Thursday, January 11, 2007

Open Radio

As disenchantment with today's increasingly outdated economic and political system grows, so more and more people are turning to a proliferating number of free and open movements — in pursuit of alternative ways of doing things. Is Open Radio about to become the next trend?

At the end of last year I received an email from a US community radio station called KRUU-FM, which is based in Fairfield, Iowa. While surfing the Web Sundar Raman, the host of a show called Open Views, had come across the interviews I have been doing with leaders of the various free and open movements, and he wanted to talk to me about them on air.

Sympathetic to the notion of community radio, and intrigued by the raison d'ĂȘtre of Open Views — to explore the open source and free culture movements around the world "stretching beyond the limits of software" — I agreed to do the interview, which was broadcast in December (and can be heard here).

It was only after the interview was over, however, that I realised that KRUU is more than just a community radio station: it is also a grassroots initiative with a deep commitment to the principles advocated by the various free and open movements. Or as station manager James Moore more extensively described it during the inaugural Open Views programme, KRUU is "grassroots, community, public, non-profit, open radio."

Moore's use of the term "open radio" caught my attention. What, I wondered, did he mean?

Amongst other things, it seems, he meant that KRUU has made a commitment to use only Open Source software. As KRUU founder Roland Wells explained on Open Views, all KRUU's PCs run on the GNU/Linux operating system, and the audio editing tools (Ardour and Audacity) used by DJs at the station are also Open Source. Likewise, the office suite used by Moore to administer the station (OpenOffice) is Open Source, and the station's web site was built using Free BSD UNIX, and is hosted on the Open Source web server Apache.

By using Open Source solutions rather than proprietary software, Wells told KRUU listeners, the station has saved "tens of thousands of dollars".

A philosophy

But such cost-savings are just a side benefit for KRUU, since its commitment to openness is informed more by a philosophy than a business model.

Above all, this philosophy includes a determination to involve the community in the station as much as possible. And since KRUU broadcasts on a 24-hour round-the-clock basis — and uses only one half-hour of syndicated programming (from Free Speech Radio News) — this means that Fairfield's 10,000 or so citizens not only get to hear a lot of local content, but they provide it themselves.

As The Des Moines Register put it a November news report, "In Fairfield, any breathing resident may be stopped on the street and asked to host a radio show."

To date, 150 local residents have volunteered to help run KRUU, and 70 of them now host their own shows. Practically all these DJs, moreover, have no previous experience whatsoever of radio broadcasting.

In other words, in true Open Source fashion, KRUU has spurned a top-down model in favour of a bottom-up, do-it-yourself approach. And where traditional radio stations aspire to little more than pumping out an endless flow of anodyne, mass-produced programming, KRUU invites local citizens to select the kind of programming they want, and then produce it themselves.

"One of the reasons why we want to do this," explained Wells at the station's launch last September "is because most of the media we see or listen to these days is created somewhere else."

And the end result, Moore wrote recently in The Iowa Source is "an aural mosaic" that is a "far cry from the corporatised amalgamation so prevalent in so much of syndicated radio nowadays."

This aural mosaic includes a wide range of different musical genres (including TV theme songs) local news, and political debate — one of the first "Speaking Freely" shows featured former US Republican Congressman Jim Leach, who described the Iraq war as "the greatest foreign policy blunder in the history of our country".

There is also a rich mixture of minority programming — including "Magyar Mix" (Hungarian music selected and played by Hungarian-born Fairfield resident Laszlo Papp), a Spanish-speaking show, a drum show, and "Sleepy Time with Grandpa D", an evening spot for kids that features soft music and bedtime stories.

Laszlo Papp

As a volunteer effort KRUU has an authenticity that no slick for-profit radio station could hope to match. True, there are frequent glitches, dropped lines, and miscues. And since KRUU is located next to the railroad, the occasional clanging of passing trains provides an intermittent but atmospheric backdrop.

However, listeners are unfazed by these rough edges, says Raman. "Every DJ (myself included), regardless of their show, is accosted on the street regularly and told that the station is the best thing to have happened to the community."

"It's the realness that people are responding to," Moore suggested to The Des Moines Register ... ==>


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