Out of the Night : From a corner of his living room, Mbanna Kantako broadcasts his version of the news. With less than one watt, he hopes to start a revolution.


At almost midnight, drug dealers still hover outside under the street lights, thick as mosquitoes, the cops a feeble hand waving to shoo them off.

Inside his apartment at the John Hays Homes housing project, Mbanna Kantako cannot see them, but he knows they are there--the dealers and the cops, the mosquitoes and the hand. They are always there. He speaks to them, whether or not they listen.

The people’s choice. Zoom Black Magic Liberation Radio. Stereo 107 point 1 F.M.


From a corner of his living room, he speaks every night, to them and to everyone else with a radio within a 1 1/2-mile radius.

We’re in our 406th consecutive night of broadcasting . . . Mbanna Kantako with you until Wednesday morning sometime.

Let’s listen to the news.

. . . The Israeli government has imposed their version of the South African government iron-fist policy . . . .

Blind, black and 31, Kantako plays music, talks politics, criticizes “the system,” denounces drugs and goads the police, favorite whipping boys.

It’s outrageous stuff.

Gil Scott Heron sang in a more militant era that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” He may have been right. But in Springfield you can tune it in every night on your radio dial.

The house Negro Colin Powell is in the Middle East talking to the troops now. Why did Colin Powell all of a sudden go to the Middle East?

Kantako has an answer, albeit a somewhat fanciful one. The way he sees it, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was trying to stop black servicemen from converting to Islam.


With less than a watt of power, Kantako’s unlicensed and brazenly illegal radio station seems an unlikely catalyst for revolution. Because of Springfield’s segregated housing patterns, though, he says he covers three-quarters of the black community, about 11,000 people, along with most of downtown.

“We feel it’s an educational thing,” he says of the broadcasts, which he has made into a family affair. His wife, Brenda, or one of his two children kicks off each evening’s programming after dinner. They play highly politicized rap or reggae as a warm-up for Kantako, who takes to the air at 10 and sticks with it through early morning.

“We’re trying to build community,” he says of the broadcasts. “We’re really trying to raise the consciousness of the people.”

On uninspired nights, Kantako’s on-air discussions lapse into unintentional self-parody, seeming almost like a skit from TV’s “In Living Color.” The host and a stable of regular political activist callers and guests from Springfield, Chicago and elsewhere discuss the news of the day in low-key fashion, punctuating everything with the obligatory accusations of government conspiracies and genocide.

But Kantako and his supporters say his broadcasts are an important act of social protest, one which they hope to expand, by encouraging the development of other low-watt, unlicensed stations across the country.

Mike Townsend, a professor of social work at Sangamon State University in Springfield, helped create the station four years ago. He says they are challenging the Federal Communications Commission because they believe government regulations, which include capital funding requirements, discriminate against poor people and blacks and deny them access to the media.


“There is a definite sociopolitical motive behind what we’re trying to do, (which is) to find a way to empower low-income people,” says Townsend.

Among those who have provided some degree of moral support and advice are influential media theorists Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian.

Bagdikian, professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, says he cannot wholeheartedly endorse Kantako’s illegal station because it is “clearly civil disobedience” and “untenable in the long run. . . . I don’t think there’s any question that broadcasting has to be regulated,” he says. “You have to have somebody who’s a traffic cop.”

But he says the station was created in response to government policies that over the last 25 years have made it increasingly difficult for small low-power radio and television broadcasters to succeed.

“The field has been dominated by the big corporate operations” that ignore the concerns of non-white communities, he says. “They’re all making money hand over fist and they’re only interested in wide-market audience.”

Kantako has already been fined $750 by the FCC for operating without a license and told to shut down. He has refused to pay. If the FCC takes legal action to shut him down, he says he and his supporters will challenge the licensing requirement in court.


James A. Lewis, an assistant U.S. attorney in Springfield, is responsible for collecting the fine. He says neither he nor the FCC has pursued the matter because Kantako--who lives on Social Security disability payments--has few resources, the fine is so small and the government has much bigger cases to handle. “It’s a matter of proportion,” he says.

“What (Kantako) is doing is wrong,” he says, “but it’s not the worst wrong that goes on. I wish he wouldn’t do it, but it’s not drug crime or corruption.”

Also, he says, Kantako “likes to ignore you. So at this point I’m into leaving him alone until I think that it’s time to examine his resources again.”

Meanwhile, Kantako and Townsend have been contacting social activists in other cities and publicizing their activities in hopes of getting others interested in starting similar radio stations. They’ve created a how-to videotape in an effort to spawn a network of independent micro stations.

So far, only one spinoff station has made it to the air, in Decatur, Ill. Townsend says he and Kantako are talking with several other people who may give it a try, but most of the people who contacted them have been “white yuppie types” who saw a story about Kantako in Playboy magazine and thought it would be fun to own a radio station.

“It can’t just be a lark,” says Townsend, who is white. “This has to be something that becomes a part of your daily life and you have to be committed to it. You don’t find those kinds of people every day.”


Despite Kantako’s low wattage, his station has received coverage from national and international media including National Public Radio.

One NPR story played a portion of a Kantako broadcast that captured him at his most compelling.

A domestic dispute at a nearby housing project in March, 1989, turned into a hostage situation when the police arrived. After a two-day standoff, shooting erupted. When it stopped, two residents were dead.

Kantako was on the scene, broadcasting the pandemonium, describing the action with the help of friends who whispered to him what they saw. In later interviews with people who said they witnessed the police action, Kantako called into question the official version of events.

He made no attempt to be even-handed. He reports from what he considers “the people’s” perspective. Nevertheless, it was chilling stuff, both because of the immediacy of the broadcast and Kantako’s crusading, adversarial stance.

After the shootings, his broadcasts, originally less political, began to deal more and more with issues of alleged police brutality. And soon the Springfield police chief, citing complaints about profanity on the air, called in the FCC.


Kantako was cited for operating without a license and went off the air for about two weeks.

Then, he called a press conference to announce his reappearance. In a hilarious bit of political theater, Townsend videotaped Kantako’s efforts to get himself arrested. When the police wouldn’t take him into custody for operating his station without a license, he and a group of supporters went to the courthouse in Springfield where they also were turned away.

Humor is very much a part of Kantako’s performance. One night he showed a visitor his “farm animals” tape--”90 minutes of barnyard pigs”--which he sometimes plays to heckle the police. Sometimes he intercuts the tape with live broadcasts off a police scanner to “translate” the pigs’ oinking.

Despite the national and international attention he has received, he says he is largely ignored by the local political Establishment. He says the city’s mainstream black leaders “hate my guts. . . . They haven’t been supportive at all of the station or the concept.” And the black press, Kantako says, “has never uttered a word about us.”

Reaction from residents of the projects and nearby is mixed. Sarah Horton says she listens, but complains that on her car radio reception is good only within a three- or four-block radius.

“I like the music,” she says. As for the political talk: “To be honest, he can keep that for himself.”


Partially blinded by glaucoma as a child, Kantako (whose name then was Dewayne Readus) spent his youth in state schools and did well in that protected environment. But after he graduated and returned to the projects he began using drugs and getting into minor trouble with the police.

The radio station was born four years ago. Kantako and Townsend met through Kantako’s sister, who then was president of the housing project’s tenant organization. The two men hit it off and Townsend asked Kantako to help him publish an alternative newspaper. Kantako, who had once made extra money by performing as a disc jockey at parties, thought a radio station was more practical. They used a $600 grant from the Catholic Church’s Campaign for Human Development to buy the equipment.

In addition to the radio station, the two men work on a summer education program for youth and are setting up a library in the drug-infested housing project. Everything is paid for through donations.

“We recognized fairly early on that we were on to something special here,” Townsend says of the radio station.

“And we knew that if we could do it--we knew nothing about electronics--we knew that just about anybody could.”