FROM MINI-FM TO 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. - Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
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 once suggested, the most extreme possibilities can only be reached at the end of something, what then ends with radio? What is radio's most extreme possibility?
the beginning >
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. 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 interest among political radicals since they 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 social movements.
The Italian free radio movement and Felix Guattari's response to it stimulated us very much. 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. Even now, there is still a general feeling that the airwaves belong to the government. However, we had a different idea - that airwaves should be public resources, not monopolized by the state.
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. During several tests of small ready-made FM transmitters 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.
As a commentator of popular culture, I started to make this idea public in various popular magazines and through my book This is Free Radio, which provoked strong responses. 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. Whenever popular journalism addressed this kind of news item, the number of mini-FM stations increased. 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".
< centripetal rather than centrifugal >
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.
But many of these stations seemed to us be naively copying professional radio studio work. On the contrary, we paid attention to constant and serious listeners and sought 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 varied, but members always invited new guests who were involved in political or cultural activism. Repeating the station telephone number during each program was our basic policy. Listeners who lived close to the station began to visit. 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. The function was centripetal rather than centrifugal: listeners tended to want to come to the station
< DYI technology >
We had a number of experiments to remodel the transmitting system, create programs and pursue a new way of getting together. Sometimes, we tried to have a number of radio sets and transmitters to relay to each other and to extend their service 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. But in practice it turned out to be very hard to do because the sound quality is lost as the relay is multiplied. Through our experiments we came to the conclusion 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. Radio stations which can only cover areas within walking distance could be relative to the human body and be sensed easily. This is not broadcasting, but narrowcasting.
I called this kind of media "polymorphous media" or "polymedia." Polymedia are not intended simply to link smaller units into a larger whole: instead they involve the recovery of electronic technology that individuals can communicate, share idiosyncrasies and be "convivial." Polymedia must be based on self-controlled tools, otherwise advanced technologies will remain as tools for the manipulation of power.
< beyond a communication vehicle >
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.
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 not on tube conveyance but on structural coupling.
In the process of transmitting, we became more interested in pursuing a new way of getting together rather than circulating information. We found that even one kilometre community is too large and there are more different units of cultures and tastes of the individuals. Micro-revolution can happen only on such a level. Tha's why we became more conscious of our members than of (possible) listeners. The action of transmitting together changed our relationships in a way that seemed distinct from the effects of other collective actions that did not involve transmitting. 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.
The signal of mini-FM is too weak and too special to provide information. 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 for the circulation of information from one place to another, mini-FM has been different.
< natural radio >
Although I have been involved in the free radio movement of mini-FM and have also worked with 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. It has become necessary to think a new direction or framework for human self-fulfilment that does not rely on these types of notions of freedom. Perhaps now 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 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. 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.
A new horizon has been opened, outdating the separation of transmission and reception that had been forced upon electronic media. The question in the age of satellite media is no longer whether or not radio or television is "free" but whether it is "polymorphous." We are at the dawn where we can imagine a different type of radio, such as Murry Schafler describes in "Radical Radio." Schafler criticises radio that "has become the clock of Western civilization, taking over the function of social timekeeper from the church bell and the factory whistle," and imagines a new type of radio that could "ring with new rhythms, the bio-cycles of all human life and culture, the biorhythms of all nature." This does not imply that we should reject all radio that tries to convey messages - message radio. But I just want us to think about the different potential of radio, the experimental side of radio.
about Tetsuo Kogawa >>