Tech Industry

Ring tones--the new protest songs

Activists are turning cell phone ring tones into homemade political statements, co-opting an explosive entertainment phenomenon.

In a quiet cafe in Washington, D.C., a cell phone rings. But instead of the commonplace digital bleeping or buzzing, it plays a recording of President Bush's voice.

"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.

News.context

What's new:
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.

Bottom line:
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 technology. "Throw a ring tone in the mix, it's another way to get the message out."

The problem is, cell phone carriers in the United States make it harder than in many other countries to create, distribute or swap your own ring tones.

In the Philippines and elsewhere, it's a relatively simple task to swap ring tones with a friend, using a technology called Multimedia Messaging Service. MMS essentially lets phone subscribers send files to one another, in much the same way that Short Messaging Service, or SMS, technology lets them send short text messages.

In the United States, the jumble of different telephone networks means that phones use different types of ring tone formats. Some phones are not allowed to install ring tones from anywhere other than their phone carrier's site, or are not allowed to send files that are designated as ring tones to other phones.

A handful of software companies, such as Xingtone, already let consumers create their own music ring tones from a CD, and help upload them to compatible cell phones.

San Francisco programmer and activist Evan Henshaw Plath is building a similar open-source system called Riot Tones, which will help people create their own ring tones, upload and archive them to the Web and help share them with other people. A tool like this, which works with loopholes in cell phone companies' tightly regulated networks, is needed to let phones reach their natural potential, he said.

"Phones are not conceived of as a social medium, which is crazy, since they're used to communicate with other people," Henshaw Plath said. "It's as if e-mail wasn't conceived as a social medium."

Activists say the soon-to-be-released Riot Tones, or other tools like it, will help political ring tones spread more quickly, by making it a simple process to get them onto most phones. Once the infrastructure is in place, nonprofit groups are likely to use ring tones as a standard part of their membership perks, some say.

"It's really not rocket science to build these," Gundersen said. "What if artists supporting these groups start giving them a 30-second clip to pass around to their members? It makes people who want to support the groups give a little more than just their image."