Beat Radio

Rolling Stone
April 1, 1999/Issue 809


An FCC Proposal Could Pave The Way For New Independent Stations

Radio pirates may soon be coming ashore. In a bold initiative passed in January, the FCC -- over the strong objections of commercial broadcasters -- proposed new rules to license low-power so-called pirate radio stations. If the FCC formally approves the move later this year, the change would open the door for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of niche FM stations. The FCC's proposal comes at a time of massive radio consolidation, which has made it almost impossible for small, independent stations to get on the air. The new 100- to 1,000-watt stations would not pack much of a punch -- covering perhaps a ten-mile radius -- but radio activists say this would help recapture the airwaves from the conglomerates that have virtually cornered the radio business since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

"Corporations have taken over the dial, and we want some of it back." says Stephen Dunifer, founder of Free Radio Berkeley, an eclectic fifty-watt station in California whose free-form DJs played reggae, rap, punk and folk records. The station operated illegally from 1993 until the FCC finally shut it down last year.

During the past five years, hundreds of pirate stations like Free Radio Berkeley have sprung up around the country. Across the bay, San Francisco Liberation Radio (back on the air after being silenced for eight months by the FCC) broadcasts left-leaning programs about animal rights, homelessness and AIDS. During the floods of 1997, pirates in Grand Forks, North Dakota, broadcast crucial information to the city. "Pirate radio can make a real impact," says an anonymous broadcaster there.

Last year alone, the FCC's web site received 13,000 inquiries about low-power radio, which may explain the commission's about-face on the issue. "We cannot deny opportunities to those who want to use the airwaves to speak to their communities simply because it might be inconvenient for those who already have these opportunities," FCC chairman William Kennard said in a statement.

Since the Telecommunications Act eased ownership restrictions in the radio industry, 6,200 commercial stations -- worth $45 billion -- have been bought and sold by broadcasting giants. If, as some analysts expect, Chancellor Media soon merges with Clear Channel Communications, the new radio behemoth would own 915 stations nationwide. By contrast, prior to Tel-Com, radio's biggest players counted just forty stations on their rosters. Meanwhile, the number of minority station owners has plummeted since deregulation. Kennard, who was appointed by President Clinton in 1997, has pushed for low-power radio as a way for community groups, churches and ordinary citizens to be heard on the dial.

"The FCC is showing some degree of backbone by standing up to corporate broadcasters, so give Kennard credit for that," says Dunifer. But low-power radio is hardly a done deal. The National Association of Broadcasters, one of Washington, D.C.'s most powerful lobbying groups, is leading a fierce charge on Capital Hill against the proposal. "This is a prescription for more interference on an already congested FM radio band," says NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton, who points out that since 1980, 3,500 full-power stations have been added in the U.S. "If everybody has a radio station, the nobody can hear anything on the dial."

Jeremy Wilker, co-founder of Americans for Radio Diversity, insists that "the NAB has done everything in their power to delay these low-power petitions. Their objection is that the new stations will create massive interference with broadcasters. But almost nobody who follows this thinks that's true."

The broadcast battle is shaping up to be a hot political issue, as well. The NAB has already picked up the support of Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee. Tauzin, at a private luncheon with NAB executives, blasted the FCC as "an agency out of control that demands congressional action to straighten it out." He also sent Kennard a letter, urging the chairman to "take no further action" on low-power radio. Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH coalition has come out strongly in favor of new community stations.

As for the underground broadcasters, Dunifer at Free Radio Berkeley is confident that pirate radio's "nonviolent, electronic civil disobedience" over the years has paid off, forcing the FCC to act. "It was a grass-roots movement that could not be controlled," he says.

-Eric Boehlert

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