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Dial to the Left

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In an era of increasing corporatization and consolidation of the airwaves, Triangle radio listeners who scan the left side of the FM dial can still find good reasons to tune in. Last year, WUNC 91.5, the National Public Radio affiliate in Chapel Hill, switched to a mostly news and talk format, opening up a steady stream of top-notch reporting and commentary. The BBC broadcasts now carried on the station, in particular, have provided a welcome modicum of alternative perspectives on pressing U.S. foreign policy issues.

But for a while now, there's been something missing: Namely, a regular and well-produced progressive news program. Several local stations used to carry the Pacifica News Network, providing listeners with fresh and critical perspectives on world events. But Pacifica, once the country's most formidable progressive radio outlet, spent the last few years falling apart as internal divisions widened between heavy-handed national directors and independently minded local broadcasters. In 2000, as the tensions mounted, many of Pacifica's reporters resigned, pooled their resources and launched the Free Speech Radio Network (FSRN), vowing to keep producing news in the Pacifica tradition while the internecine battles played out.

Finally, last December, the rank-and-file side of the Pacifica power struggle triumphed in a California superior court, and the new board of directors has pledged to return the network to its traditional principles of advocacy journalism on behalf of the underdogs and the under-heard. As part of the legal settlement, and due to Pacifica's multi-million dollar debt problem, Pacifica proper won't be airing a daily news show until late 2003.

But in the meantime, FSRN, run by a mostly volunteer staff, has risen from the ashes of the Pacifica fracas. The network's half-hour news program can now be heard on 55 stations in the United States, including WNCU 90.7, which broadcasts from the campus of North Carolina Central University in Durham. The station picked up the program, which airs weekdays at 6 p.m., on Sept. 1.

FSRN helps fill a gap in the Triangle radio spectrum, says Jerry Markatos of Balance and Accuracy in Journalism, a Chapel Hill-based media watchdog group. "They kept alive the soul of Pacifica until the public--the public that is Pacifica Radio--was able to reclaim the network," he says.

The results sound a lot like the Pacifica shows heard here in the 1990s. FSRN reports often focus on struggles for justice, be they in the workplace, in politics or in the international community. On Sept. 11, for example, FSRN aired an in-depth report on the federal government's secret detentions in the war on terrorism. Other recent reports highlighted Iraqis' concerns about the expected war with the United States, compared welfare systems in the United States with those in other countries, and described challenges to organized labor in both El Salvador and New York City.

Dave Lippman, FSRN's southeastern correspondent, is based in Chapel Hill. So far, he's reported on everything from voting rights in Alabama to environmental concerns over nuclear power in the Carolinas to labor rallies in Raleigh. Lippman says that the network's style of public interest reporting doesn't allow corporate and government flacks to set the terms of debate--and isn't shy about choosing sides. "We are responsive to social movements, because we all came out of them," he says. "And with a grassroots network of reporters, we don't have anything structural that ties us to the status quo."

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