Transmission Impossible

Feds to Big Apple: Forget Neighborhood Stations

DJ Dizzy, who runs the roving Williamsburg, Brooklyn, pirate station Free 103Point9, says there's no reason a myriad of little stations can't exist in New York. "You could have low-power FM stations in Red Hook and Sunnyside and East New York, and they could all be on 88.7," he says. "FM is more about the height of the antenna. When we're in a three-story building, we go 10 blocks in all directions. When we're in a six-story building, we cover all of Williamsburg."

On the other hand, even with this restrictive a proposal for community radio, the FCC is between that proverbial rock and a hard place, trying to give out local licenses but being battered by the National Broadcasting Association, which claims the micromouse stations will nibble away at the commercial giants' signals and their listener base.

Last month, the NBA bludgeoned the House of Representatives into overturning the new FCC rules. On April 13, by a vote of 274 to 110, the House passed a bill that would drastically limit low-power service. The Senate's version of the bill, not yet taken up by a committee, would eliminate it altogether.

"I am no pirate": federal agents shut down the Reverend Custodio’s low-power radio station.
photo: Brian Finke
"I am no pirate": federal agents shut down the Reverend Custodio’s low-power radio station.

Ironically, these radio giants are the reason Adamske refuses to say there's no hope for licenses in New York City. "Because radio stations are being bought and sold all the time, four companies now own 1400 stations across the country," he notes. "Consolidation can result in antennas being taken down." In other words, if the broadcast monsters gobble up more independent stations, there just might be space for a couple of spunky little independent mice to squeak.

Other hopes for New York microradio seem equally frail. If the technology for radio receivers improves, suggests minority communications advocate Honig, that might help, because listeners would be able to tune in to lower-watt channels and tune out interference. "With high-end quality radio with new microchips, in the next eight to 10 years," he says, "there might be room for from one to four 100-watt stations in New York."

Don't hold your breath. Relief might come sooner from another avenue. Robert Perry, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, has been prosecuting a suit against the FCC on behalf of Greg Ruggiero, who ran the Lower East Side pirate station Steal This Radio. Among other issues, they are challenging the FCC's overly protective standards for spots on the FM dial.

"Under the First Amendment," says Perry, "the government cannot adopt regulations that burden substantially more speech than necessary to accomplish its interest. The third-adjacent-channel standard does that."

In light of other recent court decisions, Perry thinks that he has a chance of winning and that a victory could even overcome a congressional challenge to microradio. "Even if Congress overrides these new rules," Perry observes, "if we get a decision from the courts that the old rules are unconstitutional, then the FCC will be forced to expand low-watt FM." He also notes that several public-interest groups are petitioning the FCC for reconsideration of the standards. The agency has promised to respond by July.

"If I win in court," Greg Ruggiero crows, "it could create more real estate in the air. Imagine if in New York there was a rule that each building has to be half a block apart. We're saying, forget it. This is New York. We don't need half a block, we need half a foot."

If the feds won't grant licenses, he predicts, more folks will go pirate, adding to the 20 or 30 outlaws he estimates broadcast in the city now. Some of these are pirates by choice, to evade FCC censorship of content, but others simply can't get licenses. "If there's available spectrum and it doesn't interfere with the [existing] stations," Ruggiero declares, "people will use it and should use it. We're using the unused sliver between the huge Goliaths who use the airwaves for profit, not for people."

Even as the microradio movement gathers momentum, there are media-freedom advocates who see local radio as a romantic techno-backwater. "Alleys are fine," says Jeff Chester at the Center for Media Education, "but you also have to have access to the main road." Chester, who is working toward wide access to broadband, predicts that in the next five years, 20 percent of the country will get radio through a broadband TV cable connection, with the rest following suit within 15 years.

But Chester's vision doesn't allow for the technologically disenfranchised. "Radio is for the masses, whether we can afford a cable bill or not," says Professor Mark Crispin Miller, director of the Project on Media Ownership at New York University. "There's no reason to think this new technology will be available to everyone."

Nor will Internet radio make broadcast radio obsolete, any more than VCRs made movies disappear or the Web meant the death of books. "There's so much promise with the Internet, but a much greater class gulf," says Ruggiero. "To hear radio, all you need is a radio. It's ubiquitous. You can hear it on your Walkman or your car radio." The transmitter can also be portable and cheap, adds DJ Dizzy: "All the stuff we need could fit on a bike, in a milk crate, with the antenna hanging off the back."

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