In early August, Carnegie Mellon University's student-run radio station WRCT 88.3 FM began airing the 7-year-old Democracy Now!, a habitually hard-hitting news and current affairs radio (and more recently television) show, known for its direct commentary and "non-Pentagon-approved" interviews. For example, co-host Amy Goodman's notorious and widely reported 2000 exchange with President Bill Clinton was expected to be a happy get-out-the-vote sound bite, but from the get-go Goodman, a 45-year-old investigative journalist for the Pacifica Network, put the screws to Clinton.
"You are calling radio stations telling people to vote. What do you say to people who feel the two parties are bought by corporations and that at this point their vote doesn't make a difference?" she said.
"You have asked questions in a hostile, combative and even disrespectful tone," Clinton eventually responded.
Broadcasting from an old firehouse loft six blocks away from New York's Ground Zero, the 60-minute show is aired on nearly 150 radio stations across the country and often features interviews with political commentators such as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Arundhati Roy and sometimes celebrity activists such as Susan Sarandon. Goodman rarely pulls punches, and has been known to refer to the Bush administration as an "oiligarchy."
Goodman and her co-host, Juan Gonzales, offer their listeners an anti-war perspective that WRCT general manager Andrew Widdowson says is either lacking or marginalized in local and national mainstream media. "We air Associated Press news at noon Monday through Friday and on Satudays," he says. "And I was pretty disturbed at the outright praise of Bush. & I think especially these days it's incredibly important to have an alternative point of view made available here."
Widdowson, a computer science major at CMU, says the idea to bring Democracy Now! began when Rich Fishkin, who spearheaded a local campaign to bring the show to Pittsburgh, spoke on WRCT's Fightin' Lefty Review, a weekly public affairs show.
"He was knocking local radio stations, including WRCT for that matter, for not giving the show a chance," Widdowson says. "Our mission statement clearly states that we should provide content otherwise unheard on the dial, so that's what we decided to do."
Democracy Now! airs on Mondays and Fridays at 10 a.m. via an mp3 that Pacifica allows stations to download; both Widdowson and Fishkin say that WRCT plans to obtain a satellite dish to air the show live at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday, so that it competes with WDUQ's National Public Radio news coverage. That technology would cost well over $1,000, which Fishkin's group is in the process of raising.
Fishkin, by far the most vocal member of the small organization, has been campaigning to bring the show to Pittsburgh since March, when his request was first denied by WYEP-FM (91.3). "I think there are broadcast outlets better suited for Democracy Now! than WYEP," General Manager Lee Ferraro told Fishkin in a letter.
Though Fishkin views the weekly airing on WRCT as a small success, he's still pushing to get the show on local public radio.
"This is a long struggle, and at least a five-year campaign," he says, "to break the corporate media blockage and get it on public airwaves. NPR is simply a mouthpiece for the state. But [Democracy Now!] is what I call radio activity -- it's connected to the peace movement. It's so important to be able to turn on the radio and have access to it. I get all choked up when I listen to it."