Godfather of low-power radio back on air despite shutdown

Thursday, November 16, 2000
Mbanna Kantako and his wife, Dia.

Agents and marshals descended upon Mbanna Kantako’s modest
Springfield, Ill., home prepared to shut down Human Rights Radio, hailed by
many as the station that launched the low-power radio movement.

Kantako, armed with video cameras and tape recorders, had waited
nearly 13 years for this moment. As the agents severed wires and packed up
transmitters, microphones, compact discs and speakers, Kantako and his family
captured every moment on tape.

“You can’t believe how much Mbanna savored the moment,” said Mike
Townsend, a University of Illinois in Springfield sociology professor and
longtime friend of Kantako. “In a never-ending game of political chess, the
corporate state had blinked. Mbanna had made them blink in public.”

That raid last Sept. 28 ended Kantako’s nearly 13 years of unlicensed
broadcasting from Springfield housing projects and low-rent neighborhoods. U.S.
marshals and the Federal Communications Commission said Kantako’s station at
106.5 FM emitted an errant signal at 121.3 megahertz that interfered with
air-traffic communications.

After an Oct. 4 hearing, a federal judge issued a preliminary
injunction barring Kantako from further broadcasts. Sixteen days later, Kantako
returned to the air.

But his renewed presence on the radio dial has yet to spark another
raid or a permanent injunction.

“We have to figure out whether he is still on the air and then decide
what we need to do about it,” said Jim Lewis, a spokesman for the U.S.
attorney’s office in Springfield.

Kantako, a fiercely private man who rarely gives interviews, rejects
FCC claims that his signals interfered with air-traffic communications. One
claim of interference, he said, came the day after officials shut his station

“You’re on the air to present your views, to be heard,” he said.
“You’re not on there to dog anyone else out. We’ve moved nine times in the last
13 years. Why? Because other signals were dominating us.”

That aside, Kantako says he doesn’t trust government. It’s a system,
he says, of arbitrary privilege, granting some people certain rights while
leaving others without.

“I’m just trying to show people that … we can’t go through the court
system anymore,” Kantako said. “We’re just going through motions. People don’t
care anymore. It’s designed to extract from you every little thing they can

Kantako says that in the eyes of corporate broadcasting and the
government he has no right to have a station or to air his views over the
nation’s radio waves.

“No broke, blind, black man in the projects is going to go on the
air,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen.”

But it did happen, back when Kantako, a 28-year-old blind disc jockey,
fired up a tiny 30-watt transmitter on Nov. 25, 1987, from Springfield’s John
Jay Homes to offer programming to a mostly black neighborhood.

Soon after his debut, the FCC took him to federal court.

The court ordered him to pay a $750 fine and to stop broadcasting.
Told he couldn’t have an attorney represent him in the matter, Kantako refused
to pay the fine or to close his station. He stayed on the air and hunkered down
for an FCC raid that didn’t come for nearly 13 years.

News of Kantako’s defiance spread, encouraging other protestors
skilled in civil disobedience to launch their own low-power stations. Some
so-called pirates, including Stephen Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley, Richard
Edmondson of San Francisco Liberation Radio and Pete tri Dish of the Prometheus
Radio Project, credit Kantako as the first to use radio to organize a

“He’s a real unique character of courage and willpower,” said Dish, a
carpenter from Philadelphia who uses his on-air moniker when discussing radio
issues. “He decided he was right about this a long time ago and the only way
was to stay on the air. And he was willing to face the consequences.”

Dish said he had heard a recent speech from FCC Chairman William
Kennard praising a South African radio pirate for defying apartheid laws and
staying on the air through the 1970s and ’80s.

“But it was ironic that they shut Kantako down within three days of
that speech,” Dish said.

These low-power broadcasters contend they have a First Amendment right
to operate their radio stations, particularly because larger stations don’t
offer diverse voices.

On the other hand, the National Association of Broadcasters, which
represents most licensed broadcasters in the United States, maintains that the
right to broadcast is a limited one because of the scarcity of broadcast
frequencies. Without licenses, it contends, there would be chaos on the

The FCC, however, has accepted more than 1,300 applications for new
low-power radio licenses and may award the first batch of licenses in the
coming months. Court challenges and Congress could delay such

That doesn’t concern Kantako, who wouldn’t be eligible for a low-power
license even if he wanted one. The FCC won’t grant a license to anyone who has
broadcast illegally since February 1998.

But for Kantako, the right to the airwaves is a God-given right and
not one granted by a government. He says it is his duty to his community to
continue the broadcasts, comparing it to certain members of a tribe maintaining
the council fires.

Kantako said he was on the air almost every day from the time he
launched his radio station in 1987 to the day FCC agents and U.S. marshals
arrived at his door. He counts 4,247 days of broadcasting during that

“All things you do, we are taught, are marked in the universe,”
Kantako said. “So you have to be careful. I tell people if 4,247 nights doesn’t
prove that the Creator wants us to do this, then how many nights?”