Radio Pirates Grapple with U.S. Regulators

Low-power poachers see themselves as crusaders for diversity and free speech

Quick. What do you get when you set up a microphone, a CD player, a portable sound mixer, a 5-W transmitter, and a car battery in your garage, and install a 3-meter antenna just outside? Answers: a radio station—and, if you’re in the United States, trouble with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (Washington, D.C.).

On 2 June, the FCC adopted rules that, critics argue, will unleash a further wave of consolidation in U.S. media markets [see sidebar], hobbling freedom of expression. In that ongoing struggle between diversity and uniformity, in which broadcasting and publishing titans clash, colorful but less-publicized battles also take place between the FCC and radio pirates.

Typical of such skirmishes was the one that ended on 12 May, when Rayon Sherwin (”Junior”) Payne was sentenced to nine months in prison. Payne—one of many pirate radio operators in central Florida who play music and provide news of interest to Caribbean immigrants—found himself in the FCC’s crosshairs when local residents and broadcasters complained that his station was interfering with reception of licensed stations.

The FCC, armed with the authority to seize equipment used for illegal broadcasts and levy stiff fines, considers an unlicensed transmitter with more than 0.025 W of power, roughly enough for a half-city-block broadcast radius, to be piracy. Though the FCC has provisions for licensing low-power stations, its interference rules are actually stricter than for high-power transmitters, and measures of interference are contested, slowing licensing [see ”Low Power Licenses Fail to Meet Community Needs,” http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/WEBONLY/resource/jul03/lowpow.html].

Payne is but one of many unlicensed low-power operators who have run afoul of the FCC when they set up stations because no other outlet catered to their cultural or political tastes, or simply because no other station reported local events. In 1989, Mabana Kantako, who would inspire a host of other pirates, began broadcasting Black Liberation Radio from a public housing project in Springfield, Ill., in order to present his take on local news. Pete Tri Dish, technical director of the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based team of low-power radio activists, became a pirate as an act of civil disobedience against FCC rules.

Odd bedfellows

Perhaps the most famous radio piracy case of all involved Stephen Dunifer, whose Free Radio Berkeley scored a victory of sorts in January 1995 when a federal district court ordered the FCC to respond to free-speech issues he had raised in a lawsuit. Though he ultimately lost and had to shut down, Dunifer lives on as an inspiration to pirate descendants.

Things first got tough for his forerunners in 1978, when the FCC stopped issuing Class D licenses for noncommercial stations operating between 10 and 100 W, the community radio niche. It’s said that the National Association of Broadcasters, representing commercial stations, was joined in a lobbying campaign by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which runs National Public Radio (NPR). Prometheus staffers claim that NPR was eager to get community radio off the air so it could lay claim not only to its spectrum, but also to its sponsorship dollars.

Regular independent high-power stations, which had made radio a medium built on local flavor, suffered a blow when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 lifted caps on the number of radio stations a single entity could own. In 1995, the top 50 radio groups owned 876 stations; within a year of the act’s passage, the top 10 groups owned 821 stations.

Activists warning about the stifling effects of media consolidation felt their fears were confirmed earlier this year when, after the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, a country music group, made negative comments about President George W. Bush and the government’s decision to go to war with Iraq, big radio broadcast groups took the band off the air. Cumulus Media and Cox Enterprises barred their disk jockeys from playing the group’s music, and Clear Channel Communications—with 1200 of the nation’s 10 000 stations—allegedly had some stations promote pro-war pep rallies.

Tri Dish, of Prometheus, notes that the free-speech issues Dunifer tried to raise in 1995 never really got a fair hearing because the court decided he had not exhausted all administrative remedies. ”The issue is ripe for another pirate to try again,” he says.

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