Pirate radio broadcasters defend their low-watt stations

Monday, October 5, 1998

Diane Fleming...
Diane Fleming
ARLINGTON, Va. — Pirate radio broadcasters today defended their tiny outlaw stations — many powered by less wattage than a light bulb uses — as vital for community and minority voices to be heard over what they said are airwaves dominated by conglomerate owners, “Top 40″ music and bland programs.

Speaking at a Freedom Forum discussion, “Broadcast Outlaws: High Voltage Debate Over Low-Watt Radio,” several panelists and audience members offered an emotional defense of unlicensed stations they said were the only local radio outlets for minority groups such as gays, women and ethnic groups, niche music ranging from jazz to hip-hop, and community health information.

The discussion took place before a series of protest demonstrations in Washington, D.C., where microbroadcasters from around the nation called on the Federal Communications Commission to end its intensified shutdown of illegal stations. More than 300 have been closed since August 1997, compared to fewer than 100 in the preceding year.

The protesters hoped to get the FCC to reduce or place on hold enforcement action against pirate stations until a legislative or regulatory solution can be found. That might include issuing special licenses to such low-power operations (under 100 watts).

Critics of outlaw stations cite potential or actual interference with signals from licensed stations or even FAA controller radios. Some also find it unfair for such “micro-stations” to disregard government regulations that have required regular broadcasters to make large investments in equipment and staff.

Several speakers at today’s discussion discounted those objections, saying opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters was based more on preventing competition than anything else. Some panelists also said NAB-member stations oppose pirate stations because they want local “gaps” in the radio frequency spectrum for themselves.

Diane Fleming, whose station “Radio Mutiny” in Philadelphia was closed down in June by the FCC, said it began “in response to the community being denied a voice” on radio in that city. “We couldn’t access the airwaves in any way but to take them back on our own,” Fleming said.

She said “Radio Mutiny” broadcast programs on subjects ranging from cooking to drug treatment and AIDS prevention, topics she said were not discussed on licensed stations in the area.

Noting the FCC enforcement that closed down her station, Fleming said, “To deny people information about (these topics) is criminal.” She added that allowing microbroadcasters to continue would be “a small concession that could give us back something that’s missing on the dial today: love, not money.”

David Leder of KIND Radio, San Marcos, Texas, said his station — on the air for about 18 months — had evolved into a genuine local forum for political discussion, as well as music and entertainment programming.

“We have raised the level of discussion in the community,” Leder said. Local candidates who discussed issues in a broadcast on his station won their races, Leder said, while those who did not take part lost.

Wayne Coy, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who specializes in microbroadcast issues, suggested that licensing might not work in favor of today’s “pirates.” He warned that more mainstream groups might move into the field if low-power stations gained government sanction, and called for more study on how to preserve minority and local voices before adopting a new layer of broadcast rules.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he told the vocal pirate broadcasters attending the session. “If you want new allocations of low-power frequencies, you’re asking for a new layer of regulation.”

Coy and Harry Jessel, editor of Broadcasting and Cable magazine, downplayed hopes voiced by some pirate broadcasters that First Amendment arguments on their behalf might prevail — that the FCC would be forced by free-speech rulings to permit their broadcasts.

Coy noted that unlike free press, Internet or free-speech cases, radio exists in a physically limited spectrum of frequencies, which even with new technologies places an actual limit on the number of stations that can use the airwaves.

Jessel agreed: “You’re not going to win in court. But you can win in the FCC and in Congress if you build your constituency” by lobbying and building public support for low-power broadcasting. He noted that FCC chairman William Kennard has expressed concern about media consolidation, and wants to consider proposals involving licensing of stations of one watt or higher.

“Kennard is searching for ways to get minority voices on the air,” Coy said. “But there’s not a lot of room (on the radio frequency spectrum) left.”

Paul McMasters, First Amendment Ombudsman for The Freedom Forum and
moderator of the panel discussion, noted that the FCC and NAB both had declined invitations to attend today’s session. He said the FCC cited involvement in legal action against unlicensed broadcasters, and the NAB said its position already was well-known.