By Heather Gray
It is probably true that most of us involved with community radio instinctively know of its relevance to our communities. However, occasionally there are those in our midst who can beautifully articulate the importance of having community radio available to us and it’s empowering influence both from a philosophical perspective and based on experience. Elizabeth Robinson is that person.
Elizabeth represents more than a voice for the philosophical underpinnings of community radio and experience in virtually all its aspects. She has, in fact, also deliberately acted to preserve the integrity of community radio in the United States and internationally. She is, without doubt, a leader in our community radio movement who is likely without match.
Recently Elizabeth retired from her position as KCSB Advisor and Associated Students Associate Director for Media at KCSB after 31 years of employment at the University of California Santa Barbara. KCSB, in fact, is the college station at Santa Barbara.
She is also a producer at KCSB of the show No Alibis. And while she might be retired, everyone knows she’s not giving up radio. It’s her passion. In a recent article about her retirement, here’s what she had to say about the station and the importance of community radio:
“[KCSB] is a place that values everybody’s voice,” Robinson said. “Obviously we can’t get everybody on the air, but the idea that everyone should be able to have access to broadcasting if they want to is very important and it’s an important value that we have. So you don’t have to have a ‘radio voice,’ whatever that means… and you don’t have to have training; we do all of that. When you hear yourself, it’s empowering. It’s not just some talking head somewhere else that gets to form opinions, we all have values and things to say and that’s what we do here is give people an opportunity to say what they think or share music they appreciate and so on….” (Stefani: 2012).
But how did she get involved in the first place?
Perhaps one of the most compelling needs for community voices is in response to war when another perspective apart from the corporate media is almost always an imperative. As Elizabeth noted in a 2005 article, the corporate media generally serves as the propaganda tool for the government. It invariably invokes the perceived need for war by deliberately fabricating the facts or twisting the information about the so-called enemy. Although, as she noted in the article, often it’s what’s not reported that’s important and she recognized the necessity of hearing the voices and stories of those, for example, being targeted by the military along with the relevant historical facts that are invariably distorted (Robinson: 2005). But with Elizabeth, it’s also the grassroot perspective that’s paramount and how it’s defined or described. Regarding this, she wrote about the universality of the “Third World”:
“We do not speak of the global ‘South’ because we recognize the Third World as a condition, not a place. In recent years, we have covered the former Soviet Union and the Roma, even as social, economic and political realities have degraded in those areas and for those people. And we recognize that the Third World exists in Los Angeles, Detroit, London, Marseilles and other parts of the First World” (Robinson: 2005).
Elizabeth is Arab American with roots in Lebanon. When the U.S. and Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Elizabeth realized the critical need for another perspective on it all to counter the corporate media’s misinformation (and it’s still in need today, she says, on the Middle East overall). This was the catalyst that launched her long and distinguished career in community radio. She reported on the 1982 conflict for the Third World News Review (TWNR) – a radio program created by her husband, Cedric Robinson, and Corey Dubin, that remains a critical radio production in Santa Barbara. After her 1982 reporting on the struggles in the Middle East, Elizabeth began her advocacy for community radio in the United States and internationally.
She began to play an instrumental role in the Pacifica network and recognized the importance of community radio stations throughout the country, not just as consumers of programs from Pacifica, but as producers and distributors themselves. With this in mind, she was one of the major catalysts in the creation of our current Pacifica Network affiliates program by serving on its founding committee in 2002, and to ensure that affiliate stations had a seat on the Pacifica board.
When, in the early 1990’s, Elizabeth became aware of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters “healthy station project” (HSP) she organized against these trends. The HSP began making demands that community radio stations should have, for example, professionals speaking for the community that essentially would diminish the power of volunteers in the content and production of shows and/or diminish community folks speaking for themselves. This was one of the criteria, but overall the HCB plan was to homogenize, and some would say commercialize, the stations that would dramatically and negatively affect the presence of diverse cultures and voices in community radio.
In response, Marty Durlin of KGNU and Cathy Melio of WERU, created the Grassroot Radio Coalition (GRC) in 1996, which has held a conference almost every year since then. Elizabeth ultimately served on the informal GRC steering committee, conducted workshops at the conferences, and organized one of them in Santa Barbara. GRC was largely composed of those in community radio who rejected the “healthy station” premise and had struggled to take their stations back from that model. The mission of GRC says it all. Here it is:
“More than audio outlets, volunteer-based community radio stations are cultural institutions in their communities, reflecting the unique concerns and passions of the people who live there. With a system of governance based on openness and collaboration, and diverse programming produced by volunteers and funded by listeners, these stations are cornerstones of participatory democracy, offering ordinary citizens the chance to exercise First Amendment rights in a mass medium and audiences the opportunity to directly support the programming that is of importance to them.”
But then beyond community radio in the United States, Elizabeth has played a central role in AMARC – The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters. AMARC is an international non-governmental organization serving the community radio movement, with almost 4,000 members and associates in 130 countries. It’s headquarters is in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Created in 1983, the AMARC goal “is to support and contribute to the development of community and participatory radio along the principals of solidarity and international cooperation. All continents are represented on AMARC‘s International Board of Directors.” Elizabeth has been one of those board members. She has attended AMARC meetings in Africa, South America, North America, Europe and Asia over the years.
It was, perhaps, her involvement with international radio producers that Elizabeth was all the more impressed with the importance of community folks having a voice and how vulnerable they can be, in many countries, for doing precisely that… for expressing their opinions. She said that when sitting with a woman radio producer once in Africa who was sharing information about her experiences – all of which seemed normal and perhaps unexceptional – she learned that a fatwah had been issued against the woman for expressing her opinions on the radio in which she publicly denounced female mutilation. This was just one story of many she has heard over the years in her involvement with AMARC that demonstrated to her how precious and empowering it is to express ones views, but also how fragile and dangerous it can be. Subsequently she also recognized the importance of radio as a means for expressions by individuals about their conditions and concerns and as one of the critical organizing tools for building justice. Or, as Elizabeth would state, expressing views in compliance with Article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
When AMARC was having severe financial problems a few years ago because of complications with a sizable grant that was committed by the grantee but not fulfilled financially, Elizabeth was one of those who stepped in to save the organization. She helped review the finances and develop an economic model that’s in existence today.
Finally, regarding the status of community radio vis-a-vis media policy in the United States, Elizabeth has written:
“The good news about media policy in the United States is that there is growing public and grassroots recognition of the need for a truly free media, one that is based on principles of social justice.” (Robinson: 2005a)
Over the years, Elizabeth has helped lay the groundwork for this “recognition for a truly free media” in the United States. We, in community radio, are indebted to her for this but also for her exceptional leadership in making sure that the voices of the people remain vital in the community radio network here and throughout the world.
Thank you Elizabeth!!
Elizabeth Robinson speaking about community radio worldwide in La Plata, Argentina, November 2010
To hear her radio show “No Alibis” (Wednesday, 8AM PDT) please go to www.kcsb.org.)
- Elizabeth Robinson, “Twenty-five years of the Third World News Review”, Race & Class (vol. 47, no. 2, 77-81), (London), 2005.
- Elizabeth Robinson, “Media Rich”, InteRadio (vol. 12, no. 1), (Lebanon), 2005a.
- Katelyn Stefani (staff writer), “KCSB Director Elizabeth Robinson Retires”, The Bottom Line, (UC Santa Barbara), May 2012.
Heather Gray serves as an Affiliate Director on the Pacifica National Board and represents WRFG– Atlanta – a Pacifica affiliate. She presently serves as co-chair of the Pacifica Affiliate Taskforce.
(Note: In that Elizabeth Robinson has recently retired, and because of her central leadership role in community radio, we in the Pacifica Affiliate Task Force wanted to highlight her exceptional work on behalf of the community radio network in the U.S. and throughout the world. We particularly wanted to launch our Pacifica Affiliate website news with information about her and to honor her leadership and service on behalf of us all.)