves, radars, broadcasting stations and satellites may damage genetic codes. Many people admit feeling strangely tired after using a cellular telephone or transceiver for extended periods of time. By the twenty-first century, it may not be possible to use strong transmitters like those used by large radio stations. At any rate, it is easier to deal with a one-wart transmitter. You can even build one yourself, although, in the last ten years of mini-FM, I have learned that even the simple technology of a one-watt transmitter is monopolized by specialists and institutions. In accordance with the fact that free transmission on the airwaves is prohibited in most countries in the world, there is very little information on transmitters and therefore few parts available at radio shops popular with the public. If you can get the parts, though, building a transmitter is as easy as building a radio receiver today. My performance workshop at the Walter Phillips Gallery was an attempt to illustrate this.
Although I have been involved in the free radio movement of mini-FM and also pirate stations in Japan since the early 1980s I now doubt if radio, when developed to its most extreme potential, can be appropriately called free radio. My experiences have led me to imagine therefore what ends with radio:we are now in the process of surpassing radio as a communication means and as form of self-expression for artists. Both of these models belongs to modernity, the same matrix that adopted terms such as freedom and democracy. We might in the 1990s have to consider retiring the expression "free radio. "Even mini-FM is not within the descriptive framework of free radio. The signal is too weak or too special to provide an "alternative radio "to mass media like community radio.
However, this does not mean that mini-FM is not relevant to discussions of free radio. Mini-FM has changed our communications procedures and has offered examples of new types of communication. For as long as radio has been considered as a means of communication, as a means for the circulation of information from one place to another, mini-FM has been different. How can you define radio that reaches a small audience in a very limited area? It could be possible to define it as a kind of performance art. Perhaps radio art might be a more appropriate term for mini-FM. But it is not quite adequate because mini-FM is still radio.
In light of history it is regrettable that a word such as free is still used as we approach the end of the twentieth century. Whether free is interpreted as freedom or free of charge, it remains a word whose consequences were seen during the French Revolution. One would think a new direction or framework for human self-fulfilment that does not rely on notions of freedom would have been found. Yet over the past two hundred years, it has not happened. Perhaps now, though, the era of freedom as an ideology has ended. This does not mean that freedom was an illusion or that we enter a new age of non-freedom. Rather, it means that other concepts completely different in character from freedom are emerging. Compared to technologies using steam and springs which are based on compression and release, radio is a medium always beyond freedom in the sense that it is based on electronics, a post-, freedom technology. When radio was first developed, there was no inherent need to separate transmitters from receivers. However, at that time, freedom was still a valid political ideology, so transmission and reception were strictly separated to allow for contrasts between the free and the not free:transmission was monopolized by the broadcast stations and "unfree people "called "listeners "were created artificially.
It was under those circumstances that demands and fights for media" freedom" began. When Marconi, the "father of wireless communication," succeeded in establishing transatlantic wireless communication in 1901, radiowaves were already reserved by the British Navy:he was engaging in pirate communication. After numerous pirate broadcasting attempts since then, "free radio law" was established in Italy finally in the 1970s, allowing anybody to become a transmitter, for all practical purposes(actually, the supreme court merely acknowledged that radio waves comprised a medium for expression permitted to everybody). A new horizon was opened, outdating the separation of transmission and reception that had been forced upon electronic media.
This horizon, however, has been put into action in television more effectively than in radio. In the seventies in the United States, a new movement, demanding "public access" to television began, led by George Stoney and video activists like Dee Dee Halleck, one of the founders of Paper Tiger Television. This led to the creation of public access channels within cable television and, in the 1980s, even to the opening of some satellite channels for the public.
The Deep Dish Project, started experimentally in 1985 by the public access cable station Paper Tiger Television, attempted to satellite-cast programs by public access stations like Paper Tiger Television, which had only been seen in some parts of Manhattan up to that point. The project received strong positive response and this method of linking public access cable television and satellite became organized, namely as Deep Dish TV. This organization has a small office in the same building as Paper Tiger Television but is active on a national scale. Deep Dish TV does not have an integrated central function like organizations such as Cable News Network(CNN). It is not a broadcast station but a "network organization," which initiates projects according to certain themes, and realizes them by asking American television stations(mostly public access)to participate. Gulf Crisis TV Project is a typical example of this. It was not a program created by the station Deep Dish Tv but a "video collaboration" which, via satellite, edited and linked documents and works created by various American stations-including public broadcasting, community television and public access stations.
The main difference between public access television and traditional television is that while the latter contains only programs made by its own company, in the former, a number of "stations" share the same channel. For example, Paper Tiger Television is a "station" that only exists every Wednesday night for thirty minutes. When this station's programming ends, another station's begins. In this case, there is no collaboration;the different stations merely share space and tools. Among those who broadcast in this way, some hope to own their exclusive channel in the future. In contrast, the Gulf Crisis TV Project emphasized the communal aspect of public access channels. It provided an opportunity for media to be recognized, not as remote and inaccessible platforms, but as sites for the continuous exchange of polymorphous elements. The importance of Deep Dish TV is that it put an end to the ideas of centralization and concentration which have been associated with "broadcast "(to cast broadly). Communication satellites are no longer seen as antennae, 36,000 kilometres high, which can centralize information on a global scale. Satellites are not global hyper-mass media instruments, but networking devices which create polymorphous circuits. They are "polymedia" devices.
The question in the age of satellite media is no longer whether television or radio is "free" or not but whether it is "polymorphous" or not. Whether a station can become a place of polymorphous "chaos," obtaining "order through fluctuations," in the sense of Ilya Prigogine, depends on how many heterogeneous autonomous media units can be created. Such units are not likely to be large. A "chaos unit," which could be sensed easily, might be relative to the human body. Radio stations which can only cover areas within walking distance might already exist as a form of a particular unit of polymedia, a chaos unit. Polymedia are not intended simply to link smaller units into a larger whole:instead they involve the recovery of electronic technology so that individuals can communicate, share idiosyncrasies and be convivial. The satellite presents possibilities for polymedia but it does not create it. Polymedia must be based on self-controlled tools, otherwise, advanced technologies like satellites will remain as tools for the manipulation of power.
1 Martin Heidegger, On Time and Being, trans.Joan Stambaugh (New York:Harper Collins, 1972), 56-57.
2 See John Downing, Radical Media:The Political Experience of Alternative Communications (Boston:South End Press, 1984), 296-297. There sprang up in Italy, beginning in the mid-seventies, a host of "wildcat" alternative and political stations including Radio Citta Futura (Radio City of the Future)in Rome, Radio Alice in Bologna, Controradio in Florence and Radio Popolare (People's Radio)in Milan. Downing devotes an entire chapter to Radio Popolare."Radio Popolare made the attempt to communicate outside the left wing ghetto in its broadcasts after 11:00pm when as Pedrocchi put it, 'we used to discuss many things:the family, sex, death, what the future holds.'One device they used involved watching television with the listeners and asking them what they thought of the program or watching a movie with the sound off, and substituting Radio Popolare's own spontaneous commentary. In another format, they would ask a woman and a man to phone in and then to ask them to role-play:'You've been living together for ten years, but things are going badly between you now. What would you say to each other if you were talking about this together? Often there would be as many as five or six 'takes'of this conversation between different people".
3 For a classic English document of the Italian radical movement called Autonomia see Italy:Autonomia-Post-Political, the special issue of Semiotext(e)3:3, 1980. For the relationship between the movement and radio see John Downing, The Media Machine(London:Pluto Press Limited, 1980)and Radical Media:The Political Experience of Alternative Communications(Boston:South End Press, 1984). Guattari's contribution to radical radio in La revolution moleculaire (Paris:Editions Recherches, 1979)is still provocative.
4 This was published in Japanese only in 1983. Some of the contents can be read in my English articles:"Free Radio in Japan" in Cultures in Contention, ed. Douglas Kohn and Diane Neumaier (Seattle:The Real Comet Press, 1985), 116-121;"New Trends in Japanese Popular Culture" in The Japanese Trajectory:Modernization and Beyond, ed. Gavan McCormack and Yoshio Sugimoto (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1988)
5 The following articles written in English are valuable: Steve Usdin, "We've Got Radios, So Where's the FM?" PHP INSPECT(March1988), 30-35.
6 La revolution moleculaire, 143-52.
7 Franco Berardi, alias Bifo, "Anatomy of Autonomy," in Italy: Autonomia, Post-Political Politics, 156. "The movement for free radio spread widely. In every city, neighborhood and village the young proletarians, together with students and communications workers, used the occasion of a legislative vacuum(the result of which was that the State monopoly on information lapsed and was not replaced by any other sort of regulation) to give life to a network of small "wildcat" stations. The radio stations were operated with luck and very little money, but they could cover a territorial apace adequate for the organizational forms and communication needs of the emerging proletarian strata. Through this channel circulated an uninterrupted flood of music and words, a flood of transformations on the symbolic, perceptive and imaginative planes. This flood entered every house, and anyone could intervene in the flow, telephoning, interrupting, adding, correcting. The design, the dream of the artistic avantgarde-to bridge the separation between artistic communication and revolutionary transformation or subversive practise-became in this experience a reality. The brief, happy experience of Radio Alice-which from February 1976 to March 1977 transmitted from Bologna-remains the symbol of this period, of that unforgettable year of experimentation and a accumulation of intellectual, organizational, political and creative energies."
8 See Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition:The Realization of the Living(Norwell, Massachusetts: D.Reidel, 1980).
9 For the changing situation of Japanese society in the 1980s, see my account "Beyond Electronic Individualism," Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 8:3(Fall 1984), 15-19, and a series of my discussions with Douglas Lummis, "What the World Looks Like Through the Japanese Mass Media" in Japan-Asia Quarterly Review 16:4(1984), and 17:4(1985).
10 See Paul Brodeur, The Zapping of America(New York:W.W.Norton and Company, 1977)and Nicholas H.Steneck, The Microwave Debate(Cambridge:MIT Press, 1984).
11 My piece also tried to remove conventional differentiation to evaluate body actions between performance artists and electrical engineers.
12 For detailed information, see an excellent video document by New Decade Productions, "Everyone's Channel" produced by David Shulman, Paper Tiger Television, New York, 1990. For information on Deep Dish TV, see Martha Wallner, "Tigers Sprout Wings and Fly!" in ROAR! The Paper Tiger Television Guide to Media Activism(San Francisco:Paper Tiger Television, 1991), 33-34.This book is also a self-history of ten years of Paper Tiger Television.
13 See Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature(New York: Bantam Books, 1984)especially pages 167ff.and 177ff.
14 Ivan Illich used conviviality as a postmodern umbrella concept for living, work, art and technology. See his Tools of Conviviality(New York:Harper and Row, 1973). [in:RADIO rethink, art, sound and transmission, Edited by Daina Augaitis and Dan Lander, Walter Phillips Gallery, Canada, 1990]