WINning the Airwaves for Labor

What medium has the largest audience for news and entertainment? The answer may surprise you.

Radio is still the best way to reach big audiences, and labor radio is emerging as a new tool for storytelling, news sharing, and organizing. Pro-worker, union-friendly radio shows like the Workers' Independent News (WIN), Union Edge, and podcasts like the Green Line are leading the charge. We spoke to Frank Empsak, the Executive Producer of WIN, and Charles Showalter, the host of the Union Edge, about the role of radio in labor.

AFGE: How did you come up with the idea of starting a labor-based radio segment?

Frank Empsak: "In 2000, after the election, we had a big conference here at the University of Wisconsin sponsored by the people who were doing progressive media, focused on labor at the time. Afterwards, a number of us who did radio got together and said maybe we should have a national radio network, and nobody volunteered. So I did."

Charles Showalter: "I started The Union Edge 10 years ago. We're the only nationally syndicated labor radio show in the country in long format. We're talk radio, so while we do a lot of news reporting, we're not just news at the top of the hour. We're 4 hours a day in Pittsburgh, and 3 hours a day in a lot of other markets."

AFGE: What stories do you most enjoy telling on the news segments?

Frank Empsak: "What I really enjoy covering is being able to get people to tell us about what they're doing locally. We felt the information about the Chicago teachers' strike last year was very powerful, because you had community people, you had teachers' unions speaking from the heart. They were telling us why they were doing what they were doing, and why they were defending the public school system there. It's the same thing when we talk about industry - when we can get a local leader or a rank-and-file activist on the air saying 'This is why this is important to the community,' that's what we feel is the most useful type of news for people to have. It doesn't so much matter the topic, it matters to us how we can really engage the base."

Charles Showalter: "Being an old dog organizer, I think any organizing stories that are going on are really important, and it doesn't just have to be AFL-CIO or AFGE. Any union organizing that's going on is very important. We're very excited to hear about the Fight for $15, Fast Food Forward, Our WalMart, and even the Uber and Lyft drivers that are organizing out on the west coast. Any time we get a good organizing win, we need to talk about it."

AFGE: Do you see your news segments as a way to educate the public on labor issues, or to inspire them to act on issues in their communities?

Frank Empsak: "I think it's both. I think if you hear somebody from the VA, for example, in the case of AFGE, speaking about the importance of their hospital, and why it shouldn't be closed, or why they're serving our veterans - that educates and motivates at the same time. We're very careful to do news, however, as opposed to editorials on our part. So almost all of our news is hearing directly from somebody involved in some activity."

Charles Showalter: "It's not just for union folks. We have a large listening audience that we refer to as 'Not Yet Union Public,' about 70 percent of the population. If they had the ability to join a union at their workplace, they would. We talk about the issues, we allay concerns, we correct misinformation or rhetoric that goes on out there on a daily basis, and we have a conversation. We're often robust, but we're always respectful."

AFGE: You've said before that basing the radio show outside of Washington, D.C. (WIN is based in Wisconsin, Union Edge is based in Pittsburgh) is good for storytelling. How does your home base help you tell a different story?

Frank Empsak: "It helps us with perspective because not being in Washington means that we really are focused on the whole country. I think Washington has such a strong, attractive sort of force because all the leadership is there, and so you tend to focus on the policy and discussions in DC. I think that by being out of DC, it forces us to really focus nationally." 

Charles Showalter: "I can commute quicker to work than if it was in DC! The long and short is, with today's technology, it doesn't matter where the radio station is. We're personable, we're talking about local stories in each community on a daily basis, and we're talking about national basis on a daily basis too. It's a good fit. What's interesting is, the push for Right to Work in Michigan, and in Wisconsin, and in Kentucky and so on, it was the same story repeating itself all over the country."

AFGE: Outside of public radio, what are your goals for getting a wider listenership for your segments?

Frank Empsak: "We want to increase our social media presence, and we're doing that with Facebook & Twitter. We also feel pretty strongly that we'd like to break what we call the 'media blockade' with commercial radio. In almost all the country, there's only one or two news sources. And so we believe that a real objective is to break into those markets, because you have a penetration of radio, of 98% - there isn't another medium that penetrates more. And people turn on the radio all the time, when they're driving. And so if we're going to affect politics, and help to build the labor movement in this country, we have to be able to talk to people where they're at. And they're at the Internet, for sure, but they're also on radio. And so we're trying to figure out how to expand that presence so it's part of the landscape."

Charles Showalter: "We're going to continue to expand the number of stations we're on across the United States. We're looking to be in places like Iowa, Atlanta, Nashville, and some other states. We're going to continue to expand out as often and as rapidly as we can. A lot of that deals with how much the locals want to get information out to the public. I have to say this: the more that we have this conversation with the public, the easier it is to get their support when we need it."

AFGE: In a quick summary, why do you think labor radio is so important to organizing?

Frank Empsak: "Let me just say this from my point of view: One of the things that happens is that when people hear that other people are doing something, it makes it much easier to organize and mobilize - there's a sense that there's a motion. 

I think radio and media in general - and labor media in particular - it's crucial, it gives people information about what others are doing, and that it's possible to do something. And once you know it's possible to do something, you're more likely to do it. It's a combination of information and mobilization that goes on. And that is the importance of the media, and labor media in particular. You have thousands of thousands of workplaces all over the country, with people isolated in many ways, and you also get what we call 'validation' when people hear something on the radio - it becomes more real and it becomes something people can do. That's the importance of our labor radio program."

Charles Showalter: "It's also a great tool for organizing, and radio lends a great deal of credibility to that organizer knocking on your door, or an organizer who's trying to organize a workshop. It helps a lot, and so if you want to organize, you want to organize new units, you want to win public support, radio is definitely a great tool to do that." 

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