October 20, 2005 1:42 PM PDT
Ring tones--the new protest songs
"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," he says, and Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans" starts playing under the looped quote. The remark is a snippet from a speech Bush made in the flooded southern city, in which he praised Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown shortly before Brown resigned.
The homemade ring tone, a pointed political statement, is the creation of Eric Gundersen, a Washington-area Web developer for nonprofits. It's an early take on the genre of protest ring tones, a grassroots practice now picking up steam in the United States after emerging in the Philippines a few months ago.
Activists in the Philippines recently created a ring tone from a potentially damning recording of the country's president. In the process, they also spawned a whole new form of political protest.
Some U.S. activists are trying to follow suit with their own homemade tones, but the cell phone infrastructure in the states could hamper those efforts. For now anyway.
"This has really changed my perception of ring tones away from being just some teenage obsession where you buy some song that annoys me on the bus," Gundersen said. "If you hear somebody's cell phone with a recording of Bush talking about Iraq, or saying something else stupid, you're like, 'Hey, right on, I'm not alone.'"
Gundersen comes from the left, but the phenomenon has no necessary political allegiances. A political ring tone could as easily carry a Rush Limbaugh or foot-in-mouth John Kerry quote.
Yet either way, it has the potential of being an explosively viral phenomenon, a modern-day version of political bumper stickers or T-shirts. Music ring tones today are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars a year in sales, and in some cases, they far outsell the music single or CD they're based on.
Political ring tones took root in the Philippines earlier this year, after opponents of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo gained access to a wiretapped recording of a clandestine conversation between the head of state and a top election official.
The government blocked the media from broadcasting the recording, which officials said was illegally made. Administration critics, who alleged that the tape captured Arroyo discussing tampering with the 2004 election, mixed parts of the recording with popular music and distributed it as a ring tone.
That ring tone quickly shot to the top of download charts, crashing one of the sites that was hosting the downloads. Because phones in the Philippines let people send ring tones directly to one another, the recording spread virally through the cell-phone wielding population.
It hasn't brought down Arroyo's government, but the experience is now inspiring activists in the United States.
"Look at the Save the Whales campaign, where there's a cool video and an SMS text component," said Katrin Verclas, co-director of Aspiration, an organization that helps nonprofits use new
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