Published in News Incorporated, Elliot Cohen (ed), 2005.
Low Power FM (LPFM) is a crucial means of reclaiming some of the broadcast spectrum. LPFM represents a renewed appreciation of local voices, public access and participation in community broadcasting. As activists in promoting LPFM for the Prometheus Radio Project, we will argue the significance of community radio stations for the prosperity of a more democratic media.i This chapter will outline the history of the movement for low power radio, and how the stage was later set for the larger struggle against concentration of media ownership. Media consolidation in radio, with the standardization of its programming, homogenized texture and massive reduction in local news and public affairs sparked a low power radio movement that rose from marginal beginnings to become a formidable opponent of powerful media corporations. In illustrating the relationship between the LPFM movement and the larger fight against media deregulation, we will consider issues of corporate consolidation and the logic of market capitalism as impacting both the movement for community radio and the need for a freer flow of news and information. We will conclude by reexamining the future outlook for LPFM amidst the changing corporate, governmental and digital landscape.
Low powered FM radio stations are Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licensed stations broadcasting at under one hundred watts, which translates to a broadcast range of five to ten miles. What LPFM does is give a sliver of the radio spectrum to libraries, schools, civic groups, community organizations and churches. Individuals cannot apply for licenses, but those applying range from the local chapter of ACT-UP to the Rotary Club. The stations must be both non-commercial and not-for-profit. License applicants must clearly state how the station will be used to further the educational mission of their organization. As of March 2004, approximately 320 LPFM stations are on air, with hundreds more preparing to build. Content is not regulated, but there is a slight preference in the application process for organizations that promise to produce their content locally, and all of the typical rules of radio about indecency, slander, cursing and so forth apply. Groups can only apply during five-day time periods, or “filing windows,” which have only once been opened, and there is no schedule for when they will take place in the future. LPFM is about returning a portion of the airwaves to communities, and it is about increasing citizen participation and access to broadcasting.
Until recently, the options for local organizations to get on air were limited. The challenges and the resiliency of local community groups to gain access to the radio spectrum on both technical and political levels are well illustrated by the story of Radio Conciencia, an LPFM station on-air since December, 2003.
The Radio of the Tomato Pickers
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) had a difficult job ahead of them. The Coalition had employed various strategies on behalf of the workers in the migrant farmworking town of Immokalee, Florida over the years: tactics such as negotiations, work stoppages and hunger strikes to focus public attention on poverty wages and sweatshop working conditions. Several of their members had at one time been enslaved by ruthless contractors who banked on worker’s fear keeping them from reporting their captivity to authorities.
But this time, the stakes were higher. After September 11th, the local sheriff was eager to take advantage of general anti-immigrant sentiments to make a power grab in his county. He asked that all local law enforcement officials be granted additional powers as Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents, giving them the power to seize and deport undocumented workers. This practice has long been taboo in US law enforcement because of the difficulties such a scenario could create. For example, if an undocumented immigrant saw a robbery in progress, would they dare report it to officials if they could be deported? Or, if they had evidence that could help solve a murder, would they risk contacting the police? In spite of such arguments for retaining the traditional separation of jurisdictions, the sheriff was determined to push for expansion of his authority.
In response, the Coalition organized meetings and strategized to thwart the plan. They would never again be able to get farmworkers to come forward and report on South Florida's illegal slave camps if this measure went through. They would normally have relied on their traditional organizing methods to plan a protest in front of the sheriff’s office - walking house-to-house knocking on doors, posting fliers up around town and passing information by word of mouth. This time, however, the coalition had an ally in mobilizing the community for the action- a local pirate radio station. The station gave the police issue a significant amount of airtime, including in-depth interviews with CIW leaders. Although the station usually steered clear of politics, and was generally left alone by the authorities, the operator of the station was convinced that this time he had to take a stand.
The word went out over the airwaves for days before the protest, and fifteen hundred farmworkers and supporters showed up to demonstrate, a far greater number than anyone expected. The sheriff dropped his plan in the face of the furor, but enacted his revenge by having the pirate station shutdown the following week. It had been operating for years unhindered by authorities when it stuck to playing music.
Realizing the efficacy of radio for their needs, the farmworkers raised money to buy time on a local licensed AM station. They paid two hundred and fifty dollars for an hour show each week. It was worth the steep price in terms of the show’s contribution to their organizing capacity, but the cost was just too great to maintain and the workers had to discontinue the broadcast after about six months of being on air. The farmworkers concluded they were in need of a sustainable and continuous means of broadcast communication in a region where multiple languages are spoken among the significantly migratory community. The Coalition decided that it was time to pursue building their own radio station.
Purchasing a station in today's marketplace dominated by conglomerates can cost millions of dollars. This was obviously not an option for the tomato pickers, who often worked from dawn to dusk for sub-poverty wages. They considered starting a pirate station, but ruled out the possibility because of the vulnerability of their constituency and their high profile as an organization. They could not risk the ten thousand dollar fines, equipment seizures and jail-time that could accompany pirate radio operation. Unbeknownst to the farmworkers, other activists had been working on this similar problem to address the broader issue of access to the airwaves for thousands of other small community groups like themselves.
The Coalition travels frequently across the country, educating communities about the living and working conditions of Florida farmworkers and the ways in which they are fighting to change those conditions. On a stop through Madison, Wisconsin to promote their current boycott of Taco Bellii, they met labor radio reporters who recommended they start a radio station. The Coalition was introduced to Prometheus Radio Project. Prometheus advised them of the option to take advantage of new FCC rules won in 2000 that would allow them to apply for a low power local radio license. The two groups worked together for several years jumping through assorted administrative hoops to finally obtain a broadcast license for the coalition in 2003.
However, it’s one thing to have a radio license but another to actually have a functioning radio station. To that end, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Prometheus Radio Project organized a ‘Radio Barnraising’ that brought together over one hundred community radio activists, broadcasters, engineers, and enthusiasts for a three-day weekend workshop and station building in December, 2003. Over the weekend, the volunteers pieced together the mixing board, installed all the equipment, raised the antenna and got Radio Conciencia on air that weekend. Radio Conciencia plans to broadcast in at least four languages – Spanish, Haitian Creole, Mam and Quanjobal (two indigenous Guatemalan languages). In addition to music from Latin America and the Caribbean, some of their program themes include the rights of women, worker rights, human rights, news from the workers’ countries of origin, political commentary, health education and, if all goes as planned, even a program of jokes to give the workers a much needed break at the end of a long, hard day working in the fields.
This collaborative model of community station building has brought five new LPFM stations on air in 2002-03 and is helping build a growing network of radio activists. Many other groups that have participated in these events have gone back to their communities with the skills they learned and assembled their new low power radio stations.
The Deep Dark History of Low Power Community Radio
The Coalition’s access to legal, low powered community radio has come as a result of a long and arduous fight brought on by media democracy advocates, community organizers and pirate radio operators. To the casual observer it might be assumed that radio licensing for community organizations would be a matter of bureaucratic common sense and everyday operations for the FCC; however, winning the opportunity for organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was actually an enormous battle which continues as this article goes to print.
The establishment of LPFM as a tier of radio did not come easily, or overnight. In 1948, with the advent of the FM band, the FCC agreed to reserve a small portion of the new spectrum for non-commercial broadcastiii. Community groups, high schools and colleges used to have access to local, low power radio licenses in the early days of FM in the form of ten-watt Class D’ licenses, which were educational licenses issued on an as-requested basis. Class D licenses were allocated alongside full-power licenses for larger community radio stations. Ironically, these non-commercial FM licenses were not opposed by incumbent broadcasters in the beginning because of the perceived unpopularity of the FM band in an era in which AM reigned.iv
In 1978, however, a policy change brought about by National Public Radiov resulted in the end of the low power, Class D educational licenses. As NPR planned its expansion throughout the United States, they were concerned these small stations would be in the way when they wanted access to a new region that the NPR network did not yet serve. At the same time, full power community stations were stalled in an increasingly nightmarish bureaucratic snafu- a set of rules for choosing between applicants for a frequency with an absurd gamut of comparative hearings. This system ultimately ended when the FCC realized they were not choosing the best applicants, but simply whoever had greater resources to tackle the Byzantine legal aspects of the hearings. The decision to eliminate the old rules for competing non-commercial applicants was a good one, but the FCC did not get around to issuing a new procedure until 2000. During this time it was essentially impossible to get a non-commercial radio license, and today we see the results. In the entire country, there are only about 200 community radio stations in existence, out of about 12,000 total stations nationwide. vi
Avast Ye! Enter the Pirates…
The current system of media oligopolies is far removed from the early days of radio when the airwaves were the open province of technologically savvy amateurs, much like the teenage hackers from the early days of the Internet. Virtually anyone with a transmitter and an interest in broadcasting had access to the airwaves. These hobbyists of the 1920’s were instrumental in shaping the broadcast landscape and were at the forefront of developing and tweaking new broadcast equipment and technologiesvii. The term ‘pirate broadcaster’ itself was used to describe amateurs who stepped on another hobbyist's signal, and was coined at a time when there was no government or corporate regulation of the airwaves. When the government did step in and license the airwaves under the Telecommunications Act of 1934, rules were established limiting the number of stations any one company could own nationwide to seven AM’s and seven FM’s, thus ensuring diversity in station ownership. At the same time these safeguards were put in place, community needs were cast aside in favor of commercial interests in the allocation of broadcast licenses, especially with the elimination of amateur access. As early as 1928, the Federal Radio Commission decided to eliminate nonprofit radio stations in the interest of supporting the new, national commercial networks, claiming, falsely, this was necessary due to concerns of broadcast scarcity. Amateurs, meanwhile, were relegated to two-way communications on a few small frequency bands.viii
In light of the FCC’s history of indifference towards community radio, a movement of pirate radio broadcasters emerged in the 1990s that directly challenged the government’s policy of ignoring community radio concerns. Microbroadcasters achieved some surprising victories in the courts, which threw in to doubt the validity of the licensing system itself. Judges heard the cases put forward by microbroadcasters such as Steven Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley, and were compelled to strongly consider whether, as he claimed, under the stewardship of the FCC the public airwaves had become “a concession stand for corporate America.” Though some microbroadcasting cases were ultimately lost in the courts, a great deal of momentum was created and many otherwise law-abiding citizens were taking to the airwaves without a license as a form of protest against corporate domination of media.
Dunifer’s 1993 case represented a turning point in the modern United States Free Radio movement. An electrical engineer in Berkeley, California, he became angered with what he saw as the nationalistic, pro-Pentagon reporting of the Gulf War. He built a transmitter from scratch and carried it in a backpack up to the hills of Berkeley, and took to the airwaves. After a few years of covert broadcasting, Dunifer was caught by the FCC and fined $20,000. He vowed to continue broadcasting and publicly refused to pay the fine, so the FCC took him to court seeking an injunction against him.ix The National Lawyer's Guild took his case, arguing the regulations were unconstitutional on the basis of First Amendment concerns. They argued the United States model of telecommunication regulations allows only a wealth-based broadcasting system- that the dominance of media by corporate interests is no accident but is inherent in the design of the current regulatory framework. They made the claim microradio is the "leaflet of the Nineties" and that to disallow it is tantamount to censorship. Free Radio Berkeley won an important Ninth Federal District Court decision in November 1997, in which Judge Claudia Wilken refused to grant an injunction against Dunifer pending review of the constitutionality of current FCC licensing practices. His case was tied up in the legal system for four years. Though Dunifer ultimately lost on a technicality, during the time his case was pending, hundreds of groups across the country flooded into the gap and took advantage of the apparent lapse in the FCC’s authority to regulate the airwaves.
Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, but it appears over 1,000 pirate radio stations were in operation across the country in the early 90s, echoing Dunifer’s call to see “a thousand transmitters bloom.” They cast their defiant radio broadcasts as acts of civil disobedience against a corporate-based broadcast system that ignored the needs and interests of local communities. This movement of pirate radios grew as corporate influence suffused commercial radio, public radio became increasingly national in focus and ‘beige’ in sound and many large community radio stations experienced internal conflicts between guiding principles of community access versus encroaching corporatism.
Many consider the birth of this new wave of pirate radio to be in 1986, when Mbanna Kantako set up a radio station to serve the African-American community of Springfield, Illinois. The station started out as WTRA, radio of the Tenants' Rights Association, as a community organizing tool for the housing project. The station was ignored by authorities for several years, until it broke a story about what ended up being a high profile police brutality case. When agents came to shut it down, station founder Mbanna Kantako went downtown to the federal building and the police station and dared them all to arrest him. When authorities realized such a course of action could backfire in the tense situation, they left him alone for many years- spurring many to realize the FCC was not always ready to enforce its own regulations. WTRA is now known as Human Rights Radio and continues to broadcast without a license, even after a raid of its equipment in 1999.
A Breed of Villain Apart from Others Heretofore Discover’d
The political pirates of the 1990’s, like Dunifer and Kantako, were different from anything the FCC had encountered before.x Some of the earlier pirates were often teenagers who could be scared off the air with a threat by an FCC agent that their parents would be told. Other pirates were commercial radio engineers who brought equipment home on the weekend and did a little garage broadcasting on a lark.
The difference between the political pirates and many of the earlier pirates, as one professional radio engineer put it: “We did pirate radio and we felt like we were being mischievous, that we were getting away with something. The difference with pirates nowadays is they think they’re right.”xi Political pirates brought a collective belief that a healthy democracy could not exist when corporations had exclusive control over the airwaves. Practically speaking, the political pirates also brought experience as community organizers. Tactics learned in movements for social change became useful as pirate radio became a matter of policy debate. Pirate radio broadcasters found themselves relying on campaign skills like letter writing, protest organizing, communicating effectively with a sometimes hostile media, and the mental preparation needed to steel oneself against the prospect of getting arrested during an act of civil disobedience. Despite the lack of funding and chaotic organizational structures, the new pirates were unusually formidable opponents for an unpopular agency that had just experienced rounds of funding cuts at the hands of a Republican Congress.
Another turning point was the “Showdown at the FCC” in which 150 pirates from around the east coast gathered in Washington, DC, in October 1998xii. The event began with a three-day conference in a DC neighborhood youth center, where skills such as transmitter and antenna building, news reporting and audio editing were among the workshops held. A debate took place at the Freedom Forum, a First Amendment think tank, with pirates matching wits with representatives of the broadcasting establishment. On Sunday night, a Washington, DC based pirate radio station (Radio Libre in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood) was launched right in the backyard of the FCC. The gathering itself culminated in a protest march from Dupont Circle to the FCC building to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) headquarters.
The centerpiece of the protest was a giant “meta-puppet”- a puppet controlling a puppet controlling a puppet. The corporations were represented by a twelve-foot tall tower awash with corporate logos, topped by the Masonic all-seeing eye of the pyramid from the dollar bill. The corporations held the marionette strings that controlled the broadcasters, who were represented by a ten-foot gorilla with a television for a head sporting the logos of ABC, CBS and NBC. The broadcasters, in turn, held the marionette strings for another puppet, the FCC, which was symbolized by an eight-foot Pinocchio (or, “Kennardio” as he was called, named after William Kennard, Chairman of the FCC at the time) with a giant telescoping nose that grew when he told lies about pirate radio and the public airwaves.
The highlight of the demonstration, however, was a pirate radio broadcast right from the streets. Protestors carried hidden transmitters in backpacks, which were actually broadcasting into the offices of the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Demonstrators with megaphones dared officials to come out and make arrests. When the protest reached the front of the NAB building, the crowd used the giant puppets to storm through the security guards and took over the plaza in front of their building. People surrounded their flagpole and captured the NAB flag, raising a Jolly Roger pirate flag in its place. The confrontational tactics and goofy humor caught the imagination of reporters and bystanders, and raised understanding of the issue to a new level. Unsurprisingly, the FCC found it difficult to convince the public of the necessity for the agency to protect the frequencies from the likes of the radio pirates!
For months after, Chairman Kennard joked about this protest in his public appearances. Because he was often criticized by the broadcasting industry for not being sympathetic enough to their requests for regulatory favor, he enjoyed telling industry associations that crowds of rowdy pirates had accused him of being a puppet of the broadcasters.
The FCC Captain Steers a New Course
The new pirate operators put the relatively progressive Kennard in an awkward position. As the chief guardian of an orderly spectrum, he could not allow open rebellion against the FCC’s allocation system. Kennard admitted, however, that pirates had some legitimate concerns regarding the concentration of media ownership and lack of community access to the airwaves: “[The pirates] demonstrated that diverse voices weren’t being heard on conventional radio.”xiii The FCC Chairman announced he would prioritize creation of legitimate opportunities for new voices on the radio dial. Robert McChesney went further in his assessment: [The pirates] showed the FCC that low-power broadcasting is here whether you like it or not. And that they’re going to have to deal with it.”xiv
As a result, in conjunction with his campaign to crack down on pirates, Kennard announced he was ready to make some real changes to FCC policy regarding new applications for low powered radio licenses. The FCC subsequently opened a rulemaking proceeding in January 1999, to examine their allocation rules, and sought public comment as to what shape the new radio service should take. Kennard was particularly troubled by the effects of media consolidation on minority ownership of media, which had dwindled precipitously since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Kennard could not re-write the act of Congress that permitted further consolidation, but he could authorize low power radio licenses that might help to offset some of the harms from potential new media monopolies.