‘Democracy Now!’ host to join local celebration
NORTHAMPTON — City resident Frances Crowe first heard a “Democracy Now!” radio broadcast in 2001 on a visit to Maine to baby-sit her grandchildren.
Immediately, she decided the show, with its independent brand of advocacy journalism, belonged on the radio airwaves in the Pioneer Valley. That thought set in motion a 1½-year quest that included Crowe installing a device in her backyard to transmit the show until she could convince an area radio station to broadcast it.
These days, the show airs about six times a day in the Pioneer Valley on two radio stations and a community access television station, owing largely to Crowe’s tireless campaign.
“The area is wonderfully permeated with ‘Democracy Now!’ and that is because I had this pirate radio station for about a year and a half to get people addicted to it,” Crowe said.
That, in a nutshell, is the backstory to an unusual, public birthday celebration in honor of Crowe’s 95th birthday. “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman and senior producer Mike Burke will join Crowe on stage at Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The evening will feature Goodman interviewing Crowe on stage, reporters for WMUA Radio, the UMass student station, interviewing Burke, a UMass alumnus who has been a “Democracy Now!” producer since 2002, and a talk by Goodman followed by audience questions.
WMUA adviser Glen Siegel, who organized the event, said there will also, very likely, be birthday cake. (For the record, Crowe’s actual birthday is March 15.)
Siegel said the event came together in a serendipitous way. He said WMUA and UMass journalism department faculty had been discussing bringing Goodman to campus in the spring because her show has such a loyal fan base.
He then ran into Claudia Lefko of Northampton, a fellow activist and friend of Crowe’s, who mentioned that Crowe would be turning 95 and something should be done to mark it.
“Frances and Amy have a relationship, a mutual admiration society, so I put two and two together,” Siegel said.
Siegel said he had been watching from afar around 2002 when Crowe began agitating to get Goodman’s program to air locally.
“At one point she threatened to encircle ’FCR’s building and bang on pots and pans, which I thought was creative,” Siegel recalled with a laugh.
Crowe said upon her return from Maine she made the rounds to local radio stations to see if one would agree to air the show. She had no luck.
She said representatives from WFCR, the local National Public Radio affiliate, told her the show wasn’t its type of program, while college stations like WMUA seemed more focused on providing a forum for student-created shows than hosting outside broadcasts.
She then approached owners of tall buildings around Northampton to see if anyone would let her install an antenna from which to transmit the show, but had no luck there either.
“I finally decided that the answer would be for me to broadcast it,” she said.
She began working with a man who shared her passion for the show, and together they managed to jury-rig a system in which he recorded the show, which was then broadcast from a transmitter installed in Crowe’s backyard.
Crowe said because this was illegal, her children were concerned about her airing it from her home, so she placed her property into a trust in their name, and continued on with her quest.
Crowe has no qualms about what she did. “The airwaves belong to the people,” she said.
When the show began running daily from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. on 103.3 FM (what would later become Valley Free Radio), Crowe said people began to count on it. If she was late airing it, she’d get calls.
“People got addicted to the truth in the news every day,” Crowe said. “It gives the truth every day and it gives it from the people.”
Meanwhile, she and others continued agitating in an effort to get an actual station to broadcast the show. Crowe said it was when a withholding campaign was waged, during which people pledged to withhold donations from WFCR to the tune of $40,000, that station officials helped arrange for the program to be broadcast on WMUA. Eventually it expanded to Valley Free Radio and Northampton Community TV.
Burke, who will be questioned on stage by WMUA staff, has strong ties to the Valley. He graduated from UMass in 1997, where he worked on the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and also hosted a show on WMUA. He reported for The Recorder in Greenfield and the former Springfield Union News. He also helped start Flywheel, a volunteer-run community arts space in Easthampton.
Goodman, who will interview Crowe and also give a talk, is a syndicated columnist and author who has hosted “Democracy Now!” since 1996. She had been news director of Pacifica Radio station WBAI in New York City for over a decade when she co-founded “Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report” in 1996.
Locally, “Democracy Now!” airs on WMUA (91.1 FM) at 8 a.m. daily, on Valley Free Radio (103.3) at 5 p.m. daily and on Northampton Community Television, Channel 15, at 8 a.m., noon, 7 p.m. and midnight and daily at 5 p.m. on Channel 12, Amherst Media, Amherst’s Community Television station.
Crowe said she’s a regular viewer of the program on NCTV.
“I watch it at 8 o’clock every morning — it gets me out of bed,” she said.