The Common Good
January-February 1999

Radio Rules

by Julie Polter | January-February 1999

Taking back the airwaves for free speech and local issues.

When I was growing up in rural Ohio, I did not consider the local radio station to be a vibrant example of active democracy. Its offerings of school delay announcements, rank amateur call-in shows, high school basketball games, and farm reports were boring to me. I wanted (but could not find) punk rock.

Twenty years later, I'm still looking for non-homogenized music and ideas on the airwaves, as well as the local news I dismissed in my youth. But diverse, independent news and music seem harder to find than ever. There are reasons for this.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 eliminated the limits on the number of media outlets a single company could own. Since then, the rate of consolidation has been astonishing. The number of independently owned stations has been halved. Nearly a third of existing radio stations have changed hands, with the top 10 owners having doubled their holdings. Pre-packaged, nationally distributed programming and multiple stations in a single city with the same (off-site) corporate owner are now the norm. The price is being paid in the "blanding" of American radio content, potentially fewer opportunities for independent or minority ownership of stations, and increased corporate control of news and music.

But these problem trends are not new. Deregulation only exacerbated them. Independent, local radio—the type that broadcasts school board and city council meetings or promotes grassroots neighborhood organizing projects—has been getting squeezed off the dial for two decades. In 1978, the Federal Communications Commission eliminated licenses for low-power (10 watt and under) non-commercial FM stations, largely at the behest of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which sought to eliminate "unprofessional" community-based stations. Some insist the ban on low-power stations should be maintained because of the potential for out-of-control interference with other stations and air traffic control systems.

BUT SEVERAL HUNDRED microbroadcasters across the country, who operate volunteer-run stations from housing projects and rural hills in defiance of the FCC, beg to differ. They say the ban is an infringement of free speech, that microbroadcasters and the FCC can work together to make low-power stations an orderly part of the radio spectrum, and that carving out air space for community-based radio is vital to a healthy civil society. These outlaw broadcasters aren't united by ideology or class—their politics run from radical to conservative, their interests from church-based organizing to resisting police harassment of minorities to anarchism to playing good tunes. They are united in a belief in the value of local voices—knowing what's happening around the block as well as around the world.

Dozens of these radio "pirates" came to Washington, D.C., last October to swap technology and tactics, to protest at the FCC and National Association of Broadcasters headquarters (the latter is microbroadcasters' most vocal and powerful opponent), and to lobby Congress to stop FCC policing of microbroadcasters. (The FCC shut down more than 250 illegal stations in 1998, seizing equipment and sometimes imposing fines of tens of thousands of dollars.)

The microbroadcasters recently gained—perhaps—an unexpected ally: FCC Chair William E. Kennard, who in an October speech to the NAB expressed concern over rapid consolidation in the radio industry and stated a commitment to "create more opportunities to use the public airwaves" via microradio. The FCC has begun discussion with microradio experts on the technical and administrative issues involved in legalizing low power stations and as of this writing had the topic on its December agenda.

Those in the know are at best cautiously optimistic. In the same speech, Kennard affirmed the FCC's aggressive policing of unlicensed stations. There is concern that the FCC proposal will only allow for stations at such low-power (1 watt) as to be only a token gesture or that it will create a protected category for small commercial stations but do nothing to open opportunities for nonprofit broadcasting. Any proposal promoting microbroadcasting likely will be fought aggressively by the NAB and media conglomerates.

Still, there may be an opening to create and defend at least a small portion of the airwaves purely for the public good, cultural autonomy and diversity, and democratic action. Whether or not the FCC goes through with making legal space, radio "pirates" are insisting that they will persist and multiply, and find a way to press the constitutional free speech issues that are at stake.

Perhaps your church could use a transmitter in the vestry?

For more information, check out these sites:

  • Radio 4 All - The site of "the movement to reclaim the airwaves." Includes general information on microradio and updates on low-power radio activism around the country.
  • The Freedom Forum Online: Outlaws of the Airwaves - Pirate radio prepares to walk the plank for the First Amendment.
  • Federal Communications Commission - This page contains information on the issue of whether the FCC should authorize future low-power FM radio services for local communities.

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