Archive: Articles

Articles about our work:

Wolf, Joshua (2014, February 11). Spacebridge: Google Hangouts circa 1983, Journalism That Matters

Donally, Katie (2011, February 3). A Conversation with Internews Interactive’s Evelyn Messinger. American University Center for Social Media

Saks, Lauren (2009, April 15). Meet Multimedia Producer Evelyn Messinger.

Wilner, Paul (2008 January 13). Broadcasting A Global SamplerNew York Times messinger&st=cse

Feature without byline (2008, November 23) Spotlight on Know the News. European Journalism Centre

Pullella, Maria (2007, November 11). Opening the Door for Political Dialogue: RedBlue A New Online Project. Institute for Public Administration

Quistgaard, Kaitlin (2001, June 15) Making Television Matter.

Meier, Andrew (1985, December 1) The Russian (Media) Revolution. Wired Magazine

Articles by Evelyn Messinger:

THE FULCRUM (2019, August 19) A Place To Go: How Democracy Can Save Itself

TRACK TWO: AN INSTITUTE FOR CITIZEN DIPLOMACY (2018/2019) The Enemy You Know: Russians and Americans in an Age of Hysteria – Six articles

QUALCOMM SPARK (2012, September 5) Election Disruption: Digital Citizens and Mass Media

PBS MEDIASHIFT (2012, August 23) A Bold Experiment: Sending Citizen Reporters To Cover National Conventions

THE WHITMAN INSTITUTE (2012, January 25) TPOWS: Media As Mediation

PBS MEDIASHIFT (2011, November 2) Convergence 2.0: How Public TV Can Save Democracy 

PBS MEDIASHIFT (2011, October 3) Attack of the Attack Ads: Citizens United and the 2012

HUFFINGTON POST (2009, May 5) Pakistani Women Protest Taliban But Support Islamic Law

THE NATION (1999, November 9)Tiny Television – Against the Odds, Pirate TV Banishes Barriers

WHOLE EARTH REVIEW (1993) Channel X: Pirate TV in Eastern Europe


Tiny Television – Against the Odds, Pirate TV Banishes Barriers

Originally Published in The Nation

November 29, 1999 | Messinger, Evelyn

It’s been nearly a decade since the collapse of Communism showed that running a dictatorship takes, among other things, lots of bandwidth. When any political system implodes, frequencies become available. Across the former Communist countries, people bribed or cajoled or otherwise wrenched frequencies away from the chaotic and corrupt remnants of the collapsing systems and won their very own TV channels. The majority of commercial electronic media outlets in post-Communist countries today were born as unlicensed pirates. They include television and radio stations, even cable and sometimes satellite channels. Let’s just call all of it “Tiny TV”.

In Macedonia and Moscow, Jerusalem and Beirut, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, a new world order (and disorder) of television was born in the early nineties. Although talent is as rare as it has always been, the basic concepts of video production have turned out to be no more difficult to learn than driving a car. Camcorders and computer-based editing have made single-person production commonplace. Transmission hardware can often fit in a suitcase. Using home-satellite dishes, the Tinys can stealthily catch and rebroadcast the crumbs of satellite-transmitted Eurosport, MTV and CNN as they whiz past, heading for more lucrative destinations.

The very presence of pirate radio and TV stations has forced changes in the law. In Prague, Radio Stalin took up residence in the base of a toppled Stalin statue. It proved so popular that no one dared shut it down. Consequently, new laws were written and there are now hundreds of tiny radio stations in the Czech Republic. In Russia, Ukraine and many other places, tiny local stations became so popular that government attempts to shut them down failed, and they now exist legally.

Communism’s collapse brought forth an estimated 3,000 local pirate television stations in the former Soviet Union; today about 1,000 are broadcasting, all perfectly legal now. Macedonia, a country that can be crossed by car in two hours, has nearly 200 stations, a European record. Kanal X, in the eastern German city of Leipzig, slipped in as a pirate TV station when the Berlin wall fell. Today, Kanal X has leveraged a relaxation of German broadcasting law and produces a nationally distributed series in a government-mandated “independents” slot on commercial satellite television.

I visited scores of these stations in the early nineties, when I worked for the Soros Open Society Institute and later as executive director of Internews, a company dedicated to supporting independent broadcasting in emerging democracies worldwide. It was a Wayne’s World out there: A station in Macedonia was named the equivalent of the Smith Channel, after its owner and operator, who transmitted from his balcony. It’s also a precarious world; in Romania, combative grassroots Tiny TV stations in every city lost their frequencies to government-friendly bidders at licensing time, despite hunger strikes by local viewers. I saw a coin box at a shop counter in Timisoara, like those we have for childhood diseases, but this was to support the local Tiny TV station.

At least ninety-five percent of tiny broadcasters are commercial enterprises. In many cases, the predictable happened: Little stations became big ones, poor stations became rich, and with these changes came a new sort of pressure. In Russia a decade ago, bribery and patronage were the realities for Tiny TV. In the new Russia, local broadcasters’ independence is threatened by the political aspirations of the country’s economic oligarchy, which well understands the power of television. In Lebanon, Tiny TV has undergone a dramatic evolution. In the late eighties most of the factions in the civil war there had started their own pirate television stations. Before long, these stations, still owned by the same people, gave up propaganda for more conventional – and lucrative – programming. Today their competing news programs are the last vestige of their owners’ warring past.

Macedonia is struggling with its own conundrum: how to license so many broadcasters. The recent conflict in Kosovo sent hundreds of thousands of unwelcome Albanian refugees into Macedonia, a country that is predominantly Slav, but with western provinces that are overwhelmingly Albanian. The sheer babble of opinions in the media from every corner of the political and geographic spectrum has helped create a confused peace. Thanks in part to Tiny TV, in other words, Macedonia may avoid the fate of another country with similar fractures but a single, voice-of-authority press: neighboring Serbia. The autocratic Slobodan Milosevic constantly fusses over the one and only Serbian national broadcaster. In Macedonia, state TV is decrepit and destitute, while the voices of Slavic as well as Albanian nationalists compete with those of moderates, musicians, sports fans and even Mr. Smith.

There are two types of countries that do not permit Tiny TV. The first, where dictatorships still maintain a single broadcast voice, includes much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, along with Serbia. Even so, satellites can go where the Tinys fear to tread. In the Middle East emirate of Qatar, the launching of a TV satellite with uncensored newscasts about Islamic extremism, corruption and women’s rights has stirred much controversy in the Arab world. The other diversity-poor nations are the Western type-that is, Europe and the United States. Their media grew under an aging regulatory structure-created when production and distribution were still complex and expensive-that makes survival difficult for small stations. The relatively large size of local US TV stations mandates a mass-audience mentality that has gotten us stuck inside the endless rerun and the useless local news show.

But a recent event in France may be a sign that Tiny TV could yet emerge in Western Europe. On October 2 activists with a group called Medias Libres climbed to the roof of a Parisian building and set up a pirate antenna from which it broadcast several public-interest programs to 100,000 homes, in order to demonstrate that there were free frequencies beyond the seven authorized channels. They demanded the establishment of public media in France without corporate or government influence. Police detained several protesters, including two journalists who were covering the event. Earlier, on July 14 of this year, Medias Libres celebrated Bastille Day by simultaneously transmitting from pirate UHF transmitters to television viewers in Paris, Montpellier and Tours, topping off a triumphant day by erecting a wall of television sets in front of the country’s Ministry of Culture and Communication. It might seem hard to imagine such protests having any impact, but recall that a pirate television broadcaster operated from Warsaw’s rooftops during the last gasp of Poland’s Communist repression in the eighties, urging viewers to resist. It worked for them.

Evelyn Messinger is the director of Internews Interactive, which specializes in creating two-way citizens’ interactive television programming.