For five years, Richard Edmondson snuck the sounds of defiance from
living room and into his community. As operator of an unlicensed radio
station called San Francisco Liberation Radio, he wedged his way onto the
airwaves, using a vacant frequency to broadcast 12 hours a day. The
programming included news, music and shows like "Voices of the Rebellion,"
which focused on homelessness issues, and "Time Out," a program for
children, often with a left-wing political lesson.
To his hundreds of appreciative listeners, Edmondson was Patrick Henry
an FM frequency, but to the Federal Communications Commission, he is a
criminal. In its lexicon, he and dozens of other operators of unlicensed
low-power radio stations are "pirates" who interfere not only with licensed
programming but with air traffic control frequencies, creating a safety
In the last year, a crackdown by the F.C.C. has led to the closure --
voluntary -- of some 250 unlicensed stations; on Tuesday, the F.C.C.
announced that it seized radio equipment from 15 unlicensed stations in
Miami. Edmondson, fearing the F.C.C.'s wrath, shut down his own station in
June, but he has done so with characteristically defiant sentiment.
"If the F.C.C. truly supported free speech, they would be doing everything
in their power to make microradio happen," Edmondson, 45, said. "Instead,
they're trying to stamp it out."
In fact, in a new twist in the labored debate over the fate of tiny
community radio stations, the F.C.C. appears to be doing both. It is at once
aggressively pursuing and shutting down microradio stations, while it also
considers licensing radio stations that broadcast below 100 watts of power,
compared with 50,000 watts for typical major radio stations.
The debate goes to the heart of how the airwaves are defined in the
States and who has access to them. Since the enactment of the
Telecommunications Act of 1996, the radio industry has consolidated, leaving
control of stations in the hands of powerful media companies.
William E. Kennard, the F.C.C. chairman, said in an interview that he
deeply troubled by this trend. "With consolidation, radio has become the
province of multibillion-dollar corporations," Kennard said. "The loss of
small religious stations and local programming is very unfortunate."
Kennard said there was nothing inconsistent in his efforts to crack
unlicensed stations and to find room for low-power stations on the radio
dial. "If there's not some discipline to this process, the spectrum just
won't work," he said. "We can't have pirates just signing onto frequencies
as they choose and broadcasting willy-nilly on the airwaves."
Louis Hiken, a lawyer for Edmondson, said proponents of licensing microradio
had found at least one other reason for optimism: Since Kennard is the first
African-American chairman of the F.C.C., he might try harder to increase the
falling share of minority ownership of radio stations.
Should Kennard and the F.C.C. ultimately seek to establish provisions
license microradio, they will face stiff opposition from the National
Association of Broadcasters, a powerful lobbying group that represents
mainstream radio interests.
"To interject new stations into an FM band that is already highly
concentrated is just flat wrong," said Jeff Baumann, the association's
executive vice president for law.
What's more, Baumann added, the market should decide -- and is deciding
what programming gets on the air, and that the airwaves should not be open
to anyone who happens to have a transmitter.
The start-up costs for low-powered stations are low, adding up to hundreds
of dollars. To open his station in 1993, Edmondson cobbled together the
necessary hardware in the $650-a-month one-bedroom apartment he shares with
his girlfriend and the station co-founder, Jo Swanson. The equipment is now
scattered among the other living-room accouterments: a microphone, a mixer
and a compact-disk player sit on a hand-made wooden table; a chair for
guests of the show sits across the room, near the bicycles and the couch.
Edmondson said the 40-watt signal of his station, located near the ocean on
the west side of San Francisco, traveled at most 10 miles in any direction
over the 93.7 frequency.
"It definitely gave you a different political slant than you'd hear
commercial radio or even National Public Radio," said Tom Burghardt, a
regular listener. "The music was good; there were no commercials. What more
could you ask for?"
Edmondson said he had 350 listeners at any given time, although he said
didn't know how many regular listeners tuned in. And he insisted his signal
did not interfere with other California stations that shared the station's
frequency, including a station in Sacramento. "You could barely hear their
signal when we were off the air," Edmondson said.
Edmondson pulled the station off the air for good on June 17, the day
a Federal judge enjoined another pirate station, Radio Free Berkeley, from
broadcasting. United States District Court Judge Claudia Wilkins rejected
the Berkeley station's argument that the Government had violated its right
to free speech by not permitting it to broadcast without a license.
Edmondson has since turned his makeshift radio station into a writing
spending his days penning a book on the struggles of the microradio
The sounds from his living room are pessimistic. "It's a great loss
community," he said of his station's closing. "It has tragic implications
for free speech."