Although the effort was trumpeted
in the media as an example of grassroots ingenuity in the face of disaster,
local officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency have nixed an attempt
by Houston activists to set up a low-power radio station at the Astrodome that
would have broadcast Hurricane Katrina relief information for evacuees.
The project was unplugged even though it had key support.
On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission quickly granted temporary licenses
to broadcast inside the Astrodome and the adjacent Reliant Center. The station
was also backed by the Houston Mayor’s office and Texas governor Rick
Perry. But local officials said FEMA bureaucrats KO’d the station—dubbed
KAMP “Dome City Radio”—because
of “security concerns.”
“They wanted unlimited access to the buildings, which we could not give
to anyone in the media,” said Gloria Roemer, a spokesperson for Harris
County, which has jurisdiction over the Astrodome complex. Currently reporters
are allowed in only on 15-minute guided tours.
According to Roemer, FEMA officials also believed they could not allocate “scarce”
electricity, office space, and phone and Internet access to the volunteer station—even
though activists say they offered to run the station on batteries and use their
Supporters of KAMP, which was set to launch at 95.3 FM, blame red tape
and bureaucrats seeking to “manage the news.”
“I’m very disappointed,” said Councilmember Ada Edwards,
who represents a mostly black district in central Houston and had issued a letter
of support for the station. “One of the real challenges of this
big tragedy has been access to communication--open and honest communication.
I really hoped this would be an open outlet for people to get information that
was unscripted and that would really address their needs.
“But it seems par for the course in terms of how this whole thing
has been rolling out with FEMA and the Red Cross trying to keep tight control
and manage the news,” Edwards complained. “It’s really sad
when these people feel they have to sanitize all the time.”
Activists with Houston Indymedia
and Pacifica radio first brainstormed the idea over the weekend when they visited
the Astrodome and spoke to swamped relief workers and survivors desperate for
information about emergency services and news from back home.
“People were asking things like how can I get my FEMA check, do my kids
need shots for school, can I get a free cellphone, how do I get out information
about missing family members,” says Jim Ellinger, a freelance radio consultant
from Austin. “This is complicated stuff that you can’t really address
on a booming public address system. The mainstream radio stations are more focused
on broadcasting to the general public about where to donate to hurricane relief,
so there was no place for survivors to go to get what they need. ”
“We talked to cops, volunteers, church groups—everyone said it
was a good idea,” Ellinger added.
But Astrodome officials were apparently more concerned about evacuees fighting
over the radios. “They were worried about noise and people stealing them
or that people would be tuning in to gangsta rap on other Houston stations,
which they said could incite violence,” says Tish Stringer, a graduate
teacher at Rice University and organizer with Houston Indymedia. After several
days of back and forth, activists agreed to provide 10,000 cheap, Walkman-style
radios with batteries.
They had 1,000 sitting in the parking lot and 9,000 more waiting in a warehouse--with
a pledge from Sony to donate an additional 10,000 radio—when the local
FEMA officials rejected the plan.
But donated radios continue to pour into KPFT,
the local Pacifica station, and volunteers say they plan to begin distributing
them anyway in hopes they can set up some kind of station in the Astrodome parking
lot, or else partner with KPFT to provide news for hurricane survivors.
“Radios are powerful tools in the hands of the people,” says Hannah
Sassaman of the Prometheus Radio Project, which has helped
set up dozens of low-power FM stations across the country, and has been pressing
Texas officials to move forward on this one. “In a case like this, having
a low-power station that can deal specifically with the needs of displaced people
is a no-brainer.”
Although the number of evacuees housed at the Astrodome and George R. Brown
Convention Center downtown has dwindled from 25,000 to about 8,000, many of
the survivors remain temporarily lodged in smaller shelters and private houses
around Houston. All told, the FCC has issued some 20 temporary licenses for
a low-power emergency relief stations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, including
a volunteer-run station in Louisiana. “