Beat Radio

Rolling Stone
March 2, 2000/Issue 835

Pirate Radio Goes Legal

FCC approves low-power radio

In a David-over-Goliath victory for pirate radio broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission voted on January 20th to create a new generation of low-power radio stations designed to give everyday citizens a voice on the dial. Vehemently opposed by the National Association of Broadcasters, one of Washington D.C.'s most powerful lobbying groups, but supported by FCC Chairman William Kennard, the low-power initiative marked a major victory for independent broadcasters and grass-roots organizations.

"There's so much great music in the world that never makes it to radio, and the FCC deserves credit for opening up as much room as possible on the dial," says singer Bonnie Raitt.

"This is a major victory," adds radio activist Alan Freed, whose unlicensed Minneapolis station, Beat Radio, was shut down for illegal broadcasting by FCC officials three years ago. "It represents putting radio back in the hands of the people."

The FCC's proposal for new 10- and 100-watt stations, several hundred of which could be on the air by Labor Day, is intended to give community organizations such as churches, schools and neighborhood groups access to the airwaves; the stations' broadcast range will be only about three or four miles. Still, by opening the FM dial to new broadcasters, the proposal runs counter to the massive consolidation of the radio industry in recent years, which has resulted in more than $70 billion worth of stations changing hands since 1995. Today's largest station owner, Clear Channel Communications, owns nearly a thousand outlets, with most offering formulaic programming. "Right now, radio's a joke," says Joey Ramone.

The battle may not be over. Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) is sponsoring legislation that would ban the FCC from implementing the proposal, but whether it will pass in the house is questionable. Some Democrats say they welcome a fight on the issue. "If [the Republicans] want to have a full discussion on this issue, that's a debate I'm comfortable leading," says Michigan Rep. David Bonior, the second-ranking Democrat in the House. On the presidential campaign trail, Vice President Al Gore has voiced support for low-power radio.

The heavily-funded NAB - upset about having to share the airwaves with a new generation of amateurs - is threatening a lawsuit of its own. Not accustomed to losing policy fights, the NAB wasted no time in turning up the rhetoric when Kennard first suggested legalizing low-power radio in January 1999, calling the idea "the single biggest issue to hit the radio industry in the last few decades." As part of its campaign, the NAB shipped out a nineteen-page anti-low power packet to members, including a letter that stated, "There has never been more program diversity than in today's fiercely competitive radio market."

In the end, though, it was low-power activists, not the NAB's well-paid lobbying crew, who created real momentum. Using the Internet as a networking tool, backers stitched together an unlikely coalition that included, among others, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Indigo Girls, Jackson Browne, the American Library Association, the Green Party, the United Church of Christ, various Native American tribes, the ACLU of Massachusetts and the cities of Detroit, Seattle, Santa Monica and Albuquerque, New Mexico. All urged the FCC to adopt the new-station proposal.

That unusually diverse alliance made it difficult for the bill's proponents to to be dismissed as underground radicals, according to Freed. "The NAB would have liked to portray us as pirates who don't wash but once a month and only want low-power so they can play their favorite CDs," he says. "In fact, we're a complete cross-section of America."

Joining them are scores of music-industry executives, frustrated by commercial radio's narrow programming approach. "I'm such a low-power fan," says one senior programmer at MTV. "It would keep community service, which is now nonexistent in radio, alive and give people a voice again."

"The NAB is like the NRA," says one major-label vice president. "It's not trying to do what's right; it's just looking for causes to fight. But I can't say that publicly, because my bread and butter are the NAB majors - the Clear Channel stations."

The FCC victory represents vindication for low-power advocates, many of whom were lobbying for new stations nearly a decade before Kennard ever took up their cause. Determined to regain access to a small slice of the nation's airwaves in the meantime, some operated underground radio stations - only to have them raided by government officials, who shut them down and levied stiff fines. Perseverance, though, has paid off. "We had nothing to lose in this battle, just an investment of time," says Jeremy Wilker, co-founder of Americans for Radio Diversity. "And when you're fighting somebody with nothing to lose, you better watch out."

-Eric Boehlert

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