Rebel Radio

The Lower East Side's Pirate Station, Steal This Radio, Joins the Fight Against the Feds

Dunifer's success--combined with other factors like the squeezing out of smaller broadcasters from the commercial band--has inspired dozens more to take to the airwaves with micropower. There are now more than 1000 mircrobroadcasters, up from 300 a few years ago. They range from Latin evangelicals and right-wing fanatics preaching conspiracies about the World Bank, to black liberationists, hippy treehuggers, techno ravers, and punk-rock anarchists--and even middle-American, mom-and-pop types broadcasting updates about the high school basketball team from town hall. (See sidebar on NYC pirate stations.)

Cheap technology is another key element fuelling the spread of micropower. You can now order a complete transmitter package for as little as $600. STR built its own antenna with plumbing parts. The movement is also gathering steam over the Internet, which allows pirates to share info and download audio files from around the country. This goes for both the left, which networks through Web sites like www.Radio4All.org, and the right, where militia folk are downloading broadcasts of the American Freedom Network. (STR's Web page can be found at www.blackoutbooks.com).

They may not all share a common political outlook, but microradio enthusiasts agree that FCC rules are designed to benefit big corporations at the expense of local communities. ''The federal licensing scheme, which gives the FCC unbridled discretion to decide who can and cannot speak over the airwaves, is unconstitutional and biased toward big owners,'' argues attorney Robert Perry, who is representing STR in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights. ''It's like letting Rudy Giuliani decide who can and cannot hold a rally in Times Square.''

According to Perry, the FCC's licensing process is so complex, it effectively preempts small broadcasters. ''When you add up the cost for the engineering surveys and fancy Beltway lawyers required to navigate all the paperwork, it costs a minimum of $100,000 just to apply for a broadcast license,'' he says. The biggest obstacle, however, is the government's refusal to license stations that operate below 100 watts.

The FCC maintains that the 100-watt standard was established in order to maximize the number of listeners who could receive broadcasts in a particular area. It also contends that unlicensed broadcasters are a safety hazard because they interfere with air-traffic signals. But the FCC concerns ring hollow given that FM broadcasts and air-to-ground transmissions occupy different parts of the radio band. While FCC officials contend that there have been four cases of air-traffic interference in the last five months, they admit that the problems were caused by faulty equipment, not spectrum overcrowding. The 100-watt minimum's main effect, then, is to make bandits out of low-power broadcasters who are trying to do something with radio besides make a buck.

As the micorpower movement has grown, so has its legitimacy. Take KIND radio in San Marcos, Texas, which was started by a bunch of stoners preaching the beneficence of the ''kind'' bud. They used borrowed equipment and a mixing board donated by the Butthole Surfers (former Butthole Jeff Pinkus has a show on the station called Aerola 51). But as the only locally programmed station between Austin and San Antonio, it's become a beacon for politicians seeking to air their views. Texas congressman Ron Paul and Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone have been guests on the morning call-in show, as have the leading candidates for state attorney general and the former chair of the Texas Republican Party. Though city hall originally tried to close the station, San Marcos mayor Billy Moore is now an avid supporter.

This sort of development has commercial broadcasters increasingly alarmed. In January their main industry group, the National Association of Broadcasters, called on the FCC and Justice Department to create a task force to ''eliminate'' microradio. It's also been vigorously lobbying against low-power in all its forms recently.

With the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which raised the number of radio outlets that any one company may own), these commercial stations have significantly strengthened their position, consolidating into fewer, more powerful hands. In just two years the top 10 owners nearly doubled their holdings, from 652 to 1134 stations, while the number of independent stations was cut in half. Meanwhile, the number of minority owners has dropped from a scant 3.1 percent to just 2.8 percent. (Even NPR and Pacifica have had to adapt to their corporate-dominated environs, tempering their content and dropping much of their community broadcasting--creating more of a demand for microradio.)

But as commercial radio flexes its muscles, and tries to stamp out its unlicensed competitors, it is meeting resistance in unfamiliar places. Even the bureaucrats are now admitting that the merger mania may have gone too far. ''How can we have a strong democracy when most stations are concentrated in the hands of a few?'' FCC chairman William Kennard recently demanded. While Kennard has been adamantly antipirate, as the FCC's first black chair, he's recently come around to the idea of creating a legal, low-power licensing service as a way of opening up the broadcast spectrum to minorities, church groups, and small businesses otherwise excluded.

Kennard favors a plan to license only one-watt stations--an idea that activists call useless. They prefer a proposal put together by the National Lawyers Guild, which has been coordinating strategy for the microradio movement. That plan would allow noncommercial stations to broadcast at up to 50 watts in urban areas and 100 watts in rural areas, without requiring a license.

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