Founder of microradio movement faces likely shutdown

Thursday, December 10, 1998

Eleven years after firing up a transmitter in a Springfield, Ill., housing project, Mbanna Kantako, widely considered the father of the microradio movement, faces possible action from the Federal Communications Commission.

Because Kantako refuses to get a license for Human Rights Radio — a 30-watt station he runs out of a downtown Springfield apartment — the FCC says the broadcaster must shut down. If Kantako ignores the order, he could face fines up to $100,000, a year in jail and loss of his radio equipment.

A Nov. 4 letter from the FCC's Chicago office directed Kantako to reply within 10 days. Kantako has refused to comply.

“For him to be shut down …well, maybe it's symbolic in a way,” said Richard Edmondson of San Francisco Liberation Radio. “They're sort of going after the movement's figurehead, and they have pretty much left him alone since 1987.”

Low-power broadcasters, like Kantako, contend they have a First Amendment right to operate their radio stations, particularly because larger stations don't offer diverse voices.

On the other hand, the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents most licensed broadcasters in this country, maintain that the right to broadcast is a limited one because of the scarcity of broadcast frequencies. Without licenses, they contend, there would be chaos on the airwaves.

But some say the current FCC licensing plan leaves the airwaves open only to those who can pay the premiums for high-power stations. While current regulations allow for some unlicensed broadcasts, the FCC doesn't grant licenses to stations under 100 watts of power.

FCC efforts to close stations like Kantako's aren't rare considering that the agency claims to have shut down more than 300 unlicensed stations during the last two years. But the threat of closing Human Rights Radio is significant because many low-power broadcasters credit Kantako as the first to use radio to organize a community.

Kantako launched his station on Nov. 25, 1987, from Springfield's John Jay Homes project to offer programming to a mostly black neighborhood. Soon after his debut, the FCC took him to federal court.

The court ordered him to pay a $750 fine and to stop broadcasting. Kantako refused to pay the fine or to close his station. Kantako hadn't heard from the FCC again until now.

Kantako, a fiercely private person who seldom grants interviews, did not return calls from the First Amendment Center.

But Mike Townsend, an associate professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield who helped Kantako open the station, says the broadcaster “almost relishes what is about to happen.”

“He's really looking forward to it,” Townsend said. “He's almost embarrassed that everyone else is getting raided.”

FCC spokesman David Fiske declined to comment on Kantako's or any other individual case but noted that the agency only shuts down stations as a last resort. But the FCC plans to consider a low-power license plan at an upcoming meeting, he says.

Townsend says communities need stations like Kantako's to offer news reports and viewpoints not found in traditional media. He noted how Kantako's station offered extensive programming on the closing of a large telemarketing firm last month in Springfield.

After the abrupt closing of New York-based Campaign Tel Ltd. left 400 people unemployed and unpaid, Kantako dedicated hours of the 30-watt station's air time to allow callers to offer questions and comments. Last week, Kantako broadcast a two-hour interview with a man left homeless by the closure.

Townsend says that despite a possible raid, Kantako won't stay off the air.

“I believe he has every intention after he's raided to get another transmitter,” Townsend said. “He's not going to hide where he is or what he's doing. He's going to push the envelope all the way to the edge.”