Telestreet – Pirates of the Airwaves

For many, the notion of “participatory media” is inexorably linked to the Internet. Television, many would say, is not at all participatory; one sits, and one watches messages relayed directly from corporate monopolies. In Italy, however, the story was different. Long before broadband internet, when media mogul-turned-Prime-Minister Silvio Berlusconi controlled the media, Italian activists took control of the airwaves.

They set out to beam alternative content to Italian TV sets and did so by occupying areas where buildings or hills blocked the signal of commercial broadcasters. In these so-called “shadow cones,” Telestreet’s broadcasting system could send out their signal without being overpowered. One of the first channels to unwittingly host this DIY programming was MTV in Bologna; its popular Top Twenty tunes lost out to the videos cast out by Orfeotv from a low wattage transmitter cabled to a hacked antenna.

The hack is powerful because it’s simple. It ties the old medium of television to the internet. Or as the Telestreet hacker put it in the video: “There is a mix of incredibly old technology together with new technologies.” Hackers connected the DIY transmission kit to NGVision, a Peer to Peer archive built to share videos among global justice activists with slow internet connections. Adding a couple of VCRs and refurbished computers, Telestreet could beam into the TV sets of local households, delighting their audiences with an array of programs, ranging from cooking shows and football matches to independent documentaries and protest coverage.

All of this took place in 2003, when TV ruled the airwaves, and grassroots video productions involved more than just one person with a smartphone and a YouTube channel. For Telestreet to work, geek-activists had to rig up transmission systems, meet on the streets with a camera in hand, and knock on their neighbors’ doors to tune-in to their TV sets. Once up and running, the young and old, left-radicals, parish youth, migrants, teachers, students, geeks and freaks, radio DJs, factory workers, people with disabilities, and many others tried their hands at creating their own shows.  Eventually, they dotted Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula with hundreds of nodes, and even hosted some abroad.

These pirates of the airwaves had all grown up with the same visual language—il linguaggio della televisione—and claimed their right to speak it. With a deft inversion of the data flow from a plain old roof antenna and a TV receiver, they challenged the communication monopoly, inverting the power relations between speaker and listener, sender and receiver. They came to dethrone Berlusconi and stayed to spin and relay different stories. Sometimes they addressed the issue of media monopoly head on; but at other times, they engaged with friendship, other possible worlds, the places we love – and the dream of a sustainable media ecology, where the airwaves are a public space.

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