History – Walking the Delicate Line Between Reporter and Activist
Reason magazine|October 2021
I spent the second half of the 1990s hanging out with people who operate unlicensed radio stations. That was partly because I was covering them as a reporter, and it was partly because I was active in a movement to legalize their illicit transmissions.
By Jesse Walker

I spent the second half of the 1990s hanging out with people who operate unlicensed radio stations. That was partly because I was covering them as a reporter, and it was partly because I was active in a movement to legalize their illicit transmissions. I didn’t see anything wrong with that dual role—I wasn’t pretending to be objective, and anyone who read my articles could see where I stood—but sometimes the lines got a little blurry.

Like the night in 1998 when I found myself standing on a nondescript West Philly block with a crew of crunchy anarchists. An outlet called Radio Mutiny was hosting an East Coast gathering of pirate broadcasters, and we had just been through a day of workshops, speeches, and press interviews; now some of us were about to get a tour of the station’s makeshift studio. One of the local pirates looked around to reassure himself that there weren’t any interlopers. “OK, all the reporters are gone,” he said. “We can go up now.”

One of my scruples kicked in, and I raised my hand. “Uh...you guys do know what I do for a living, right?”

They laughed. “Oh, you’re OK, Jesse,” one said, unlocking the door and ushering us inside. I hadn’t set out to do immersion journalism, but evidently, I was immersed.

IT WASN’T THE first unlicensed station I visited, and it wasn’t the last. In 1999, as I was crossing the country to start a new job, some pirates in Texas even put me up for the night in their transmitter room, which meant sleeping on a stack of dirty mattresses next to a machine that emitted the most high-pitched sound I’d ever heard. Eventually, I published a book about all these broadcasters and the history that had shaped them. Rebels on the Air came out in September 2001—not, in retrospect, the best month to sell a book about radio—and now it is turning 20.

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