James Ellinger scuttles to a parked van, lifts another heavy cardboard box nearly half his size and hauls it through the Astrodome parking lot. The 52-year-old Austin native takes temporary refuge from the heat under a tree and pauses to draw a breath.
Re-energized, he snaps to his feet and takes on the role of mad carnival barker.
"Free radios! Get your free radios!" he screeches in a nasal voice. "Come on, people! What about 'free' and 'radio' don't you understand? We got 10,000 radios here to give away! Get your free radio! Come get your free radio!"
A throng of people quickly encircle him to snatch their very own shiny piece of cheap plastic on this Friday afternoon. Some are willing to hang around and listen. Between barks, Ellinger launches into a harried, convoluted assault on the Harris County Republican Party. He rages on in rapid-fire staccato, saying something about the Federal Communications Commission, an information blackout and evil Republican power brokers. Audience members mostly look on in perplexed fashion, thank him for the gift and shove off.
A typical hippie Austinite blathering on, you might think. Except Ellinger actually has a story to tell. It's just that, at this moment, he's too manic to get his points across.
Ellinger is a veteran of noncommercial television and radio stations. His résumé includes a short stint in 2003 with Houston Media Source, the local public-access station now embroiled in controversy. But he's best known as founder of Austin Airwaves Inc., which he says began as a newspaper column then morphed into a radio and TV show, and three years ago was incorporated as a nonprofit community radio group.
Over Labor Day weekend, Ellinger's Austin Airwaves led an effort to build a temporary 30-watt radio station inside the Astrodome that would broadcast to the thousands of people holed up there and inside the adjacent Reliant Center. The benefits of such a venture, he says, are obvious. Since the Eighth Wonder of the World was resurrected as a homeless shelter, emergency officials have largely disseminated information to evacuees through use of cluttered, makeshift bulletin boards and a paging system that draws complaints as often being unintelligible.
A radio station, as Ellinger and community-radio activists at the Houston Independent Media Center imagined it, would help reunite family members and link evacuees to jobs, schools and health care. It would be a place to announce urgent information and clear up some of the misinformation that has added to people's frustrations.
For instance, last Thursday thousands of evacuees from across the city descended on Reliant Center to obtain FEMA-issued debit cards. But the cards were not distributed until the next day. Then, a day after that, the debit card program was discontinued altogether. In a frenzied atmosphere where new decisions and protocols are announced daily, a live radio broadcast could prove essential.
"It's a tool that for some reason they haven't thought of," Ellinger says. "It's not rocket science; it's a tiny radio box and a bunch of tiny radios."
And he nearly pulled it off.
The FCC took less than 24 hours to approve Ellinger's application to install three low-power FM radio transmitters inside the Dome and Reliant Center. This is extraordinary, since the FCC often takes as long as three years to grant such a license, according to Hannah Sassaman, an organizer for Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, which helped facilitate the effort.
"It's extremely unusual under normal circumstances, but this is an emergency situation," Sassaman explains. "Communication is something that the displaced residents are asking for almost as much as food and water."
But city and county officials overseeing the emergency management command system nixed the effort late last Wednesday afternoon. That decision was made by Robert Royall Jr., assistant fire commissioner for Harris County, according to Gloria Roemer, a spokeswoman for Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.
Roemer, who declined to arrange an interview with Royall, insists there's no need for a radio station inside the Dome because "there's been no problems getting information to evacuees." She says that Ellinger made unreasonable demands that included a large office, several computers and printers, Internet access, phone lines and unlimited access to the Dome.
"If we gave one radio station access, we'd have to give them all access," Roemer reasons.
Ellinger denies having made those requests. He says he needs only a "small quiet space" to set up a 40-watt transmitter, a plug-in cassette, a microphone, headphones and an antenna, all of which he would provide.
Roemer faults Ellinger for not getting the county's thumbs-up before approaching the FCC and says it's important that people know who's in charge at the Dome.
"The FCC does not influence the operations of our emergency management system," she says. Ellinger "put all the wheels in motion with no approval from us. Now he's going bonkers over this. He started a national campaign to bad-mouth us."
What she means by this comment is unclear, since the effort to bring radio into the Astrodome has received scant attention, apart from tiny mentions in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and a handful of blogs.
And it seems that Ellinger isn't quite the lone ranger that Roemer describes.
Asked about launching a radio station in the Dome, Houston mayoral spokesman Frank Michel says, "We would support that; getting better communication out to these people is very important."
The effort even received the written endorsement of at least one elected official. Councilwoman Ada Edwards wrote that she is "in full support of the efforts of Mr. Ellinger in setting up a radio service for the victims of Hurricane Katrina" and hopes "that this service will be able to be extended to other areas where the residents of New Orleans have found shelter."
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According to Sassaman, technology activists are now working to complete another engineering study that would enable them to broadcast from outside the Dome. They would again have to win FCC approval before moving forward. "We're not dead yet," she says.
But Ellinger is less hopeful. As he sees it, bureaucratic bungling will continue to keep people in the Dome from receiving crucial information.
Just before he learned that he would have to scrap his plans, Ellinger says, a Harris County official told him that he also would have to provide the 10,000 transistor radios for evacuees. As a result, the only people to benefit from Ellinger's efforts are those who got the little radios he passed out on Friday.
They, and the lucky owner of the dollar store where Ellinger bought them.