Working Draft, Early Sept 2001

From Strategic Vision to a 10-Point Tactical Plan
A followup to The Revolution Will Be Webcast
Harel B.

"All this machinery making modern music
Can still be open-hearted.
Not so coldly charted, it's really just a question
Of your honesty, yeah, your honesty
-Rush, The Spirit of Radio

Here we present a preliminary media project proposal as just a first, but in some ways quite significant example of how internet technologies can be harnessed towards media democratization and grassroots empowerment -- with some included elements also representing modest steps towards democratic economics.

What is an internet radio tuner?

An internet radio tuner (IRT) is a program whose interface parallels that of an ordinary radio tuner, except that the content is delivered via internet based audio files and audio streams (the latter may be "live"). Examples include Spinner (which also provides content for Netscape Radio, AOL Plus Radio, Compuserve Radio, and ICQ Radio), RadioFreeVirgin and Radio Destiny whose Destiny layer is both a player/organizer of audio files, and a radio tuner. Destiny is a corporate project, though having far less corporate resources on its side than the other two, and does not include built in advertising. Remarkably, even Destiny's Broadcaster program is as free as the player.

Corporate Media in your Computer

In our hyper-capitalist world, there is little public space left --even in the media-- despite the fact that we, the public, supposedly own the airwaves. This is familiar enough in the case of pre-internet media (Robert McChesney's Alternative Radio talk, The Corporate Takeover of Broadcasting is an invaluable resource). As with traditional pre-internet media, in the case of the internet, we cannot rely on our corporate-controlled government to create public, non-profit, commercial-free avenues, let alone those which are democratically controlled or which might cut into the profits of the corporate media.

Unsurprisingly, the mainstream incipient internet media models, and particularly IRT models, involve ownership and control of such media by for-profit corporations like AOL Time Warner -- a behemoth which which owns Spinner, AOL, Time, Warner, CNN, Netscape, People and Fortune magazines, Atlantic Records, HBO, Warner Brothers, Sports Illustrated, DC Comics, Looney Toons, Time Warner Cable, Road Runner service, Cinemax, the Braves, the Cartoon Network, and Turner Broadcasting, among other subsidiary corporations.

Funding is obtained by subjecting listeners to both visual and audio commercials. And with a larger audience obtained, the move from Spinner 3.0 to version 4.0 now subjects our collective eyeballs and eardrums to a much higher frequency and intensity of commercials.

Even worse than subjecting us to the commercial bombardment with which we are all too familiar from virtually every other aspect of our lives, however, is the way they are controlled. These virtual tuners are not just centrally owned, but also centrally controlled and managed, with the bottom line, advertising, and corporate "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" cross promotions (along with incestuous "cross promotion" deals among several companies owned by a single behemoth). It is not the public but Corporate Executives, themselves living under the tyranny of these "bottom line" rules, who decide and determine what music will get played, which artists will be included, and what non-musical programming, news, analysis, and world views are broadcast. So it seems that we are back to "freedom of the press belongs to those who own one," in other words.

Or are we?

As noted in our letter to Z magazine, it is self evident that activists and the public at large have a relatively more level playing field when the cost of owning and operating a virtual radio station or hub like is lower -- in fact less than 1% of the cost of bricks and mortar broadcasting infrastructure.

In other words, a battlefield "favors those with billions of dollars behind them" in direct proportion to the costs of entry and operation. Therefore, it is in our interest to creatively explore and exploit the opportunities of internet based media to the fullest extent possible, paying particular attention to elements such as drastically reduced entry and operation costs, and equally importantly, mechanisms for democratic control and wide access.

The excellent work of FAIR, Robert McChesney, Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman, and others in analyzing what is wrong with corporate media is a critical element to the movement, but is inadequate on its own unless such insights inform efforts to construct visions, strategies, tactics, project ideas, etc, which help us get from here ("what's wrong with corporate media") to a new "there" -- democratic media. This practical dimension which is a critically underdeveloped element of the movement is the mission of in the realm of media, and more widely in the entire economic arena.

Below we sketch an outline of such potential projects, strategies, tactics, and more, informed by a vision of "how to get there" which augments the theory of "what's wrong with what we have?"

Steps towards media democracy:
An Action Plan

  • Number 0: Start broadcasting. Most obviously, you can start broadcasting right now, for example using Destiny's Broadcaster. Read's initial media article, The Revolution Will be Webcast for a very broad, wide canvass strategic vision and a look at what could be accomplished with existing and emerging technologies, and using cooperating networks for content creation and financial stability and sustainability. But read on. We can go much farther. In what follows below, we suggest very concrete "small steps" towards the leap into a democratic media landscape:

  • Number 1: Our Own IRT. We must create a free, public-domain, open source internet radio tuner. The Free Software movement has already produced e.g. IceCast, whose compatibility with the features, goals, and principles set out below we are investigating. These are:

  • Number 2: Non-Commercial. Our tuner must be commercial free. This feature alone would make the tuner vastly more attractive to the general public (not just to activists and media democracy advocates). This decision will obviously require that alternative funding models be created. Not only do such alternative funding avenues exist -- thus making this aspect possible-- they can be key strands towards much more ambitious, but critically important changes in the media and economic landscape. Before turning to them, let us list some other key features our tuner should have, and their advantages.

  • Number 3: Decentralize content control. The tuner will not be centrally controlled. In particular decision about what stations or specific content is carried will be decentralized; it will be much closer to the web. More accurately, the decentralized structure will resemble that of the Gnutella network in spirit, and in fact, it probably be linked to the Gnutella network itself. It should be possible for the network to carry not just text and multimedia files, but also to carry Radio Stations; essentially, registered, identifiable audio streams. (If you haven't already, find out about Gnutella, a decentralized information network)

    This would work seamlessly and smoothly: a simple click and you can add, delete, and shuffle your own list of virtual radio station to your tuner's "dial."

  • Number 4: Searching Feature. To find the stations you wish to listen to and to add to your regular preset buttons, you will want your tuner to have a "search" feature. If this search feature were centrally controlled, we would very soon move towards centralized, undemocratic media control. Instead, we include a decentralized search feature in our tuner. Here again Gnutella provides one already existing model.

    As was the case with the commercial-free nature of our tuner, this second "add your own station" feature will be a major selling point in attracting users. This "create and customize your own content" aspect of our tuner will be another huge draw for the public at large, allowing the network to gain a large, "mass-media" listenership far larger than just community radio advocates and media activists.

  • Number 5: "Spread the Word" Feature Most tools which have been used for ill, can also be used for Good. We must make it easy to use one of the most powerful advertising tools Corporate America's has discovered: "viral marketing". A button labeled "email your friend about this tuner!" would allow an email address to be entered, a basic message used "as is" or changed, and basic information about the tuner sent to friend(s). Critical elements which would be extremely appealing to the nonpolitical, general public at large, such as those already noted (no commercials, and much more user controlled and customizable than the corporate tuners) would be highlighted and emphasized in this message. "You control the stations! No commercials!"

    Another advantage: like much Free Software, our tuner would probably be much smaller in size, more efficiently designed, less buggy, and quicker to launch than its commercial counterparts (not to speak of doing more to put the user in control instead of trying to control the user). Its small size might make it feasible, and possibly desirable to allow the "tell a friend" feature to either just send the message, or send the message with the entire tuner attached.

  • Number 6: Other features to consider: do we explicitly exclude commercial stations from the network? A milder step which might be equally empowering would be to design our tuner to have the ability to instantly display whether a station is commercial or not, and to sort them accordingly. Perhaps a module of our tuner might even be designed which keeps track of a score of each station's "content to commercial ratio" with 100 being commercial free. (Going one step further: an innate capability making our tuner "extensible" in other ways, allowing for users create their own modules which allow new indexes to be created. Such indexes would yield other ways of ranking stations by various other qualities, and by other criteria defined decentrally by the users themselves, and could be a further excellent element of programming design for our tuner).

  • Number 7: Make it more Gnutella like. Gnutella is not a program, it is a protocol. As a result, it is not only much harder (if not impossible) to shut down the Gnutella network, it is also a fundamentally more democratic network since you can choose from a multitude of "Gnutella clients," averting a potential monopoly of control. In other words, the community can over time democratically create new types of clients.

    Thus a more ambitious but very worthwhile goal for the benevolent hackers of the world would be to create a "protocol" allowing for democratizing features such as those outlined here. This community of programmers, part of a larger community of democratization advocates and in contact with this larger group, can then also create a first tuner (IRT) based on that protocol (the rest of which is outlined below). Since the protocol would be public, other groups could create compatible tuners. This allows not just for choice, but it would prevent a monopolistic control over the tuner by those who created it.

    As much as possible, however, the protocol would make it easy to include the positive features outlined above, and (while still being compatible with the stations out there) would make it harder to include tuners which take away user control over stations or content, or which are advertisement based.

  • Number 8: What about funding? As noted, our tuner would not have commercials, and would either exclude or at least discourage commercial content in the virtual ratio stations it finds, displays, and plays for us. However, a simple button or two could be added towards the critical goal of financial viability -- and indeed, towards robustness, if we wish to be viable as a mass-audience competitor of the corporate media.

    Overall design is very simple. One button would say "Support this Artist." Another would read, "Support this Station." We tentatively suggest a third small button: "Support this Project" (perhaps, instead of a third button, this message would appear over one of the two main buttons during breaks).

    Making this a reality should not require any fundamentally new technology. Artists and stations who wish to receive funds through our streaming-content, Gnutella-like network would simply register. Like all the other elements, the method of registration will need to be designed in such a way that there is no monopolizable or centralized control over the registration. This would allow for virtual donations to be sent to an "account" which the artist or station has set up, and can access. The basic idea is that simple. Yet it is extremely powerful and is critical first, for financial stability, and second, in broader ways spelled out below.

    In analogy, PGP already allows people to tell the world "if you want a secure way to email me a message, here's how". It should be possible to design -- and implement today -- mechanisms which live up to the democratic principles outlined here, which would allow anyone to effectively say "if you want a secure way to send me money, here's how." Like PGP, this would make completely unnecessary any reliance on systems which are under central control (and therefore, in this world, most likely corporate control).

    We wish to emphasize: Designing, creating, and successfully implementing such a system so it is easy to use, and widely used, would be a significant contribution towards the financial viability of a broad array of grassroots media projects, genuine media democratization, and would provide far-reaching support of virtually any other grassroots civic/activist endeavor. As such it would make a fundamental, historic contribution towards humanity having at its disposal tools which allow for a transition from capitalism and centralized corporate control to economic democracy, democratic-cooperative-decentralized-financial-planning, freedom and independence, and communal interdependence by means of free association.

    The above also provides one specific example which is informed by the general but still emerging vision of a "financial version of Gnutella" allowing for financial transactions in a way which facilitates critical on-going financing from-the-bottom-up of democratically controlled projects. (Centrally controlled projects already have all the funding mechanisms they need: corporations, IPOs, etc!) [See EconomicDemocracy's Piece on Funding. It needs to be further developed to speak to creating, e.g. our decentralized democratic nonprofit "answer" to IPOs that uses technology to help level the playing field for capital raising for non-profit entities. But it's a start]

    An important side note: it cannot be emphasized enough that Left activists need to resist "anti money" instincts. Money is a tool. Corporate economic tyranny (and money "voting" rather than people voting, as under our present economic system) are the problem, not money per se, which is a social construction signifying a right to use a certain amount of resources. And activists certainly do need to be able mobilize resources. Unless we are willing to take the issue of funding seriously, we will end up giving "the other side" a monopoly on having financially stable (and thus viable) media institutions (or any other kind of institutions). And without viable institutions, you can kiss your revolution -- or fundamental social change towards a saner world -- goodbye.

    In short: it is important resist attitudes that it is somehow "dirty" or "selling out" or beneath us to think, carefully and strategically, about money issues. Money is just a social construct for control over resources. What is dirty is centralized control over resources. Democratically controlled money means democratic control over resources. And that is not the enemy. In fact, "democratic control over (substantial and ongoing) resources" is absolutely critical towards achieving the goals of democratic control over other elements of society, including media.

  • Number 9: A coup for the democratic revolution. Or: Engage in "Positive Propaganda" Promotion. The funding of artists, made possible by the "buttons" scheme suggested above, will also be a public opinion coup. Obviously it is the right thing to do: so long as we live in an economy where wages are needed to survive, artists deserve such compensation. But additionally, this feature will take a lot of the wind out of the sails of the corporate powers that be, which will work hard to shut us down. "If you believe in the free market," we can ask, "why won't you let each artist decide for themselves if that's how they want to get paid?"

    Our public opinion coup will be the result of several elements of the program outlined here, elements which have a broad appeal to the general population, not just to those who are "converts" already. Much more direct, fair, and more robust compensation to artists, which our protocol-and-tuners will offer, will be one such element (and why pay $20 for a CD of which the artist gets $1, when you can donate $1 directly to the artist? Or donate 10 cents each of your 10 or 20 or more listens, if that is what you feel like); other powerful aspects have been mentioned already: "No advertisements!" and "more control for you" (e.g., "you control the station lineup!") and these will provide much needed wind to our own sails as we work to establish an Alternative Mass-Media" with listenership in the millions, as outlined in the feasibility study and strategic vision piece, The Revolution Will be Webcast by

    Keeping our eyes on the prize, and keeping focused on the pragmatic in order to achieve the programmatic, is key. A more tentative suggestion, depending on how necessary it may turn out to be, is the following:

  • Number 10: Pool Bandwidth. Bandwidth refers to the total number of bits per second one can either broadcast or receive. For the broadcaster, this affects how large your maximum audience size can be. It's not clear if technological/financial obstacles posed by the cost of bandwidth will remain significant in our hypothetical timeframe of media democracy by 2005. If it should turn out to be an obstacle, the following technical suggestion may offer a significant solution: pool bandwidth.

    If I have a cable modem connection of say 450K/second, and I am set up to broadcast a virtual radio station, I can only have about 30 simultaneous listeners if each audio connection requires 15K/second. If we want to have 100,000 or a million listeners to nationally (virtually) broadcast progressive programming, we need much higher bandwidth, which might get very expensive if very-high-bandwidth connections remain expensive. In fact, if the funding mechanisms suggested here and elsewhere on are implemented successfully, this will not be a problem. However this will not happen overnight. What to do in the meantime? What if we pooled bandwidth?

    Take a 1 hour show. It could be Nader on healthcare or Chomsky or Parenti on foreign policy or McChesney on the media. Suppose there were just 5000 volunteers nationally (an average of only 100 per state) who had cable modem and who had that show sitting on their hard drive, say, by their having become a "registered-rebroadcaster volunteer." Then together we could have a listenership of about 150,000. Given the subscriber base of even the more "radical" groups such as Z magazine, indymedia, etc, 5000 volunteers is a significant but quite achievable goal. Given thoughtfully designed mechanisms for financial sustainability, 150,000 is more than the needed size for a "critical mass" from which point the network could grow into the multiple millions.

    [Update The above was off the top of my head; now a refined idea comes along: "Until the advent of Neuralcast Technology, rich media delivery was based on one-way communication - server to player, origin to edge. During heavy use periods, this method was less-than-effective as bottlenecks occurred and wait times increased. Neuralcast Technology does away with the idea of one-way communication by creating a self-aware, "honeycomb" network in which all servers talk to each other seamlessly and make instantaneous decisions about capacity sharing, optimization and redundancy. Turning any point in a network into both an origin and an edge, Neuralcast Technology allows content to be injected into the network at any point and delivered anywhere. This allows for a much larger audience while affording individual users a better media experience (no bottlenecks or downtime)." (this is from but similar (indeed, better) ideas from the Free Softwware[link] world no doubt will continue to emerg)

    All of this would happen in parallel: the mechanisms for financial sustainability would grow alongside a volunteer base which would help expand the larger listener base which would help increase the funding base, which would allow for more bandwidth, etc, in an ever improving "virtuous circle" (see also the Webcast article).

    That such bandwidth-pooling technology is possible is demonstrated by both Gnutella and the centralized versions like Napster: you may find a file "mymusic.mp3" sitting on someone else's hard drive; their bandwidth and your lets them "upload" and lets you "download" that file from their drive to mine. I just have to wait until the file is on my drive before I can listen. Downloading from multiple sources simultaneously, thus attaining faster downloads (read: more effective bandwidth) has already been implemented (e.g. by the centralized as well as by Gnuttella client LimeWire). So I can download pieces of the file from multiple sources simultaneously. A streaming version of this technology, incorporated into the software, protocols, and search capabilities of the IRT mentioned above would allow the kind of bandwidth pooling suggested here to be implemented even more robustly.

    Other types of pooling are already somewhat well known, e.g. computer power, or CPU power is pooled in some screen savers that use your computer's number crunching abilities for scientific research when your computer is otherwise inactive. This allows hundreds of thousands of computers to join and to create a virtual computer together which is more powerful than the fastest single supercomputer in the world. And is a "poor man's supercomputers" since having many 200Mhz computers is cheaper by far than buying a handful of Cray supercomputers. Pooling bandwidth may turn out to be unnecessary, but it is worth investigating (and benevolently "exploiting") for the cause of democracy, should scarcity of bandwidth turn out to be a weak link in the chain necessary for achieving an alternative mass media based initially on IRTs in its first phase.

    *    *    *    *

    [Last thoughts, not yet incorporated into this essay-proposal:]

  • More expansive: voting mechanisms should be built into our tuner/protocol. Mechanisms for democratic collective actions are critical; without them, democracy withers, decays, and dies. Without them, we have decisions in the hand of isolated, and thus still controllable, individuals without access to a community gears towards information sharing, discussion, debate, and consensus making. There must be an ability to control our network in ways that foster and facilitated communities and sub-communities engaging in a step wise series of steps leading towards consensus ideas and even on ever wider projects.

    [For example, some day this mechanism could be used by the democratic-ITR community to vote in favor of, and thus either pressure or force, a less steep pyramid in how artists get a "curve" to a final exam in a course, we could vote to modify the results of the popularity voting so that the results of the "click here to contribute/donate to this artists" [or station] are cushioned in a progressive way: people could voluntarily choose to make their own ITR use that metric (the arguments in in favor of which could spread like viral marketing of this wholesome idea): those at the top get a little less then the votes say. Those at the bottom get a little bit more. Instead of a handful of multi-millionaire artists and the rest struggling, the multi-millionaires would be a bit less rich, while the other 98% of the artists would be one step closer to financial freedom. Same for struggling community radio stations, producers of radio shows, etc.

    But this is just one idea. The key things are the voting mechanisms, which could implement his or many other ideas. And as noted, sub-blocks should be able to vote. Sub-communities can create sub-networks which have certain "rules", so they can live by their own members' ideas and ideals, even if "everyone else" does not wish to go along with some particular decisions.]

  • Versions for cellphones and for "internet appliances" will take the internet -- and this project -- far beyond your desktop, as will possible wireless networks taking sounds from your desktop to the rest of your house. As will internet-capable cars. [See Webcast article]

  • For de-centralized user voting system many models (e.g. the SlashDot model) can be looked at and considered in the design of the protocols.

    [Linking this project to community radio stations...]

  • Chuck D: "digital music can work for an artist, allowing them to take control of their work and get closer to their fans. " The system provides a flexible and powerful infrastructure capable of supporting a wide range of applications, including: Uncensorable dissemination of controversial information: Freenet protects freedom of speech by enabling anonymous and uncensorable publication of material ranging from grassroots alternative journalism to banned exposes like Peter (Spycatcher) Wright's and David Shayler's revelations about MI5. Efficient distribution of high-bandwidth content: Freenet's adaptive caching and mirroring is being used to distribute Debian Linux software updates and to combat the Slashdot effect. Universal personal publishing: Freenet enables anyone to have a website, without space restrictions or compulsory advertising, even if you don't own a computer. Freenet is an open, democratic system which cannot be controlled by any one person, not even its creators. It was originally designed by Ian Clarke and is being implemented on the open-source model by a number of volunteers
  • poor outlook for paid online music but opportunities "to commercialize much more" rave execs. BBC, Sep 01

          One likes to believe in the freedom of music, 
          But glittering prizes and endless compromises 
          Shatter the illusion of integrity. 
          For the words of the profits were written on the studio wall, 
          Concert hall 
          And echoes with the sounds of salesmen. 
    -Rush, The Spirit of Radio
          All this machinery making modern music 
          Can still be open-hearted. 
          Not so coldly charted, it's really just a question 
          Of your honesty, yeah, your honesty. 
    -Rush, The Spirit of Radio

  • Already available for $300 or so is Phillip's FW-i1000 See long list of problems and concerns -- but a decentralized noncorporate free software version would allow all of these to be eliminated.