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Radio Station Gives Residents a Voice

Sam P.K. Collins | 9/4/2013, 3 p.m.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) says a few words at a party celebrating We Act Radio's one-year anniversary. In 2009, the congressman introduced a bill that obligated radio stations to pay musicians for records played on the air. The legislation and other events inspired the creation of We Act Radio. (Courtesy of We Act Radio)

The mainstream media has often been instrumental in putting a face on a hot-button issue and drumming up support for change at the grassroots level.

But not so much these days, said local neighborhood organizer Kymone Freeman who has become disillusioned with media conglomerates. As co-founder and programming director at We Act Radio 1480 AM, an independent radio station in the District, Freeman has adopted a new perspective. He offers a platform for community leaders to voice their opinions on local and national issues from a modest storefront on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Southeast.

“[Our goal is to] democratize the airwaves," said Freeman, 43. “We develop new talent that address issues in the community and spread new ideas,” the Southeast resident said.

While the station’s business model relies on advertising dollars based on the syndication of a few marquee broadcasters, members of the community also produce programming about topics that pique their interests. Those programs include The Education Town Hall, a one-hour weekly forum that highlights disparities in education that students and parents in low-income communities face in the District.

Thomas Byrd, president of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, a community organization that aims to revitalize the historic neighborhood, hosts the program which features community leaders and advocacy groups. The former PTA president of Ballou Senior High School in Southeast said he jumped at the chance to help residents voice their concerns on the airwaves.

“[Since our first broadcast], Ward 8 residents have called me [so they could] be on the show,” said Byrd, 57. “We want to eventually build a community coalition to address [issues that concern us],” said Byrd who currently lives in Upper Marlboro, Md., after living in Anacostia for approximately 50 years.

The birth of We Act Radio took place in the midst of a showdown between independent musicians and Cathy Hughes, founder and CEO of urban multimedia company Radio One, and other radio moguls stemming from their reluctance to pay artists for the spins their records accumulated on a daily basis. Freeman hosted a series of town halls with members of the independent media and underground hip-hop community hoping to gain support.

When mainstream radio stations flooded the airwaves with advertisements opposing the Performance Tax Bill, legislation sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) that would mandate radio stations across the country to pay artists for the record spins, Freeman realized that giving independent artists and commentators a voice required the presence of an independent media outlet.

“We [were] looking at the further [commercialization] of news and information,” said Freeman. “The need for independent media is at an all-time high [because] it spurs independent thought and this is something that is dangerous [to the current power structure].”

We Act Radio debuted its first program, The Inside Scoop with Mark Levine, on New Year’s Day in 2012 to more than 50,000 listeners nationwide. Since then, it has produced more than 13 programs, nine of which are hosted by community leaders and novice broadcasters. The radio station offers non-stop programming and boasts its timely and accurate reporting of the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act ruling in 2012 when many mainstream organizations failed to do so.

The station has gained a following in the progressive community with guests such as Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, local hip-hop artist Tabi Bonney, civil rights activist Dick Gregory, Conyers, and various mayors of the District of Columbia. The radio station also serves as a community resource center for D.C. residents. Additionally, We Act Radio, along with its producers, often hosts media training workshops for budding newscasters.

Program manager Alex Lawson said the station lives up to its motto: “Do Something.”

“We have a mandate to break this monopoly and highlight what the media does not talk about,” said Lawson, 33. “Every day, we connect people with online tools to take action. When you look at how much has grown out of We Act Radio, [you see] we are building up communities,” the Northwest resident said.

For more information about We Act Radio, visit www.weactradio.com.