News & Politics

Transmission Impossible


“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 straight—by 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 Custodio—or anyone else in New York City, for that matter—will 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 Times backing 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 93.9—if 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, 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 broadcaster—small enough, some say, to share a call number with a microstation in another part of the same borough.

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.

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.”

Dizzy and his pirate cronies regard the latest high-tech communications as cool new ways to support radio. The Internet, for example, can be useful for broadcasting to members of their audience who live in concrete or metal buildings where they can’t receive radio signals. He and some others also expect to add pirate TV to their local communications arsenal in about a year.

These micro-radioteers are growing increasingly ingenious in deploying a range of technologies in the service of radio. Mr. E., apirate who operates the Queens/Brooklyn PerfectRadio, 100.0 FM, to broadcast everything from Gen-X fare like Prince and Nirvana to Pakistani-language programming and direct reporting from local happenings like the Dorismond funeral, employs five to 10 CB transmitters. These feed into an unattended 30-watt FM transmitter rigged with an automatic timer. Mr. E. believes federal marshals can’t serve a warrant on an unmanned transmitter and are unlikely to break down the door to seize it. “By combining license-free CB broadcasts with low-power FM transmissions,” boasts Mr. E., “we are freeing more airwaves than most other pirate or legitimate radio stations.”

From those like Mr. E., whose PerfectRadio creed includes the belief that tit and piss are not dirty words, to those like the Reverend Custodio, who wish to broadcast the sacred word of God, all these radio pioneers want to freely express the language and rhythms and worries of their neighborhoods right here in New York, an area which probably contains more disparate locales and voices within a few square miles than anywhere else in this country.

For the passionately committed, no technology is too high or too low. DJ Dizzy says his Free 103Point9 will also add CBs to the mix. “It’s another way to move content into a transmitter,” he says, but he also has bigger plans. Soon he will place a string and a cup in a public place where neighborhood folk can talk into it, and others will hear those voices on the radio and call in to respond.

A string and a cup? Surely he jests. No, indeed, replies Dizzy earnestly. “It’s the technology that makes the most sense in that location.” Then he adds with a laugh, “After all, it’s the 21st century.”

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