Katrina Aftermath Radio: A Brief, Dysfunctional Life

Attempts to set up a low-power FM for Astrodome residents killed by bureaucracy

Jim Ellinger (in cap, holding bottle) stands in front of a giant message board in the Astrodome, showing the critical need for communications among Katrina evacuees, a need that Ellinger and others had hoped 
to meet with an ill-fated low-power radio station.
<br>(Photo courtesy of Houston Independent Media Center)
Jim Ellinger (in cap, holding bottle) stands in front of a giant message board in the Astrodome, showing the critical need for communications among Katrina evacuees, a need that Ellinger and others had hoped to meet with an ill-fated low-power radio station.
(Photo courtesy of Houston Independent Media Center)

"The first radio license I got from the FCC, for KOOP radio, took 11 years," said Austin airwave activist (and former Chronicle writer) Jim Ellinger, whose interest in community media extends back to KOOP's founding. "The next three licenses took two hours over the Labor Day weekend." The atypical speed with which the feds moved on those three was in response to the proposal of a low-power FM radio station for the benefit of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in the Houston Astrodome, a short-term station with which Ellinger and Houston activists sought to disseminate "rudimentary, life-saving information." Thanks to professional legal assistance, the FCC moved quickly in granting the licenses for radio broadcast inside the Astrodome. "The FCC doesn't do anything in two hours," Ellinger said. "It's unheard of."

Too bad the licenses were never put to use.

Things seemed to be going smoothly at first. Due to a call for LPFM transmission at Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey – which was ultimately decided against because of licensing problems – all the equipment Ellinger needed was already assembled. Sony promised thousands of personal radios, while the Pacifica Radio network program Democracy Now! made possibly the biggest dollar-store purchase in history, buying thousands of the tiny receivers.* It wasn't long, however, before "political hacks from Harris County" began to interfere. Despite FCC approval and support from the governor's office and members of the Houston City Council, county officials made it their mission to tune out the LPFM station, Ellinger said.

Not that there wasn't a need for greater communication. Once thousands of evacuees began flooding into the Astrodome, it became apparent information was as valuable as shelter. Allies from Houston Pacifica station KPFT-FM and the Houston Independent Media Center, in interviewing evacuees, discovered that basic services and benefits were a mystery to most. "They don't know how to get a new Social Security card," said Ellinger. "'What do I do if I have a warrant in Louisiana? Can my kids get into school without shots or IDs? Can I drive my car without a license?'" FEMA and the Joint Information Center, a multi-agency task force overseeing evacuee services, communicated with the dome's new residents via the arena's PA system and a newsletter. "That worked for some things," said Ellinger, "but it wouldn't work if, say, you had to have a five-minute interview with the head of the school district."

Out of talks between Ellinger and media activists like Houston Independent Media Center's Tish Stringer and KPFT's Renee Feltz, came the proposal of an LPFM Astrodome broadcast. He appointed himself "guy-on-the-ground" to run day-to-day operations and made his nonprofit group, Austin Airwaves, the station applicant.

The subsequent wrangling with the newly minted masters of disaster overseeing Astrodome services would've been a hilarious window into bungling bureaucracy, if not for the troubles that could've been prevented. Pandemic confusion over the availability of FEMA debit cards, which nearly resulted in a riot, is the sort of sad instance Ellinger hoped the broadcast could avert. However, claiming public safety concerns, Harris Co. officials said radio would do more harm than good.

"'You have 25,000 radios to give these people? … You have to have one for everybody, otherwise they'll steal them from each other,'" Ellinger recalled the fortuitously named Rita Obey, a "midlevel Harris Co. PR flak," saying. "They're virtually worthless," Ellinger said. "The batteries are worth more."

"We had 27,000 residents," Obey told the Chronicle. "He called me and said he could get 10,000 radios. We can't do that; how could we determine who would get the radios and who wouldn't?" Obey admitted she "didn't see the practicality" for LPFM but nonetheless took the request "up through unified command." Ellinger said Obey, an African-American, then "brought up the gangsta rap thing": fear that the ghetto braggadocio of urban laureates would agitate evacuees into an animalistic frenzy of violence. "It was very difficult not to react to that. … There's some pretty strong racist overtones there," Ellinger said. Obey denies confronting Ellinger with the spectre of 50 Cent. "No. I did ask him if they would be able to access other stations," trying to ascertain the viability of Ellinger's project, she said. Despite FCC licensing, the station application was ultimately rejected Sept. 7 by the Joint Information Center. Ellinger returned the next day to reapply, flanked by two attorneys from the ACLU, requesting "one table, and a wire," Despite his pared-down request, four hours later, the application was again denied sans explanation. As Ellinger left Houston defeated, however, the FCC issued a new, fourth license to Houston IMC to broadcast out of the press section of the Astrodome parking lot. The parking lot, apparently, is under the more sympathetic jurisdiction of the city, while Harris Co. controls the buildings. "This is so petty, it's unbelievable. But they couldn't block us from the parking lot," said Ellinger, who by that time was back in Austin.

Katrina Aftermath Media Project radio, KAMP 95.3 (official call sign KH5X-IM), began its mighty six-watt broadcast Sept. 13, from a shiny, half-size Airstream trailer filled with Houston IMC's audio gear. The bare-bones studio – a miniature tower, LPFM transmitter, mixer, microphones, and not much more – provided information to evacuees, and let them tell their own stories. "Real quickly," said Ellinger of the human drama on display, "it gets kinda heavy." Or rather, it did: On the 17th, JIC asked that all those stationed in the parking area where KH5X-IM sat (mainly other media vans) move to a different lot. With the Astrodome's population steadily dwindling, the station decided to clear out a couple days early, rather than break down, move, and set up again to serve far fewer evacuees. Ellinger was clearly upset that a bureaucratic crapshoot kept 95.3 off the air when it could have been of most assistance.

"I did not have Republican credentials," Ellinger said of his brush with the Harris Co. arm of Bush's security corps. "The very idea of allowing these scruffy poor people from Louisiana to speak to themselves, for themselves, unabated and uncensored, was not a part of the FEMA PR plan."

*Oops! The following correction ran in the October 7, 2005 issue: The Sept. 30 issue's "Katrina Aftermath Radio: A Brief, Dysfunctional Life" [News] misstated that Democracy Now! purchased thousands of transmitters for the LPFM radio station. The group actually purchased thousands of receivers. Also, Houston Independent Media Center's Tish Stringer was incorrectly referred to as Trish. The Chronicle regrets the errors.

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