by Kate Duncan

Z magazine, July / August 1998


The movement for low-power community radio was relatively 10w-key until Stephen Dunifer founded Free Radio Berkeley with the intent not just to operate a small radio station, but to go to court in its defense. While the case lingered in the 9th Federal District Court, Dunifer used the protection of microbroadcasting's legal limbo to manufacture and distribute transmitters to fledgling stations, most of which broadcast between 10 and 30 watts and have a 2 to 5 mile range. This spring, around 1,000 pirate radio stations, from the clandestine underground to the outspoken demonstrators, discovered each other for the first time at two microbroadcasting conferences: one in Philadelphia, April 3-5, the other coinciding with the National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Las Vegas the following weekend.

Until now, the microbroadcasting movement's strategy has grown organically, without conferences or formal roundtable discussions. Rather, they have used exponential growth, mass media exposure, and stubborn noncompliance with FCC "cease and desist broadcasting" letters. Pirates also adhere to the safety-in-numbers rule, helping establish and keep other stations on the air.

So far, these strategies have worked. Even USA Today, the New York Times, Time magazine, and National Public Radio have picked up the pirate radio story and given it an underdog "David and Goliath" spin. Pete TriDish of Radio Mutiny credits the movement's media presence for embarrassing the FCC into publicly admitting that radio pirates have a point. In a recent Radio World interview, FCC chair William Kennard stated that "They have a legitimate issue in that there are, in some communities, no outlets for expression on the airwaves, and I believe that is a function, in part, of the massive consolidation that we are seeing in the broadcast industry." He stated he was "receptive to hearing about" models for legal microbroadcasting.

The FCC's new attitude prompted the agency's Chief of Compliance and Information, Richard Lee, to request an invitation to speak at the East Coast microbroadcasting conference. If you are still looking for someone to moderate the panel called The Bust: What to do when the FCC knocks, I would, as a public service, volunteer." So read Lee's surprise e-mail to Radio Mutiny. The message produced mixed feelings in the conference committee: Though some were dubious of Lee's intentions, others were pleased that the FCC had finally recognized them as a force to be dealt with. After some discussion about whether he belonged within 20 miles of the conference, Radio Mutiny gave Lee a place on Friday's opening panel but declared the remainder of the conference off-limits. He was joined on the panel by Radio Mutiny's ACLU counsel, Stephen Presser, and two pirate DJs to argue the technical feasibility and democratic necessity of low-watt stations.

Though he joked around with a few pirates after his speech, and even presented Radio Mutiny with a figurine of a Star Trek character who is forever battling the Borg, Lee remained hard-line on his policy to seek and destroy unlicensed stations. He concluded, "We invite the unlicensed broadcasters and other interested parties to give us their ideas, and to work with the FCC in crafting lawful solutions that can result in more local radio outlets for more people in more communities instead of continuing to violate the statute. The FCC will not condone illegal broadcasting and we will aggressively enforce the law." Since the conference, FCC agents have paid two visits to Radio Mutiny without a warrant, and are averaging two busts a week nationally.

Now that the FCC is willing to talk, the microbroadcasting movement is taking a turn. "The FCC has suffered at our hands up to this point because they refused to be reasonable," says Pete TriDish. Hence, the sympathetic public and press. But, continues TriDish, "a likely scenario is that in the next few months, the FCC will offer something that the press thinks looks okay, but will be grossly inadequate and bureaucratic. Some in our movement may grovel for the scraps and start going through the legalization process, and will ultimately get little or nothing out of it." If this scenario plays out, radio pirates whose neighborhoods expand beyond a city block or two will continue to broadcast in spite of the new regulations, but their constitutional argument will become harder to justify to reporters, government, citizens, and judges.

Programming within each microbroadcasting station never spans the spectrum of gender, class, ethnicity, language, culture, politics, sexuality, or humanity. But when set against the backdrop of corporate radio, the movement is about radio diversity. Attendees at the East Coast conference, though abundantly anarchist, ranged from Riot Grrrls to Promise Keepers, from Black Liberation Radio to Haitian stations, from communists to militia sympathizers, from high school students to grandmothers. Instead of scrapping, they were strategizing.

This diversity is a strong point of a movement that is struggling for democracy on the airwaves (although even that aim is contentious: "I didn't appreciate the assumptions that 'we're all here to promote revolution' or to 'fuck the FCC'," said a member of Iowa City Free Radio).

Among the outcomes was the creation of a network of women in microradio. One of the resolutions of a women-only workshop, says moderator Pirate Jenny of Steal This Radio in New York, "is to encourage as many women as possible to become conversant with the radio technologies. We're forming an intern program among East Coast pirate radio stations whereby women can learn the technology from other women."

Another action resulting from the conference was the simultaneous return to the airwaves of three stations that had received FCC warnings. On April 15, 87X in Tampa, Florida, Radio Free Allston in Allston, Masschusetts, and Steal This Radio threw their transmitter switches back on. Steal This Radio, on the same day, announced a lawsuit against the FCC for constitutional protection of broadcasting under 100 watts. Other stations want the FCC to establish a low-watt license and have submitted three different petitions. The more conservative petition on the FCC's agenda (Rulemaking number RM-9208) asks that one FM and one AM frequency be set aside nationwide for stations with one watt and 50 feet antennas maximum. Another petition (Rulemaking number RM-9242) advocates a license class for a minimum of one watt, a maximum of 50, and a maximum antenna height of 150 feet. Such stations, according to the petition, would be secondary to full-power stations, and would have to vacate their frequency should a full-power station expand. The third petition asks only that AM and FM service be modified to include allowances for temporary one-watt broadcasting at events.

As of May 20, about 200 comments had been received by the FCC, according to Maureen Peratino of the Office of Public Affairs, with a ratio of 2 to 1 in favor of some form of licensed microbroadcasting. FCC staff is reviewing the information and will make recommendations to the agency commissioners, who will then either seek further opinions from interested parties or propose regulations and open them up for comments as well. This is where microbroadcasters with a solid platform can have some weight, if the FCC continues its attentions.

The aims of microbroadcasting's other factions aren't so clear cut. Some people want general decriminalization of low-power broadcasting. Low-watt radio stations would still be illegal in that they would broadcast without a license, circumventing the expense and paperwork involved in attaining one. If decriminalized, the FCC would leave such stations alone, except in the event of actual interference with licensed stations or airport control towers.

Another group of microbroadcasters insists that as a federal body, the FCC has no power over broadcasts that don't cross state lines. Lonnie Kobres, a microbroadcaster in Lutz, Florida, whose station covers a five to six mile radius, used this as a defense when the FCC took him to court. Kobres's lawyer, Larry Becraft, writes on the Internet that Kobres testified during trial that he had studied the FCC laws and had concluded that licensing of radio stations applied only to those engaged in transmissions across state lines or out of the country." One motion in the case reads: Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress possesses power to regulate and control interstate and foreign commerce. However in 1982, Congress expanded the criminal statute in the FCC laws to encompass those radio transmissions which are purely intrastate. In this motion, we contend that this law is plainly unconstitutional." Kobres's defense failed its first attempt and is currently on appeal.

Finally, there is a group that would conserve any energy spent on analog to use for securing a space for community stations on the digital dial, and a group that doesn't care what the law says. Additionally, the debate ranges to whether ownership limits, commercial/non-commercial status, and other important details should be written into the regulations. Those who would disregard the law no matter what it says won't have the immediate problem: Regardless of what becomes of the FCC regulations, they will continue broadcasting. It is the people who are campaigning for a low-watt license class that must assess their degree of solidarity with the movement's other factions, and come to an agreement on what they will accept from the FCC. Then they must turn their attention to pressuring the FCC for nothing less.

The FCC, if it approves anything, may compromise between pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters out to protect their market dominance, the belief that high-power stations reach the most people and therefore serve the public interest without qualification, and microbroadcasters' demands, and establish a one-watt license: nine watts less than the one they abolished in 1978, and far less than most microbroadcasters' power. That's why, says Pete TriDish, "We need to build a movement that is strong enough to reject, with solidarity, a bad offer from the FCC, and continue to defy the law until we get a fair settlement."


Kate Duncan is a collective member emeritus of Radio Mutiny.

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