On the morning of November 19, 1997, a harsh pounding woke Doug Brewer,
the hairy owner of a Tampa electronics store. A SWAT team was outside
his house, along with a column of local cops, customs agents, and
federal marshals. Upon letting the police in, Brewer and his wife were
ordered to the floor, guns pointed at their heads, as the screaming
invaders handcuffed them. Some cops even trained their weapons on the
family cat. Brewer's offense: broadcasting without a license.
Brewer is part of a burgeoning pirate-radio scene, the micro radio
movement. Ever since 1980, when regulators virtually banned low-watt
stations, microcasters have been bypassing the license process
altogether and taking to the air with simply transmitter kits that cost
only a few hundred dollars. They are a varied lot: anarchists and
evangelists, teenagers and retirees, migrant workers and small
businessmen. And while some are fly-by-night operators, transmitting an
occasional rock record or political rant to anyone passing by an
otherwise unused frequency, others have established a permanent,
aboveground presence, daring the Federal Communications Commission to
shut them down.
There is, for example, Free Radio 1055, just north of Cincinnati, which
runs ads from local businesses who can't afford time on the
high-powered, absentee-owned stations that dominate local airwaves.
There is Radio Free Allston, in Massachusetts, which last July earned a
referendum of support from the Boston City Council. Excellent Radio,
based in a storefront studio in the seaside California town of Grover
Beach, has even done live broadcasts of city council meetings. Yes, they
had the council's consent.
Although licensed broadcasters have long seen their unlicensed
competition as a scourge, until recently the FCC didn't put a lot of
effort into shutting down the pirates. If there was a complaint about an
unlicensed operator, the commission would quietly send a few agents to
the illicit station's studio, armed not with guns but with a simple
cease-and-desist order. If the pirates persisted, the commission would
send them a letter. Only then, if the pirates kept transmitting, would
the FCC call in the cops. There were few big raids in the last couple of
years, and there weren't even many warnings -- about 20 or 30, according
to Radio World.
That changed last September. First came a high-profile bust in Howell
Township, New Jersey, followed by a steady effort to tell microcasters
that if they didn't close their doors, they'd be next. The FCC's Florida
division has been particularly active. The same day Brewer's home was
raided, police shut down two more Tampa-area stations, seizing equipment
and tossing two people in jail.
The FCC denies any change in policy. "There has been no recent increase"
in enforcement, asserts John Winston of the FCC's Compliance and
Information Bureau. "We've always taken the same approach to pirate
broadcasting since the 1930s. We're doing no more than what we would
ordinarily do." The crackdown, he claims, is a mirage: in the wake of an
article about Brewer in The Wall Street Journal, normal enforcement
efforts have simply attracted more attention.
But the pirate-radio world was abuzz with word of a crackdown months
before the Journal piece appeared. Stations that had operated with
impunity for ages suddenly found themselves targeted. Vincent Kajunski,
the FCC's New England district director, has conceded as much: the
commission, he told me last December, *does* have a new set of
priorities regarding pirate radio.
According to the National Association of Broadcasters, such action is
long overdue. "The NAB radio board in June asked for the FCC to focus
more attention on the growing number of unlicensed stations," NAB
President Edward Fritts announced in September. "We commend the
commission for sending a strong message to broadcast bandits that their
illegal activities will not be tolerated." Last April, in Las Vegas, the
association sponsored a special panel on the micro radio threat during
its regular convention. Beverly Baker, at that point the FCC's chief of
compliance and information, muttered darkly that "some of them are
connected to the militia movement" and hinted of connections between
"some of the ones in Florida" and the drug trade. Jack Goodman,
introduced as "the NAB's point man on pirate radio," denounced the whole
movement as a bunch of "crooks."
But are they really so evil? The recent burst in unlicensed activity
primarily the product of regulations that make it prohibitively
expensive for small operators to get on the air. Before 1980, the FCC
had allowed students and nonprofit groups to acquire Class D licenses.
Then the Corporation for Public Broadcasting intervened, arguing that
the ten-watters were cluttering frequencies that might otherwise bring
"All Things Considered" to the benighted masses. The FCC stopped issuing
Class D permits and ordered all stations of less than 100 watts to leave
the noncommercial band.
With that avenue for legal broadcasting cut off, and with the cost of
transmitters dropping rapidly, more pirates began to appear. A few
received widespread attention -- most notably Stephen Dunifer, anarchist
founder of Free Radio Berkeley, and M'banna Kantako, a blind black
nationalist who broadcasts from the housing projects of Springfield,
Illinois. Since 1994 or so, the movement has mushroomed, with new
stations presenting everything from Spanish-language sermons to thrash
Microcasters argue that they have a right to a piece of the spectrum.
Local commercial stations are being swallowed by corporate empires;
public radio is increasingly centralized and middlebrow. Cheap
transmitters offer a rare opportunity for ordinary people to get on the
air, for bohemians to experiment with the medium, and for radical
political views -- left, right, and non-Euclidean -- to be heard. Many
microcasters even object to being called pirates, arguing that the true
corsairs are the giant corporations and federal bureaucracies that have
seized the ether for themselves.
They make a strong case. It's hard to read the NAB's campaign against
microcasters as anything but an effort to shut out small-time
competition. "When you're a broadcaster," says NAB spokesman Dennis
Wharton, "and you go through all the hurdles to get a license, [it's
tough] to see others operating illegally." Exactly. Those expensive
licenses are a barrier to market entry; the NAB has become a protected
And while few would argue that anyone has a right to interfere with
legal radio signals, it's pretty hard to find many clear-cut cases where
a pirate has actually disrupted licensed broadcasts. In October, the FCC
shut down two Miami pirates who had apparently been interfering with a
nearby air-traffic-control system. Good for the FCC. But how many other
cases like that have there been? "Several," says the FCC's Winston.
Where? "In Virginia. And other places." Well, when was the Virginia
case? "About four years ago." Further inquiry reveals that this incident
involved, not a micro station, but deliberate, malicious interference.
Winston would not say more than that because the case is "still under
investigation," even though it's already gone to trial.
Are there any other reasons to restrict micro radio? None worth taking
seriously. Winston argues that the worst problem with the pirates is
that they aren't part of the Emergency Alert System; thus, listeners
would not quickly hear about a natural disaster or a war. Of course, if
micro radio were legal, it could easily plug into the EAS. More to the
point: by Winston's logic, the government should ban *anything* that
doesn't involve listening to an EAS-linked station, from canoeing to
violin-playing to sex.
Yes, the microcasters are breaking the law. But it is a bad law, one
that restricts free speech, free enterprise, and radio's potential as a
medium. Other nations -- Italy, Japan, Ireland, Haiti, Argentina -- have
tolerated different forms of unlicensed broadcasting, and the heavens
did not fall. Why not allow stations to broadcast at less than 100
watts? Why not make it easier to get a license? Heck, why not let people
take over unused portions of the spectrum without a license at all? You
don't have to let them interfere with other signals, and you can still
reserve the right to grant that frequency to someone else. It sure makes
more sense than breaking into a man's home and pointing a gun at his