The Art of Alternative Radio: from Radio Alice to Açık Radyo

by Chaeeun Lee*

In 1987, Antoni Muntadas presented Cross-Cultural Television as a special feature of the sixth issue of Infermental, an international video magazine founded by Hungarian filmmakers Gábor and Vera Bódy in 1980. For the final 35-minute video, Muntadas, in collaboration with a Canadian artist Hank Bull, compiled and edited hours of local news footage they received from around 30 artists in 15 different countries.[1] The result was a non-stop stream of icons, music, gestures, vocabularies, actors and stage sets that were typical of mainstream broadcast news. Despite the different languages being used, the succession of each segment only testified to the degree of homogeneity that regulated the global media—the remarkable uniformity that at first astonishes the viewer, but soon becomes unbearable, overwhelming, and stifling.

Eleven years later, Muntadas embarked on a two-year project that took as its subject a radio station that embodied a countercurrent to this homogenizing force. During his residency in Istanbul, Turkey, he collaborated with Açık Radyo, a private radio station founded in 1995 by 92 individuals with equal shares.[2] Maintained almost entirely through the services of volunteers, the radio “collective,” as it calls itself, describes its mission as follows:

Açık Radyo is not dependent on any interest group or any capital group. It is also completely independent from the state, and from any kind of “ideology” except the principles of pluralist democracy, the rule of law, and the protection and promotion of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms.[3]

The radio station’s singularity also resides in its fundamental openness (hence the name “Açık Radyo,” meaning “Open Radio”), that is, the openness towards the vital heterogeneity of the world, to “all the sounds, colors, and vibrations of the universe.”[4] This is perhaps best exemplified by the range of subjects it enumerates as topics for its talk shows. To choose only a handful of items from the list, the subjects include: news and commentary, environment, public culture, philosophy, language, civil society, birth, women, history, mathematics, mind games, science, science-fiction, mythology, anthropology, human brain, economy, architecture, world literature, cinema, plastic arts, Internet, electronic games, psychology, business world, health, cuisine, wine, scent, football, amateur aviation, earthquake preparedness, and animal rights.[5]

Muntadas’ involvement in Açık Radyo during the years 2008-2010 resulted in a 31-minute video titled On Translation: Açık Radyo, which is divided into roughly two parts: first, an overview of the radio station and the project, and second, a documentation of Muntadas’ program, titled “Myths and Stereotypes,” broadcast on Açık Radyo. The program gathered voices of nearly 20 individuals, who gave candid opinions about various issues that still prevail in and around the city of Istanbul—class and spatial division within the city, the new neoliberal order, economic and political instability, Orientalism, the “Istanbul myths,”[6] the city’s relationship with the rest of Europe, its art and journalism, censorship, etc. For instance, one particular interviewee articulated the precarious state of art and culture in Istanbul:

Today you receive full support for something; the next day you may find yourself all alone. There is a strong indefiniteness, which leads to instability, discontinuity and unhealthiness production-wise. Istanbul is like a very slippery floor. Everything flows away and nothing can stick on the surface. When we think what an important role the marketing of the culture industry in Istanbul has been playing recently, staying out of the network has severe consequences. If you stay out of the list of the culture tourism, it’s impossible for you to survive as an artist. I’m personally a part of this industry and this fact really bugs me.

Her unyielding assessment of the city’s culture industry is noteworthy particularly because Muntadas’ project was initiated on the occasion of Istanbul being chosen as the European Capital of Culture (ECOC) for the year 2010. The official account states that for a period of one year, a city designated as an ECOC by the European Union is to “provide living proof of the richness and diversity of European cultures” and “showcase its cultural development”[7]—a prerogative that is immediately put into question by her skepticism.

Some of the commentaries inserted in the first half of the video render a more direct and sardonic statement about the occasion:

A city where so much investment is made into shopping malls and where culture is limited to the popular, this does not leave me with the impression of being a capital of culture. . . Istanbul was declared the 2010 European Culture Capital, but of course this is a decision by those who made this declaration. I don’t think that any public body or organization in Turkey greatly worries about it.

Undermining the authority of official narratives as well as the authenticity of popular stories (i.e. myths and stereotypes), Muntadas’ collaboration with Açık Radyo disrupts our understanding of the ways that common conceptions are circulated and fixed. As the final video articulates in its introduction, Açık Radyo surely “has an activist side.” At the same time, the project invites us to explore the possibility of creating and maintaining an autonomous zone in the globalized media landscape. Providing a platform for free speech and an independent channel of communication, Açık Radyo has constantly devoted itself to stimulating an open discourse that is not hampered by the state or corporate ideology.

Antoni Muntadas, On Translation: Açık Radyo, 2010, 31:46 min, color, soundCourtesy the artist

Antoni Muntadas, On Translation: Açık Radyo, 2010, 31:46 min, color, sound. Courtesy the artist

In fact, attempts to reform the mass media and utilize it for revolutionary purposes have persisted throughout history. As early as 1932, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote the famous essay “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication,” asserting the need to transform radio into a two-way system that receives as well as transmits, communicates rather than distributes. [8] Witnessing the rampant commercialization of the medium in the United States, where broadcasting had begun nearly a decade earlier than in Germany, Brecht sought to channel its capacity into a more liberal, pedagogical goal so as to deviate from the control of bourgeois capitalism.[9] With the power to reach an audience of an unprecedented scale, radio, if used properly, seemed to Brecht “the finest possible communication apparatus in public life.”[10]

Yet, as Frederic Jameson points out, Brecht’s theory proved to be “inadequate to account for the present circumstances precisely because it assumes (or at least requires) that the media and the most advanced technologies be placed at the disposal of the artist.”[11] In reality, radio has been subject to the extensive commodification of culture throughout the 20th century, ultimately making itself part of the increasingly “total system” of the contemporary media societies. As Everett Frost, KPFK radio’s Director of Theater and Literature[12] aptly describes, these technological resources have rather been “placed at the disposal of corporate sponsors (in commercial radio) and corporate underwriters (in ‘noncommercial’ radio) for the development of a complicated taxonomy of niche audiences and large mass audiences.”[13]

If Brecht’s ambition to reform the radio as such proved unattainable, experiments with mass media in the latter half of the century alternately employed a strategy of securing an independent space against the backdrop of the corporate- and/or state-controlled media landscape. One such example is Radio Alice, a free radio station in Bologna, Italy, which operated in the short period between 1976-78. Established in 1976 when the Italian Constitutional Court legalized private broadcasting, Radio Alice was initiated by a group of people who were involved in the Autonomia movement, who sought to experiment with a political form that is non-hierarchical, non-unified, and de-centralized.[14]

In the period of political unrest marked by the struggle of new proletariat of disaffected and unemployed youth, workers, and intellectuals, the alternative radio station served as a radically open structure at which the diverse experiences of small groups intersected—feminists, workers, students, gays, etc. Each person or group was welcomed to represent its own point of view, unchecked by any kind of censorship or “top-down” decisions.[15] Operating outside the traditional sites of political struggle yet deeply engaged in the politics of public and private experiences, Radio Alice epitomized the kind of radical struggle that spread “out of the factory and into the society” in the 1970s Italy—the experiments in new democratic forms in horizontal networks ultimately constituted “a form of life.”[16]

Studio of Radio Alice

Studio of Radio Alice

One may get a glimpse of the radio station’s strong proclivity for diversity and open structure in the following introduction of the radio station delivered on the first day of broadcasting, which, in certain ways, is analogous to the long list of subjects from Açık Radyo.

Radio Alice broadcasts: music, news, gardens in bloom, conversations, inventions, discoveries, recipes, horoscopes, magic potions, love, war bulletins, photographs, messages, massages, and lies.[17]

What is also detectable here is the collective’s penchant for poetic language and irony, which testifies to its close ties with the field of art and literature. As the interview between Carlos Ordonez and Franco Berardi confirms, the language of Radio Alice was imbued with poetic lyricism, Dadaist nonsense and self-referential irony, and they often read from various literary sources, from Lautreamont to de Sade.[18] A series of lectures, readings and workshops on Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus in Bologna was also one of the factors that shaped its identity.[19]

Its overarching connection to Dadaism was of particular significance. Not only was the rhetoric of irony and absurdity frequently employed to dislocate the conventions of political language, but the Dadaist ambition to overcome the separation between art and life was believed to be finally realized through the utilization of broadcast media—via the immediate dispersion of artistic language to the young proletariats, “from the masses to the masses.”[20] The innovative use of the medium simultaneously allowed for a shift in political activism “from a critically conscious consumption of the already given and the already said to a critically conscious production [emphasis added]”[21]—a production of culture. Such interests are certainly implied in Berardi’s remark that Radio Alice, in effect, conceived itself as “an artistic object.”[22]

In the meantime, it was the active use of a live phone-in system that really effectuated and facilitated the circulation as well as the production of diverse voices—a technology that would potentially realize Brecht’s aspiration to turn radio into a two-way machine. The telephone communication allowed for a reversal of roles, as listeners were able to speak about their experiences to others listening to the radio as well as to the broadcasting crew. As Berardi recollects, through such use of technology “a special kind of interchange of information” was created, whereby a circulation of opinions eventually led to a circulation of struggle.[23]

The callers played an especially pivotal role during a particular incident in Bologna in March 1977 when the Autonomist demonstration reached its peak. Motivated by the killing of Francesco Lo Russo, a student participant of the protest by the carabinieri, the protestors sought to establish “free zones” where the police could not intervene. They put up barricades around the university quarter in Bologna, which subsequently became the site of violent clashes between the demonstrators and the police.[24] Radio Alice, with its call-in system, connected the people onsite to the rest of the protesters so that they could exchange information and help one another promptly. Live news reports of the uprising were delivered through telephone as well. However, as Berardi recalls, the radio station was more than simply being a “walkie-talkie of the riots.” Instead, he continues:

People were also ringing in to say that we were extremists or killers and that we should criticize the movement on the streets. It was 20 hours a day of free speech about what was happening on the streets.[25]

As Simone Castaldi rightfully claims, this “willingness to broadcast absolutely unfiltered and uncensored live phone calls”—which included political rants, complaints, Dadaist poems, improvised music, personal stories, and even criticisms against the radio station itself—was “the true innovative aspect of the station.”[26] Unfortunately, the transmission was soon met with a state action, as the police ravaged the radio station, arresting its members and destroying the facilities.[27]

Considering the radio station’s open structure, non-hierarchical organization, and independent standing, one might duly describe Radio Alice as a prototype of Açık Radyo. Despite certain differences that distinguish the two radio stations (e.g. the size of the collective, the structure of weekly programming, and the specifics of its political orientation), they share a twin spirit, structured in a non-hierarchical formation, striving to undermine the official narrative, casting doubt on the status quo through the strategy of securing an autonomous channel of mass communication.

Demonstration at Taksim Square, June 15, 2013

Demonstration at Taksim Square, June 15, 2013

In this light, it is no coincidence that in the summer of 2013, when a violent uprising took place in Istanbul in resistance to the urban development plan for Taksim Gezi Park, Açık Radyo emerged as a crucial means of communication for the local citizens. Against the government decision to replace the park—one of the few green zones and public gathering sites left at the center of the city—with a shopping mall and a residential area, the protesters built an encampment in the park to stop the bulldozers from forcing their way in.[28] The sit-in protest grew into a massive riot as the police began to evict the occupants violently, using tear gas and water cannons, which ultimately resulted in the death of 11 protesters and 8,000 injured over the period of several months.[29] In a broader sense, the protest was symptomatic of the citizens’ discontent that had long been accumulating under the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Tear gas used on Istiklİstiklâl Caddesi near Gezi Park, İstanbul. Photo by Alan Hilditch

Tear gas used on Istiklİstiklâl Caddesi near Gezi Park, İstanbul.
Photo by Alan Hilditch

Despite the scale of the protests and the sense of urgency that was palpable onsite, the mainstream media largely ignored the incident or downplayed its significance; they even disseminated disinformation—evidently resulting from the government’s oppressive media control—portraying the uprising as pernicious to the good of society.[30] Açık Radyo was one of the few Turkish broadcasting media that reported the situation extensively from the early stage.[31] From the first day of resistance, the radio station covered the news through its regular news report program day and night, and after a week it expanded the coverage by inaugurating a new daily program, “Gezi Park.”[32] Not unlike Radio Alice in March 1977, Açık Radyo made an active use of telephone connections to deliver vivid portrayals of the demonstration and the voices of diverse groups. As one participant describes, “protesters in their cars in traffic, those who were exposed to the police interventions, some doctors, and even [his] mom” phoned-in to share their opinions and tell everyone what was going on.[33]

It is noteworthy that Açık Radyo maintained the daily program “Gezi Park” well beyond the duration of Gezi Park protest. Since August 2013, when the initial fervor of the demonstration died down, the program began to trace the aftermath of the protest and track the occurrences of similar movements that continued in response to the corruptive government and its oppressive domestic policies. At times, the radio station revisited the experience through various forms of reiteration; for one thing, it created an audio documentary out of the recordings of the voices broadcast through Açık Radyo during the period of heightened demonstrations between May 27 and June 15, 2013, which was then aired at the end of November 2013. A radio play was also written based on the experience of the Gezi uprising and is currently being performed and broadcast on a regular basis.

Such an extension of the project over a prolonged period of time has contributed to the perpetuation of the ideals and the memories of struggle. At the same time, such efforts bear a productive potential to create some sort of radical culture; this culture, doubtlessly, would constitute part of the larger culture Açık Radyo has been generating over the 18 years of its history, in its constant endeavor to sustain the autonomy of speech and communication.

***

Açık Radyo’s involvement in the recent political uprising sheds a new light on Muntadas’ collaborative project that ended in 2010, and also on the history of political interventions by artists using mass media. By and large, it would be fair to say that Açık Radyo is a contemporary variant of the long history of combining art and technology with radical politics. Brecht’s artistic approach to the use of radio as a two-way system, and Radio Alice’s conception of itself as an artistic entity have extended into the 21st century in Muntadas’ collaboration with Açık Radyo. All the while, the political imperatives to create a rupture in global capitalism and defy oppressive state control have been the driving force behind such creative experiments. Touching upon the politicization of language, image, and music through technology, and rejecting the hierarchies and power relations eminent in the realms of art, politics, and media, they not only validate Jacques Rancière’s famous dictum, “the politics of aesthetics” (as well as “the aesthetics of politics”), but further emphasize the tripartite linkage between aesthetics, politics, and technology.

In his book Feedback, David Joselit offers a comprehensive analysis of the artistic interventions in the United States that attempted to challenge the “closed circuit” of television broadcasting. What is of particular interest is the author’s proposal for a radically new methodology for art and art history that incorporates political activism. His critique of the contemporary “image ecology” that reproduces and reinforces the dominant ideology culminates in the concluding “Manifesto” at the end of the book, in which he proclaims:

Imagine modes of art and art history that function as political science. Stop pretending to subvert commodification by demonstrating what everyone knows—that capital is everywhere. SEIZE THE WORLD AS A READYMADE and BREAK OPEN ITS CIRCUITS. [34]

To borrow from his ideas, then, what is perhaps extraordinary about these experiments with radio technology is that they embodied moments of functional transformation in which the boundaries between of art and politics were constantly shifting, blurring the distinction between the two. Most importantly, they refused to merely portray the situation as problematic; instead, they created pathways to insert themselves in the established system of mass media, interrupting the status quo, striving to “break open” its “closed circuits.”


[1] “Infermental: Part Six- Cross Cultural TV,” Video Out Distribution, http://www.videoout.ca/catalog/infermental-part-six-cross-cultural-tv.

[2]  “What is Açık Radyo?” Açık Radyo, May 2013, http://www.Açıkradyo.com.tr/default.aspx?_mv=a&aid=12542&cat=22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Various kinds of mythical stories regarding the foundation of the city originated from the city’s long history, which have been pass down from generation to generation. They serve as a popular motif in Istanbul’s pop culture and mass media.

[8] Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on theatre: the development of an aesthetic, ed. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), 52.

[9] Everett Frost, “Babble On: Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht on the Radio as Medium, Method, Message, and Metaphor,” New Politics 11, no. 4 (2008): 117-120.

[10] Brecht, Brecht on theater, 52.

[11] Frost, “Babble On,” 124.

[12] KPFK is a non-commercial, listener-sponsored radio station based in North Hollywood, California.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Simone Castaldi, Drawn and Dangerous: Italian Comics of the 1970s and 1980s (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), 47.

“Radio Alice,” Libcom.org, http://libcom.org/history/radio-alice.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Michael Hardt, “Introduction: Laboratory Italy,” in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (A Potential Politics), ed. Paolo Vimo and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 3.

[17] Castaldi, Drawn and Dangerous, 49.

[18] “Radio Alice.”

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Castaldi, Drawn and Dangerous, 50.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Radio Alice.”

[24] François Dosse, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives, trans. Deborah Glassman (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 288.

[25] “Radio Alice.”

[26] Castaldi, Drawn and Dangerous, 49.

[27] “Radio Alice.”

[28] Ceren Erdem, “Istanbul Dispatch: Ceren Erdem on the Gezi Uprising and Beyond,” Walker Art Center, http://blogs.walkerart.org/visualarts/2013/07/17/istanbul-dispatch-ceren-erdem-on-the-gezi-uprising-and-beyond/.

[29] “2013 protests in Turkey,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_protests_in_Turkey.

[30] Erdem, “Istanbul Dispatch.”

[31] Dan Magraw, “Gezi Park/Taksim Square, Instanbul,” CIEL WORLDVIEW, http://ciel.org/wordpress_211560016/?p=933.

[32] “New Program: Trip Park,” Açık Radyo, http://www.Açıkradyo.com.tr/default.aspx?_mv=a&aid=31443.

[33] Elif Akgül, “‘Açık Radyo’da Bir Gezi’ Belgeseli,” Bianet, http://www.bianet.org/bianet/medya/151591-Açık-radyo-da-bir-gezi-belgeseli.

[34] David Joselit, Feedback: Television against Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press), 171.


*Chaeeun Lee is a second-year student in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.