St. Paul Pioneer Press
June 7, 1998

Brian Lambert

media critic

Pirates vs. FCC:
The case for making a change

Should federal law be changed to allow pirate radio? The attitude of Minneapolis' Alan Freed and other "micro-broadcasters," as they prefer to be called, is that the radio business is undergoing tremendous change in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The act has unleashed rampant deregulation and consolidation in the industry, squeezing out all but the most lavishly funded conglomerates.

Now, a handful of giant companies -- entities such as Chancellor Broadcasting, CBS/Westinghouse and ABC/Disney -- control the majority of viable FM licenses in virtually every major market in the country. Those companies are committed to rapidly maximizing return on investment, and that leaves little or no room, much less reason, to experiment with format or make extraordinary gestures to local advertisers or audiences.

Just as television is fragmenting into ever smaller and smaller market niches, from three big networks to 57 channels of cable to the looming Internet-television marriage of literally thousands of channels, Freed's Beat Radio seeks to advance the same evolution for radio.

Freed and other micro-broadcasters are arguing for a new class of low-power FM FCC licenses, for stations under 100 watts. Their voices have been heard to the extent that the FCC, one of the government's most glacial bureaucracies, is now soliciting comment on several low-power proposals currently before it.

But Freed and his kind have no allies among the state's licensed radio operators.

Jim du Bois is president and CEO of the Minnesota Broadcaster's Association (MBA), and he doesn't mince words. "Our position is that pirates, or micro-broadcasters, or whatever you want to call them, are illegal and forbidden by law. Therefore, we feel the FCC should act very vigorously and shut these people down."

The MBA currently represents 280 radio stations and 22 TV stations in the state, and even du Bois admits the mix of ma-and-pa operators and affiliates of such giants as CBS and Chancellor makes for "a very broad range" of interests.

In Freed and a new class of what he calls "hobby broadcasters," du Bois sees "the CB-ization of radio."

"We all remember what happened in '70s when the CB craze hit the country. Suddenly you had hundreds of thousands of people clogging the frequencies, the result of which was CB quickly became a largely unusable medium that died quickly with all that chaos."

Du Bois and the MBA are on record with the FCC as opposed to a new class of low-power FM licenses for the Alan Freeds of the world.

"We have two basic concerns," says du Bois. "First, what kind of interference is this going to create with existing stations?

"And second, how can the FCC, which is so strapped from budget cuts it can barely cover what it's got right now, enforce complaints stemming from hundreds of new licenses?"

Freed's argument that the post-Telecommunications Act radio landscape is one sorely lacking in diversity also fails to impress du Bois.

"This is a new animal," he says, referring to all the changes wrought by the act. "It's only been around a couple years, and I think the jury is still out on questions about diversity and experimentation. It's premature to conclude that consolidation will bring less diversity. I think it's entirely possible that economies of scale will allow some of these larger operators to be more experimental with their stations than those stations might have been were they still operated by individual owners."

Du Bois happily swipes at the motion of micro-broadcasters' unusual commitment to local community service.

He says, "In my opinion, people like Mr. Freed are more interested in self-service than any community service. They just want to be on the air."

In late April, du Bois sent MBA members a letter urging them to file comments with the FCC opposing new, micro-broadcasting licenses. He recommended MBA members not base their opposition on concerns of increased competition, but rather that they should argue on the grounds of increased signal interference.

To this sort of well-organized, official opposition, and the rapid evolution of the radio industry toward a club of ever-richer and more-elephantine conglomerates (du Bois may be hopeful of increased diversity and experimentation, but there isn't much sign of it yet), Freed can only chug along, fighting his legal battles, playing quasi-pirate on the edges of government certifiability.

"Jim du Bois doesn't know anything about why we're doing this or who I am," says Freed. "And the thing that strikes me about very, very smug party-line comments like that is that in this world of consolidation, Jim du Bois and a lot of his members could be out on the streets very quickly themselves.

"More to the point, as consolidation proceeds, groups like the MBA are going to have to increase their membership. They're going to need more new members, a new class of new members. And where do you think they might come from? From low-power FM, perhaps?

"The thing is, you're never going to get rid of the pirates, the people who don't want any part of the system. But that's not what we're about."

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