Twin Cities Revue
June 10, 1999

Take Back The Airwaves

In The Public Interest
Local Citizens Fight For The Airwaves
By Bill Snyder

In The Corner Table

TO SOMEONE WALKING into Little Tijuana Restaurant on a recent Tuesday night, the back table must have seemed rather unremarkable: eight ragtag Gen-Xers skimming menus, sipping Cokes, chatting about the Internet and, in one case, summarizing a whole novel from start to finish. In short, they look like harmless rabble with no better place to go. But this group is on a mission: They want to change the way the United States of America administers and licenses radio frequencies. They want to wrest control of radio programming from the hands of a few megacorporations, and give you access to the airwaves.

If people watching knew this, it would probably cause laughter. After all, the group looks like a bunch of overgrown high school students - and let's face it, what what high school student doesn't want to "fight the man." A closer look reveals a little more, though: Alongside their burritos are stacks of Federal Communications Commission regulations, many of which the activists can recite from memory. This motley group actually includes an attorney, an electrical engineer working in aerospace design, a graphic artist and a host of other "professionals." They call themselves Americans For Radio Diversity (ARD), and they are part of an increasingly powerful citizens' movement.

To truly understand what's going on here, there's one small piece of federal legislation you should be aware of (and according to members of ARD, most citizens aren't). It's from the original Telecommunications Act, which gave the FCC its charter in 1934. It requires that the commission:

Study new uses for radio, provide for the experimental uses of frequencies and generally encourage the larger and more effective use of radio in the public interest. (47 U.S.C. ss303)

Increasingly, the "in the public interest" has become a particularly sticky matter. "It's hard to get the public to understand that they own the airwaves," explains ARD co-founder Jeremy Wilker. "We're allowing them to be sold to the highest bidder, and getting little in exchange."

The feeling is not one held solely by ARD. A short hop around the Internet shows a plethora of similar groups around the country, as well as a number of frustrated citizens taking to the airwaves with unlicensed low-power transmitters, programming everything from dance music to religious talk to calendars of community events. Among those stations is Minneapolis' Beat Radio, which ruled 97.7 FM (at least within a 2.5 mile radius) for 103 days in 1996. Like many such stations, Beat Radio is now fighting for its right to broadcast.

While these groups don't agree on what the ideal radio station would program, most are united in their belief that the airwaves have room for opinions as diverse as the population, and that access to the airwaves has been stolen out from under their noses. They believe they've been...


The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was lauded by Congress as a triumph. Those who followed it may remember a landmark piece of legislation covering cell phones, digital television and the "V-chip," which helps parents regulate their children's television viewing. What was conspicuously absent from media coverage was its effect on radio.

Prior to its passage, one entity could own up to four stations in a market: two AM and two FM. The new legislation allows ownership of up to eight stations in a market, with no more than five in either band - according to grassroots activists, deregulation of that magnitude led to a corporate feeding frenzy.

"By the end of 1997," ARD has stated in print, "over 4,000 of the nation's 11,000 radio stations had been sold. In the 50 largest markets, three firms controlled over 50 percent of the ad revenue."

Beat It

By the time the act passed, a collision course had already been set in Minneapolis. In 1992, , a former DJ with a number of local stations (including KMOJ, KTCJ/690 and WWTC), had returned to Minneapolis after a stint with a Philadelphia station. Along with a number of top local DJs, he began brainstorming ideas for bringing dance music to Twin Cities radio. Those conversations would eventually birth Beat Radio. But not before the aspiring DJs had banged their heads on countless regulatory walls.

"Beat Radio started out over a frustration of what was on the air and a love of dance music," Freed explains. "We struck out to see what we could do to get it on the air. The [legal] options were to buy a station, get an existing station to change format, or do 'brokered time' [buying a block of time on an existing station].

"None were practical," he continues. "Starting a station was too costly and there were no spots on the dial under current regulations. Attempts at brokering time fell through, and no existing stations showed interest in changing to a dance format."

By 1996, Freed and company had been checking out options for over three years. With the passage of the Telecom Act and the ensuing consolidation of station ownership, it became clear that things weren't getting any better.

"That's when we decided that there were no other [legal] options," he recalls. "Sometime in the first half of '96, we realized [low-power FM] was an alternative means to an end." Though the FCC was not issuing licenses for low-power stations, Beat Radio decided to hit the air anyway. On July 21, the station began broadcasting with a signal that stretched "from Broadway to Blaisdell and Downtown to Uptown."

Though unlicensed, Beat Radio made no attempts to hide, maintaining a constant location (Freed's home), frequency, address, phone number and Web site. The station wasn't hard to track down. After sending a warning letter and engaging in a small court battle, the FCC arrived at Freed's home Nov. 1 to seize his equipment. Notably, no charges were brought against any individuals, but the case cites "any and all radio station transmission equipment, radio frequency power amplifiers, radio frequency test equipment and any other equipment associated with or used in connection with the transmission at 97.7 MHz, located at [Freed's address]" as the defendant. The Beat was off the air.

As no individuals were charged, everything could have ended there, but now it was a matter of First Amendment rights - not only Freed's, but those of his listeners. "The [broadcast] spectrum should reflect the people who are listening to it," asserts Freed's attorney, Ann Zewiske of Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen. "It's not always viewed from a listener's [perspective]. Listeners have First Amendment rights. We've gotten lots of affidavits from Beat Radio listeners who thought it offered something that wasn't already on the air."

Freed challenged the seizure of property, and the case is still meandering its way though the courts.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

On March 11, 1997, roughly four-and-a-half months after Beat Radio's equipment was yanked, listeners of the locally-owned and operated alternative rock station REV105 woke to heavy metal blaring from their favorite frequencies (105.1, 105.3 and 105.7 FM). Disney, which already owned KQRS-FM and KEGE-FM "The Edge," had bought REV 105 and switched formats overnight (a purchase that would not have been legal prior to the '96 Telecom Act). The scenario was anything but unique, yet it certainly drove the issue of increasing corporate domination home on a local level.

"I'd heard a lot about the changes in the industry with the Telecom Act," recalls former REV staffer Brad Savage. "I'd seen stations disappearing around the country, but when REV went away, it was a real wake-up call. Like, bam! This consolidation is happening really fast."

Though far from having the region's largest market share, REV had a particularly devoted listenership, and plans to block the sale were quickly bouncing around the Twin Cities through e-mail, Web sites and small meetings. From these interactions, ARD emerged. Surprisingly, the group consisted primarily of "industry outsiders," with no financial interest in radio at all. "I was just a big music fan who got really pissed off," Wilker laughs.

ARD started a petition urging the FCC to block transfer of the licenses. Though it managed to gather 10,000 signatures, the effort failed.

"The group started to stop the sale of REV," ARD member Glenn Austin clarifies, "but we soon realized it wasn't an isolated's not good in a democratic society for any media to be controlled by a handful of big corporations. Most of us at ARD are music fans, but it extends to broader issues about radio. If we were [only] about getting REV back, I'd be out of here."

Power To The People

Both dedicated REV fans and the die-hard group behind Beat Radio realized that this wasn't just about them.

"There's very little done [on radio] in the community interest," laments Wilker. "It's done mainly in the advertising and financial interests. Part of the stipulation of getting a license is that [the station] serves the community interest. Is using a public resource [the airwaves] for the benefit of only one entity 'in the public interest'? No. They come back and say, 'We're providing entertainment value, and we're giving news and traffic updates,' but that is only a small part of what is in the public interest."

The biggest points of contention between activists and the radio industry boil down to a few basic questions: How can radio stations programmed in another city truly serve the community? How can any form of media controlled by a handful of corporations possibly fulfill the constitutional responsibilities of the free press? And how can radio aimed at high-revenue advertising meet the needs of minority communities?

"Diversity of [musical] format doesn't correlate with a diversity of viewpoints," Wilker emphasizes. Chancellor [Media] owns seven stations [in the metro area]. They have six different formats, but it's all the same worldview. It's Chancellor's worldview."

Though their opposition argues that this is simply the democratic workings of a free market economy, activists counter that it's anything but a free market.

"The airwaves are a limited resource," Austin points out. [Imagine] there were a limited number of printing presses, and a government agency was set up to make sure that only a handful of rich people had control of them. That's what radio has been like [since 1996]."

Acknowledging that resources are limited, activists have seen their way clear to a proposed solution. "The main issue is that the spectrum is limited," Zewiske acknowledges. "Not everyone can get on, or it would create chaos. There are these holes where small broadcasters can fit in, but they're not allowed to. Why aren't they allowed? Because the regulations [prevent] them.

"Whenever the FCC talks about these issues, their mantra is, 'The spectrum is limited, and that's why these regulations are valid.' If the spectrum is limited, then it should be used wisely. It's being wasted because larger corporate interests want it that way. They want to control their interests."

What Freed and other radio activists want is permission to engage in low-power FM broadcasting [LPFM], which allows small broadcasters to fill those "holes" in a manner that doesn't interfere with high-power broadcasts.

When Beat Radio's equipment was seized, it was part of a focused effort by the FCC to shut down unlicensed transmitters. That effort has led to a slew of legal battles ranging from California's Free Radio Berkeley to religious broadcasts by the Reverend Strawcutter in Michigan to New York's Steal This Radio. "I [think] the FCC was surprised at the response," Zewiske continues. "They've never done that before, and the response has been forceful."

On January 28, FCC Chairman William Kennard responded to petitions supporting LPFM with a proposal that could pave the way for stations serving areas with two to 8.8 mile radiuses. "All of us expected the FCC to throw us the proverbial bone, and give us the lowest [allocation] of power which would only cover a few blocks," Wilker recollects. "They came back and surprised us all with a three-tier system that was pretty elaborate."

But the war is far from over. Opposition from commercial broadcasters has already delayed the process twice. "It's already one of the biggest fights in radio history," confides an employee of a major local station. "Bill Kennard is already under fire. It presents yet another new competitor [for commercial radio], along with Internet radio and digital radio...It's threatening to the existing stations."

As one might expect, it's going to come down to the strength of public support. "If you go through the proposal, almost every aspect says the FCC is looking for comment. Why isn't that being publicized?" Wilker asks. "If everybody made that one phone call or wrote that one paragraph saying 'I support low-power broadcasting. Keep it out of the hands of the fat cats that already control radio,' imagine what could happen."

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