Human Rights (Radio)
By Mike Townsend

Mbanna Kantako's Human Rights Radio, the 11 year old founding and flagship station of the international  micro-radio movement, is scheduled to be raided and ripped off the air by the FCC's thought police before the end of the year.  Kantako received his  "Dear Mbanna" certified letter from the FCC dated November 4.  It ordered him to cease broadcasting immediately or face the consequences- a visit from your friendly SWAT team with, perhaps, a black military helicopter thrown in for good measure.

So be it says Kantako who plans to be on-the-air broadcasting when they break down the door. Mbanna Kantako, still blind, still black, and still broke founded the micro-radio movement when he went on-the-air on Nov. 25, 1987 broadcasting from his family's small apartment in the John Hay Public Housing Project in Springfield, Il., just down the street from Abe Lincoln's home.  His original one watt transmitter was purchased from an electronic mail order outfit in Paradise, CA. for a little over $200.  It had a broadcast radius of about 8 city blocks, but that was enough to reach several thousand blacks on Springfield's segregated east side, as well as most of the downtown area, including the state capitol complex which is home to thousands of workers during the day.

Kantako used the radio as an organizing and advocacy tool to address issues of social injustice, especially in the minority community.  His perceptions and thinking evolved over the years and were reflected in the station's identity which went from WTRA to Zoom Black Magic Radio to Black Liberation Radio and, then, finally to Human Rights Radio.  The name
changes mirrored the expansion of his concerns from one of black issues to one of human rights for all people.

As the station evolved, so did it's cast of contributors.  It became a family affair with his wife Dia and his children, Konnadi, Mbanna Jr. and Ebony playing increasingly important roles. Kantako's current transmitter, a 15-30 watt, $600 model that covers a 3 mile radius was purchased with donations of $100 each from six prominent scholars; Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman, Ben Bagdikian, Herbert Schiller, Michael Parenti and Sidney Willhelm.  When the FCC is finished
with it, it should be placed in a museum somewhere. Not long after beginning the broadcasts, Kantako realized he had stumbled across a model of social action that could be used in low-income neighborhoods across the country.

Recognizing that he did not have the resources or technical expertise to get broadcasting kits into the hands of others Kantako,
instead, sought to promote his station as an idea that could be duplicated by others.  He felt the technical expertise would surface if the idea of micro-radio could be spread around the country.  An excellent article by Richard Shereikis in the Illinois Times got the ball rolling. Black. Blind. Poor. On welfare. In public housing. One Watt. Illegal. Defying the system.  Radical.  The story was irresistible.  NPR, MTV, The L.A. Times, Spin Magazine and dozens of others eventually did stories.  The
idea went national, even international.

Inspired by the Kantako stories, the hoped for electronic expert surfaced in the person of Steven Dunifer who founded Free Radio Berkely, set up a small broadcast kit production facility in a Berkeley loft and became the "Johnny Appleseed" of
micro-radio.  Several recent articles have estimated the number of micro stations in the U.S. at over 1,000 and the FCC claims to have shut down more than 400 in just the last two years.  Once fearful that Kantako might become a martyr that could spark a movement if he was shut down, the FCC waited for him to burnout on his own.  It was a grave misjudgement.

Kantako, if not the man of steel, turned out to be an iron man. In 1995, after years of harassing Kantako for operating his "illegal" radio station, for leading marches and demonstrations against police brutality and for organizing an alternative tenants' rights association, the Springfield Housing Authority suddenly announced that instead of remodeling the 600-unit John Hay site, it would be torn down.  The city offered many reasons for making this decision, but on the East side of Springfield many people believe it was to get rid of Kantako. Like a cat with nine lives, Mbanna landed on his feet again when Dia located an
upstairs apartment just north of the business district, still in range of the east side community. And the landlord turned out to be none other than the publisher of the Illinois Times, the paper that first broke the Kantako story.

Ever the resisters, Mbanna's family was the very last one to leave the projects.  Remarkably, he had the station up and running
within 90 minutes of making the move.  Kantako's most convincing demonstration of the power of micro-radio at the community level centered on the issue of police brutality.  Springfield's black citizens had an unfortunate history of dying at the hands of the cops.  After repeatedly broadcasting several gripping interviews with actual victims of police brutality, an unpublicized change came over the department.  Springfield, the home and the burial place of Abraham Lincoln is heavily dependent upon tourist dollars.  It didn't look good having Abe's cops beating and killing black citizens.  When Kantako hinted at a tourist boycott, overt misconduct by the police changed dramatically.  For the past several years Springfield has been literally free of serious police brutality.  When the FCC shuts the station down, nobody knows if the brutality will make a
comeback.  The watchdog will have been removed.

The current "shut down" letter Kantako has from the FCC is not the first one he has received.  Back in 1990 the FCC paid a visit and took him to federal court.  He was fined $750 and ordered off-the air.  He refused to pay the fine and instead of shutting down he ratcheted things up several notches by going "24/7", 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  The FCC backed off enforcing the court order.  Without the input and support of his family there is no way he could have kept up this grinding schedule.  Oh, and besides the radio station, the Kantako family, on an all volunteer basis, runs the Marcus Garvey School of Human Rights for 45 low-income youth (13 summers and counting).  They also run the Senseia Kankaji Human Rights Club for these same youth during the regular school year.  The Department of Public Aid, of course, wants Dia to stop all this non-profit work with disadvantaged young people and "get a real job".  Such is the state of "family values" as we prepare to sail into the new millennium. Kantako, who knew this confrontation with the FCC would come someday, almost relishes what is
about to happen.  He believes that the shutdown, along with that of hundreds of other micro stations around the country, convincingly demonstrates that we do not live in a democracy, but an increasingly totalitarian "Corporate State" where it's corporate rights, not human rights, that count.

The fact that this corporate state can't tolerate even minor challenges to it's total control of the information age reveals it's fear of what the mass of ordinary citizens would do if they knew what was really going on.  Micro-radio posed the threat of providing people with just that sort of information.  Shutting down micro-radio is like shutting off a small gas leak before it leads to a big explosion.  The shut-off carries a price, however.  It forces the elite (or what Kantako calls "the class with no class") to use naked state power against it's own citizens, which deals a blow to it's legitimacy to govern.  And it cuts off a crucial source of alternative information to the state itself, which, then, must increasingly rely on it's own paid "experts" who, more likely than not, tell their leaders ( and paymaster) what they think they want to hear.  The result is planning built on increasingly faulty data.
Problems, problems, problems. Nobody ever said it would be easy for the top 5 percent to hang onto more wealth than the bottom 95 percent of the population has. When the FCC breaks into the outlaw Kantako family's upstairs apartment and holds guns to everybody's head, they will be taking on an awesome responsibility.  The 2000 plus homemade tapes they will remove represent a decade of Springfield's history from an alternative perspective, as well as an important part of the development of a national grassroots citizen's movement.  It's the theft of history.  It's cultural genocide.  The power structure will have in it's possession items of evidence that Kantako believes will one day be used against them for "crimes against the people"

Kantako's last day of broadcasting won't be much different than the other 3,565 he has done.  There will be interviews
with his mentor, former Black Panther and Human Rights Visionary Senseia Kankaji; and another with an employee of a national tele-marketing firm that just skipped town without paying it's employees, dozens of whom were taken off welfare to fill the fly-by-night firm's positions.  There will be "Notes On The Devil's News" deconstructing the "official" version of the day's events as presented by the mainstream media.  There will be lots of socially conscious rap and reggae music.  There will be an audio rebroadcast of the children's performances at last summer's rites of passage for the Marcus Garvey School. And then, last and live, there will be the sound of the thought police bashing through the door in a futile
attempt to kill human rights.

Mbanna Kantako can be reached at: 217/527-8747
7192 North 6th Street
Springfield IL 62702

Mike Townsend is an Associate  Professor of Social Work at the University of Illinois-Springfield. He helped Mbanna Kantako found     Human Rights Radio in 1987.  E-mail:

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