LMaDO talks to David Barsamian, a wide-ranging investigative journalist, founder and director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado.
LMaDO: You founded alternative radio in 1986 and as far as we are concerned it changed the face of radio forever. It is now being broadcast in more than 200 radio stations around the world and you have also interviewed about 400 guests now. Could you tell us how it all began and what was the idea behind the project? And also, how do you see it evolve in the future?
David Barsamian: Well, it was a series of serendipitous events, it was certainly unintentional! I have no academic credentials, no background in journalism. I have always been interested in politics and history. Even from childhood I was a bit of a radical, a rebel, I grew up with the shadow of the Armenian genocide kind of in the background.
So I was very interested in the past and how it influenced events in the future.
I moved to Boulder Colorado from New York in 1978 and fortuitously a community radio station went on the air just at that time, KGNU, and they were looking for volunteers to do programming. Well, I did not have a job and I volunteered and I began a program called “Ganges to the Nile”. It was mostly a music and poetry programme focusing on the many cultures between those two great rivers.
Then in the early 80’s, I started another programme called “Hemispheres” that was overtly political. What I found here in the United States was just an enormous amount of misinformation and disinformation particularly when it came to issues concerning West and South Asia and I wanted to correct that.
Another thing that I also noticed was our foremost intellectual decedent was being completely marginalised and ignored; that is Noam Chomsky. In addition to him, people like Eduard Said, Eqbal Ahmad, Howard Zinn were also nowhere to be found in the corporate controlled media and even in the so called alternative media, they were not very prominent.
And so, around this time, in the early 80’s is a period where there is enormous consolidation and concentration of media, there are merges and take over’s. I remember at the time, Ben Bagdikian who was a pretty mainstream journalist, a very fine journalist and editor who wrote a book called “The Media Monopoly”. He identified 50 corporations that were controlling most of the media in the United States. Well, in subsequent additions 50 became 28, 28 became 20, 20 became 14, 14 became 6 and so today we have 5 corporations that basically control what most Americans see, hear and read.
That is a deplorable situation.
So I started an alternative radio again literally out of my house and it has been with various ebbs and flows flourishing now since the mid 1980’s. I am looking forward to our 38 anniversaries in less than 2 years. It has been a great ride and I’ve had the privilege of not only working with these people that I have mentioned such as Chomsky, Zinn, Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva, and others people like that are very near and dear to me, also Tariq Ali, a number of activists that are not well-known in South Asia, West Asia.
So the program is broadcasts on close to 200 radio stations around the US, all over Canada and Australia as well and it is an interesting funding model.people always would ask how I support myself, there is no government money, no corporate money, of course not, I would have never accepted it. The project is entirely sustained by listeners who purchase MP3 and download transcripts or actually get copies of CDs. We are entirely independent and that independence allows us to be radical and progressive without worrying about any kind of interferences from sponsors.
That’s the project.
LMaDO: As you’ve just said, you’ve interviewed Noam Chomsky, Eduard Said, Eqbal Ahmad, Naomi Klein, Seymour Hersh, Eduardo Galeano, Vandana Shiva…the list is pretty endless. Your interviews feel very cosy, very homy in a way and the interviewee always seems to be at ease and relaxed. I guess they are more conversations than interviews.
In your opinion, what makes a good interview? What makes a good interviewer?
DB: I think informed questions. Most of these people that I talk to do many interviews so how can I formulate a list of questions that might just go beyond the standard format that most of them are subjected to and probably at this point bored to death, bored to tears by so I am looking for what would people ask, not what I would ask.
I have some background in West and South Asia, my parents are in fact from Anatolia, from Turkish Armenia, and so I have a lot of information but I don’t want to confuse my role as the interrogator, as the inquisitor. Some interviewers would rather be the interviewee and they make long winded statement just to show off how much they know which I think is a very off putting technique.
I am just trying to think of what would the average listener like to know about, what would they like to hear, what are they not hearing in the mainstream media than this guest can illuminate and enlighten them on. I do a great deal of research, I don’t need to know an enormous amount about a particular topic but I need to know enough to formulate and ask intelligent questions and also be ready to improvise that is always an exciting moment in any kind of interview situation, you know you have your list of questions but then the guest says something quite extraordinary or striking or something out of the ordinary that requires an immediate follow up. Those moments are very exciting and I relish them as well.
LMaDO: You’ve also mentioned the fact that about 5 corporations own US mainstream media nowadays. If you apply this to the rest of the world it is pretty much the same number in Australia or in the UK. Very wealthy people with strong right wing political views now own most mainstream media all over the world. How dangerous it is in your opinion?
DB: I think it is a very ominous trend to have that kind of concentration of power and influence in the hands of few people who are hell bent on making money, these are capitalist corporations that’s what they are about, that’s what they are dedicated to maximise profit. So if they can have some scandal that they want to promote, the latest Hollywood divorce or Royal family birth and things like that. This type of media really function as weapons of mass distraction instead of being instruments of knowledge and information. They are largely tools to promote a certain corporate agenda and also to limit information to average citizens and I think that that kind of thing does not serve the needs, the communication needs of democratic societies if indeed we still have democratic societies in the UK, Canada, Australia, the United States and elsewhere. Elections are largely corporate run affairs, going to the highest bidder certainly in the United States, they are farcical. We have procedural democracies, we don’t have any democracy with real content, we need to create alternatives to the corporate model. It is one reason I have started an alternative radio and they are many other examples both in print and online, TV and radio of that independent media organisations that are answering back to the monochromatic one note samba of capitalism is wonderful and imperialism is just great. This is the political economy of the corporate media, the political economy of capitalism. Whatever they are doing they are selling eyeballs/viewers and ears/listeners to other corporations called advertisers, that’s how they are able to generate enormous profit for themselves. I think one word we need to inject in this conversation is propaganda. The US in particular as the leading imperial power of the world today, the population is bombarded with propagandistic messages particularly when it relates to the middle east, to the question of palestine, Israel, Syria to Iran, it’s just astonishing how much dissembling goes on in the corporate controlled media here, when it comes to the what is called here in the US “The Middle East”.
LMaDO: I guess part of the job of an alternative radio program like yours is to show the reality on the ground, instead of imagines that the mainstream media wants the general public to believe in.
DB: It’s hard to imagine a part of the world where the reporting is more distorted than the Middle East. The level of lying is absolutely mind boggling. It’s understandable of course because the US has huge geo-strategic interests in that part of the world, and those interests, by the way, precede the creation of the State of Israel. They got back to the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, Franklin D Roosevelt meeting with Saud on US destroyer on Suez Canal, just before Roosevelt died in 1945 and essentially sealed a faustian bargain to guarantee the safety and security of the Saudi monarchy, the house of Saud, in return for access to what the state department called“the greatest material prize in the history of the world, the oil wealth of the Middle East.
LMaDO: Let me now ask you about your personal views and activism. What do you focus on outside alternative radio. When you give talks, go to universities…
DB: There is a lot of interest in the US on Iran, with the new president Hassan Rouhani, with the splash he made in NYC during the UN General Assembly meeting in September, there is a lot of interest in Syria as well, with the potential for a much wider war. I mentioned Saudi Arabia, people don’t realise the absolutely invasive and corrosive role that they are playing in the Syrian civil war. They are funding some of the most extremists Jihadist groups, which could lead to a very explosive and dangerous situation. I have a connection to Syria because when my family, or the survivors, that did make it through the Armenian genocide of 1915, they fled to Syria. My mother spent years in Aleppo, which is a major battle ground right now of the civil war. I know people in Syria, it’s not an abstract place for me. I travelled, spoken there. It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening in that country. I hope there would be a peaceful solution as soon as possible. But it’s a very volatile area. US intervention has exacerbated the problems facing the region. It’s military alliance with some of the most corrupt regimes on earth, Koweit, UAE, Saudi Arabia, backing Mubarak to the hilt. The US has been supporting obedient servants, not democracy in the Middle East. As long as are an obedient servant you will be rewarded by Washington. This is something that I talk to Americans and Canadians about. It’s the actual history and the realities, informing the US interventions in the Middle East. It’s not about exporting democracy, it’s not about humanitarian concerns, human rights or women rights, any of the issues that are floating are all euphemisms to provide pretexts for interventions, occupations, bombing Pakistan, Yemen. The US literally takes people off the streets and throw them in Guantanamo or Bagram. There is no other way to describe it. Then they hold them without due process. This is a shocking situation for a country that portrays itself as the leader of the free world and the paragon of International Law. So these are the sort of things that I talk about as well as the performance of the corporate media here in the US, which is very important in supporting US imperial agenda.
LMaDO: So how can we change this? Can we expect a change to come from the White House, or will he have to come from us, the mass, the people?
DB: It won’t come from 10 Downing Street or 1600 Pennsylvania avenue, it never has and it never will. The ferment from below is what has always ignited social and political change around the world. That’s why I think a lot of people in our electoral democracies invest too much energy into candidates and leaders who promise of course the sky and are unable to deliver anything because they are controlled by other outside forces, lobbies, corporate interests and the like. So agitation from below, that’s how it happens.