Bob Kincaid is the definition of independent media. The term doesn't even do him justice: "indie" works much better, because he's an auteur of internet radio conversation. Broadcasting from an eleven-hundred square foot home in West Virginia, he doesn't screen calls and refuses to interview right-wing lunatics when their publicists call him. Shamelessly liberal and unafraid to wear the word, he has fought a battle for truth and fact-based conversation since before Air America began; his H.O.R.N. has outlived it. He is his own public broadcasting, annoying listeners every so often to keep the show alive on a shoestring. The Head On Radio Network isn't even on terrestrial radio; it's a podcast. Volunteers from across the world work remotely to check facts, encode the website, and break news. His shows are now downloaded almost a quarter-million times a month and Talkers magazine has named him one of the "Frontier Fifty" new media talkers.
When I found him in Vegas, he was trying and failing to broadcast from room 13013 (I am not making this up) via smart phone and a laptop. The hotel internet costing over seventy smackers for five days of access did not work, and it was knocking his 4G smartphone offline.
His wife Angnes and his boy Ferg ate pizza. His daughters assessed me with smiling frankness. None of them was having a good trip so far; the girls were on their phones with multiple directories open on the coffee table. They were scrambling to find a twelve-foot AV cable. The booth provided by Coal River Mountain Watch was not gifted with electric current, which would cost $300 for five amperes, exactly sixty bucks per amp. He was in Vegas with nowhere to do his show and things had just gotten worse.
"They haven't found a cable I'm prepared to buy at the prices I'm being asked. The organizers didn't set up the panel rooms for me to stream, so I'm left asking the hotel, which wants another $300. For each fucking room."
Mind you, there was streaming going on during those heady days of Netroots Nation 2010 (the world's largest conference of online media, progressive organizers, and activists from across the spectrum, also known to anchor baby Michelle Malkin as "nutroots"). The conference panels simply weren't streaming through Bob's feed this time, which had been true of Netroots Nation 2009. In fact, the organizers said this act of streaming had been so "profound" (their word, uttered in my hearing) that they wanted it repeated in 2010; but we might have been hallucinating, for all the welcome Bob and Coal River Mountain Watch had.
Indeed, the panel Bob had organized in 2009 was roundly considered the most affecting of the conference. Kevin Grandia, he of DeSmogBlog, wept. I know; I was there. Bob was assured his application to convene the same panel in 2010 was a shoo-in. But this was not to be, either: his application was denied.
Undaunted, Bob had asked the organizers to let him livestream the panels and run a Coal River Mountain Watch booth. Despite his earnest attempts to impress organizers with his need for electricity, the booth had none. The hotel wanted $300 before it would send a non-union electrician to a conference including union representatives handing out free union-made beer to install five amps of power. Bob spent $300 of his own money to show people this ad on a laptop:
The next day brought me close to breakdown as two things happened. First, my very first panel featured leaders of respectably-mainstream green media and activist organizations telling me there will be no "sixties-style protest" for environmental causes -- on the same bloody morning Huffington Post broke the story that climate legislation was dead. I knew they were wrong and said as much, perhaps too forcefully, because it's one of only two issues that resonate with the youth -- while July was turning out record temperatures across the country. If not fucking now, when? Are we waiting for new record snowfalls (themselves the result of global warming) to propagate denial?
In the weeks before, my YouTube video of college kids (and grown-ups) protesting BP -- in sweltering heat, in Birmingham fucking Alabama -- had played on the local ABC affiliate. By posting it on a national platform with the following text,
The left may not have its own cable channel, but it does have its own media; you are reading it now
a small protest in Five Points had been "seen worldwide" according to the ABC affiliate's morning anchorwoman, who then dispatched a crew to cover dozens of people in a second protest that took place in a pouring-down rain. This is how activist journalism is fucking done, as the entire Kincaid family can tell you: shout from the fucking rooftops, and someone will hear you, even if it rains on your parade.
There was a general absence of environmental panels on the NN agenda this year. Meanwhile, the city that lets its biggest employers put hostesses to work wearing less than you'd find at the beach was busy burning the corpse of a mountain in Virginia (not making this up) to send a beam of light into space from a giant black-glass pyramid. The sight of it revolted me, invoking the memory of a pulp sci-fi series:
It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a century the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of many worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.
Mountains blow up at the rate of one Hiroshima a week so a single dragline operator and a dozen more heavy equipment operators can turn majestic peaks into that monstrosity. Green power is directly connected to coal because coal is not clean, not ever. You dig up a Salmon spawning ground to get coal, it's not fucking clean; you tear down a mountain to get coal, it's not fucking clean. You store ash where it can get washed into a fucking river, and it is not fucking clean. Never mind the emissions, or the fact there aren't really five gazillion years of coal in the ground, or the fact that coal's share of energy production has already dropped below 45%. To Bob and his family, the sight of the Luxor is offensive because it's their heritage being shot at Zeta Reticuli, fuck you very much.
Sure, activism is a thankless job. It doesn't pay beans. Know what you get for camping out in trees while company goons blow air horns at you every half-hour? Six-figure bail, is what. The Kincaid family hangs out with people like that, people who willingly face down physical threats in America's own slice of third-world corporate disaster-capitalist hell. They see ruined streams, poisoned wells, and families destroyed, and call it a human rights issue. "Environmentalists" doesn't even begin to cover it. They're trying to do something about mountains because people are intimately connected to their environment. They will organize and act to defend it because they depend on it. But Appalachia apparently isn't part of the Netroots or the nation -- at least as far as the organizers cared.
"I keep thinking of The God Emperor of Dune," Bob said. I was shocked into silence by the similar direction of our thoughts. His wife and kids are mountaintop removal activists of the first caliber. They have been confronted by company thugs and harassed by strangers for trying to turn mountains into sources of clean, green energy jobs instead of letting Massey Energy export them to India and China as coal.
Those windmills I'd passed in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico: were they a mirage created by the painkiller-and-muscle relaxer cocktail and a lack of air conditioning? Or were those whirring, giant bats on the prairies and mesas along I-40? The view of turbine-free mountains ringing Las Vegas, turning it into a giant, smog-addled punchbowl, confused me; I was in the most plastic city on the planet, only slightly more green than Dubai, and I couldn't tell what was real anymore. I downed the contents of the mini-bar in revolt, saddened that I had driven here instead of flying because I wanted to hold down our Carbon footprint. Las Vegas was an oven left on by a dark god; if Yahweh got jealous and saw fit to scorch it or cover it in ice I would probably cheer.
The entire world seemed to have given up. The Rio was the tower of the eye and we were hobbits in a Mordor of slot machines. Dancing go-go girls did pole-dances on giant contraptions suspended from ceiling-tracks wearing safety-harnesses and carabiners; only Vegas can make a safety device look raunchy. It took sixty bucks to get anywhere important and back by taxi. Sodom and Gomorrah and the Temple of Mammon were full of sybaritic visuals that did not turn me on in the least; in fact they revolted me. I recalled Acts I and II of Thornton Wilder's By the Skin of our Teeth, in which climate disaster forces the characters to confront their immoral abuse of each other. We were supposed to accept this brave, new, coal-fired world, and like it. That didn't sit well with any of us.
Good thing we were in a medical marijuana state with a booth right next to L.E.A.P. officers calling for an end to marijuana laws. Bob offered me a cigarette; because of the black helicopters, I was forced to accept or else wear a tinfoil hat. In exchange, I passed Bob a peach blunt and told him to relax: we could pull off a special Saturday broadcast guerrilla-style, while the "legitimate" media was gone from radio row to cover the Malkinfest going on nearby. As the panel on "how to become a new media star" got underway, we interviewed John Amato of Crooks and Liars.com, then author John Atlas.
The second thing that happened at the first panel was that the Rio's wireless internet didn't fucking work. This was a convention of people who use the fucking internet. Conference organizers scrambled, but what they erected didn't work well; by the second day I was still getting dropped connections and losing work. With liveblogging impossible, I joined in a #RioFail hashtag and unleashed Bob's video camera on the unsuspecting.
Al Franken's speech was nice. We can hope Minnesota will be more like Pittsburgh, where Netroots people felt like they owned the hotel and could let their flag fly. More importantly, Netroots should try not pissing off the activists and bloggers and new media people who made it what it is. Bob and his family are fucking heroes for what they do, and for what they put up with.
Bob covers lots of conferences. He wanted me at Appalachia Rising in Washington DC September 25-27, where he'll be livestreaming a plea for the hillbilly, but I demurred. Instead, my fiancee and I fixed the AC, stole his camera, and then rolled out into the desert to find Dreamland. Was Las Vegas a mirage? I hoped so fervently, but was disappointed.
We stopped at the Little Ale'Inn to buy shot glasses. Behind the bar where we split a patty melt, there was a collection of anti-Obama, pro-Bush, and anti-Clinton bumper stickers mixed with the usual gun rights fearmongery. I thought of the .38 in our car and my pistol permit and remembered the latter wasn't valid in Nevada. My own paranoia now stoked, I suddenly understood the Silver State as a place where fear and loathing, like sex, are packaged and sold.
The desert heat made me shudder when we stepped back out of the A/C and into the afternoon.
*I'm not serious about the Alabama Red Creek. I made it up.