Indigenous struggles in Mexico; the beating of Homewood teenager Jordan Miles; the closing of Braddock Hospital; election fraud; from the War in Iraq to the 2009 G-20 conference — Rustbelt Radio has always prided itself on covering "news from the grassroots that the corporate media overlook," in Pittsburgh and beyond.
But after nine years and more than 300 episodes, the independent-media program is off the air while organizers deal with low volunteer capacity, and assess whether the program has a future and what that future should look like.
"We're taking stock right now," says Jessica McPherson, a longtime contributor from Garfield. "We're asking the community if this is something they think is useful and what their needs are. Then we will try to figure out how to proceed."
Rustbelt Radio stopped producing new episodes on May 20. The program launched in 2004 as a project of the Pittsburgh Independent Media Center. The Media Center was founded in 2003 as an open-source publishing website that allows users to post their own web stories. (McPherson says the website still exists but "there is not a lot of publishing activity" on it right now.)
The one-hour show aired weekly on Carnegie Mellon's WRCT 88.3 FM, other independent radio stations across the region and online at radio.indypgh.org.
It's a volunteer-based operation, which McPherson and other contributors say played a part in why it's off the air for now. Ideal volunteer staffing is 10 to 15 contributors to cover rallies, conduct interviews and produce the program, among other tasks. The show can be produced with as few as 5 to 7 volunteers. But in the past few months, "it's down to a small handful," says contributor Carlin Christy.
There's no background or journalism experience required to be a contributor at Rustbelt. "That was always part of the point — putting it in the hands of the people," explains McPherson.
Other contributors and volunteers provide free training on the equipment, and the program has its own editorial process for covering social-justice and grassroots issues, as well as attending rallies, trials and lectures.
"People aren't asked to commit," for any specified time period, adds contributor Lizzie Anderson, of Polish Hill. "It's easy to come and go. It's an awesome thing if you have enough people to sustain it.
"We wouldn't have gotten nine years out of the project without volunteers willing to contribute."
While Rustbelt is technically a 501(c)(3) group under the umbrella of an independent-media collective in Chicago, and is supported in part by the Sprout Foundation, Christy and McPherson say the Pittsburgh outfit has no real budget and very low overhead since it's volunteer-driven. But that's also part of its mission: Since the program isn't beholden to advertisers, corporations or other interests, "It can promote a dialogue and some of the resistance happening," says Christy. "Not everything comes with a paycheck. It's a labor of love."
But it also makes the program victim to its own processes in a way.
"It's very difficult for any all-volunteer organization to maintain momentum," says Rob Bellamy, a professor in Duquesne University's Journalism and Multimedia Arts department. And with social-media sites providing more free outlets to distribute information and stories, Bellamy says it's inevitable that there has "been some impact on Rustbelt and the independent-media community."
Bellamy notes that the city "remains in decent shape in terms of points of view," but he hopes that Rustbelt comes back on the air.
"It'd be a shame to lose them," he says. "When it comes to alternative voices, the more voices the better."
The website that hosts Rustbelt's broadcasts and archived episodes is via a server that doesn't collect addresses — to protect its contributors and activists. But that also means that contributors have no way of running analytics to see how many listeners tune in to the broadcast.
Regardless of volunteer-capacity issues, Anderson says it's healthy for any organization to step back and evaluate its work and value. Current organizers are hoping to determine by the fall — when they will have to commit to air time at WRCT — whether to continue with the project. Community input is being collected online through the program's Facebook page, and via firstname.lastname@example.org.