November 17, 1997
When Slobodan Milosevic's government shut down its transmitter, independent radio station B92 used microphones and speakers to broadcast from open windows to people in the street. With powerful public support and access to international free radio, B92 continued its fight against the propaganda of Milosevic. The station survives because of the power of the people to communicate, band together and decide their own fate -- a downright democratic idea. But Yugoslavia is not the only country to face limits on expression. The United States' regulation of radio also limits the power of its citizens to freely speak over the airwaves.
"The United States' regulation of radio
limits the power of its citizens to freely speak over the airwaves."
Radio airwaves need to be freer for public
Radio plays a large part in struggles for freedom around the world. Radio Free Europe, which helped numerous countries escape dictatorial rule, is now supported by those same nations. In this country the issue is not achieving free speech, but how we decide to nurture it. Supporters for increased public access to radio are protesting exorbitant federal licensing fees and calling for Federal Communication Commission reform or state regulation. The FCC is in danger of weakening the First Amendment's statement of the right to free speech by making access to radio dependent on the wealth of the citizen.
Free radio does exist in the United States. But it is still illegal to operate a radio station without a license. The fact is, a license could cost as much as $50,000 to $100,000. Many small stations that can't afford a license still want to participate in radio, so they stay on the air illegally. The number of pirate radio stations is increasing, and licensed broadcasters are encouraging the FCC to respond by closing down illegal signals. The licensed stations say pirate stations are stealing from them and stealing from the government. The pirate broadcasters say the rules are only there to protect the corporations.
The standoff has ended up in court. A station in Berkeley, Calif., successfully fought to repeal an FCC shutdown. The case is now under appeal at U.S. District Court, but it led to the creation of an organization that helps other pirate radio stations in trouble with the FCC, as well as helping small stations to start up in Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael A. Chagares says that the current program of FCC licensing and regulation is the only logical way to distribute radio bands. He says the alternative is chaos. There was chaos over the airwaves in the 1920s, when too many stations were trying to outbroadcast each other. In 1927, Congress made regulation of the radio airwaves the legal responsibility of the government.
The difference today is that the pendulum has swung to the other side. Instead of chaos, we have a few wealthy companies owning the airwaves. As a result of high licensing fees and the power of the wealthy owners to get pirates shut down, small radio stations are not usually able to broadcast legally. The "fair and equitable service" the Federal Radio Commission required in its 1927 regulations is in danger. The Internet is creating a forum for a freer exchange of ideas. Cable television has opened up the airwaves for more diverse public access. Now radio regulations must also be reevaluated so the medium can serve the broader voice of our citizens.
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