Radio For People, Not Profit

By Jeremy Smith and Howard Rosenfeld

This article is from the May/June 1999 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/1999/0599radio.html

This article is from the May/June 1999 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 223 cover

Gainesville, Florida is the kind of Southern college town where Spanish moss drips from the dogwoods and fraternity brothers binge-drink on Friday nights. But Gainesville also nurtures a vibrant counterculture that has spawned numerous campus and community groups, five alternative papers, an alternative library, and a low-watt radio station called Free Radio Gainesville (FRG).

FRG goes on air at 5 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, broadcasting on 94.7 FM with 20 watts of power reaching three to four square miles. Its musical mix includes funk, jazz, soul, blues, experimental, metal, punk, and world music — with an emphasis on local performers. "All Things Not Considered" covers community and national news, while "Our Americas" carries syndicated news from Latin America and "Other Worldly" combines ethnic music with regional news reports. On Wednesday nights, poets and writers read their work.

FRG’s format and range are typical of micropower broadcasters. While most commercial radio stations operate at 50,000 to 100,000 watts, micropower stations transmit from one to 100 watts, reaching a two to 15 mile area. Since their signals don’t go as far, the content of micropower radio stays very localized.

Free Radio Gainesville is typical in another way: It is unlicensed and facing criminal prosecution by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC banned micropower stations — also called "pirate radio" — in 1978 at the behest of a radio industry that wanted to consolidate its audience. Despite the ban, hundreds — possibly thousands — of micropower stations blossomed since the late 1980s, some with an explicitly political purpose, others to represent ethnic or cultural minorities. In response to the growth of the movement, the FCC intensified enforcement against microradio, shutting down more than 400 unlicensed broadcasters since the beginning of 1997.

In October 1998, however, the FCC was forced by demonstrations, lawsuits, letter-writing campaigns, and mass civil disobedience to officially propose rules that would license and regulate low-watt FM radio. Grassroots activists are now using the public comment period on the proposal (which ends July 1) to mobilize around issues of free speech, private enterprise versus public interest, and the eclipse of local culture by corporate entertainment.

Making Money,Not Democracy

Microradio advocates see their movement as the inevitable result of the repeal of both the fairness doctrine (which required stations to cover both sides of an issue) and requirements for public interest programming in the 1980s, followed by the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act. This law allowed one company to own up to eight stations in a single market (a city or region).

Robert McChesney, a University of Illinois communications professor and honorary chair of the Microradio Empowerment Coalition, says the Telecommunications Act turned the radio industry "upside down."

In its wake came greater concentration of ownership. To McChesney, this spells bland radio. "Over half of the local commercial stations in the country hav(e) been sold to larger companies... When you own 50 stations, you don’t need 50 music directors, you just need one," he says.

Greg Ruggiero, a former DJ and activist with the Prometheus Radio Project in New York, calls corporate radio "monoculture, where you hear what you see in a strip mall. The [radiowave] spectrum is booked solid with shallow, entertainment-oriented programming, while only a sliver here and there survives for the public interest." Radio stations ignore important stories such as the recent debate over the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) or bury them beneath homogeneous popular music and shock jocks like Howard Stern. "They’re using the airwaves to make money, not democracy," says Ruggiero.

Micropower advocates like Ruggiero and McChesney envision radio — indeed, most media — as a localized, noncommercial public space maintained for news, debate and culture, a concept Ruggiero compares to libraries, schools, and public parks. Both activists also call for public and community-supported radio to reflect the public spirit and noncommercial values prevalent in microstations.

Many micropower partisans credit the contemporary microradio movement to Mbanna Kantako in Springfield, Illinois, who launched his station in 1986 in response to biased media coverage of African-American tenant organizing. To Kantako, radio was the perfect medium for a constituency that has an oral tradition and a high rate of functional illiteracy.

The cost of starting such stations can range from $500 to $5000 — an achievable goal for poor and working class people who want an alternative to corporate-owned radio. In the 1990s, microradio advocates like Stephen Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley have used publicity, workshops, and websites to freely provide the technical know-how needed to set up a microradio station.

CrackDown on Dissent

In response to the proliferation of unlicensed radio stations, in the mid-90s the National Association of Broadcasters pressured the FCC to increase its raids and seizures on their low-watt counterparts. Such raids have involved SWAT teams, federal marshals, state troopers and local police — often all at once, like a raid against three different stations simultaneously in Tampa, Florida, in 1997. Activists face fines, equipment seizures, and, less commonly, jail time.

The problem, argues the National Association of Broadcasters and FCC, is that micropower stations interfere with other FM signals. Micropower advocates counter that interference hurts their signal as well, and that most microstations use various devices to prevent interference.

Calling the dispute a matter of politics and money, not technical interference, microradio advocates are banding together on a regional and national level to organize coalitions, media campaigns, demonstrations, and workshops on how to start your own micropower station. Three New York stations facing shutdowns — Steal This Radio, Radio Intercontinental, and Radio NaGo — are all suing the FCC, in a case called Free Speech vs. the FCC, for violating their First Amendment rights. The National Lawyers Guild, along with the Prometheus Radio Project and the Microradio Empowerment Coalition, have also launched numerous public defense efforts on behalf of "radio pirates" facing shut downs.

In October of 1998, two weeks after a national march on FCC headquarters by microradio activists, their efforts paid off. The chairman of the FCC, William Kennard, announced to the National Association of Broadcasters that, "We are seriously evaluating proposals for a new microradio service. I believe that we have an obligation to explore ways to open the doors of opportunity to use the airwaves, particularly as consolidation closes the doors to new entrants." Kennard also stated unequivocally that the FCC would continue to crack down on unlicensed stations, and would not consider future licenses to former "radio pirates."

Three months later, the FCC posted its proposed plan to license 1000, 100, and 10-watt stations. The FCC is also seeking comments on whether low-watt stations should be noncommercial.

While the proposed rule change is clearly a victory, microradio advocates fear the FCC is trying to disable their movement by legalizing microradio for private enterprise instead of the public interest.

"Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the airwaves have to be auctioned off to the highest bidder," says Greg Ruggiero. "In that kind of situation, it’s the fat cat who’s going to win." Robert McChesney agrees, saying that "The real fight now is to keep micropower radio noncommercial."

Lyn Gerry, a former Pacifica Radio Network employee who helps run the bilingual Radio Clandestina in her Los Angeles neighborhood, also decries the FCC’s assertion that it will not consider licenses for former radio pirates — "All the people who have done the work to get this far," she notes. Gerry and others in the microradio movement are also demanding an immediate end to the FCC raids and seizures, as well as amnesty for microbroadcasters who have suffered fines and other penalties.

Like many at the grassroots, Gerry argues that microradio should be decriminalized and free of government regulation. McChesney disagrees, saying it should be licensed and regulated like all radio — albeit on a localized, nonprofit, basis.

Despite such unresolved issues, Dunnifer, Gerry, Ruggiero, McChesney and thousands of other activists across the country are now pressing their case for amnesty and nonprofit radio, often organized along regional lines. After the SouthEast Association of Microbroadcasters (SEAM) met in Asheville, N.C. this past February, it called for a National Day of Action Against the FCC on April 16 and is organizing nonviolent demonstrations at FCC offices across the Southeast.

Key to their strategy, however, remains simply doing their own radio, whether or not such activity is legal. "It’s sitting in front of the airwaves," says Greg Ruggiero, "the same way Rosa Parks sat down in the front of the bus."

Jeremy Smith is publisher of Dollars and Sense. Howard Rosenfeld works with Free Radio Gainesville and Gainesville’s Civic Media Center, a nonprofit reading room of the alternative press.

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