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"I don't consider myself a pirate," declares the 72-year-old Reverend Ernesto Custodio from his office overlooking the angel-studded sanctuary of the South Bronx's Templo de Renovacion Espiritual, "but a free person who would like to let other people know my faith so they can receive the blessings of the faith." Incensed, his gray curls trembling as he nods emphatically, Custodio punches each word as though he were pounding a pulpit: "I am no pirate."
Tell it to the feds. On February 9, Federal Communications Commission enforcement officer Judah Mansbach, accompanied by two marshals, entered the premises of Radio Nuevo Amanecer and shut down the unlicensed station owned by Custodio and the Reverend Floresmíro Perea, seizing an estimated $10,000 worth of broadcasting equipment. Silenced was 87.9 FM, known by its fans as "El Sonido Celestial," the New Dawn, the Heavenly Sound. Gone were the hymns with the toe-tapping beat, the stirring messages of a coalition of more than 75 Hispanic congregations in the Bronx, the latest reports on matters like the Baez and Diallo cases and the AIDS epidemic. "It was a blessing in my life and my lifeline," laments wheelchair-bound retired minister Frankie Rivera, one of Custodio's parishioners and an avid listener.
Radio Nuevo Amanecer had brought power to the people, giving them just the kind of equal access to the airwaves that microradio advocates insist is critical to a democracy. Now Custodio wants the power back. With the help of a pro bono lawyer and a petition signed by 3000 supporters, Custodio is fighting for the release of his equipment. He plans to go straightby applying for one of the low-watt FM radio permits the FCC is offering for the first time this year.
Though commercial broadcasters are still lobbying Congress to overturn the rules, in January the FCC created a new kind of license that allows nonprofits such as community groups, schools, labor unions, and churches to operate small, local stations. The transmitters can have up to 100 watts of power and broadcast over an area up to seven miles in diameter. Starting at the end of May, the FCC will take applications in stages. New York State applications are due in November.
But even if Congress lets the provision for low-watt licenses stand, chances are slim that the Reverend Custodioor anyone else in New York City, for that matterwill get one. Because the number of microradio permits the FCC is likely to grant in the five boroughs is a big, fat zero.
The New York dial, like those of Boston, L.A., and other big cities, is just too crowded for microstations, says David Honig, director of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council. "Nothing can be done about that now."
Low-watt stations have been a long time coming. For the last few decades, radio pirates from Berkeley to the Lower East Side have demanded that control of the airwaves be taken away from big corporations and put into the hands of the people. Among pirates, broadcasting without a license is considered a legitimate form of civil disobedience. Recently, mainstream cultural and political groups have taken up the cry, outraged at the voracious takeover of local stations by a handful of corporate giants who impose the same bland Top 40 format from San Francisco to Duluth to Baton Rouge.
This month, a full-page ad in The New York Timesbacking licenses for small stations was signed by everyone from the NAACP and the American Library Association to the National Bar Association and the United Church of Christ.
When it comes to making room for neighborhood stations in New York City, though, those cries will likely fall on deaf ears. That's because the FCC needs to protect the signals of current broadcasters, so it requires a new station to find a spot at least four ticks on the dial from an existing one. Since FM uses only odd numbers, this would mean that if there's a full-power station at 93.1, no one can legally use 93.3, 93.5, or 93.7. The next possible slot would be 93.9if that's available. "Because New York was the birthplace of radio," explains FCC spokesman Steve Adamske, "there are already lots of stations in the second and third adjacent spots."
Yet New Yorkers are lining up hopefully for low-power licenses, and the feds aren't telling them they can't. To apply, all you have to do is go to the FCC Web site at fcc.gov, type in the longitude and latitude of your proposed station, and see whether there's space for you there. If you get a no, you're out of the game.
What are the Reverend Custodio's chances of clicking in his South Bronx church and getting a yes? Not good, says Adamske, though he balks at saying it's downright impossible. And what of the clergyman's backup plan? Custodio is thinking of trying to get a license for a place close by, like Yonkers, then broadcasting into the Bronx. That might work, Adamske concedes, because "wattage times geography equals location on the FM dial."
Microradio advocates argue FCC regulations are too conservative. They say New York's commercial stations have operated comfortably cheek by jowl for years, not interfering with signals only two or three slots away. The reach of an outlet like Radio Nuevo Amanecer is much more limited than that of a big-time broadcastersmall enough, some say, to share a call number with a microstation in another part of the same borough.