Alternative Radio

amclellan, 20th June 2016
David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky in December 2015Beginning broadcast in 1986, Alternative Radio has just entered its third decade in production, airing internationally on over 180 radio stations weekly.
Since 1997, the program has been made available in Australia from its production base in Colorado via the Community Radio Network, presenting long-form lectures, talks, and discussions of critical issues with a voice rarely heard in other media. "Audio Energy for Democracy" is the tagline, and over the history of the program its founder, journalist and commentator David Barsamian (pictured, right) has instilled a strong directive to present "information, analyses and views that are frequently ignored or distorted in other media." The back catalogue of speakers hosted over the years is formidable, and includes Howard Zinn, Christopher Hitchens, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Vandana Shiva and most frequently Noam Chomsky, (pictured, left) who Barsamian frequently interviews. 
Shane Elson has been getting Alternative Radio to Australian airwaves for nearly two decades. We asked him a few questions about what the show aims to achieve each week, and what working towards a more just society may take. 
The program has been broadcasting for 30 years now. In 2016, what’s Alternative Radio providing an alternative to?

Alternative Radio is just one part of a much wider movement that engages with ideas and the politics of change. In other words, after about five decades of the neo-liberal experiment, the foundations of our communities need in some cases a rebuild, and in others, a total reconstruction.

The importance of the role of the media in the post-WWII era in enabling the neo-liberal project to race ahead at almost full steam cannot be underestimated. When a program like "Gogglebox" wins a national television award you really have to ask what the point of the mainstream media is. I'll give you a hint, it’s three words: smoke and mirrors - anything to take our minds off the really important issues like our job prospects, the spending on pointless wars, the rising unemployment rates and our shared environment. 

While there are some fantastic programs on mainstream media that confront, unpack and reveal the fraud that is neo-liberalism, they are in the minority. Alternative Radio's inclusion as part of a local community radio station's program line-up can provide a counter to the status quo by challenging us to think about the important issues we face.

How did you come to first hear Alternative Radio and work with its founder/director David Barsamian?

I first heard about the show when a friend of mine came back from a trip to Sydney where he had heard it, I think, on 2SER in the mid 1990s. He told me that our station had to get hold of it.

After a few phone calls and through a number of coincidences, I managed to get hold of David's details and made contact. The usual to and fro led us to an agreement and since September 1997 the show has gone out for Australian stations each week via the Community Radio Network service.

The show hosts a diversity of speakers and ideas, generally focusing on one speaker and their topic each episode. In a media age of sound-bites, click-bait and auto-play videos online, how important do you feel it is for people to take a bit longer to digest a new idea?

One of the interesting things is that people are coming back to radio, and the shift is coming while social media is taking more and more people away from traditional sources of news. 

While young people are the largest group of social media users they are often derided as not being interested in news, but as Catherine Wilkinson from the University of Liverpool notes, community radio plays an important part in the development of young people's identity.

I would add that as young people are putting themselves together, they come across clefts in the social, economic and political world that can’t be explained away in the seven second sound bite.

Young people aren't dumb. They know the world isn't like it is presented in sanitised TV and radio. They are, in my opinion, hungry for considered explanations and solutions that don't patronise or talk down to them. They want to be empowered to take back the public sphere as an open place for discussion and perhaps, more importantly, the resolution of the problems they confront. A short sound bite can’t and won’t do that for them.

Alternative Radio presents ideas that require a much greater shift in thinking to take up, as opposed to choices we can make simply as consumers and voters. What are some of your personal highlights from over the years?

I agree. Most of what the mainstream media presents when it comes to the choices we have to make is either "Product A" or "Product B". Alternatives are neither offered nor considered.

Take our elections. It’s one of the major parties or the other otherwise, as Hanrahan said, "We'll be ruined". That type of conceptualisation is wrong and only serves to perpetuate the systems that led us into the current situation. It talks down to us and says “you're too stupid to make sensible choices". If, as many politicians tell us, we are a diverse society, then surely having parliaments and local councils that represent us better - single mums, unemployed truckies, tradespeople, local shop owners, gay, straight, religious and atheists, alongside the lawyers, union hacks and professional politicians - is a much better representation of us as a community.

I can’t pick out any one highlight and say: 'this is it. This changed my thinking'. It’s more of an overtime process, a slow dawning if you like. 

Alternative Radio speakers don't often say 'We have to take X’ as the solution. More often than not they say 'here are our choices. What we choose will determine the future' and then they allow us, as adults, to continue the discussion at the local level.

I mean, that's what it’s all about. We can’t hope to make a global impact unless we make choices here, as Australia, at our own local community level that reflect the best within us, instil hope and a promise of a better tomorrow.

What’s some feedback you’ve heard from Australian listeners to the program over the years?

The best feedback is when someone calls up and says "I was on my way to wherever and heard your program. I was late because I didn't want to miss the end". But I'll tell you what, while those calls are great, the ones I really enjoy are when someone rings up and wants to get a copy to give a friend or relative. I've had parents call up and say their kid was doing a schools project and they want to get a copy for them to use. I also take calls from older people who have used them to generate debate or discussion among their friendship groups or clubs. I've also taken calls from people who just want someone to chat to.

Are some of these ‘alternatives’ gaining momentum in Australia, or are we a relatively complacent society?

I used to think we were a pretty complacent lot, but that has changed.

More often than not it is very difficult for a local group who is, say, concerned about a new sewerage plant being built over their back fences to get a good run in the media. There are a lot of groups who have legitimate concerns and very few resources. They don't have the political or financial connections to get their voices heard - or heard for a sustained period - but they're out there fighting the good fight on behalf of their communities.

What has happened though, and this I find really interesting, is that in a supposedly interconnected world, the efforts of all these local groups - environmentalists, conservationists, those developing alternative economic strategies, those who are modelling different health responses and so on - is often fragmented and overlooked by the mainstream media. 

This means that unless these groups can arrange a great, national photo opportunity - in other words, spend lots of money on a media specific event - their shared efforts are often overlooked.

I don't think we are a complacent society. I think though, that many who have been spending the best part of the last 50 years opposing the excesses of the neo-liberal experiment are tired and drained. If Alternative Radio, in some small way, can reinvigorate their passion or inspire someone to examine what's going on around them in a little more detail, then, I think, we've done our job.

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