“Free Radio,” said the car sticker. “Free Radio?” what does that mean?
Presumably it is a station, one among the hundreds of stations now competing for listeners. The FM waveband is filled with options now, as I discovered trying to find BBC Radio 3 yesterday afternoon, when I discovered other stations of which I had never heard. Add to the FM stations those broadcasting on DAB and the countless available on the Internet, and the possibilities for listening seem limitless. It is possible to spend so much time flicking from channel to channel that you end up listening to nothing at all.
Free Radio is probably one of a many that would describe themselves as “free,” but what does “free” mean?
When I was a child, the word “free” was one that I associated with the West Somerset Free Press, one of the weekly newspapers in our county. I was not sure, but I assumed that it meant the newspaper was not controlled by an outside company. I certainly would not have meant that you didn’t have to pay for it; we were brought up to pay for everything.
In student days, “free” was a political statement. Free meant being independent, it being meant anti-establishment, it meant having the liberty to act in whatever way you wanted. Attending the 1979 Glastonbury Festival, I read a piece in the underground newspaper the International Times condemning the festival organisers for charging for the tickets. To radical groups, free meant giving things away, someone else presumably paying the bills of those who wished to retain their anti-capitalist credentials.
The word “free” was not the sole preserve of the radical Left, the libertarian Right also laid claim to it. Capitalism and Freedom was the best known work published by Milton Friedman, a leading figure of neo-liberalism. Opposed to the oppressive Communism of the Soviet bloc, the capitalist West called itself “the free world.”
In theological college days, “free” meant not being under the legalism espoused by the opponents of Jesus. “The truth shall set you free,” Jesus told his followers.
“Free” now seems to mean whatever people want it to mean. Perhaps it has always had such a diversity of meanings, if it was otherwise, it would not be free.
But if “free” means whatever you choose it to mean, then does it mean anything at all? If a car sticker is advertising “Free Radio” which of the many meanings is it trying to express?