Peanuts or Pirates, Make 'Em Legal
By Kent Waterman; reprinted with the author's permission
Recent coverage about the Rev. Rick Strawcutter of Adrian, Michigan goes to the heart of a critical, yet unresolved issue that should concern broadcasters throughout America. "Peanut Power" stations - under 100 watts - plainly have the right to exist. For the NAB and the FCC to deny that right is to run counter to what freedoms we think we have.
In these days of deregulation and massive change in radio, it's time to come to terms with low-power, unlicensed local operations such as Strawcutter's. All can be accommodated, but only if an important few wish it.
I ran into similar problems 50 years ago as a kid of 12 back in the farming community of Amery, Wisconsin (pop. 1,700). My souped-up phono transmitter was designed only to play through our in-home AM radio. With a good antenna, though, and some customization, it was received evenings many, many blocks away.
Amery, 60 miles east of Minneapolis-St. Paul, lacked a local station. It was just not big enough. We were beholden to the behemoths of 'CCO, KSTP, WDGY, WLOL and others in the Twin Cities. Local advertisers, burgeoning with post-war ad budgets, had nowhere to spend them except our weekly newspaper. That is, until this kid of 12 got on the air evenings after dinner.
It didn't take long for the sales manager of the Amery Ford Motor agency to contact me. Ernie West had an unusually large allotment of new 1950 Ford sedans to sell that fall, yet still had the 1949 models on the lot. He laid down $10, saying, "Let's put Amery, you and my '49 Fords on the air." I don't recall now just how we produced those spots, what with an uneditable Recordio disc and RCA wire recorder at our disposal, but we did. And they were hits! Ernie claimed he sold a car that week, thanks primarily to "being on the radio."
Well, news travels fast in a small town. By Thursday, our weekly "Amery Free Press" ran a short clip, with a photo of a tow-headed kid at the mic, spinning discs, trying to sell Ford cars. The next week, one afternoon following school, I was greeted on my doorstep by a serious man in a dark suit, briefcase in hand, wanting to see my transmitter.
That investigator from the Minneapolis FCC Field Office was as embarrassed by the situation as I. He had to travel 60 miles out , 60 miles back to see this reported illegal station run by a kid. I couldn't answer his questions about ERP or ground planes; what does an untutored kid know about a transmitter, other than it worked? I didn't blame him for taking me off the air, nor did I blame the laws governing him.
I could blame nothing but the seductive power of radio, itself.
That small town needed a radio station. Who cares if Amery wasn't "big enough" to support one? Ernie West knew first-hand the value of being heard on the air. It helped sell a car. What better proof of radio's power?
In the ensuing half-century in the business, I never had an easier sale than old Ernie West, nor a more avid fan of local radio advertising. The big boys at 'CCO or KSTP couldn't have helped Ernie sell, even if he could have afforded them. Folks just didn't drive 60 miles then to buy a car, no matter how well the spots were produced. The magic for Ernie, and for me, was we could be heard locally, talking to and with the people we saw every day.
Strikes me there's more than a bit of the fight Pastor Strawcutter has at Radio Free Lenawee in Michigan, or that of Steve Dunifer at Free Radio Berkeley.
I imagine a city as large as Adrian, Michigan has one or more commercial stations. Certainly Amery has had a viable station for some years. As one who trod both country roads and city streets selling time and producing programs, I wish these stations well. I know it's a tough job. But, too, I know smaller stations don't like competition. Rightly or wrongly, they feel any competition for the listening ear - commercial, religious, counter-culture, whatever - cuts into their prospective audience. On this issue, they're sometimes irrational.
That's why this country doesn't license stations under 100 watts. Plainly, the local operations, wanting exclusivity to their franchises, continue to hold sway with the NAB and, by extension, with the FCC.
Detroit and Toledo stations worry not that Strawcutter exists, anymore than KGO Talk Radio in San Francisco, with $30 million-plus billed last year, worries about Free Radio Berkeley across the Bay. These pros know their competition; they're smart enough to deal with it head on, via format, sound, ratings, and the rest. They're successful BECAUSE they compete - outsmarting the competition instead of trying to restrain it.
I, too, believe in an NAB responsive to its membership. But when its small local members are so anti-competitive as to effect a clear monopoly, then the NAB becomes at root un-American. Make no mistake; if the NAB would push for the licensing of under-100 watt stations, the Administration and FCC would follow.
Half-a-century after being "busted" for maybe 5 dirty watts on AM in the service of Ford Motors in Amery, Wisconsin, I have a tough job believing that either today's FCC or an enlightened NAB should care diddly about Pastor Strawcutter. As long as his signal is clean and unobstructive, his message fair and direct, the country beyond Adrian owes it to Adrian and Strawcutter to be heard.
Kent Waterman is a broadcast veteran and retiree of KGO-TV in San Francisco.
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