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Government red tape entangled volunteers creating a radio station for Katrina evacuees. From the Fall 2005 issue of The News…

Government red tape entangled volunteers creating a radio station for Katrina evacuees.

From the Fall 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10.

By Kaitlin Thaney

Uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, thousands of evacuees in the Houston Astrodome were desperate for any semblance of news, from information about locating loved ones to where to get food and immunizations. Adding to the confusion was a public address system emitting garbled messages.

To members of the independent media, the solution was simple: Build a radio station.

“Radio is the people’s medium. It’s cheap, effective and could reach the most people,” said Tish Stringer, a Houston IndyMedia advocate and graduate student at Rice University.

Through Stringer and a dedicated group of volunteers, an emergency low-fi microradio station was born. Its audience: the thousands of displaced hurricane victims in the Astrodome.

The volunteers drew up a plan to get the low-power FM radio station set up, quickly landing a temporary license from the Federal Communications Commission along with donated equipment and nationwide support. KAMP &#151 aka Dome City Radio &#151 also had support from Houston’s mayor’s office and Texas Governor Rick Perry. But there was a sticking point: bureaucratic red tape from local and federal emergency management officials who cited “security concerns” as a main reason why the station could not go live.

After meetings, phone calls and waiting, media activists sidestepped the county officials who had initially nixed the project. KAMP 95.3 officially launched &#151 but not before a full two weeks passed after Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast.

First Attempt

Two days after tens of thousands of evacuees flooded the Astrodome, Stringer began contacting people in the media world.

Stringer knew she had to act fast. For the evacuees, there was a pressing need for not only food and water, but basic information.

Volunteers from IndyMedia, a community based organization of alternative media organizers, were joined by people from Prometheus Radio Project, a nonprofit collective of radio activists who build and support community radio stations.

Members of the independent media, contacted by Stringer, wrote an application for a temporary broadcasting license, which FCC administrators pushed through in just two hours over Labor Day weekend. By Monday, Sept. 5, one week after Katrina hit, the group of volunteers had all the transmission equipment needed, letters of support from Houston City Council members and enough of a staff to effectively operate a low-fi radio station.

But county officials told the organizers that access issues and security concerns prevented them from broadcasting inside the Astrodome.

The initial request for space inside the Astrodome, filed by Jim Ellinger, a freelance radio consultant from Austin, asked for offices equipped with computers, laptops and telephone lines for the staff, said Gloria Roemer, a spokesperson for Harris County and for the Astrodome’s Joint Information Center. The request, if approved, would also have granted the entire station’s staff unlimited access to the facility, which Roemer outright denied, citing concerns about the privacy of evacuees.

“They wanted unlimited access to the buildings, which we could not give to anyone in the media,” Roemer said.”We could not accommodate their demands, so the request was denied.”

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials also were concerned with how the station would be powered since electricity in the Astrodome was scarce, Roemer said. FEMA officials also said it would be impossible to allocate office space and other amenities to the station &#151 even though volunteers offered to use their own batteries and cell phones, she said.

Stringer said the Joint Information Center had a list of concerns regarding the microradio project, from whether radios would be distributed so people could listen to the programming to “conflicting noise” issues since evacuees slept side by side. Some of these issues were logical, Stringer said, but others raised eyebrows.

“[The JIC] asked, ‘Can you make it so they can only hear your station?’,” she recalled. “They were worried about people listening to ‘incendiary rap music.’ And they had to be ‘cheap radios’ so no one would fight over them.”

KAMP organizers worked to counter each concern, landing donations of some radios from Sony Entertainment while purchasing others with money donated to IndyMedia and Prometheus Radio. The next day, 10,000 inexpensive Walkman-style radios were distributed to evacuees in the Astrodome. Donated radios also were sent to a local Pacifica radio station, KPFT, for distribution.

Four days of “red tape and bureaucracy” followed, Stringer said, and on Thursday, Sept . 8 &#151 more than a week after the hurricane hit &#151 FEMA denied the station volunteers access to the Astrodome, leaving even original project managers doubtful they would ever go live.

A second pared-down request, in which they asked only for a table inside the Astrodome, was denied the next day, and the group started to think of other options. The team generated a new plan, reapplied for a temporary broadcasting license, and, within no time, the FCC granted another license to KAMP organizers &#151 this time to broadcast from the parking lot.

Take Two

Completely sidestepping the JIC, the team worked on fine-tuning engineering specifications so they were broadcasting into just the Astrodome and Reliant Center next door, which also offered temporary housing to evacuees. With an Airstream trailer, a license and a dedicated group of media enthusiasts from across the country, KAMP 95.3 finally went on the air at noon Sept. 13.

Volunteers handed out donated radios, rolling with them a makeshift sound system in a garbage can that carried the broadcast. In the end, only 3,000 radios were distributed, since the majority of evacuees had already made temporary housing arrangements or gone home. For those left in the Astrodome and Reliant Center, the station broadcast around the clock, providing timely information on school enrollment procedures, vaccination availability and mail forwarding assistance.

KAMP also served as a means for evacuees to tell their stories. It opened up the airwaves to live interviews with the displaced, and also featured musicians who came in to play. The station also broadcast some international and national news stories, accumulated from other news sources.

Six days later, the low-fi station signed off the air. Everyone had been moved out of the Astrodome and into the Reliant Center or into other housing. Though the project was short-lived, activists see the effort as a victory for microradio and independent radio, and only wish they could have hit the airwaves earlier.

“That was really the crucial time to broadcast and we weren’t able to,” Stringer said, expressing her disappointment in not being able to help sooner. “[The delay] was a clear failure of the government. I think [KAMP] was one example of thousands where lines of rescue boats were turned away . . . trucks turned away from New Orleans, food and hospital boats [as well.] I’m not saying we were at the same level, but it’s the same kind of story. The government failed.”