Pirate radio goes legit

Micro-broadcasters can't believe their ears as the FCC moves to legalize low-power stations.

Published January 20, 2000 8:01PM (EST)

Even as massive media mergers like last week's marriage of AOL and Time Warner dominate the news, a radical incarnation of a very old medium is taking shape. But this isn't mega media -- it's micro-media. And it has nothing to do with the World Wide Web. Its advocates have fought, sometimes bitterly, powerful media corporations and government regulators to make it a reality.

If the power of a cause can be judged by the size of its enemies, micro-radio has grand potential indeed. It's hard to date it exactly, but the movement to create low-power, localized radio -- often referred to as pirate, or micro-radio -- has been growing since the late 1980s. Until recently, the Federal Communications Commission has viewed micro-radio as a nuisance, raiding the homes of pirate broadcasters and prosecuting them for violations of the strict federal broadcasting laws. In December 1998 alone, the FCC raided 19 pirate stations in the Miami area, confiscating transmitters and prosecuting violators aggressively. Pirates who are caught face up to $100,000 in fines, up to one year in prison, and possibly both penalties for a first offense.

Yet in what may turn out to be a stunning turnaround, the FCC is scheduled to vote Thursday on a sweeping reform -- the creation of licensed, regulated low-power radio service on the FM dial. Commercial FM licenses must operate at 6000 watts or more. Most urban stations operate closer to 50,000. micro-radio stations, by contrast, would broadcast at up to 100 watts -- hitting a radius of about seven miles.

There are no licenses available yet; the commission is expected to approve the new class of licenses Thursday, and then being ironing out the details. The commission could begin accepting applications this spring. The key debate facing commissioners is whether to reserve the licenses for exclusively non-commercial use.

Why are people still fighting for access to the FM band in this Internet age? Why not simply use Internet radio and avoid the hassle of licensing and scarce spectrum space altogether?

There are several reasons. First of all, radio is cheap. Transmitter kits run $500; commercial radio stations currently sell for tens of millions. Licenses and fees for commercial stations run close to $1 million -- compared to an estimated $2,000 for a micro-station.

Proponents also note that radio remains a far more accessible medium. Those who live and work online tend to forget that not everyone can afford the kinds of technologies that make downloading streaming audio feasible or worthwhile. micro-radio's audience is almost by definition the poor and disenfranchised. Also, micro-radio has something the Internet doesn't: Local roots, and a local appeal. A radio station with a broadcast area of four miles has no choice but to root itself in the concerns of its community. Radio technology is also, by contrast, cheap, simple and easy to learn.

The arguments for localized radio conjure up utopian visions of what the medium could offer: Free-standing community radio stations, a kind of broadcast town hall. People with diverse points of view airing them in a civilized forum of time slots. Even FCC Chairman Bill Kennard has said, "This is all about bringing new voices to the airwaves."

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But not everyone thinks that's a good thing. The National Association of Broadcasters -- a group of media industry representatives -- isn't pleased. The group has fought the micro-radio movement every step of the way, saying that micro-radio stations will cause interference with existing outlets. The association's board of directors issued a letter Jan. 10 urging the FCC to delay its vote for at least a month -- to "preserve the integrity of the FM band."

The FCC's position is that low-power stations won't clog the dial and won't cause interference if properly regulated. Signal limiters, which keep transmission from bleeding into different frequencies, are cheap and easy to put in place.

(Unregulated micro-radio has not been without its transgressions, however. The Federal Aviation Administration has complained that illegal broadcast signals have interfered with air traffic control signals.)

It's possible that given the mushrooming proliferation of micro-radio and the technical ease of setting it up, legalizing and regulating it may be the commission's way of managing potential problems.

The movement's avatars --- and high profile supporters like musicians Jello Biafra, Mike Watt and the Indigo Girls -- point to a dizzying array of programming. The widely written about Black Liberation Radio broadcast news of alleged police abuse and rap music to its audience, a predominantly black Springfield, Ill., housing project. Free Radio Berkeley's non-stop broadcast featured local news by former radio reporters. FUCC in Seattle frequently broadcast live concerts by local bands. Four stations in Cleveland's West Side appealed to the Hispanic community with 24-hours of Latin music and religious sermons in Spanish.

Robert McChesney is a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the author of "Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times." He's a micro-radio advocate who has tracked the development of radio since the 1920s to the present. Like many advocates of the movement, McChesney views pirate radio as a form of civil disobedience. "They are to the media what Rosa Parks is to the civil rights movement," McChesney says.

Stephen Dunifer became an icon within the movement after a court battle with the FCC. His station, Free Radio Berkeley, broadcast 24 hours a day at 50 watts to the Berkeley-Oakland area until it was shut down in June 1998. Dunifer tried to defend his illegal broadcasts in U.S. District Court with a First Amendment argument that pointed to the lack of community voices on the air. The argument was dismissed in court, but his case has become a rallying point; at least two micro-stations currently broadcast in Berkeley.

McChesney, for one, notes that the front line of micro-broadcasters deserve credit for proving this cohabitation on the FM dial is possible. "If you look at what the micro-broadcasters have done by introducing this new tier of broadcasting, showing how there's plenty of spectrum space to do it, they're heroes. They've had a lot of courage to do this, and to penalize them for doing it is simply unacceptable."

Indeed, they do seem to have been the instigators of a genuine grassroots movement, which Washington finally took notice of. The FCC fielded complaints about industry consolidation and more than 13,000 inquiries per year from people interested in starting these stations -- not to mention stories in USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Intrigued by the FCC's turnaround, many veteran pirate broadcasters began cooperating with the commission. Pete Tridish of West Philadelphia, Penn., was a founding member of Radio Mutiny, which broadcast music and local news (without a license). The group traveled around the northeast, helping others learn how to set up micro-radio stations. When Radio Mutiny was first reprimanded by the FCC in June of 1998, its organizers staged a protest by broadcasting in front of Benjamin Franklin's printing press in downtown Philadelphia. "We told them for every station that they harassed or tried to take off the air, we would put up ten more," says Tridish.

The FCC responded with a raid, and confiscated Radio Mutiny's equipment; the group reexamined its defiance. Rather than invest in new equipment and get back on the air, they formed another group, Prometheus Radio Project. They decided to take the FCC at its word that it would enact reforms. Now, the group lobbies for provisions in low-power licenses that would create the sort of community radio they wanted to see. "Our intention," Tridish says, "is to participate as much as we can within this rule-making process and see how much they listen to us. Then once the service gets put in place, we want to help stations around the country."

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FCC chairman Kennard has pressed for the licenses to be given only for non-commercial purposes. This would ostensibly preserve the purpose of opening up the bandwidth to voices that can't currently find a place on FM. The Prometheus Radio Project objectives go even further. They include requirements for local ownership of licenses and mandatory local programming.

The bottom-line question for listeners is: What is it exactly that non-commercial low-power FM would, in terms of content, that has been lacking from commercial stations? If the FCC does approve the new stations, would they really put a dent in the wave of corporate media consolidation? Would they actually steal listeners hungry for content away from advertising-driven stations? Or simply give a platform to a pocket of obscurity, ` la cable access TV?

"Here you have something that to every community offers the opportunity for people to speak to each other that's not going to be filtered by advertisers," says McChesney. "A chance for ideas to be heard that wouldn't pass the Rush Limbaugh/Howard Stern litmus test, and the Madison Avenue litmus test. A chance for music to be heard that wouldn't be played by robots that are responding to some demographic survey, but in fact by people who love music and enjoy playing it." McChesney believes these small, localized stations are sure to "bring some vitality back to the staleness of U.S. radio, which has all the charm of a second- or third-tier suburban shopping mall today."

Audience is another matter. McChesney concedes the trouble that the public-access genre of programming has had in attracting large numbers. "People who've done alternative journalism of one kind or another -- community radio, public broadcasting, micro-radio -- have sort of accepted the idea that the commercial companies are supposed to do what's popular, the stuff people enjoy, and that they're only supposed to do the stuff there's not much of market for, because the commercial people aren't doing it. I've always said, Why should you concede to the corporations the right to sort of cherry-pick the stuff people are interested in and only give people stuff they're not very interested in?"

Meanwhile, activists like Tridish who are pleased with the LPFM proposal are still maintaining a healthy level of skepticism. "When people start talking about how a new technology has the potential for good and saying we should rely on it to change what's basically a social, legal and economic question, I get really suspicious." After all, the formation of LPFM makes no impact on the consolidation of media outlets. And the like any new technology -- including the Internet -- new forms of radio will only be as progressive as uses they are put to.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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