Pit Schultz (by way of Pit Schultz <pit@is.in-berlin.de>) on Thu, 21 Dec 95 18:53 MET

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Toward Polymorphous Radio - Tetsuo Kogawa


Toward Polymorphous Radio

by Tetsuo Kogawa

We understand the end of something all too easily in the negative sense as a
mere stopping, as the lack of constitution, perhaps even as decline and
impotence, the end suggests the completion and the place in which the whole
of history is gathered in its most extreme possibility.[1]

Throughout its history, despite efforts by the Futurists in the 1920s, radio
has been considered largely a means of communication rather than an art
form. Therefore, it is ironic that just as traditional forms of radio are in
decline, its possibilities as an art form are reaching extreme potentials.
If, as Heidegger suggests, extreme possibilities are reached at the end of
something, what then ends with radio? What is radio's "most extreme
possibility? "In order to rethink these questions, I will talk about my
experiences in Japan with free radio, which developed out of the mini-FM

The term mini-FM was first used in a mass-circulation newspaper in 1982,
when a very low-watt FM-station movement started.Mini-FM stations have very
little power judged by any standard-usually less than a hundred milliwatts.
Although such a weak signal may seem to be of no use for broadcasting, the
purpose was not broadcasting but narrowcasting.

The birth of mini-FM is related to the peculiar situation of radio in Japan.
When mini-FM originated in the early 1980s, most cities in Japan had only
one FM station, if any at all, because only government-operated stations
could obtain licenses;station administrators tended to be retired government
officials. The situation is not so different today, although there are seven
stations in Tokyo now instead of two. In this constricted atmosphere many
people wanted more open programming. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, we
had become familiar with American popular and countercultures, since
American films and records were easy to obtain. People were longing for
diversity in culture yet there were no radio or television stations in Japan
covering subcultures. When mini-FM started, therefore, it became a cultural

In addition to a desire for diverse culture, there was another motivation
for those of us who started the free radio movement-to resist the
commodification of subculture. Political activists for alternative culture
in Japan had been involved traditionally with underground newspapers and
magazines rather than electronic media. When youth subcultures started to
develop mini-FM there was no immediate concern among political radicals
since radical political groups tended to critically dismiss youth culture/
However, certain industries began to develop new commodities for the
subculture market and targeted young people as the new consumers. This
created a dilemma for radical activists because we were aware of the
tendency of postindustrial institutions to co-opt diverse culture and
society. The Italian free radio movement and Felix Guattari's approach to it
presumably solved our dilemma.[2] It provided thrilling examples in which
politics and culture creatively worked together and gave us hope with which
to cope with the dismal state of Japanese mass media. Guattari stressed the
radically different function of free radio from conventional mass media. His
notions of transmission, transversal and molecular revolution suggested
that, unlike conventional radio, free radio would not impose programs on a
mass audience, whose numbers have been forecast, but would come across
freely to a molecular public, in a way that would change the nature of
communication between those who speak and those who listen.[3]

Based on these events, friends and I began experimenting with radio
transmission in the early eighties. At that time we intended to establish a
pirate FM station with a leftist perspective. However, there were few people
who could help us build an appropriate transmitter and it was difficult to
find a ready-made transmitter, at a reasonable price. Even a techno-freak
friend, instead of giving me the instructions, warned me that within half an
hour of breaking the radio regulations, the Ministry of Post and
Telecommunication would discover it. This negative attitude had resulted
largely from the psychological stigma attached to breaking the law during
World War II when the authorities strictly banned the use of short-wave
radio receivers, to say nothing of transmitters. Still now, there is a
general feeling that the airwaves belong to the government. In fact,
Japanese mass media always use the term national resource to describe the
airwaves. However, we had a different idea about airwaves-that they should
be public resources, not monopolized by the state. Nevertheless, the fact
remained that it was difficult for us to get a transmitter. As a result, I
embarked on an independent study of transmitter technology.

In the meantime, an interesting thing happened: I stumbled upon Article 4 in
the Radio Regulations Book. It permits transmitting without a license if the
power is very weak and is intended to accommodate wireless microphones and
remote-control toys, for example. Under this regulation, quite a few
wireless transmitters were sold in toy stores and electronic markets. Also,
several audio-parts makers sold the wireless stereo transmitters to link
amplifiers to speakers without wires. My idea was to use this type of tiny
unit for radio transmitting.

At the beginning, I was dubious about the power of this level of
transmission. During several tests of small ready-made FM transmitters,
however, we found that some of them could cover a half-mile radius.
Presumably, the sensitivity of radio receivers had increased beyond the
Ministry's estimation when they established the regulation in the 1950s.

I started to make this idea public in various kinds of periodicals using the
opportunities that I had in popular magazines. My book This is Free Radio
[4] provoked strong responses. The next stage transpired quickly and
dramatically. In late 1982, my students and I started Radio Polybucket, a
station using a small transmitter on the university campus. At the same
time, a group of young musicians, advertising agents, designers and so on,
started a station called KIDS, intending to promote their new
businesses-shops selling goods for the young. They were so eager to
advertise themselves to the mass media who looked for new youth cultures
that the news about the radio station was widely published and televised.
This news had a strong impact on young people and the media.

Whenever popular journalism addressed this kind of news item, the number of
mini-FM stations increased. Many stations with a similar aim as KIDS
appeared. Even major advertising agencies tried to open mini-FM stations.
The exact number is unknown, but it can be estimated from the number of
small transmitters sold that, in a year, over one thousand stations appeared
in Japan. People on college campuses, in housing complexes, coffee shops and
bars, stalls at street fairs and even local offices started mini-FM
stations. More than ten companies, including Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Hitachi
and Sony, sold a transmitter labelled" For mini-FM use".

The boom was fantastic, in a sense, but it puzzled us. We had intended to
establish a free radio station, not to transmit a one-way performance that
disregarded listeners as most stations did. During the boom, mo, st mini-FM
stations were able to communicate to a handful of people only. Many of these
stations seemed to us be naively copying professional radio studio work. To
the contrary, we paid attention to constant and serious listeners. We wanted
to provide a community of people with alternative information on politics
and social change.

The radio station that my students and I had started on the campus
re-established itself in the centre of Tokyo when the students finished
school in 1983. The new station was called Radio Home Run. Every day, from 8
PM to midnight, one or two groups aired talk or music programs. Themes
depended on who was host and who were guests. The members always invited new
guests who were involved in political or cultural activism. Also, listeners
who lived close to the station hesitantly began to visit. To repeat the
telephone number during each program was our basic policy. Guests sometimes
recorded cassette tapes of our programs and let their friends listen. Radio
Home Run quickly became a meeting place for students, activists, artists,
workers, owners of small shops, local politicians, men, women and the

Theoretically, I had argued that mini-FM stations might be linked together
to extend the transmission/reception area. Since the cost of each unit is
cheap, one could have a number of radio sets and transmitters to relay to
each other quite inexpensively. Radio Home Run was not so eager to do this
but some stations succeeded in establishing a very sophisticated network to
link together and extend their service areas.[5] Through a number of
experiments to remodel the transmitting system, create programs and pursue a
new way of getting together, we came to the conclusion at Radio Home Run
that we must work within a half-mile service area. Tokyo is densely
populated so even a half-mile area has at least ten thousand inhabitants.
This meant that mini-FM could function as community radio. Moreover, we
realized that in the process of transmitting we were more conscious of our
members than(possible)listeners. The action of transmitting together changed
our relationships and feelings in a way that seemed distinct from the
effects of other collective actions that did not involve transmitting.
Further, we surmised that relationships differed because we were
narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. We decided it had something to do
with the limited area of our transmission signal.

We tried to think about radio in a different way, as a means to link people
together. To the extent that each community and individual has different
thoughts and feelings, we believed there should be different kinds of
radio-hundreds of mini-FM stations in a given area. If you had the same
number of transmitters as receivers, your radio sets could have completely
different functions. Thus radio transmission technology could be available
for individuals to take control of their transmission and reception. This
block radio could reactivate diverse cultures and politics,
"micro-politics," in the , words of Felix Guattari. Guattari once expected
"des millions et des millions d'Alice en puissance."[6] However, I think
that if you expect molecular revolution via radio, size is important. In my
opinion, even Radio Alice[7] in Bologna, the symbol of the free radio
movement in the 1970s, was too large.

Conventional radio and television is generally eager for as large a service
area as possible:from nation-wide to global networks. According to these
models, communication is considered as a way of conveying information as a
material entity from one place to another. Mass media has functioned(and
still does)as strong catalyst of industrialization, characterized by the
transportation of solid material, integrated homogeneous grouping and an
industrious work ethic. However, as Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela
have argued, such a notion of communication is forced and distorted. Human
communication is based on tube conveyance but on structural coupling.[8]

It is in this context that I gradually understood the meaning and potential
of mini-FM. Radio could serve as a communication vehicle not for broadcast
but for the individuals involved. Even if they have few listeners, these
stations do work as catalysts to reorganize groups involved in mini-FM.
Those who were familiar with conventional radio laughed at mini-FM because
it had only a few listeners, listeners within walking distance of the
station, and no consistent style. However, even if one overlooks the
dramatic effect on society, one must admit that mini-FM has a powerful
therapeutic function:an isolated person who sought companionship through
radio happened to hear us and visited the mini-FM station;a shy person
started to speak into the microphone;people who never used to be able to
share ideas and values found a place for dialogue;an intimate couple
discovered otherwise unknown fundamental misunderstandings. At that time
nobody talked about such a psychotherapeutic function, however, given the
number of people involved in mini-FM, it must have been understood
unconsciously. Indeed, the 1980s in Japan saw the transition from
conventional banzai collectivity to electronic individuality, where people
needed different media and locations in which to replace traditional
togetherness like eating and drinking with family and friends, in schools
and workplace.[9]

Mini-FM is idiosyncratic to Japanese society, especially that of the 1980s.
When you consider a unit of a social and cultural idiosyncrasy, the size
will be equivalent to the size of mini-FM's transmitting area-it has
something to do with geography and culture. In an Australian city like
Canberra, the size of an idiosyncratic unit would be relatively large. Even
if you wanted to narrowcast, you would need at least a ten-kilometre radius
for the service area. On the other hand, in Manhattan, even one block would
constitute a mini-FM unit.

In my experience, the standard power of mini-FM been one watt. The area that
a one-watt transmitter covers is within walking or bicycling distance, which
is ecologically sound.Also, there is airwave pollution to consider-the
twenty-first century pollution. As Paul Brodeur and Stephan Steneck have
warned,[10] electromagnetic pollution is strong but it is not made public
because it is connected with the economic interests of corporations and
states. Electromagnetic radiation from the antennae of microwaves, radars,
broadcasting stations and satellites may damage genetic codes. Many people