January 7, 1998
Micro-Radio Broadcasters in a Macro-Radio World:
Whose Airwaves Are They, Anyway?
By Jon Fine
Last year's radio story was all about "big," what with 1996's Telecommunications Act loosening restrictions on multiple station ownership in local markets and the ensuing binge of buying and selling and skyrocketing radio valuations.
But the radio story this year may be a very "small" one, as long-running battles between low-wattage pirate radio operators -- micropower broadcasters, nowadays -- look destined to come to a head.
Micropower stations, those with power output below 100 watts, are also unlicensed and illegal: the FCC does not grant licenses for such low-power signals. "You can apply" for a license, said a principal in the unlicensed Brooklyn, NY-based Radio Free Williamsburg (103.9) who insisted on only being identified as DJ Dizzy. "But the FCC will tell you, 'we don't give them out'" for stations under 100 watts. Though applying for a waiver to FCC licensing rules is occasionally presented to micro-broadcasters as an option, no micro radio opponent or ally we spoke to or read about knew of any successful applicants.
But micro-broadcasters' numbers are growing, driven by cheaper radio technology (one New York City-area micro-broadcaster estimated that the whole setup, including CD and cassette players, cost $1,500); the Web and Net as resources for making connections with like-minded individuals; the ever-fragmenting media and political landscape; and the sense that existing commercial radio is simply doing a bad job serving local communities.
Which gets to the principal irony. Radio, the medium associated with the noisy bit of American vox populi called talk radio, ain't much of a noisy democratic medium, even in comparison to other heavily-consolidated media. Outside the hobbyist and niched realms of ham-radio and CB, there's little community access to the radio band. Print and Net distribution can be had readily and cheaply. TV access is cheaper still: the Cable Act of 1984 empowers local franchising authorities to demand public access channels on local cable systems. But without a sympathetic local college or community radio station, would-be local broadcasters are simply out of luck.
Last October the FCC shut down three unlicensed stations in Tampa -- Party Pirate Radio (102.1), 87X, and Lutz Community Radio (96.7) -- as well as Boston's Radio Free Allston (106.1). One operator, Lutz's Lonnie Kobres, is slated to appear in a Tampa court next month to face Federal criminal charges associated with broadcasting without a license. The Tampa Three faced forfeiture not only of their radio equipment -- itself a move of arguable worth, should the notion of authorities confiscating your possessions leave you uneasy -- but also watched FCC reps carry off personal property not directly related to broadcasting, like tapes and CDs.
Many micro-hopes are pinned on arguably the most famous one in the nation, Stephen Dunifer of California's Free Radio Berkeley (104.1). He's witnessed two FCC motions against him -- one for a preliminary injunction, one for a summary judgment, the net of both would have put Free Radio Berkeley off the air -- be denied by in an Oakland Federal District court. Dunifer's defense hinges largely on the notion of the airwaves being a public forum, and Judge Claudia Wilkins has indicated some sympathy for his argument, at least in the sense she wants the FCC to address the constitutional issues in upcoming legal proceedings.
Those criticizing Dunifer's court-based strategy sometimes suggest that pirates petition the FCC for rule changes concerning low-power licensing. The FCC, per 1996's Telecommunications Act, conducts a biennial review of its broadcast ownership rules, and the FCC's new chairman, William Kennard, told the New York Times in December: "I am personally very concerned that we have more outlet for expression over the airwaves." That aside, there's nothing to suggest that the FCC would be receptive.
Kennard, in a 1997 letter to Minneapolis-based micro-broadcaster Beat Radio, offered low-power licensing reform, saying that reviews of the issue in 1978 and 1998 found "it would not be in the public interest to continue to authorize low-power broadcast radio stations," owing to concerns about interference with "full power FM stations that are capable of serving a greater population and area with greater efficiency."
Which causes some micro-broadcasters to question what serves local public interest. "The FCC believes that more effective use is to put a giant flame-thrower station on each frequency that covers an entire state, practically," said one, "instead of a number of smaller stations that serve each individual community much more effectively."
John Earnhardt, a spokesperson for the National Association of Broadcasters, said the NAB had no position regarding changes in low-power licensing, and declined to comment on any high-profile pending micro-broadcasting cases.
The notion of micro-broadcasters causing signal interference with larger stations, though, is not necessarily supportable. At an NAB conference panel on pirate radio last October, Bill Ruck, broadcast engineer of San Francisco's 104.5 KFOG, admitted that the presence of Free Radio Berkeley at 104.1 caused negligible interference, and that KFOG's ratings and revenues had actually increased since Free Radio Berkeley hit the airwaves. (Indeed, the non-commercial nature of the average micro-broadcaster, should there be such a thing, all but ensures that bigger stations' revenue streams won't be disrupted.)
It's true that not every micro-broadcaster may be as signal-scrupulous as Dunifer, and I wouldn't defend those who wantonly interfere with other stations. But it's hard not to wonder why the FCC doesn't simply issue low-power licenses, space permitting (and it's hard to find a place where it doesn't). This simple policy change would simultaneously address both interference and public service concerns.
Why won't the FCC do it? I don't know. Instead, the FCC's peculiar way of dealing with micro-broadcasting has done little more than sow cynicism, while creating a new, increasingly embittered class of broadcaster. It's hard to see, given an easy remedy, why the FCC's choosing the wrong side of the angels.
Copyright 1998 Cowles New Media
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