News & Issues

Beat Radio

San Francisco Examiner
May 17, 1999

Bay Area pirate radio helped clear the air for new broadcast licenses

By Michael Mechanic

Special to the Examiner

OAKLAND -- Mindless babble, sick jokes, celebrity shock-jocks, snide DJs, insipid music and the most obnoxious advertisements of any medium. In a word: Garbage.

Somebody stole our airwaves. That somebody, of course, is the Federal Communications Commission. It auctions off our radio spectrum to corporate broadcasters whose only interest in the public is how hard we'll fall for their advertisers' sales pitches.

In 1978, the FCC stopped issuing licenses for stations operating at less than 100 watts - thus robbing smaller communities around the country of a potential treasure trove of local programming.

At the same time, the FCC cleared the way for near-total dominance of local radio by commercial outlets operating in the tens of thousands of watts.

But now, thanks to attention brought to the issue by the illegal micropower radio movement, and despite powerful opposition from corporate broadcasters and even National Public Radio, the public may finally have a chance to regain greater access to local airwaves.

In January, the FCC called for public comments on proposals to license 1-10 watt "micropower" stations that would cover a radius of one to two miles, and new 100- and 1,000-watt stations that could reach up to nine miles. The FCC's stated goal is to "address unmet needs for community-oriented radio broadcasting."

Due to a strong public response, the comment period has been extended through June 1.

Naturally, commercial broadcasters are adamantly opposed. Over the years, corporate interests have persuaded the FCC to relax ownership limits on stations, allowing powerful groups to control large portions of local radio markets. At the same time, most of these broadcasters have done everything possible to weasel out of their obligation to the non-advertising public.

Retired author and media critic Ben Bagdikian, who has written extensively about media consolidation, notes that corporate broadcasters were instrumental during the 1980s in quashing the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC's content guidelines designed to ensure that broadcasters serve the public interest.

The Bay Area is lucky to have one of the country's most lively - and lucrative - radio dials, with numerous college and public stations, so we, at least, have options. But in many communities, there is no alternative to commercial stations, which have failed miserably in the public service arena.

Original news stories? Exceedingly rare. The so-called news on most commercial stations is stolen directly from newspapers and television.

Local music? Not likely. If an act isn't already national, commercial music stations are loath to touch it. Take "Live 105" (KITS), which CBS owns along with "Alice" (KLLC), KFRC and three other local stations. Unlike other Bay Area commercial stations, Live 105 does allot time to local music - 15 minutes per week.

Is the KITS management completely clueless? In an area as rife with musical talent as the Bay Area, a 15-minute local show is an insult - like eating a $50 meal and tipping a waiter a quarter, in pennies.

Commercial-free? Despite the mantra you hear on these music stations, the music itself is little but an advertisement for the products of multibillion-dollar record labels. That's why we hear the same pre-marketed songs ad nauseam.

Nationwide, poor local programming and a narrow range of voices have prompted a revolution. Hundreds of activist-minded folks like Free Radio Berkeley founder Stephen Dunifer started identifying unused radio frequencies and illegally broadcasting on homemade, low-power transmitters, risking the seizure of their equipment and fines of $10,000 per transmission.

These outlaw stations often serve ethnic enclaves, foreign-language listeners and activist communities with local views, music, and voices. The programming is sometimes marginal in quality, but at least it exists as an alternative.

"The commercial stations give no significant time to local issues," says Bagdikian. "The appearance of these unlicensed stations is a sign that one of the basic premises of licensed broadcasting has been lost and the only real access to a broad range of social and political issues are the pirate stations, plus a few public stations."

The FCC ultimately succeeded in getting Dunifer thrown off the air, but his defiance led to the public attention that eventually prompted the FCC to reconsider its ban. [Some] free-radio advocates are asking the agency to discourage commercial exploitation by making the new licenses non-commercial, locally owned and limited to one station per owner.

"I don't want to see this endeavor taken over by someone who wants to make a quick buck," says local activist Paul Griffin.

National Public Radio, out to protect its turf, has joined the powerful National Association of Broadcasters in arguing that existing stations are meeting the needs of small communities and must do so in order to compete.

This is nonsense, of course.

Stations only need convince advertisers that people are listening, and people will listen to whatever is available. The broadcasters association also uses the old FCC argument that a few powerful stations provide more efficient radio coverage than a large number of low-power stations. While technically correct, they're talking electromagnetism while the real issue is whether corporations that make a fortune exploiting a government-protected medium are serving the public.

Let's just say that the people haven't gone to bat for commercial radio, whereas, just in the past year, the FCC has received hundreds of supportive comments from small businesses, community groups, cities and citizens who want low-power service. More than 13,000 inquiries have come from small businesses, community groups and individuals interested in obtaining low-power licenses.

Even Radio World magazine, normally a voice for the broadcasting industry, concluded in a March editorial that the proposal deserves a chance.

"The spectrum belongs to the public, and sometimes we forget that," the editorialist wrote. "Ad sales are at record levels. But dissatisfaction with our product also is increasing. Formulaic programs with sound-alike liners make it easier for the listener to push radio into the background of their lives."

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