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Godfather of low-power radio back on air despite shutdown

By Phillip Taylor
Special to
The Freedom Forum Online

11.16.00

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Mbanna Kantako and his wife, Dia.

Agents and marshals descended upon Mbanna Kantako's modest Springfield, Ill., home prepared to shut down Human Rights Radio, hailed by many as the station that launched the low-power radio movement.

Kantako, armed with video cameras and tape recorders, had waited nearly 13 years for this moment. As the agents severed wires and packed up transmitters, microphones, compact discs and speakers, Kantako and his family captured every moment on tape.

"You can't believe how much Mbanna savored the moment," said Mike Townsend, a University of Illinois in Springfield sociology professor and longtime friend of Kantako. "In a never-ending game of political chess, the corporate state had blinked. Mbanna had made them blink in public."

That raid last Sept. 28 ended Kantako's nearly 13 years of unlicensed broadcasting from Springfield housing projects and low-rent neighborhoods. U.S. marshals and the Federal Communications Commission said Kantako's station at 106.5 FM emitted an errant signal at 121.3 megahertz that interfered with air-traffic communications.

After an Oct. 4 hearing, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction barring Kantako from further broadcasts. Sixteen days later, Kantako returned to the air.

But his renewed presence on the radio dial has yet to spark another raid or a permanent injunction.

"We have to figure out whether he is still on the air and then decide what we need to do about it," said Jim Lewis, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Springfield.

Kantako, a fiercely private man who rarely gives interviews, rejects FCC claims that his signals interfered with air-traffic communications. One claim of interference, he said, came the day after officials shut his station down.

"You're on the air to present your views, to be heard," he said. "You're not on there to dog anyone else out. We've moved nine times in the last 13 years. Why? Because other signals were dominating us."

That aside, Kantako says he doesn't trust government. It's a system, he says, of arbitrary privilege, granting some people certain rights while leaving others without.

"I'm just trying to show people that ... we can't go through the court system anymore," Kantako said. "We're just going through motions. People don't care anymore. It's designed to extract from you every little thing they can get."

Kantako says that in the eyes of corporate broadcasting and the government he has no right to have a station or to air his views over the nation's radio waves.

"No broke, blind, black man in the projects is going to go on the air," he said. "It just doesn't happen."

But it did happen, back when Kantako, a 28-year-old blind disc jockey, fired up a tiny 30-watt transmitter on Nov. 25, 1987, from Springfield's John Jay Homes to offer programming to a mostly black neighborhood.

Soon after his debut, the FCC took him to federal court.

The court ordered him to pay a $750 fine and to stop broadcasting. Told he couldn't have an attorney represent him in the matter, Kantako refused to pay the fine or to close his station. He stayed on the air and hunkered down for an FCC raid that didn't come for nearly 13 years.

News of Kantako's defiance spread, encouraging other protestors skilled in civil disobedience to launch their own low-power stations. Some so-called pirates, including Stephen Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley, Richard Edmondson of San Francisco Liberation Radio and Pete tri Dish of the Prometheus Radio Project, credit Kantako as the first to use radio to organize a community.

"He's a real unique character of courage and willpower," said Dish, a carpenter from Philadelphia who uses his on-air moniker when discussing radio issues. "He decided he was right about this a long time ago and the only way was to stay on the air. And he was willing to face the consequences."

Dish said he had heard a recent speech from FCC Chairman William Kennard praising a South African radio pirate for defying apartheid laws and staying on the air through the 1970s and '80s.

"But it was ironic that they shut Kantako down within three days of that speech," Dish said.

These low-power broadcasters contend they have a First Amendment right to operate their radio stations, particularly because larger stations don't offer diverse voices.

On the other hand, the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents most licensed broadcasters in the United States, maintains that the right to broadcast is a limited one because of the scarcity of broadcast frequencies. Without licenses, it contends, there would be chaos on the airwaves.

The FCC, however, has accepted more than 1,300 applications for new low-power radio licenses and may award the first batch of licenses in the coming months. Court challenges and Congress could delay such efforts.

That doesn't concern Kantako, who wouldn't be eligible for a low-power license even if he wanted one. The FCC won't grant a license to anyone who has broadcast illegally since February 1998.

But for Kantako, the right to the airwaves is a God-given right and not one granted by a government. He says it is his duty to his community to continue the broadcasts, comparing it to certain members of a tribe maintaining the council fires.

Kantako said he was on the air almost every day from the time he launched his radio station in 1987 to the day FCC agents and U.S. marshals arrived at his door. He counts 4,247 days of broadcasting during that period.

"All things you do, we are taught, are marked in the universe," Kantako said. "So you have to be careful. I tell people if 4,247 nights doesn't prove that the Creator wants us to do this, then how many nights?"

Previous

Founder of microradio movement faces likely shutdown
FCC orders Mbanna Kantako to close Human Rights Radio after 11 years of broadcasting without a license.  12.10.98

Related

Law firm asks Supreme Court to consider First Amendment issues in radio raids
Attorneys say courts ignored free-speech pleas of their clients after federal regulators seized their transmitters.  12.06.00

Spending measure would scale back low-power radio plans
Broadcasters win congressional support in attempt to undermine FCC's proposed micro-radio service for church, school, community groups.  10.27.00

Low-power radio's friends, foes argue against FCC plan
Broadcast industry tells federal appeals panel that adding new FM stations would cause interference with existing channels; radio pirates question eligibility requirements.  11.29.00

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