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SO! Amplifies: Immigrants Wake America Podcast and the Work of Engaged Digital Humanities

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Conceptualized at a time of rampant increase in anti-immigrant violence, Immigrants Wake America is a creative response to the growing bias and violence against immigrant women in the U.S., as seen in the Atlanta shootings, the rise in hate crimes since the onset of Covid-19, and the US-Mexico border crisis. We believe that storytelling allows us to find similarities and differences between ourselves and others, offering a humanizing counterpart to harmful media narratives. The podcast creates a living archive of stories not yet heard, serving as an audio intervention into how immigrant women’s (hi)stories are narrated and passed on.

Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side. Image by Flickr User Cliff Dix (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Immigrants Wake America is a public humanities, community-engaged project of digital storytelling through podcasts, in partnership with the Tenement Museum in New York. It features storytellers who share their family stories about migration and the centrality of women in their life histories. These storytellers have submitted stories to the Tenement Museum’s digital archive Your Story, Our Story (YSOS),

Founded in 1988, the Tenement Museum, focuses on immigration and immigrants to “foster a society that embraces and values the role of immigration in the evolving American identity.” YSOS cofounded by Annie Polland and Kathryn Lloyd, is a digital archive that houses stories associated with immigration, migration, and cultural identity. Some of the storytellers are first generation immigrants, while others are descendants of immigrants, born and raised in the US; their great-grandparents or grandparents migrated to the US ages ago. Through YSOS, the Tenement Museum invites people across the country to share their stories in the online digital storytelling exhibit. Each story reveals one individual’s experience. Together, the stories help us see how the unique histories shape the nation, and the patterns that bind us together.

screencap of Your Story Our Story homepage

Through exploring and curating stories from Your Story Our Story, we facilitate conversations that supplement and expand it. This makes possible the conception of an archive that is both dynamic and collaborative. Such an archive resists the colonization and appropriation of lives and narratives of our storytellers. We navigate through the ethical conundrums that one might structurally and personally face in this collaborative endeavor. In our engagement with the archives at the Tenement Museum, we believe that our podcasting project really opens up the possibilities for an expansion of the archive.

We released our first episode, the Introductory Episode on January 15th, 2022, and have since been consistently releasing one episode per month.

While our podcast does not claim to retrieve or lay out these microhistories in their entirety, at an early stage of its development, we came to realize the potential that the form of the podcast itself offers for a different kind of storytelling. In our podcast, we treat stories as primary documents instead of marginalia. Michelle Caswell (2014) uses the term “symbolic annihilation” to describe the absence or misrepresentation of marginalized communities in archives. She advocates the powerful forces of community archives in countering “symbolic annihilation.” In thinking about archives in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault is concerned with “the density of discursive practices” wherein he observes “systems that establish statements as events and things (145)” This system of statements (as events or things) is what contributes to the law of what can be said. Processes of digital communal archiving such as those done by South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) or the Tenement Museum attempt to extend or expand the systematic possibility of events and things. Caswell and her colleagues have demonstrated the importance and success of the SAADA project. They have also pointed to the impossibility of representation in a traditional archive which is built on violence committed on colonized and enslaved bodies, also eloquently pointed out by Saidiya Hartman’s scholarship.

Through our experience we’ve learnt that podcasts can serve as a transgressive-dynamic expansion of digital archiving, given their unique ability to cut across racial and gendered lines of preconceived sonic notions and their potential to expand the current techniques and media of digital archiving. We map this formal potential of the podcast in the way it intersects with digital archiving in the following ways:

First, narratorial voice.

We wanted our project to act as an intervention in the way in which immigrant women’s (hi)stories are consumed and passed on. We wanted to provide counter narratives. It was essential that the storytellers share their stories in their own voices, literally! The audio medium allows us to produce a space for listening to voices that are otherwise marginalized and/or demonized. 

–Le Li and Shruti Jain

Among the several unique and inspiring stories of resilience that the Tenement Museum houses, one such is a story by an immigrant case manager at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, Goretti Mugambwa. The museum and our podcast make it possible for her story to be narrated by herself in her voice. With her experience of working with the refugee and immigrant community she also does not just remain an individual voice, but acts to further a collective assertion.

Next, sonic variations.

Our storytellers’ voices are not just “characteristics” of the story but are an essential part of the story itself. We believe that each immigrant and their descendent brings to the story their unique tonal texture. This diversity destabilizes what immigrants and their descendants are expected to sound like. The sounds we add in the editing process are minimal. We try not to impose emotional cues and responses upon our listeners. 

–Shruti Jain and Le Li

The multiplicity of voices in our podcast–and therefore in the archive–are not just “characteristics” of the aural storytelling or listening process, but are as much an essential part of the story itself. In line with what The Sonic Color Line reminds us, our work also finds that, “sound frequently appears to be visuality’s doppelgänger in U.S. racial history” (Stoever 4). This leads to the coding of race as not just visual but aural too. We want to clarify that the white constructed ideas of how people of color must sound flatten out the complexities in how people within and across communities do sound. At the same time, these notions of white sonic normativity also create a strong sense of what one must or must not sound like in order to succeed in the racial capitalist world order. The storytellers of our podcast and we ourselves are of diverse backgrounds. This, for us, is a way to demonstrate the “complex range of sounds actually produced by people of color” (Stoever 43). As Nancy Morales argues in “Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging,” the sound of ‘everyday voices’ mobilized against—and remarking on—the nation-state’s attempts to mark immigrant communities as vulnerable exerts an impactful and profoundly material agency.” With its conversational and collaborative format, our podcast serves as a dynamic medium to represent (his)stories that complicate generic conventions in critical ways.

Then, collaboration.

We have also been personally deeply impacted by the process of working on this podcast. We have made lasting bonds with our colleagues and storytellers alike. The storytellers of our podcast act not just as guests, but as collaborators and stakeholders. Instead of interpreting the stories in our own way and retelling the stories, we collaborate with the storytellers, and facilitate the unfolding of hidden stories by the storytellers. Dr. Lisa Yun, Professor of English at Binghamton University, and Kathryn Lloyd, Senior Director of Programs, Tenement Museum, have been advisors and the executive producers of the podcast. Together with Lloyd and Yun, we built a project on the ethos of collaboration.

The editing process of IWA too, is different. Rather than making individual editorial decisions, we engage the storytellers directly in post-production. After finishing a first edit of an episode collaboratively between ourselves, we then send it to the storytellers for their feedback and approval before releasing it. Sometimes, the storytellers do suggest changes. Based on their feedback, we re-edit the episode and eventually release it after the storytellers approval. We have also innovated methods of community editing, where we edit in groups of as large as 15 people.

Finally, accessibility.

The podcast medium makes Immigrants Wake America an ideal project for the public humanities. As opposed to lengthier podcasts, each episode of our podcast is edited down to 15-20 minutes. These can be used by educators as an in-class resource to generate discussion and activities. Community listeners could tune in during lunch breaks, get-togethers, cooking, driving or doing chores. Our episodes can also serve as conversation starters and help facilitate affective bonds among immigrants and non-immigrants alike.

The final episode of our first season, “Finding Our Grandmother in the Records,” aired just last week, and a second season is in the works.

As a way to expand this project, our second season will feature storytellers from our local community in addition to Your Story, Our Story. We plan to have units within our project dedicated to translation, recording and editing, and creating teaching resources. We aim for meaningful and engaged conversations and try to blur the supposed boundaries between the university and the community. Join us!

The first season of Immigrants Wake America was sponsored through the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Binghamton University and a Public Humanities Grant from Humanities New York. Dr. Lisa Yun, Professor of English at Binghamton University, and Kathryn Lloyd, Senior Director of Programs, Tenement Museum, have been our advisors and the executive producers of the podcast. IWA is available on major streaming platforms such as Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Soundcloud, and Audible.

Le Li and Shruti Jain are pursuing their PhDs at Binghamton University in the Translation Research and Instruction Program and the English Department respectively. They were Humanities New York Public Humanities fellows (2021-22) and graduate fellows of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at Binghamton University (2021-22). Through their podcast project and their work with digital community archives, Le and Shruti are currently working on exploring intersection between podcasts and digital archiving. They try to capitalize on the unique ability that the form of the podcast offers to cut across racial and gendered lines of preconceived sonic notions, which makes possible the conception of an archive that can be both dynamic and collaborative. Le’s research interests include translation studies, cultural studies, diaspora studies, and public humanities. Shruti’s PhD focuses on the Enlightenment, British Empire and the relationalities between race and caste formations. 

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Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations– Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low

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Deep Listening as Philogynoir: Playlists, Black Girl Idiom, and Love–Shakira Holt

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“Vous Ecoutez La Voix du Peuple”: The Kreyol Language Pirate Radio Stations of Flatbush, Brooklyn

Haitian Radio //
Radyo Ayisyen

Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.

To start the series, Ian Coss gave a finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station in Cap Haïtien that follows the programming rhythm of days and nights.  Then, Jennifer Garcon recounted one of the pivotal points in the relationship—its near breakdown and ultimate survival—also a turning point for a 19-year-old Jean Claude Duvalier, newly proclaimed President for life. Last week, Laura Wagner, who listened to each recording Radio Haïti-Inter and its archive (now at Duke University) and wrote its archival descriptors, writes of the work itself, the emotional, financial and intellectual challenges involved, and the reason this archive is essential to anyone interested in Haiti, or radio, or racial justice.

We continue the series in Brooklyn this week, where amidst gentrification and millennials seeking upscale vegan quesadillas, the ‘culture of the transistor’ is alive and well. Pirate radio stations broadcasting music and news in Haitian Creole have loyal followings, mostly of an older generation for whom radio was the primary medium during their youth. Listening brings back memories of a prosperous 1940s and 50s Haiti that recent narratives centered on catastrophe tend to bury. David Goren, who has not just written about but also mapped Brooklyn’s pirate stations, reminds us that these aural communities connect past and present, and perhaps future as well.

Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman

Click here for the full series!

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Station Logo Grid, Courtesy of Author

‘A lot of these stations, especially the Haitian stations, they have such an extensive music library that a song will come on the radio and all of a sudden my mom is like, ‘Oh my God! Your grandma used to have this record and she played it every Saturday!’ says Joan Martinez, a young Haitian-American born in the US and a former program host on some of the unlicensed Kreyol language stations. “Now she’s transported back to being on the island, with the big radio that’s a piece of furniture in the living room. People are chatting, little drinks are flowing about, my grandmother milling about in a gorgeous dress. It’s kind of like that whole nostalgia era that unfortunately was probably lost because of the political turmoil in Haiti. So it’s harkening back to a good time, to a simpler time, a better time, a more carefree era.”

Every day, the skies of New York City fill up with unseen clouds of radio signals spreading over immigrant neighborhoods. These culturally charged clouds of radio energy burst with a flow of content that continually shifts and transforms, following the lifecycle and rhythm of the streets.

From clandestine studios tucked behind store fronts, DJs transform time and physical space with Konpa, Reggae and Soca music, mixing the sounds of ancestral homes with the thump and challenge of adapting to a new life in the United States. Jolted by electrified fingers of Signal, the old radio poetry of hiss and hum leaps from a scattered forest of antennas connected to transmitters hidden away inside rooftop sheds. In Brooklyn, the signals alight on Flatbush Avenue, blasting from radios in dollar vans, bakeries, churches and on street corners and kitchen tables. By accessing an analog technology that (outside of the radio itself) is essentially free for the listener, economically marginalized communities avoid the subscription and data fees built in to the conveniences of the digital life. Listeners, often the elders of the community, extend metal antennas and position the radios just so, trying to catch the elusive vibrations of crucial music, news and information that are seldom felt in New York City’s legal and mostly corporate owned media soundscape. 

“These underground, unlicensed or pirate stations have been around for as long as there has been radio,” Martinez says. The legality of radio stations stems from The Communications Act of 1934, legislation that created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency tasked with penalizing unlicensed stations and shutting them down. “The focus really was on the listeners.” says Rosemary Harold, chief of FCC Enforcement ‘because what had happened before licensing became what we know as today, was that listeners weren’t able to consistently hear radio broadcasts. And now we’re kind of in a modern iteration of that.” 

Others, like pirate radio historian John Anderson, see the Act as unfairly slanted towards commercial interests, awarding “the highest powers and clearest channels” to stations that sold advertising, tilting the medium away from serving specific communities. “By privileging commercial speech over non-commercial speech and by basically saying if you are a special interest, we will not award you a license.” Anderson says. “You create the conditions for there to be dissension over the media policy, which will lead people into radical actions, like putting stations on the air without permission.” In Flatbush, stations broadcast primarily to Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Grenadians and Orthodox Jews. The Haitian stations are particularly active in East Flatbush with just under a dozen broadcasting daily in Kreyol to the large Haitian community. 

Jacques Dessaline Boulevard sign, courtesy of author
Joan Martinez, courtesy of author

“I came across it at a very young age. There was this really popular station back in the late 80s, Radio Guinee, and it was based in Brooklyn.” Joan Martinez says. “Nobody knows where it was, there are suspicions. But all I know is from Friday night all the way to Sunday night, you would just hear a series of these stations every weekend and it would be the place where you could listen to the latest in Haitian pop music, rap music. It was also the news, my parents and their friends would all sit around the radio and they would just be politicking in the living room getting really loud, you know, dancing, singing along that sort of thing. It was just like a meeting ground and the radio was guiding it.” 

This phase of New York City pirate radio rose from the ashes of a previous scene dating to the late sixties: a dozen or so stations sporadically run mostly by white teenagers: a mix of hippies, radicals and electronically inclined misfits. By 1987, this loose collective of friends and rivals devolved into infighting after a short-lived attempt to broadcast from international waters off Jones Beach. This created room for new pirate radio voices from diverse communities that were increasingly being pushed off the legal airwaves by high costs, format consolidation, and  “the low power desert”, an FCC-led phaseout of small community broadcasters. The local pirates joined a growing national wave of progressive pirate radio activity taking  advantage of a new generation of cheap FM transmitters imported from China or homebrewed in makeshift workshops by free radio activists.

Radio La Voix Du Peuple Flyer,
Image by Author

By the early 90’s, immigrant community-focused broadcasters In New York City flipped the unspoken rules of the earlier pirates who broadcast mainly late at night on a few pre-determined “safe” frequencies, instead filling the FM dial from bottom to top, day and night. In 2000, under pressure from a nationwide increase in pirate radio activity, the FCC introduced a new license class: Low Power FM (LPFM) but opposition from National Public Radio and the National Association of Broadcasters shut down the issuing of new licenses. That severely limited LPFM’s availability in major urban markets due to rules requiring LPFM’s to be “three click aways” from existing stations. Local pirates felt they had no alternative but to continue broadcasting and some stations in Flatbush have been on the air for decades. Despite the passage of the Local Community Radio Act in 2011, opening a new licensing window with relaxed spacing requirements, few new frequencies were available in NYC due to an already crowded dial. The continued pirate presence is enabled by a sort of safety in numbers, an FCC enforcement team hampered by a low budget and a bureaucratic process of enforcement

Though the stations exist to serve their communities with news and culture and maybe make a little money for their owners and dj’s, they can and do cause interference for listeners of licensed stations, particularly low-powered non-commercial broadcasters like WFMU, a beloved freeform music station. Interference near their frequency has inspired the Brooklyn Pirate Watch Twitter group to keep a wary eye on pirate operations.

Storefont available, photo courtesy of author

Interference aside, FCC commissioners and staff publicly fume at the pirates for a range of potential public safety violations, some more theoretical than others and claim they are somehow harming their own communities, and wonder finally, why don’t they just stream on the internet. By viewing radio piracy purely from a legal perspective, critics miss the cultural and historic forces driving the Haitian pirates. During the Duvalier dictatorship (1957-1986) Haitians had access to only two stations broadcasting in Kreyol, rather than French, the language of the elite. One was Radio Lumiere, a religious station and the other Radio Haiti-Inter, a fiercely independent voice whose director Jean Dominque was assassinated in 1999.

The peasant in Haiti, while he’s working on his farm you know he had a transistor.” Says Dr. Jean Eddy St. Paul, Director of the Haitian Studies Institute at the City University of New York. ‘And many peasants, they don’t have money to buy tobacco to smoke, but they will have money to buy the battery to put in the transistor. The first generation of migration, in the US, was during the 1960s and for many of those people the culture of transistor was part of their everyday life, so they’re still maintaining the culture of transistor. For them, having a radio station is very important.’ 

In July 2019, on a side street in East Flatbush, I met a man calling himself “Joseph” aka “Haitian” (“because I’m a pure Haitian!”), part of a group that keeps Radio Comedy FM on the air. “There’s no owners and committee. It’s a bunch of young guys”. Joseph says, “We have to do something positive for our community. Right now the Marines are in Haiti and we don’t know what’s next! CNN don’t show you this! BBC don’t show you this! So what we do, we have people in Haiti that call us and tell us what’s going on and will send us pictures. This is how we get our information. And bring it to the people…. I have family over there, my mother’s still there. So I have to know what’s going on. 

At this point in the digital age, it’s an open question how long these analog pirate stations will remain relevant, as their audiences age, neighborhoods gentrify and younger listeners gravitate to social media platforms. The answer seems to lie with their elderly and impoverished listeners. They don’t have enough money to buy the newspapers understand?.” Joseph says.” For him that makes it worth it to keep Radio Comedy on the air despite a crackdown from the FCC backed by the PIRATE Act signed into law in 2020 that increases fines to $100,000 a day up to $2 million. But the legislation lacks funding to enforce the new regulations. With a federal statute still in place reducing fines down to the ability to pay, it’s unclear whether the PIRATE Act will be anything more than another in an escalating series of scare tactics

“If they don’t want us to do it just make it easy for us. Let’s make a meeting with those guys [the FCC],” Joseph says. ‘We’re going to provide the air for you. A frequency. You’re going to pay for example, $500 a month even $1,000 a month.’ We will be more than happy to do it. “

Pirate Radio Activity Chart, Courtesy of Author

Though the FCC has recently suggested the possibility of a new round of LPFM licenses in the future, the already crowded nature of NYC’s FM band makes it unlikely that new frequencies will be made available to the current pirate stations. In addition the FCC doesn’t want to be seen as rewarding illegal activity by granting a license to former pirate broadcasters, which was a prohibition in LPFM’s earlier licensing periods. And for the moment, Joseph, who’s been running unlicensed stations since 1991 (‘it’s an addiction’) is equally unlikely to cede the airwaves. He sees Radio Comedy as not just a radio station, but a community lifeline. 

 “You know many children we save? There was a bunch of guys…Jamaican, Trinidadian, Haitian trying to form a gang. We talked to them, bring them to the station. Most of them have a diploma now. Without the radio, most of them probably get locked up or dead.” 

Even with the PIRATE act on the books, the number of stations on the air in Brooklyn has remained steady with an average of about 25 per day and the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic has only sharpened their mission. In March 2020 as the spread of Covid-19 lead to NYC’s lockdown, the unlicensed Haitian broadcasters and the other West Indian stations in Brooklyn took a step closer to their listeners, increasing their air time and enhancing their formats to deliver information about the virus both in New York and in their countries of origin amid the heavy toll it took on the community.

Click here to hear Station IDs for Radio Lumiere, Radio Independans, and La Voix du Peuple!

Featured Image: Antenna in Flatbush, courtesy of David Goren

An award-winning radio producer, David Goren has created programming for the BBC, Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio, the Wall Street Journal Magazine, and NPR’s “Lost and Found Sound” series, as well as audio-based installations for Proteus Gowanus Radio Cona and the Ethnographic Terminalia Collective. In 2016, he was an artist-in residence at Wave Farm, a center for the transmission arts.

Since 2014, David has been recording New York City’s prodigious pirate radio activity and researching the evolution of this grassroots community radio movement resulting in the release of  “Outlaws of the Airwaves: The Rise of Pirate Radio Station WBAD” (2018) for KCRW’s “Lost Notes” podcast, New York City’s Pirates of the Air for the BBC World Service (2019) and the “Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map 2.0” (2020)  which was featured in The New Yorker. He presented “Tracing Neighborhoods in the Sky,” as part of the Fall 2019 Franke Lectures at Yale University. In January 2021, the Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map became a partner of the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force.

tape reel

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