Beat Radio

Washington Post
February 9, 1999

Power to the Pirates?
FCC May License Low-Wattage Operations

by Frank Ahrens

Adrian Kohn is a Georgetown University junior who runs his college radio station and says: "I have no desire to get into politics. Our purpose is to get people into new music."

Until recently, he knew nothing of radio pirates -- the rogue broadcasters who illegally operate low-wattage FM stations, using them for topics unheard on commercial radio, such as espousing fringe politics or addressing community health needs. All Kohn knew was that he wanted to get his station's signal -- which is now carried by cable to campus dorms only -- into the surrounding community.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it would, for the first time, consider licensing low-power FM stations. If the FCC approves the measure, both the innocuous Georgetown station and radical pirate radio could benefit.

The radio dial is crowded with stations and precious few slots remain in most markets. To buy an FCC-licensed frequency on the FM dial, a station must broadcast at least 6,000 watts of power, making it too expensive for all but the wealthiest to afford. (The WWDC AM and FM stations, for example, sold for $72 million last year. DC-101 pumps out 50,000 watts.)

So an underground has sprung up, with electronics nerds and activists cobbling together tiny radio stations that illegally broadcast low-power, unlicensed FM signals out of garages and vans. Radio Mutiny, one such pirate station in Philadelphia, was shut down by the FCC last June.

Diane Imelda Fleming, who hosted a safe sex show on Radio Mutiny as the "Condom Lady," says she's happy the FCC is considering low-power licensing but urges pirate broadcasters to keep the heat on the feds.

FCC Chairman William Kennard "has the power to change history majorly and I hope he takes the opportunity," she says.

The FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents licensed broadcasters, both oppose the unlicensed pirates, saying their signals interfere with those of legitimate stations and may disrupt air traffic control signals. But the two bodies split on low-power FM. The NAB remains skeptical, even if low-power broadcasters are licensed and regulated. But Kennard is an advocate for low-power FM, seeing it as a way to do legally what the pirates have been doing illegally -- getting a greater variety of voices on the air and serving community needs. Over the past year, the FCC has received more than 13,000 inquiries from individuals and groups interested in starting their own stations. The FCC is soliciting opinions on low-power FM from potential broadcasters and other interested parties through April 12. The agency will ascertain whether these stations, if regulated and assigned frequencies, will interfere with nearby stations and airplanes.

But pirates may have a tougher time than people like Kohn making their case for a low-power license.

"If someone had a pirate station and, once it was brought to our attention, we contacted them and they shut down, they're more likely to get a license," he says. If a pirate station continued broadcasting in defiance of the FCC, as many do, "we wouldn't have the confidence they would operate as a responsible [licensed] broadcaster," Kennard says. It's too early to say when the first low-power license may be issued, he notes. Low-power AM is not being considered because "it's easier to shoehorn" stations into the FM band, Kennard says.

The FCC is considering three classes of low-power FM: 1,000 watt, 100 watt and 1-10 watts. Kohn would like Georgetown's WGTB -- which broadcasts out of a CD- and record-filled hutch in the campus's Leavey Center -- to apply for a 100-watt license, which could give it a broadcast radius of about 3 miles, according to the FCC.

That way, he says, WGTB could broadcast music, Georgetown athletics and community affairs -- such as Advisory Neighborhood Council news -- to the surrounding Georgetown, Burleith and Glover Park neighborhoods. The station's music format -- with a free-form playlist and featuring 100 volunteer deejays -- would likely not change. "If you want to play, I don't know, French house music, you can have a show," Kohn says. One Georgetown official says it's very possible that the university will apply for a low-power license for the station.

Through the '60s and '70s, WGTB broadcast over the air at 90.1 FM. But the station's lefty political broadcasts ruffled the school's Jesuit administrators, who sold the station's license to the University of the District of Columbia for $1 in 1979.

Even though it broadcasts only on-campus now [as a carrier-current station, not over-the-air], WGTB sells some advertising. Kohn has pitched the low-power idea to Georgetown officials partly by telling them it will help community relations but also by letting them know they can make more advertising money as an over-the-air station.

Kohn, a 20-year-old English major who was inspired to get into radio by Howard Stern and Don Imus, knows WGTB may not get a low-power license by the time he graduates. But anything's progress. Only two years ago, he says, WGTB "didn't even have a room."

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