The Story of The Ministry of Truth
The following essay about my weekly radio program, The Ministry of Truth, originally appeared in WHPK Magazine, Volume 2, #1, published Winter Quarter 2010
The start of my involvement with WHPK began when I ran into a friend of mine, Dan Liechtenstein-Boris. Dan himself had a show on WHPK in 2003 and granted me an interview. The interview was about media politics and the FCC, aptly fitting given my longtime involvement with political activism on media issues. So when we met up again by chance at a computer lab in the summer of 2004 in the basement of the Regenstein Library, the topic of our conversation turned to that interview on WHPK the year before and that he had a show on WHPK, after which he said those words that still resonate for me:
"You should have a radio show."
It wasn't quite like the journalist Eddie Ellis who wrote what would become the world's largest diary as the results of a dare. But I had the feeling that this single seemingly small sentence could be the start of something pretty big and expansive. I had some background in working on radio, having contributed for a year on "From The Trenches", the monthly radio program of Chicago Indymedia, on Loyola University's WLUW-FM, and I was looking to expand my personal media and political activism repertoire to include radio. What's more, there were lots of excellent community public affairs radio shows on the north side, but it seemed to me there were too few such shows on the south side, so I thought a show of mine on WHPK could help fill that gap. I just didn't expect it all to happen so quickly or...unexpectedly.
Dan helped me start a conversation with Jake Austen, then as now WHPK's Public Affairs format chief. I told Jake my interest in starting a radio show on WHPK, Jake put me in touch with Mario from News From The Service Entrance, the radio show, who over the course of three weeks trained me for my own show. But what to name the show?
The previous summer, I had seen a film called "Orwell Rolls In His Grave", a documentary about the U.S. media, its political economy, what it discussed (or doesn't discuss) regarding a host of contemporary issues of importance. The film drew parallels to George Orwell's famous book "1984", and one quote in the film referred to the famous Ministry of Truth, one of the governing ministries in the novel. A friend of mine who also saw the film suggested "The Ministry of Truth" as the name of my new radio show, and I liked the name so I used it.
And on Thursday, October 7, 2004, the first episode of "The Ministry of Truth" (TMOT) aired on WHPK, the bulk of which then as now was recorded in advance. When TMOT first started, most of the content I produced comprised what I called "truth tracks" -- ten-minute-long radio documentaries on a given topic of critical importance and with an exciting musical beat. I was hoping to create the radio equivalent of the "newsvideos" (short, exciting, charismatic, and informative documentaries styled as music videos), pioneered by a now- defunct video production company called the Guerrilla News Network. I was able to produce "truth tracks" for TMOT for about a year, after which I focused attention on interviews and presentations as features of TMOT, including monologues and presentations of my own.
As of this writing, I have produced and aired 196 original episodes of TMOT, the full list and complete audio of all shows are online at my own website (www.szcz.org/radio). The show has mirrored my own interest in the politics of the U.S. and international left, focusing on topics of media, economics, politics, current events, international affairs, and activist efforts for a better future. But I was also able to make TMOT and WHPK a radio syndicate outlet for a number of grassroots-produced national radio shows. WHPK became the second radio affiliate in America to carry "Media Minutes" -- a weekly, five-minute-long summary of news at the intersection of media and democracy. A now-defunct news and journalism website called The NewStandard (TNS) provided headlines for TMOT in the three years of its operation, and when TNS also carried a weekly radio headline summary of its own for about a year, TMOT also carried that. After TNS folded, TMOT started carrying the weekly radio commentaries provided the website BlackAgendaReport.com, having done so nearly three years now.
In more than five years of TMOT, I have been fortunate to discuss a staggering variety of topics and news stores, and interview some of the more prominent local and national activists in America. These include the host of the weekly radio and TV news program Democracy Now! Amy Goodman, the health-care activist Quentin Young, the noted scholar and activist on American media policy Robert McChesney, former Congressional representative and 2008 presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, and sports columnist and commentator Dave Zirin.
My vote for the most noteworthy TMOT episodes I ever recorded involved an interview of two members of the Seattle Common Ground collective, and a documentary film producer, whom I interviewed over the phone from New Orleans in 2007 on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The event that was taking place was the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a major effort by hundreds of international lawyers to document the displacement of about a half-million people from the Gulf Coast as a result of both hurricanes and bring the U.S. government to account for the abuses that occurred against displaced (mostly African American and working-class) communities. Despite the ample coverage in the U.S. corporate media of both hurricanes and their immediate aftermath, The Tribunal received absolutely no corporate media coverage, and almost no independent media coverage. The resulting two-episode interview about the Tribunal nearly brought me to tears, and I felt privileged to have had the chance to bring the matter to wider awareness.
I have been a longtime activist on media issues, mostly with the group Chicago Media Action, and one key component of my own work on media politics has been to discuss what's going on in media politics. And for good reason: The American media establishment seldom cover their own politics, understandably since the national media politics scene is replete with corruption. Once "everyday people" enter the arena of media politics on an issue, the game is changed tremendously for the better, and the best way to do that is to inform "everyday people". A chronicle of my media activism career is reflected in the coverage of media politics on TMOT, and TMOT has been a critical tool in my arsenal for improving the corrupt media politics scene. The media issues I've worked on and covered include the FCC's (repeatedly failed) attempts at supersizing media concentration (which was the topic Dan Liechtenstein-Boris interviewed me about on his show back in 2003), community internet initiatives, the net neutrality wars, the U.S. digital television transition, the current struggles over funding public access television, and now the future (or perhaps lack thereof) of commercial broadcast radio and television.
I've also used TMOT to highlight a great many local Chicago activists on a variety of other non-media-related issues. A sampling of such activists include attorney and activist Jeff Frank about Chicago's Anti-Protester Disorderly Conduct Ordinance, Neil Resnikoff about the privatization of Chicago's public schools, Soo Ji Min of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, and Ray Parrish of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. TMOT was one of the few Chicago broadcast venues to provide in-depth discussion of valid community critiques of the recent 2016 Chicago Olympics bid, with interviews of Anne Elizabeth Moore and Matt Joynt of the Unlympic Organizing Committee, and Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. I interviewed two of the three candidates in the 2007 Chicago mayoral race for TMOT.
While it is easy to be overwhelmed by the panoply of issues facing us all and the ability (or inability) to solve some very tough social problems, it is important to know that it's the same tried-and-true recipe of education, organizing, involvement, and outreach that has worked in the past is our best hope for the future. The Ministry of Truth on WHPK is and has been "thirty minutes of information and inspiration" in a radio environment where "too often, broadcast radio insults your intelligence, instead of respecting it, improving it, challenging it". I am grateful to the volunteers and staff of WHPK radio for the opportunity to help change minds and change the world, and especially to Dan for his suggestion, Jake for saying "yes" to the show proposal, and Mario for his assistance in helping to get and keep TMOT on the air.
Listen to The Ministry of Truth every Thursday afternoon on WHPK 88.5 FM or online at www.whpk.org and at www.szcz.org