By Heather Gray
April 5, 2016
I first became involved in community radio in 1991.
A few years earlier, in 1989, I had been in the Philippines and sending letters to friends in Atlanta about my reflections and experiences while in the country.
When I returned to the states, a friend of mine, Gary Washington, who produced the Labor Forum at WRFG-FM in Atlanta, and is also a former Black Panther member, told me, “Heather, you need to be involved at the radio station. No one is talking about the Philippines.” So I did get involved and the rest is history as they say. I’ve been fortunate to produce a show called “Just Peace” since 1991. At first, I was thankfully working with Beth Ann Buitekant who had been producing “Just Peace” years prior to this and before she left to pursue more graduate work.
WRFG-Atlanta (Radio Free Georgia) was then, and still is, Atlanta’s only community radio station. In other words, WRFG is owned by the community, is independent and therefore not owned by and/or serving corporate interests. All of its producers are volunteers. Here is a description of the station and its mission:
WRFG is a community oriented, educational, alternative medium and our programming must reflect this. We are for those alternatives that uplift human dignity and give people more control over their lives.
WRFG is opposed to those forces in our lives that dehumanize and oppress people, especially economic exploitation, racism, sexism, militarism, anti-immigrant chauvinism, and sexual orientation discrimination.
But it was also a time for me to learn about media and its history. So I did exactly that!
Historically Media is considered the “Fourth Estate”
You might ask, as I did, what is the “fourth estate” or, for that matter, what is an “estate”?
“Media” or “press”, I learned, is generally referred to as the “fourth estate”. Here’s the short history of the concept:
The fourth estate is a term that positions the press (newspapers) as a fourth branch of government and one that is important to a functioning democracy.
The phrase is attributed to Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), a British politician, as quoted in Thomas Carlyle’s book, “Heros and Hero Worship in History” (1841):
Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all.
In Britain, the three branches (estates) of government referenced Parliament: The House of Lords (the Lords Temporal and the Lords Spiritual – nobles and clergy) and the House of Commons.
In modern times, the “press” has been expanded to include all news media, not just newspapers.
….The First Amendment to the Constitution “frees” the press but carries with it a responsibility to be the people’s watchdog”. (U.S. Politics)
So that is the “British” concept of the “estates”, but in the contemporary United States I discovered that the four estates are generally considered as follows:
(1) Executive (2) Legislative (3) Judicial (4) Media.
Media as the fourth estate is supposed to report on the other three estates or branches of government. It is a way, some have said, to make these so-called democratic institutions accountable to the people in a “functioning” democracy. But this does not necessarily mean the media itself is accountable. Therein lies a serious problem.
It is also important to note that while I am referring primarily to community radio in this article, independent media and corporate owned media can be all platforms be it television (cable, etc.), newspapers, radio, newsletters, internet, on and on.
A new paradigm: Independent Media as the “Sixth Estate”
I am now of the opinion, however, that in reality there are six estates. And that independent media should instead be considered the “sixth estate”. Here is my own reconfiguration of it all regarding estates: (1) Corporate interests (2) Executive
I have designated “corporate interests” as the first estate. This is because corporate interests control virtually all of the 2nd through the 5th estates. Independent media, therefore, stands alone.
Corporate interests control and/or have significant influence and/or ownership of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Most congressional representatives and the executive branch solicit significant corporate support for their campaigns. In many cases, the judicial branch solicits contributions where judges are elected and/or the influence of corporations seems paramount as is speculated was the case with the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision.
More on this: the “Citizens United” decision by the U.S. Supreme Court was decided at the expense of democratic principles in that it essentially handed over corporate interests to own and control American politicians and to basically dominate and influence all government offices and agencies more blatantly than had been the case previously.
The fifth estate, corporate “major” media, that represents most of the media in America, is also, of course, corporate owned.
Regarding U.S. media it is generally stated that there are 6 corporations that own it and those are Time Warner, Walt Disney, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, CBS Corporation and NBC Universal. The chart below provides a sense of the change of media ownership from 1983 to 2012 – the consolidation and therefore control of information by but a few corporate entities was considerable. In 1983, 90% of the U.S. media was owned by 50 companies and by 2012 90% of the media was owned by 6 corporate giants. (Exposing Truth)
Media Consolidation 1983-2012
Internationally, there are also other players including Bertelsmann AG and Sony. They own television networks, cable channels, movie studios, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, music labels and many successful websites (Exposing Truth)
Corporate Media versus Independent Media, the origins of Independent Media and the “sixth estate”
The credit for the creation of independent media and/or community radio goes to Lewis (Lew) Hill. In the 1940’s, Lew Hill was a pacifist during WWII. This was not a popular stance at the time. He had been working in Washington, D.C. as a scriptwriter and announcer for an NBC radio network known as “Blue Network” – WINX.
Lew Hill became frustrated that as a radio announcer he was presenting information to the public that was not credible – rather like telling lies over the airways that primarily served the interests of the corporate owners of the media. He realized that as an announcer he was being manipulated and was not allowed to present his own views. He decided he had enough of this and resigned. (The Lengthening Shadow)
Hill ended up in California in the 1940’s and by 1949, thanks to him, the first independent community radio station – Pacifica – was on the air.
This was a time when the idea of a listener-sponsored radio station was a new one which had never been implemented. Many people doubted the viability of a broadcast model which didn’t rely on some kind of corporate or government funding. But the idea was too compelling for Hill and others who agreed with him. Pacifica was born and in 1949 KPFA went on the air from Berkeley, California. (Pacifica)
In 1949, then, the independent “community” media model had been launched. It was what I am now referring to as the “sixth estate” which is supported and funded by the people, by the community and serves the people, minus corporate control.
Throughout the world this independent community radio model has now spread significantly with producers expressing their concerns/interests and providing opportunities for the voices of the community to be heard. It is powerful. It’s role should also be to report on the first five branches including, of course, corporate major media and many independent media entities do precisely that.
I will often compare independent media to organic production. Regarding food, your choices are generally (1)”junk food” produced by corporate agribusiness with all kinds of chemicals and genetically modified crops that make your health vulnerable; or (2) “healthy food” that is organically produced from healthy soil, traditional seeds, without chemicals and produced by rural and urban organic farmers – it is far better for your health.
By comparison, I say that corporate controlled news is similar to “junk food” grown by corporate agribusiness which is not good for you. Corporate controlled news serves primarily the interests of corporate America rather than community or democratic interests.
Independent media, however, is more like healthy organic food. It offers a healthy variety of reliable news and information that is community based and in which you can have a say along with the opportunities to learn about the other estates. It gives you more control, knowledge and opportunities for change and enhancement of collective democratic systems. Essentially, independent community owned media can be and usually is empowering for communities and individuals.
WRFG-Atlanta is one of the thousands of independent community radio entities throughout the world that is the independent voice of the people. It was first on the air in Atlanta in 1973 and ultimately was a Pacifica affiliate as well – meaning that it broadcasts some of the Pacifica programs. I am eternally thankful to Gary Washington for introducing me to it all.
We at WRFG, therefore, along with other independent media entities, are proudly the “sixth estate” providing a voice for and with the people in Atlanta, the South, the nation and the world.
HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news.