A little more than a year after its first broadcast, Iowa City Free
Radio is off the air, but only temporarily. Last month the six-watt
radio station received a letter from the Federal Communications
Commission instructing ICFR to go off the air because the FCC will not
license stations under 100 watts, leaving ICFR without a license. The
notice from the FCC means that the station eventually may join a
nationwide group of sub-100 watt "micropower" stations that have drawn
notice from the FCC for illegal operation but continue to operate
nonetheless. Such operation includes the constant threat of FCC
corrective action, which has ranged from SWAT team raids and jail
terms to permissive overlooking. Currently, ICFR is off the air while
station organizers work toward stabilizing the station and minimizing
the potential for an FCC raid. First, they are trying to find another
"neutral" broadcasting space, such as an office, instead of
broadcasting from one person's house, as the situation has been for
the past year. Second, ICFR is filing for non-profit status so that
one person is not responsible if further legal clashes result.
Finally, ICFR is organizing a board of directors and starting a
Once these ends are accomplished, ICFR will return to the air. "We
first want to make sure we're not in jeopardy of losing our
equipment," co-chair Kristen Baumlier said.
"Iowa City Free Radio is not run by rich or powerful people," Iowa
City attorney Bruce Nestor said. Nestor is currently representing
ICFR. "If the government wants to come in full force and shut them
down, they'll be able to. The current licensing procedure does not
allow the possibility of being licensed under 100 watts," Nestor said.
"This is a ban on free radio and is a ban on free speech."
ICFR, which calls itself a "community-based" radio station, is a
volunteer-run station that works to provide a forum for, according to
its mission statement, "responsible free speech and education through
music, cultural programming and discussion not currently served by the
locally available corporate radio stations."
"I have a problem that they aren't even giving people a chance," ICFR
director of music acquisitions Natalie Benton said. "Radio is only
going to become corporate radio. People are not going to hear what
they want unless people like us have a chance."
Nestor said that his tactics in representing ICFR to the FCC are
fourfold. In a letter he drafted in response to the FCC's shut-down
letter, Nestor wrote, "We said we were interested in acquiring a
license, that we were interested in establishing a [new] regulatory
measure to obtain a license
and that.... ICFR has a First Amendment right to broadcast," Nestor
According to Baumlier, it could cost anywhere from $60,000 to $1
million in equipment and legal fees to start up a radio station of 100
watts or more. "100 watts is not expensive, but the equipment is,"
Baumlier said. Baumlier explained that legal fees might be necessary
if another big station claims potential interference.
In his letter to the FCC, Nestor also requested copies of the
complaint that alerted the FCC to ICFR's existence. According to the
FCC, Nestor said, "the complaint was anonymous and did not allege
interference with another broadcaster or with transmissions." The
complaint consisted of copies of newspaper articles about ICFR and a
simple note stating that the station was operating unlicensed. "I
would suspect another local broadcaster, although there's no basis to
suspect anyone," Nestor said.
Representatives of the FCC were not available for comment.
According to University of Iowa law professor and former FCC
commissioner Nicholas Johnson, the government historically has stated
its position that broadcasting is not a First Amendment right.
Micropower broadcasters such as ICFR have only clashed with the
government since 1978, however, when the FCC eliminated Class D
licenses, which were available to low-wattage, not-for-profit
The reason for this, according to Johnson, is that "there are more
people who wish to broadcast than there are frequencies." If the
government were to allow unrestricted broadcast access, some fear
"wild chaos in which no station can be heard [because they all
interfere]." The FCC, Johnson explained, was created as a gatekeeper
of sorts, to be sure that too many stations didn't crowd together and
create that chaos.
Despite his past FCC allegiance, Johnson supports micropower radio and
believes that such stations can exist without causing interference for
others. "If one is operating with a sufficiently low power, the
question of interference is empirical," Johnson said, noting that the
FCC could inspect a micropower radio station's geographical location,
power, tower height and frequency to determine the station's chaotic
threat. "If someone is not providing interference, it makes it kind of
hard to shut them down."
Johnson continued in expressing his disdain for the FCC's treatment of
micropower radio. "I've always found it somewhat ironic that those who
preach the free market economy insist on sending anyone to
Leavenworth--anyone who practices free market broadcasting," Johnson
said. "It would make more sense to permit American citizens who wish
to exercise their opportunity to speak and participate in a democratic
dialogue...to do so. This should include low power broadcasting with
or without licensing."
This legal and constitutional philosophy hovers everywhere around
ICFR. Indeed when the station began, co-chair Jamie Schweser was
quoted in news articles as saying that supporting ICFR was a form of
civil disobedience. "Our stance is that the laws [governing the
airwaves] are wrong," he said. "You can work within the system to try
and change it, but there's a lot of money and power keeping things the
way they are. What we're doing does not hurt anyone.... This is a
venue for responsible for free speech."
As for what ICFR's chances really are, Nestor said, "It depends on
what the FCC wants to do. In some places, they are extremely
aggressive--in Tampa, Fla., they came in with a SWAT team and
helicopters. In other places, they have backed away and done nothing
[after an initial letter calling for shut-down]."
Landmark cases, such as the nearly four-year-old suit involving
Berkeley Free Radio in California, are still tied up in courts. "None
of the court cases have progressed to the point where they would be
precedent-setting," Nestor said. "It's still largely an undetermined
For now, however, there's nothing to be heard from ICFR at 88.7 on
your FM dial. The station hopes to be back on the air around April 1.*
(C)1998 Icon Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.