Tuesday, April 6, 1999
Copyright 1999, The Detroit News
FCC tunes in pirate radio
Proposal to allow tiny stations would diversify airwaves
By George Hunter / The Detroit News
David Coates / The Detroit News
Ron Goodsight operated a pirate radio station -- Living Free Radio, 89.7 FM -- out of his attic in Howell until federal officials confiscated his equipment last month.
HOWELL -- Ron Goodsight admits to being a pirate, but he doesn't consider himself a criminal.
Goodsight, a 39-year-old electronics repairman, operated an illegal radio station -- Living Free Radio -- from his Howell home for three years until federal officials confiscated his equipment last month.
"As far as I was concerned, I wasn't doing anything wrong," said Goodsight, who began broadcasting music out of his attic in 1997. "It wasn't like I was trying to hide -- I used to broadcast my name and phone number on the air all the time."
Goodsight said he'd like to operate a legal radio station, "but the law says I can't. It's currently illegal to have low-power stations -- so if I wanted to run a radio station, I had no choice but to do it underground."
That may change. The Federal Communications Commission in January proposed to license low-watt FM stations and create one or more new classes of service in the existing FM radio band. The FCC would allow 1,000-watt stations, which would service areas within a radius of approximately 8.8 miles, and 100-watt stations, which would serve 3.5-mile radius areas.
A decision is expected in June.
The fact that the FCC is considering lifting the ban on micro-stations is good news for people like Goodsight, who want an alternative to corporate-owned stations.
Advocates argue that opening up the airwaves to smaller venues will bring back diversity of broadcasting voices, which they say has declined since the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which lifted restrictions on ownership of media outlets.
FCC statistics show a 12-percent decline in the number of station owners the first year after the law was passed, despite a 3-percent rise in the number of overall stations.
Caleb Grayson, who owns the Xhedos Cafe in Ferndale, said numerous local bands such as the Immigrant Suns, which plays a blend of Eastern European folk and rock, should be getting on the air, but aren't. An experimental musician himself, Grayson would like to set up a sound booth in his cafe to transmit performances by visiting musicians.
"Here we are at the heart of a historic music city, and we can't get access to the public airwaves," he grumbled.
But existing broadcasters tell a different story.
"If you open the door to anyone who wants to open a radio station, it'll be chaos," said Karole White, president of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. "The band is going to be so tight, there'll almost certainly be interference problems, and citizens will have difficulty getting stations."
Improved technology allows radio stations to be placed closer together on the spectrum without causing interference, FCC officials said. Just in case, the agency is considering placing a limit on the number of low-power licenses.
While a full-power radio station is beyond the means of most individuals, a would-be broadcaster could cobble together the small-scale transmitter and other equipment needed to operate a microradio station for less than $1,000. The FCC hasn't decided whether it would allow such stations to operate for profit, but their affordability has helped sparked a flood of inquiries, totaling about 13,000 in the past year.
Another concern for broadcasters is a possible loss of profit. In October, White sent a letter to legislators stating that "increased competition could saturate the market. Profits could deteriorate."
In a free-market system, loss of profit shouldn't be an issue, said Cheryl Leanza, deputy director for the Media Access Group, a Washington nonprofit telecommunications law firm.
"If the corporate-owned stations start losing money, maybe that'll spur them into providing better service to their listeners," she said. "As it stands now, the corporate owners are so distanced from the communities they're supposedly serving, they don't know what the people want."
The political football surrounding the debate means nothing to Pat Ernst, a Brighton beauty shop owner -- she simply enjoyed listening to Goodsight's station.
"He played a lot of big band music, which you don't hear on regular stations," she said. "I was sorry when he got shut down. My customers liked the music he played, too. If he gets back on the air, I'll definitely tune back in."
Goodsight ignored several orders from FCC officials to stop broadcasting. Finally, seven U.S. marshals came into his house while Goodsight was at work and seized about $3,000 in radio equipment.
But Goodsight said he holds no grudges.
"I was simply trying to make a statement," he said. "The FCC was only doing their job. Sometimes you have to break the law to get your message across. I feel the current rules are unconstitutional, and something needs to be done."
Detroit News wire services contributed to this report.
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