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Out of the Night : From a corner of his living room, Mbanna Kantako broadcasts his version of the news. With less than one watt, he hopes to start a revolution.

November 19, 1990|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — At almost midnight, drug dealers still hover outside under the street lights, thick as mosquitoes, the cops a feeble hand waving to shoo them off.

Inside his apartment at the John Hays Homes housing project, Mbanna Kantako cannot see them, but he knows they are there--the dealers and the cops, the mosquitoes and the hand. They are always there. He speaks to them, whether or not they listen.

\o7 The people's choice. Zoom Black Magic Liberation Radio. Stereo 107 point 1 F.M.

\f7 From a corner of his living room, he speaks every night, to them and to everyone else with a radio within a 1 1/2-mile radius.

\o7 We're in our 406th consecutive night of broadcasting\f7 . . . \o7 Mbanna Kantako with you until Wednesday morning sometime.

\f7 Let's listen to the news.

\o7 . . . The Israeli government has imposed their version of the South African government iron-fist policy . . .\f7 .

Blind, black and 31, Kantako plays music, talks politics, criticizes "the system," denounces drugs and goads the police, favorite whipping boys.

It's outrageous stuff.

Gil Scott Heron sang in a more militant era that "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." He may have been right. But in Springfield you can tune it in every night on your radio dial.

\o7 The house Negro Colin Powell is in the Middle East talking to the troops now. Why did Colin Powell all of a sudden go to the Middle East?

\f7 Kantako has an answer, albeit a somewhat fanciful one. The way he sees it, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was trying to stop black servicemen from converting to Islam.

With less than a watt of power, Kantako's unlicensed and brazenly illegal radio station seems an unlikely catalyst for revolution. Because of Springfield's segregated housing patterns, though, he says he covers three-quarters of the black community, about 11,000 people, along with most of downtown.

"We feel it's an educational thing," he says of the broadcasts, which he has made into a family affair. His wife, Brenda, or one of his two children kicks off each evening's programming after dinner. They play highly politicized rap or reggae as a warm-up for Kantako, who takes to the air at 10 and sticks with it through early morning.

"We're trying to build community," he says of the broadcasts. "We're really trying to raise the consciousness of the people."

On uninspired nights, Kantako's on-air discussions lapse into unintentional self-parody, seeming almost like a skit from TV's "In Living Color." The host and a stable of regular political activist callers and guests from Springfield, Chicago and elsewhere discuss the news of the day in low-key fashion, punctuating everything with the obligatory accusations of government conspiracies and genocide.

But Kantako and his supporters say his broadcasts are an important act of social protest, one which they hope to expand, by encouraging the development of other low-watt, unlicensed stations across the country.

Mike Townsend, a professor of social work at Sangamon State University in Springfield, helped create the station four years ago. He says they are challenging the Federal Communications Commission because they believe government regulations, which include capital funding requirements, discriminate against poor people and blacks and deny them access to the media.

"There is a definite sociopolitical motive behind what we're trying to do, (which is) to find a way to empower low-income people," says Townsend.

Among those who have provided some degree of moral support and advice are influential media theorists Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian.

Bagdikian, professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, says he cannot wholeheartedly endorse Kantako's illegal station because it is "clearly civil disobedience" and "untenable in the long run. . . . I don't think there's any question that broadcasting has to be regulated," he says. "You have to have somebody who's a traffic cop."

But he says the station was created in response to government policies that over the last 25 years have made it increasingly difficult for small low-power radio and television broadcasters to succeed.

"The field has been dominated by the big corporate operations" that ignore the concerns of non-white communities, he says. "They're all making money hand over fist and they're only interested in wide-market audience."

Kantako has already been fined $750 by the FCC for operating without a license and told to shut down. He has refused to pay. If the FCC takes legal action to shut him down, he says he and his supporters will challenge the licensing requirement in court.

James A. Lewis, an assistant U.S. attorney in Springfield, is responsible for collecting the fine. He says neither he nor the FCC has pursued the matter because Kantako--who lives on Social Security disability payments--has few resources, the fine is so small and the government has much bigger cases to handle. "It's a matter of proportion," he says.

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