Free Radio in Japan:The Mini FM Boom
by Tetsuo Kogawa

The idea of free radio has been on the agenda of those involved in social change since the invention and proliferation of radio. During World War II, free radio stations were erected to counter Nazi propaganda, and in the Algerian war, as in colonial wars before and after, free radio was an important tool in the fight for national liberation.

However, free radio as the Japanese define it was not launched until the 1970s, when a small number of pirate radio and television stations began operating in Italy. Although these stations risked being shut down by the police, they survived and grew gradually--supported by listeners who were tired of the conventional programs broadcast by Radio Audizioni Italia (RAI), the government-supervised public broadcasting corporation. After World War II, when the Christian Democratic party replaced Mussolini's fascist regime, the new ruling party soon began to dominate the RAI. In 1968, however, the Socialist party entered the government coalition and began demanding their slice of airtime along with the other parties. Eventually, after the 1976 elections in which the Communist party elbowed out a part of the government, the Constitutional Court handed down Verdict 202, which held that the RAI monopoly of local broadcasting was unconstitutional.

Within a few months, roughly a thousand private radio stations and a hundred private television stations emerged, among them the "radios of movement" such as Radio Alice (Bologna), Radio Popolare (Milan), Radio Citta Futura, Radio Onda Rossa, and Radio Radicale (all in Rome). They played an important role in the Autonomia (autonomous left) movement during the late '70s, and their media experiments led to a radical change in individual self-expression, community relationships, and the meaning of communication.

Before long, the free radio movement in Italy stimulated parallel developments in France and later in other Western European countries. Towards the end of 1980, an estimated 2,500 illegal free radio stations were operating in France. When Fois Mitterand established the new Socialist government in 1981, most people assumed that he would make these illegal stations legitimate--after all, Mitterand had been involved in a free radio station called Radio Riposte where, three years prior to his election, he had broadcast incendiary political speeches. To the great disappointment of free radio advocates, however, Mitterand accepted the proposals of a national commission that called for a state monopoly on the AM dial and restricted licenses for FM stations. Fierce competition for these licenses ensued, with only 18 granted by mid-July 1982. The remaining stations continued to broadcast illegally.

In Japan, the idea of free radio, or "Mini FM," was introduced by Felix Guattari, who had been involved in the movement both in Italy during the high tide of Autonomia and in France. In November 1980, I interviewed him for the radical journal Nippon Dokusho Shinbun. In discussing this new form of communication, Guattari stressed the radically different function of free radio from conventional mass media. His notion of "transmission transversal" suggests that, unlike conventional radio, free radio does not impose programs on a mass audience whose numbers have been forecast, but freely comes across to a "molecular" public, so that it changes the nature of communication between those who speak and those who listen. The service area should be relatively small, because free radio does not broadcast (scatter) information but communicates (co-unites) messages to a concrete audience. In order to overthrow the passivity of the audience, Hans Magnus Enzensberger has noted that radio receivers could easily be transformed into transmitters. However, the problem is not only with the technology but also with the culture of both receiving and transmitting. Nothing would change if radio receivers were only technologically transformed into new broadcasters. The concept of receiving and transmitting itself must be changed. Thus, Guattari's idea gave a flash of hope to those of us attempting to cope with the present terrible state of Japanese mass media.

The first radio broadcasts in Japan began in 1924, with television broadcasts following in 1953. In 1969, over 90 percent of Japanese households owned a black-and-white television set; by 1977, 97.7 percent had a color set. At the same time, most middle-class Japanese had at least two personal radio-cassette players. Thus, a complete system connecting the population's personal milieu with governmental or corporate media institutions had been established. If these media outlets provided diverse programs which met people's specific interests, this system could act as an effective network in which people could find indirect self-expression. However, in contrast to the affluence of radio and television sets, there is a poverty of variety and quality in programming. Even in Tokyo, there are only two FM and six AM channels, including three public broadcasting stations operated by NHK, the national Japanese broadcasting company. (The Far East Network, or FEN--a special broadcast service for U.S. troops stationed in East Asia--is also on the AM dial.)

Even the few private commercial stations are indirectly controlled by the government through the restriction of licenses and the influence of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications in the appointment of station executives. Although hundreds of institutions--including advertising agencies and political and religious organizations--have continued to apply to the Ministry since 1945, only a few AM licenses have been granted. In spite of a number of available bands on the radio spectrum, no AM or FM station was approved in Tokyo for a period of ten years, between 1975 and 1985, a period of increasing cultural diversity in the context of economic development. This abnormal situation fits well with the government's policies: those private stations already operating are willing to submit to government supervision in order to monopolize the market and avoid competition with newcomers. Thus the government, headed by the Liberal Democratic party, has balked at dismantling this in tervention in the private sector.

However, as the Japanese capitalist system has proceeded--accompanied by U.S.-style hyperconsumption--the centralized cultural apparatus has been dismantled to some extent in order to promote consumer needs, to segment consumers into diverse groups, and to legitimize the rise of the people's socio-critical consciousness. In this context, the advanced sectors of the economy, represented by big corporations, find the current state of Japanese media too backward for their needs. They keenly recognize the necessity of innovating mass communications. However, innovation in technology will not solve any problem without a simultaneous innovation in programming.

The confusion of this transitional period in Japanese mass media is evident in the large qualitative gap between regular television programs and short advertising spots for commodities. Indeed, today's spots on Japanese television have become more and more "artistic"; the better ones are a kind of "short-short" with sophisticated film techniques and original ideas. This is partly because the budget is usually much higher for a 20-second spot than for 30 minutes of regular soap operas. Many (mostly male) international actors--from Marcello Mastroianni to Woody Allen--are featured. Therefore, the spots are more interesting than the regular programs, and they enable the viewer to endure the "interval" between advertisements.

As an example of a similar distortion in radio, many audiences prefer the FEN (although their programs are not as sophisticated as most television spots). FEN's English programs, which stress current American popular music, are so welcomed by Japanese audiences that a special magazine, FEN Club (in Japanese), has recently started publishing. There are also several books on the network. However, there are many more listeners who are dissatisfied with Japanese radio but don't care for FEN and can't find alternatives. They prefer watching television for amusement and use radio only as a "speaking clock."

It was in this context that the idea of free radio came to us. In August 1981, some friends and I started investigating the details of what was happening in the free radio movement in Italy and France. While we were studying the Japanese Radio Law, to see if we could legally open a free radio station, we came across an interesting article which suggested that "a station whose broadcasting wave is in a very low power needs no licenses" (Article Three). According to Article Six of the Enforcement Regulations, this "very low power" means the wave must be "below 15 microvolts per meter at the distance of 100 meters from the transmitter." This unknown "public access" to airwaves, which are otherwise very strictly regulated, is intended for wireless microphones, television remote controls, garage-door openers, model airplanes, and the like.

At first, this seemed to have nothing to do with free radio. However, when we happened to examine a tiny FM transmitter, it turned out to be much more than a toy; its broadcasting wave theoretically could cover a .3-mile radius in the city--which in a densely populated area contains 20,000 residents, all potential listeners. Also, we realized that such a transmitter wouldn't cost much, since the Japanese industry overproduces various kinds of electronic gadgets.

It was not easy to find an appropriate transmitter that could function at maximum capacity within the legal power allowance. All of the transmitters we examined were too weak for our purpose. Major electronic manufacturers limit the transmitting power because they are afraid that even such a tiny toy might violate the law. Under pressure from the government, they maintain a consensus on this conservative policy through their intermediate organization, Nippon Denshikiki Kogyokai (Organization of Japan Electronic Machinery Industries). However, in July 1982 we found an underground company which sold a transmitter capable of broadcasting at the legal power maximum. Although this FM transmitter for 76 to 90 megahertz was basically sold for car-to-car communication at close distance, it was appropriate for the purposes of Mini FM. Besides the broadcasting ability, it was so cheap that anyone could buy it and join a large network of tiny stations.

After we repeated our broadcasting experiments with this device in the center of Tokyo, some students of mine established a station called Radio Polybucket at Wako University. In the meantime, other people began opening up legal FM stations using this type of transmitter. One of the most ambitious groups was KIDS (opened in August 1982), whose members were initially interested in establishing an independent commercial recording company to sell their music cassettes. Shrewdly tying up with the mass media--thus totally neglecting the radical idea of free radio--they succeeded in stirring up public curiosity.

Young people followed the KIDS example, and by the spring of 1983, over 100 Mini FM stations had opened. By June, the Mini FM boom was in full swing, with an estimated 700 ministations operating across the country. It is true that without KIDS this proliferation would not have been possible. However, it is also true that KIDS' bad example put people on the wrong path, emasculating the very idea of free radio. Its operators don't care about their audience or the needs of their neighborhood but broadcast only what they want--so far, childish monologues along with American pop. Thus, few people listen to their programs. Interestingly enough, it is well known that KIDS and some similar stations are strongly backed by major advertising agencies and media industries, who intend to use the Mini FM boom to prod the stubborn government to change its radio policy.

Not all of the ministations practice the idea of free radio or intend to be free from conventional mass media. Many of them want to be subsidiaries to existing big stations or, if possible, open up new, big stations. However, the very limitation of the service area ensures the continued viability of the Japanese free radio movement. It would be ridiculous from the perspective of the conventional concept of mass media, which aims for as large a service area as possible, to be restricted to a .3-mile radius.. When people within walking distance want to communicate, it would seem easier to come together rather than to broadcast to each other. Mass media used to function as an electronic substitute for direct, oral contact. However, too much dependence on highly advanced media technology causes serious problems--including media "perversions" such as in Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, where Chance, the anti-hero of the novel, substitutes the world of television for the "real" world.

Paradoxically, limitations can always transform negative elements into positive ones. In our experience, listeners frequently visit their neighborhood stations, which consequently become communal gathering places. Given its essential difference from mass media, this should be the most positive function of free radio. In January 1983, two housewives opened Setagaya Mama. Located in a middle-class area of South Tokyo, the studio is housed in a small shack serving both as a gathering place for neighbors and as an alternative retail store carrying natural foods and other daily necessities. This station is radically free from professional programming and is open to anyone who wants to talk via radio. Even in-store babbling, nearby clatter, and doors being slammed go on the air. One time, when several people began talking about community politics, several listeners rushed to the station and joined in the discussion.

Radio Komedia Suginami set up their station in a coffee shop, Their programming is so flexible that anybody in the coffee shop can join in the on-air discussion. Some listeners are tempted to visit the station after listening to it at home, and eventually visit the coffee shop and take to the microphone.

Radio Home Run, an outgrowth of Radio Polybucket, is particularly conscious of this use of Mini FM, defining itself as a gathering place with a transmitting device. The programming consists primarily of discussions. Workers, political activists, feminists, artists, performers, students, and the unemployed meet at the station in order to talk on the air and maintain a temporary collective. Needless to say, visiting listeners are invited to join in the discussion. There are always guiding individuals or groups who prepare the theme of each discussion and organize the temporal collective. Sometimes a temporal collective becomes permanent and begins to work outside the station on political or artistic activities. So, Radio Home Run became a catalytic space to create new groups of art, alternative magazines, social activities, theater, and music.

In sharp contrast to the mass media, whose broadcasting function is centrifugal, stations like Setagaya Mama, Radio Komedia Suginami, and Radio Home Run have a centripetal function. Their relevance as an alternative medium largely depends on the already existing mutual relationships between community members, which they reactivate through their centripetal radio. People in metropolitan areas are isolated, not only as residents but also as consumer flaneurs, or metropolitan nomads. It is very difficult to create bridges between such people, and the centrifugal power of mass media accelerates their estrangement. The more they come together in metropolitan areas, the more they lose their "home." Street entertainers and peddlers used to create a provisional home on the sidewalks for flaneurs. However, the street administration is much more strict than the Radio Law. Since the urban revolts in the late '60s and early '70s, the Road Traffic Control Law and the Public Security Regulations prohibit people from stopping on the pavement for long without police permission.

In this context, Radio Contemporain has broken new ground. On March 12, 1983, on Shinjuku, a crowded street in Tokyo, the operators of this guerrilla station performed and broadcast political rock and roll music and protests against the nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise, which was scheduled to stop at Sasebo. The street event had been previously announced with posters and handbills. Their facilities were set up in trucks with a power supply. Until a police squad seized their trucks, they were temporarily creating a free space of live sounds and airwaves, in which otherwise isolated flaneurs came together for something other than shopping. Even apolitical young nomads listened to the music and messages on their portable radios.

Although there are still many difficulties in developing Japan's radical free radio movement, and many stations (including some mentioned above) have since stopped broadcasting, stations are still appearing on the campus, in the community, and on the street. Free radio is already a social phenomenon, and it has revealed many social contradictions within the present administration. Moreover, it seems to suggest viable directions for social movement in the future. On March 25, 1983, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications referred the matter of mushrooming tiny FM stations to the Air Wave Technology Council for reconsideration of the regulations. Who knows what's happening with the new administration? And how would it be possible to confiscate such a tiny transmitter and receiver, especially considering the thousands of people who bought tiny transmitters and opened up stations? Though more recent regulation changes have slowly been drawing the noose around the neck of Mi!ni FM, in order to exterminate every facet of this movement the authorities would have to introduce a most reactionary administration--which would be impossible to the extent that the system wants to maintain the present trends of technological development, economic stability, and a relatively democratic order. This is the point on which the free radio movement in Japan has a radical opportunity to undermine the dominant system from within.

Neil Strauss (ed.):Radiotext(e). a special issu of Semiotext(e), pp. 90-96, New York, 1993