Human Rights Radio is now 25 years old. That's a quarter century of illegal broadcasting. The low-power Springfield station focuses on African American issues with a radical slant. And at its heart, is a man named Mbanna Kantako. IPR's Rachel Otwell brings us his story.
KANTAKO: "We start over there, that's me and my wife when we first got together up there, that second picture from the left. That's me when I was back in school, I was raised at the school for the blind in Jacksonville."
The first thing Mbanna Kantako does when I arrive at his home on the north end of Springfield is give me a tour. His blindness doesn't seem to be an impediment as he points out the many pictures of his family and various documents on the walls. Also there, a federal order telling him to cease broadcasting, and articles about his activism. There are shelves of CDs and radio equipment in a room that looks like an old fashioned parlor. This is where Kantako broadcasts Human Rights Radio, illegally.
KANTAKO ON AIR: "25th year up in the this crime in progress called Springfield, Illinois, and we gots (sic) to say welcome, to another edition of 'Notes on the Devil's News'. A couple things you got to remember when you listen to Notes on the Devil's News, we did not call this garbage news."
Posters hanging pay tribute to others who spoke out- Malcolm X and Bob Marley. Kantako says he keeps the walls like a living museum because it makes it easier to explain his roots and his life's work to people who come over. Kantako's home is old, in fact it's a historical landmark. He lives here with his wife of 35 years. They have 3 grown children and several grandchildren. Life wasn't always this comfortable though. Kantako, whose birth name was Dewayne Readus, his adopted name translating to "resisting warrior", was born in Memphis. His family moved to central Illinois when he was young. As a young man he lived in the John Hay homes, a low income housing development on the east side of Springfield where the majority of people crammed into the tiny living quarters were black.
KANTAKO: "When I moved into the projects I started doing DJing, you know, so I got to know a lot of people over there in the project. I knew a lot anyway, but you know you got in a lot more places when you was doing stuff like that."
Kantako admits he wasn't a born activist. In his younger days he was unemployed. He made some money DJing parties- and says he hustled the streets and was into drinking and drugs. In the eighties, Kantako got involved in a voting rights lawsuit in Springfield. The law firm leading the effort recruited him and others from the east side.
KANTAKO: "They needed characters, they didn't want to look like a bunch of rich white guys fighting against a bunch of rich white guys, they had to have the black people involved, right?"
Kantako says he soon realized that there needed to be a group of east side residents looking out for each other, and so he helped form the John Hay Tenants Rights Association. Mike Townsend is a retired social work professor who taught at the U of I Springfield and the previous Sangamon State University. He often conducted classes and helped organize events on the east side of town. He says he was impressed by Kantako's intellect.
TOWNSEND: "I actually tried to get him involved in reviving I guess what you would call an underground newspaper that my classes used to put out. He, being blind, said he wasn't into print that much, but would be interested in doing a radio station and he said he had a friend who knew could get a transmitter out in California some place."
So, they ordered a transmitter from California and Kantako's friend helped him set it up.
TOWNSEND: "The signal went out about two blocks, but since this was in the John Hay homes you had 3,000 people living within two blocks."
Kantako says the radio channel, originally called WTRA to stand for the Tenants Rights Association, became a part of organizing efforts.
KANTAKO: "Radio was part of a whole community type thing. We was doing an after-school program, a summer program for kids, you know, we had adult programs … the radio really grew out of that whole collection of things that we were doing."
Kantako received money from supporters, that included the Catholic Church. And over the years, he has gotten press from a variety of media outlets from across the world, including National Public Radio. A story NPR aired about Kantako years ago featured this segment from his radio programming.
KANTAKO ON AIR: "Apparently the hostage situation in Springfield is at an end, there must be a couple hundred of people out in the area. Sirens coming in the area now police we got an ambulance leaving the scene."
It's from 1989, when a man took his family hostage in his home on the east side of town after a domestic dispute. It ended with the man being shot by police. Kantako went to the scene and covered the event, he had the tape on the air shortly after the shooting. Kantako has long focused on authority figures. He interviewed east side residents who claimed to have been beaten by security guards and police, and he would keep close tabs on police scanners, sometimes broadcasting them on air. It was all, and still is, very much illegal. But Kantako has never paid any fines handed down from the Federal Communications Commission. His equipment has been confiscated, but he was never deterred. His broadcasts carry only a short distance, mostly the north side of Springfield, and show up at 105.9 on the dial. Kantako has become somewhat of a legend in a world where social activism and radio waves merge. He is considered a pioneer in micro radio, which are low powered stations that focus on communities. Kantako explains his role as he points to a green shirt he is wearing with his own face on it.
KANTAKO: "What we've done, it really is an international thing, this T-shirt right here this comes from a little group of white kids in Copenhagen, Denmark, they did a CD. And they did a song about our work on their CD and a couple other songs. So that's how far the conversation as reached, folks from all over the world who have wrote us, starting up stations and stuff like this."
KANTAKO ON AIR: "'Cus you know what, had it been up to these monsters, had they had their way, you would not be here right now, you know what I'm saying Oh yea, you look at it now, the only reason they made treaties with the native folk – because they wasn't planning on them people being around to collect nothing man. And when they start talking that stuff about you going to get free from the civil year, they weren't planning on you being around."
And as this clip from around Thanksgiving this year shows, Kantako hasn't shied away from radical content over the years. He airs conversations with black scholars and activists. And his daily mainstream news round-up, which this clip is from, is called "Notes on the Devil's News." Kantako tells me he doesn't care what the nay-sayers think, that there are plenty of other radio stations for them. There's been speculation that the FCC has been easy on Kantako – that there's a risk of making him a sort of martyr. He hasn't served jail time because of Human Rights Radio, but says he's not afraid to do so. An FCC spokesman says multiple actions have been taken against Kantako's broadcasting, the most recent notice was issued last year. Paul Riismandel works at Northwestern University in Evanston where he's an adviser for the college's radio station. He also writes about radio. He says regardless of what the FCC does, Kantako's mark has already been made.
RIISMANDEL: "Mbanna Kantako's lasting legacy is really as an inspiration for people who would use radio for social justice. And in particular using radio as a way to communicate to communities and to people who are not served well by the mainstream media and dominate commercial media institutions"
And what about the future? Will Human Rights Radio be around another 25 years? Kantako says yes.
KANTAKO: "You know, until things change around, there's going to have to be another 25 after that probably, you know. Going forward we see our role of maintaining this, and hopefully inspiring some others to be unafraid to try it."
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