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'Radio Pirates' Used Medium As An Organizing Tool

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The Federal Communications Commission recently passed rules that will mean more community groups across the nation can apply to be on FM airwaves in the coming year. The changes are lauded by those who say more diverse and local voices belong on the radio — especially in urban settings where issues important to the community are often absent in mainstream media. In Springfield, Ill., Mbanna Kantako has been broadcasting illegally for 25 years. He's a pioneer of a movement that led to the pirating of radio channels across the nation. Experts say it was this movement that led to changes in the way small stations will be licensed by the FCC.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Lots of new radio stations will likely be going on air next year. That's because the Federal Communications Commission recently decided to let low-power community stations apply for broadcast licenses. Rachel Otwell of member station WUIS in Springfield, Illinois, profiles a radio pirate who has long given voice to issues that his community can't find elsewhere on the dial.

RACHEL OTWELL, BYLINE: Mbanna Kantako is 53 years old and blind. Even so, he's considered a visionary by many community broadcasters. Twenty-five years ago, Kantako ordered his first small transmitter; and has been using one ever since, to spread his message of defiance. He used to live in the John Hay Homes, a low-income housing development on the east side of Springfield. Now, he lives in a more comfortable home filled with CDs and radio equipment. This is where Kantako broadcasts Human Rights Radio - illegally.

When he started, Kantako would monitor police scanners, and interview residents in the projects over charges of police abuse. Kantako's broadcasts have a decidedly radical slant. In this clip from around Thanksgiving this year, he's speaking about colonization.


MBANNA KANTAKO: Oh, yeah, because you look at it, man - the only reason they even made the treaties with the native folk because they wasn't planning on them people being around to collect nothing, man. And when they start talking that stuff about you going to get free from the Civil War, they wasn't planning on you being around.

OTWELL: For Kantako, radio is about far more than entertainment. When living in the projects, he helped start a tenants' rights association, and says radio was an effective tool for advocacy.

KANTAKO: We was doing a - after-school program, a summer program for kids. You know, we had adult programs on different things, you know what I'm saying? The radio really grew out of that collection of things that we were doing.

OTWELL: Kantako still broadcasts lectures and conversations on African-American history. But his audience also includes the FCC, which has taken action against his illegal operation. He's been raided and fined multiple times, though he's refused to pay. Brandy Doyle is with Prometheus Radio Project. She says Kantako inspired many who have fought to put more of these stations on the air; stations covering hyper-local topics, and whose signals stretch for only a few miles. Doyle says there are already more than 800 across the country, and she thinks more groups will start their own.

BRANDY DOYLE: Immigrant groups, Indian tribes, youth groups - groups all over the United States that find that the media really isn't speaking to them, or their issues. And this is an opportunity; that they can take the media into their own hands.

OTWELL: But larger, full-power broadcasters, including NPR, argue that additional low-power stations will lead to broadcast interference. Still, the FCC is going forward. David Oxenford is an attorney representing hundreds of full-power radio stations across the country.

DAVID OXENFORD: It'll probably be more work for engineers - trying to figure out problems and solutions to interference issues that arise.

OTWELL: The FCC is looking to low-power community stations to increase diversity of opinion on the air. Even though Mbanna Kantako helped clear a path for activism on the airwaves, being labeled a pirate means he won't be able to get a low-power FM license. He promises to continue broadcasting, though, illegally.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Otwell in Springfield, Illinois.


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