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Union turns to airwaves to reach farmworkers

Abby Sewell

There’s something new on top of the water tower in Woodburn, Oregon. A radio antenna, erected by volunteers from around the nation, will soon be broadcasting bilingual programs for the farmworkers, tree planters, and other residents of the small farming town thirty minutes south of Portland. The new low powered station, KPCN-LP 96.3 FM, is owned by Oregon’s farmworker union, PCUN (Pineros y Camoesinos Unidos del Noroeste). Over the weekend of Aug. 18-20, PCUN and the Prometheus Radio Project brought nearly 300 volunteers to Woodburn to build the new station from the ground up.

“This is a milestone for us,” said Adrian Valladares of PCUN, who bottom-lined the construction of the station. “To help in the political movement, this is a huge step, having a radio station of our own to bring education to people and help in organizing.” The station has been long in coming. Years ago, PCUN paid to broadcast a program on the local AM radio station in Woodburn. The broadcasters used their allotted hour to inform farmworkers of demonstrations and to mobilize support for campaigns, until the station owner abruptly pulled their program off the air.

“We got kicked off because we were using the station as an organizing tool,” Valladares said.

PCUN filed and won a lawsuit against the station, which allowed them to stay on the air an additional two weeks. The farmworkers’ radio program then moved to KBOO, Portland’s community radio station. The audience in Portland was bigger, but PCUN always wanted to move the broadcast back to their center of operations in Woodburn. They applied to the FCC for a low power FM station license, and after four long years of waiting, they finally received the go-ahead in April 2006.

Needing to re-mobilize energy and support around building the station, PCUN contacted the Prometheus Radio Project.

Prometheus began as a group of pirate radio broadcasters in West Philadelphia. At its peak, their unlicensed station was working with over seventy programmers from around the world.

“The station really thrived, but then the FCC came and shut it down,” said Prometheus programming director Hannah Sassaman.

After losing their station the group changed its focus from pirate broadcasting to pushing for more legal low-powered FM stations. The FCC created this new class of stations, which have a broadcast radius of two to four miles, in January 2000. Licenses for these stations, which are available only to non-profit groups and government agencies, are far cheaper and simpler to apply for than normal FM station licenses.

The FCC order led to over seven hundred applications for station licenses, which was then followed by a lobbying campaign by major stations and broadcasters. The large stations made what Sassaman believes to be exaggerated claims about possible interference with their signals from low powered stations.

As a result, Congress passes the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act of 2000, which limits low powered FM stations to rural areas with a less crowded radio spectrum.

Since then, Prometheus has assisted in building ten low powered FM stations around the United States and in other countries. The “barnraising” method of station building involves calling on Prometheus’ wide network of volunteers to converge at a site and conduct a weekend of workshops and forums, during which time people learn the technical and political aspects of setting up and operating a radio station. The people who will be running the station supply food and crash space for at least two hundred people; Prometheus brings the manpower and technical knowledge.

“It’s not the most efficient way to build a station, but it’s an incredibly efficient way to build this movement,” Sassaman said.

For Prometheus volunteer Sakura Saunders, the weekend in Woodburn was her fifth barnraising.

“I’ve taught ten year olds how to sodder at these barnraisings,” Saunders said, smiling. “We construct the radio stations from the ground up, from cutting and soddering wire to digging ditches, to mounting the antenna.”

Romeo Ramirez traveled from Florida, where he is part of the Coalition of Imokalee Workers, a group of farmworkers similar to those involved in PCUN. The Immokalee workers gained national fame through their campaign to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers supplying the fast food giant Taco Bell. After a four year boycott and series of demonstrations, Taco Bell ceded to all the tomato pickers’ demands.

The Immokalee workers have their own low powered FM radio station, for which Prometheus organized a barnraising last year. Ramirez came to Woodburn to give a workshop on his experience with helping to build and run a radio station for the immigrant farmworker community.

“The station has helped very much in communicating with the community, finding out about their necessities, and organizing campaigns,” Ramirez said.

Some volunteers traveled from even farther afield, like Luz Ruis, who works with a media activist group called Comunicador@s Populares por la Autonomia (COMPPA) in Mexico. COMPPA travels to small indigenous communities to help them set up radio stations, TV programs, or newsletters. In Mexico, however, it is nearly impossible for a small station to get a license, Ruis said, so these communities, usually located in remote areas, set up their stations without licenses.

Ruis, who also traveled to Florida for the Immokalee Workers’ station barnraising, said, “We [media activists] aren’t all that many people, but it’s a great opportunity to meet each other and share our abilities. Also, for me coming from Mexico, it’s very interesting and inspiring to see people here in the US working for social justice.”

The new station in Woodburn aired its first broadcast on Sunday, Aug. 20. Valladares said the schedule of programming is still in the works. Broadcasts will be primarily in Spanish and will likely include a combination of music, news, and updates on PCUN’s organizing work. Full time broadcasting will commence in November. In the mean time, PCUN will be consulting with its members to name the station and develop a more detailed vision for it.

Abby Sewell is a local freelance journalist and former Alliance intern.


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Last Updated: September 13, 2006