February 24, 1999

Cover Story

Low-Power Radio: Pirates or Patriots?
Radio Free Twin Cities

By Tammy Schulman

As the FCC takes steps to license smaller stations, illegal low-power broadcasters are looking a lot like freedom fighters.
Story by Tammy Schulman

Coverstory   A Brief History of Radio   Murphy's law   Issues within the FCC
A.K. fell in love with radio as a child, at times using an electronics kit he’d received as a Christmas gift to broadcast as far as the neighbor’s house. He worked at commercial stations through high school and beyond, obtaining his first-class license and working his way up to the major markets.But his love affair soured as A.K. repeatedly encountered an attitude toward listeners he could not accept: condescension. “You’re really indoctrinated with this idea that listeners, especially young listeners, are really stupid. They couldn’t possibly know what they want to hear. Young people would call on the phone and make a request, and you’d just lie to them and say, ‘yeah, I’ll get that on.’”

When outside consultants began making programming decisions that were once made by radio professionals, A.K. finally quit his job and became a microbroadcaster. Since then he has reconnected with his passion for the medium. Two years ago he set up shop in a state prison for a Valentine’s Day broadcast where he played requests for special songs and allowed families to call in with messages.

He was also on the job when the Flood of the Century hit the Red River Valley. Heading north with his portable kit, he was able to keep the single remaining station on the air to receive and broadcast emergency information until the power came back.

A.K. and a partner tried to obtain a licensed FM station in a small Minnesota town last year, but lost out to a million-dollar bid. He blames the Balanced Budget Act, which he feels forced the auction. The large company that won the bid “wasn’t even buying the station to operate it. As of now, it’s passed through three sets of hands and the station’s still not on the air.”

What happened?
Corporate greed is nothing new, but the Telecommunications Act of 1996 elevated it to cancer status. The Telecom Act lifted the one-station restriction, allowing companies to operate up to eight stations in the same market (four each on the AM and FM dials).

Since then, huge corporations such as ABC/Disney (Chancellor), Westinghouse (CBS) and Jacor have been busily stocking up on airspace and now own more than half the stations in the Twin Cities. All told, nearly half the nation’s 11,000 stations have changed hands in three years, artificially driving up prices.

Jacor, which owns KMJZ 104.1 (The Point) is unapologetic. Its Web site proudly proclaims that, “Like kids in a candy store, Jacor has been shamelessly opportunistic about its growth and acquisitions. Including announced, pending acquisitions, Jacor owns, operates, represents, or provides programming for 205 radio stations in 56 broadcast areas.” It then adds, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Click here to see Jacor job openings.”

Pirate radio has flourished during this time, and what was once sneaky self-expression quickly evolved into civil disobedience. Seasoned “DX-ers” constantly scan the dial in search of their brethren, and make extensive use of the Internet to keep in touch and build support for independent radio.

Americans for Radio Diversity (ARD) has a few “pirates” among its ranks, but is largely made of fans starving to death in the wasteland of modern radio. The group, determined to fight the stranglehold big business has on the airwaves, formed in Minneapolis when Rev 105 was engulfed by ABC/Disney. ARD’s efforts are partly responsible for the FCC’s recent change of heart, as is the saga of Alan Freed’s Beat Radio, shut down in 1996.

With FCC agents unceremoniously confiscating his equipment from a downtown high-rise apartment, Freed’s briefcase-sized transmitter graphically illustrated the ease with which good, competitive material can reach so many (the Beat goes on, however altered, and can be found on the Internet at

FCC comes to its senses
After seeing the feeding frenzy the Telcom Act left in its wake, the FCC last month announced its intention to license not only 1,000-watt and 100-watt broadcasters, but also tiny one- to 10-watt stations, as well. The commission currently receives about 13,000 applications per year from individuals and groups wanting to launch low-power stations.

Not surprisingly, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is fighting the idea all the way. “We oppose [microradio],” said NAB spokesman John Earnhardt. Just as bluntly, FCC chairman William Kennard told an NAB conference late last year: “We cannot deny opportunities to those who want to use the airwaves to speak to their communities simply because it might be inconvenient to those of you who already have these opportunities.”

Excessive corporate ownership also raises serious questions about equal access for growing minority populations. Minority ownership of radio stations has dropped dramatically, now accounting for fewer than 200 stations nationwide.

In Detroit, which has a large African American population, 25 of 29 stations are owned by four companies. And last month the FCC issued the results of a Washington, D.C. study that demonstrated that advertisers regularly discriminate against minority-owned radio stations or stations that serve a largely African American or Hispanic audience.

“What has transpired over the years,” says A.K., “is that these corporate owners have forgotten who the customer is. The customer is the listener and the client wants your customer. Now they’ve completely turned that around, with the customer being the advertising client.”

Free Speech or Free Access?
One prevailing argument is that the air belongs to the people: if you don’t need a license to publish a newsletter, why do you need one to broadcast?

Many would-be small broadcasters (including Freed) cite the First Amendment argument, but it has not fared well in court. Twice the Supreme Court has ruled that, given the limited number of frequencies available, we do not, in fact, have the right to broadcast.

Stephen Dunifer has operated Radio Free Berkeley, a 50-watt outlaw station, since 1993. A lifelong leftist political activist, Dunifer’s motto is, “Let a thousand transmitters bloom.” Dunifer also helps supply others with inexpensive low-power transmission kits. For a time, Dunifer’s Radio Free Berkeley was broadcast from a tree using a car battery.

Since currently only those with huge bankrolls can navigate the licensing process and actually obtain a station, the real struggle is less about freeing speech so much as freeing access to outlets for that speech. In recognition of the FCC’s efforts, many are observing an informal moratorium on illegal broadcasts pending a final decision, but few believe it will end piracy.

Some of them have “this anarchistic, rebel-against-rules-at-all-costs mindset,” says ARD's Jeremy Wilker. “Our broadcast band is only 78 frequencies, so access is more limited. There will definitely still be pirates.”

In a Perfect World
The trick, says Wilker, is in finding a comfortable middle ground. “The FCC is working with us here and maybe we should try to work with them a little bit. We can’t just have everybody doing their own thing, but we don’t want it to be just a smaller version of what we already have.”

“We’re envisioning a system of 100-watt stations all over the place that can reach out to their communities,” says Wilker. “If we had to have an example, KFAI would fit it really well.”

KFAI, staffed almost entirely by volunteers, won its 10-watt license in 1978, the last year the FCC granted them to stations under 100 watts. Power was boosted to 125 watts six years later. Broadcasting in 10 languages at last count, the station has become a haven for underrepresented communities, spotlighting local issues and featuring local musicians.

Lolly Obeda first went on the air playing her beloved blues, R&B and soul in about 1984. Her Friday afternoon show, “The Sugar Shop,” is a listener favorite.

“The thing that I like about KFAI is ultimate freedom that you have here,” said Obeda. “Aside from following the rules that the FCC puts down, you’re basically free to do as you damn well please. I wouldn’t last six seconds in commercial radio, because as soon as someone told me I had to punch up this card, or I had to play this song that I never heard before and didn’t like after I heard it anyway, I’d be outa there, pay or no pay.”

Will there be enough support for all those new stations? No one seems to be too worried. Smaller stations have extremely low operating costs and can make radio advertising affordable for even very small businesses. Besides, says A.K., having to struggle a little isn’t the worst thing in the world.

“I don’t think you’ll ever tap all the creative abilities of a nation like this, or a world like this. It doesn’t cost a lot to do some really neat stuff on the air.”
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A Brief History of Radio

Marconi experiments with radio telegraphy.

KDKA-Pittsburgh broadcasts the Harding-Cox election returns and inaugurates a daily schedule of programs.

The first permanent networks put their first programs on the air.

The Radio Act of 1927 divides radio spectrum, reserving portions for public broadcasting, as well as aircraft, police, defense, etc.

About 12 million homes have radios. Five years later that number increases to 22 million, about 2/3 of the population.

The Communications Act of 1934 results in licensees being assigned specific broadcast frequencies.

Supreme Court rules that, in view of the limited number of frequencies, First Amendment rights do not include the right to broadcast.

Advertising revenues increase to a total of $310 million, up from $180 million in 1941.

Radio time sales total $473 million. Profit is minimal, though. The number of stations going into operation at the end of WW II triples; but most new AM stations and virtually all the FM stations operate at a loss.

The “payola” scandal hits radio, revealing that bribes to play certain records were paid to DJs.

Radio networks no longer pay their affiliates for carrying their programs. They allow stations to carry programs for the right to sell commercial time within those programs.

Stereo approved for FM broadcasts. FM in 1957 accounted for only 2 percent of radio sales.
By 1965, it was 15–20 percent.

Total revenues from the sale of radio time reach more than $800 million.

Congress creates the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private, nonprofit corporation, to promote noncommercial public telecommuni-cations services for the American people.

KFAI, after long battle, obtains license for 10-watt station in Minneapolis.
That same year, the FCC stops licensing stations under 100 watts.

National radio revenues are at $6,563 billion.

National radio revenues reach $11,240 billion.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 passes, eliminating the one-station-per-local-market limit and replacing it with limits of five to eight stations per market, depending on the market’s size.Disney purchases Cap Cities/ABC.In Minneapolis, the FCC shuts down unlicensed Beat Radio, broadcasting from a downtown apartment building.

Ownership of commercial radio shrinks 12 percent, according to the FCC, even as the number of stations grows. The number of African American–owned FM stations drops 26 percent in that time frame; Hispanic-owned stations decline 9 percent.

An unprecedented 22.6 percent revenue increase has radio execs salivating for record 1997 results. While radio execs credit the economy and the personalities, some ad executives who purchase broadcast time say a recent concentration of station ownership is helping drive prices up.

Radio Free Berkeley is ordered off the air.

FCC adopts a NPRM (notice of proposed rulemaking) on the low-power radio issue.

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Issues within the
FCC’s current proposal
1. Expand classes of service to include:
• Maximum power of 1000 watts, with a maximum antenna height of 60 feet and service area of about 8.8 miles.
• Maximum power of 100 watts, with a maximum antenna height of 30 feet and service area of 3.5 miles.
• One- to 10-watt stations with an antenna height of 30 meters and a range of 1–2 miles.

2. Continue to require same-channel and first adjacent channel protections, but do away with third and perhaps second adjacencies

3. Require 1000-watt stations to adhere to most or all of the same rules as full-power operations, and relax those restrictions for the 100- and one- to 10-watt stations

The FCC will be taking comments on its new proposal until April 12, 1999.

For more information on this process, or to send comments electronically, look up their website (www.fcc.gov). The unwired may submit formal comments by sending an original plus four copies to the Office of the Secretary, 1919 M Street, Room 222 NW, Washington, D.C. 20554. You must refer to MM Docket Number 99-25.
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  Murphy’s Law of pirate information
is “no matter what information
you have, it’s outdated.”
Nevertheless, here are a few references:
  Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy,
by Robert McChesney
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