First Amendment Issue
The cost of an FM station in the Twin Cities starts at $30 million.
By Chris Hamilton
Some call it pirate radio. Others dub it micro-broadcasting. What people name it often illustrates where they stand on the increasingly contentious issue.
"Most everyone's using 'micro-broadcasters,'" said Charles Stroud, 41, who operated the unlicensed station Ballot Box Radio two weeks ago. "It doesn't sound illegal."
Congress' 1996 Telecommunications Act and recent court cases -- most notably one in Minnesota last month and another in Oakland, California -- pit the Federal Communications Commission and established broadcasters against scattered groups of illegal, low-powered "radiophiles."
And that's where the First Amendment comes in. The cost of an FM station in the Twin Cities starts at $30 million. By making it almost impossible for someone with little capital to buy a station, pirate operators say free speech on the radio is unrealistic.
A pirate broadcaster can produce a signal under 100 watts for as little as $500. It begs the question: Does free speech go to the highest bidder?
"You can come and argue on a soapbox, but that damn well better be made of solid gold," said Jeremy Wilker, communications director for Minneapolis-based Americans for Radio Diversity.
Government agencies, established broadcasters and micro-broadcasters anxiously await a California court decision, U.S. vs. Dunifer. Stephen Dunifer was running 25-watt Free Radio Berkeley out of a van when FCC agents tried to shut him down.
He and his lawyers argue the FCC targeted him because of his left-leaning views and criticism of the agency. Federal District Court Judge Claudia Wilken refused to grant an injunction and Wednesday said the FCC must confront the First Amendment issue in court.
The case represents the first time a federal judge at that level didn't allow the seizure of an illegally operating station's equipment. The FCC did not return repeated phone calls for comment.
In the past, the FCC said it's clear-cut: Pirates such as Dunifer are dangerous and break the law by operating without a license. The FCC cites threats to public safety because some signals clash with air traffic control, fire and police bands.
If the small stations were allowed to exist, established broadcasters argue the airwaves would be chaos, disrupting their signals and displacing listeners. They don't see the First Amendment argument as a valid one.
"The major thing is, while possible in terms of the Constitution, publishers can print as many papers as trees they can cut down in the forests," said Andrew Marlow, Radio K station manager. "But in radio, the spectrum is limited." He added that the 35 signals in the Twin Cities are all the radio dial can handle.
Micro-broadcasters say recent technologies, such as low-cost frequency filters, lessen interference. The signals are more advanced than when the FCC last imposed regulations on the industry, Stroud said.
In 1978, the FCC said the radio spectrum was too crowded. The FCC virtually eliminated stations under 100 watts.
Micro-broadcasters say large stations are not community responsive and are not serving the public good as well as they can.
"All we're doing is trying to provide a service on the airwaves, the airwaves which belong to the people," said Alan Freed, the founder of the unlicensed Beat Radio in Minneapolis. Freed's 20-watt signal ended last November after FCC agents and U.S. Marshals confiscated his equipment. His attorneys have filed an appeal in the Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Most FCC crackdowns are a result of radio station complaints, who say they are in turn responding to listeners annoyed by broken signals.
Jim du Bois, president and CEO of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association, maintains that the micro-broadcasters don't reach as many listeners and cities, and that the popularity of stations such as KDWB is the peoples' way of voting with their ears.
"What's a good use of the spectrum, 100,000 watts opposed to 25?" asked du Bois. "I think the micro-broadcasters are a waste of the spectrum."
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