Steal this airwave
Free Radio Asheville battles for free speech

by Jill Ingram


On first meeting him, you'd think "Robert Red" was an all-American, law-abiding kind of guy. A tidy dresser, quiet and serious, the 60-year-old is a self-employed professional who likes talking politics and local news.

His small and sunny office in downtown Asheville is the picture of productivity: books straight, plants watered, floor swept. Blueprints cover one desk. He taps away on a computer at the other. He clears a seat for you and offers you coffee. He gives a short laugh and blames his young looks on anxiety.

Robert Red is an outlaw. Since February he's been breaking federal laws almost daily. The incognito activist helps deliver the news on Free Radio Asheville. At 89.1 on the FM dial, Free Radio Asheville broadcasts from about noon till early the next morning every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday using an 80-watt transmitter -- but operating without a license from the Federal Communications Commission.

His hour of news, beginning at 6 p.m. each broadcast day, lately has included coverage of the Zapatista struggle with the Mexican government in the strife-torn Chiapas region of southern Mexico. Almost none of the news coming from Free Radio Asheville is available in any of the other local media, says Robert Red.

He and the station's 40-or-so other disc jockeys are part of a growing movement of pirate broadcasters infiltrating airwaves nationwide. Figures reported at an East Coast conference of micro-broadcasters (the legit term for "pirate"), held in Philadelphia in early April, suggest anywhere from 300 to 1,000 unlicensed stations currently on the air.

Some micro-stations' programming is fairly nonpolitical; they exist simply because someone thought something was missing from the local radio music scene. Others, like Free Radio Asheville, were founded in protest. "Freedom of speech really means very little without access to the media," says Robert Red.

The way he and other pirate activists see it, FCC policy favors massive media corporations bent on bigger bottom lines, with formulaic programs designed expressly to sell advertisements. Critics claim their strategy is to buy up radio stations all over the country, then turn around and churn out homogenized music formats for every city across America.

To build a licensed station from scratch can easily cost a quarter-million dollars. So far, Asheville's pirates have spent less than $2,000 for their equipment; they could have done it for less than $500.

Free Radio Asheville wouldn't qualify for an FCC license: The smallest station allowed is 100 watts. This and other FCC regulations make it impossible for a small station with an alternative, community voice to get on the air legally, the pirates contend. To them, broadcasting is about more than playing different music and saying bad words on the air. Their broadcasts are exercises in free speech, they say.

The pirates have a point, acknowledge some media professionals -- including FCC Chairman William Kennard. "[Pirates] have a legitimate issue in that there are, in some communities, not outlets for expression on the airwaves, and I believe that is a function, in part, of the massive consolidation that we are seeing in the broadcast industry," Kennard told an interviewer for Radio World. And in a letter to USA Today, published this March, Kennard vowed that he is "committed" to the goal of finding ways, perhaps through "new technologies," to increase the number of community-oriented radio outlets. That said, Kennard makes it clear that radio pirates are breaking the law and are in no way heroes.

Two local radio-station managers and a professor at UNCA sympathize with the pirates to some extent, but they each maintain that the airwaves need to be regulated.

"[W]hen you look at the content available on radio in many markets, you find a lack of diversity and an emphasis on commercialism," says Alan Hantz, a professor of mass communication at UNCA. "So I can understand why people would want more and different radio content. We need it."

But, he adds, "The FCC licensing requirements are there in order to preserve what is a limited public resource -- the airwaves."

Bill McMartin, general manager of WKSF-FM (Kiss Country) and WWNC-AM, says the pirates are probably frustrated because they don't hear the kinds of music they like on the radio. "Not every kind of music is commercially acceptable," he says.

However, he doesn't buy the argument that commercial stations don't serve the community. The stations he manages share a local news team that generates nearly 1,000 minutes of news each week. But he adds that, in the radio world, most stations ignore the local news [see Lost waves."].

"You have to admire [the pirates'] conviction," says Ed Subkis, general manager of public radio station WCQS-FM. But although it's exciting, he says, "It doesn't change the fact that what they're doing is illegal."

There's a chance that the pirates will get the option to become legal. The FCC is currently accepting public comment on two petitions (submitted by members of the public) requesting that the FCC amend its laws to allow the licensing of low-watt, community-based radio stations. Furious George, a DJ and founding member of Free Radio Asheville, sees the FCC's reaction to the petitions as proof that the agency is ready to "come to the bargaining table" with micro-stations.

Birth of a station

What started as a political statement has taken on a life of its own. It has managed to unite a diverse pack of DJs and other volunteers, says Furious George. Some DJs are too young to drive; others are in their 70s. Some are political activists involved in radical causes like Earth First! and Industrial Workers of the World. Others are just glad to be broadcasting the music they like. "I wanted to be on the radio," says one DJ. "I walked in and got a show."

When asked why someone should listen to their station, the DJs have no problem answering. "We're a genuine alternative," says one. "We're not corporate controlled," another declares. "We're forming our own viewpoints," someone calls out. "We're filling a vacuum," says another. The excitement and pride surrounding this station of volunteers is obvious. "It's a lot of fun. A whole lot of fun," says Robert Red.

"I'm having an excellent time," says The Whistler, an experienced DJ in his 50s. The Whistler hosts a show featuring jazz, Motown and other music on Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to noon. The show also includes a game in which The Whistler reads a quote, then whistles while he gives listeners time to guess who said it.

True to their free-speech stance, Free Radio Asheville DJs play whatever they want. A recent Sunday-night edition of Cafe Flesh featured DJs Dixie Caverns and Agent D playing records they'd scavenged out of someone's basement earlier in the day. Sometimes DJs air political commentary. Furious George plays jazz-infused hip-hop laced with cuts of speeches by Malcolm X.

Some of the pirates seem to enjoy their rebel status. A May 2 broadcast of Focus on the Family, with DJ Fred Free, featured Free -- in between episodes of punk rock -- launching a barrage of profane insults at the Ku Klux Klan for failing to show up at a Klan protest rally. A fellow DJ accused him of ranting.

The station is a mix of people and attitudes, but it's organized. "There's a lot of professionalism involved," observes Robert Red. The station's weekly meetings are well-attended. The DJs have formed technical, public-service-announcement and outreach committees. A member of the station's media committee contacted Mountain Xpress in hopes that an article would boost the station's visibility and help gather public support -- particularly in case the FCC comes knocking at their door.

About 30 people showed up to one of the station's meetings last month (notice of the meetings is strictly word-of-mouth, but attendance continues to grow). Gathered in a cavernous, graffiti-filled room -- with "FREE ALL THE POLITICAL PRISONERS NOW" scrawled on one wall -- the group managed, in less than an hour, to introduce themselves, determine the coming week's schedule, identify more volunteers to help Robert Red with the news, determine that the station shall be strictly noncommercial, discuss what to do should the FCC show up (don't let them in without a warrant), listen to DJ Angel of the fundraising committee explain an upcoming raffle to pay for new equipment, get instructions on caring for station equipment (keep a fan on the transmitter to keep it cool, and don't kink the coaxial cable), and dig into their pockets to collect $80 for a frequency filter to prevent the station's transmissions from cropping up on a nearby station's frequency (though that hasn't happened yet, according to Robert Red).

At one point, someone interrupts the meeting to report that cars are about to be towed away from the parking lot outside. Several people dash outside while the others take a break. The secretary asks if anyone has seen his dog. People light up cigarettes and don't ask if anyone minds. A rowdy solo erupts from a drum kit set up on a low platform. For nearly a minute, no one tries to talk. The solo ends to applause, and then it's back to business.

What the feds said

FCC employees are cautious about commenting on pirate radio. Two employees -- one from the Public Affairs Office and one from the Policy and Rules Division of the Mass Media Bureau -- each insist that there is a better place to direct questions. Public Affairs Officer David Fiske is the FCC's official pirate-radio spokesman. He's a busy man. It took a full day of calling him before we finally connected, and during our 10-minute interview, two other calls came in from the press. Though he won't confirm that there's been any growth in the number of pirate stations in the past few years, he has compiled a 14-page press release specifically on unlicensed FM broadcasting. He keeps it handy, ready in a flash to fax to reporters.

The number-one problem with pirate radio stations is that they break the law, says Fiske. The airwaves are limited, and the FCC was created partly to enforce order, he explains. "If one person can broadcast on an unlicensed basis, what's to stop 10? What's to stop 100?" Enforcement of FCC policy is usually the result of a complaint, says Fiske. He flatly denies the allegation that broadcast content determines whether the FCC takes action against a station. "That's not the issue," he insists. "We don't regulate content or format."

In 1997, 90 pirate stations shut down after a letter or visit from the FCC. In seven other cases, the FCC raided stations and seized equipment. So far in 1998, 83 stations have agreed to shut down voluntarily, and the FCC has seized the equipment of four others.

Like the pirates, the FCC also claims to be protecting free speech -- the free speech of licensed broadcasters who suffer from "improper and damaging interference to their programs and transmissions," reads Fiske's press release.

Pirate broadcasts can also "seriously endanger lives and public safety" when their transmissions interfere with communications between pilots and air-traffic controllers, according to the release. Pirates deny that this happens. Ground-to-air communications occur between 118 and 135 megahertz, well outside the FM radio band, they point out. The FCC counters that it did happen at an airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this January. Before the FCC located and shut down the nearby unlicensed source, airport officials considered shutting down the airport, according to the FCC press release.

Fiske points out that FCC Chairman Kennard has made his concerns clear about the lack of local voices in some communities, and that the FCC is considering the possibility of allowing small-scale broadcasting, depending on the public response to two pending petitions.

FCC public notice number 2254 requests that the FCC reserve one AM and one FM frequency in each community for local broadcasts. These stations would be powered by one watt or less, allowing each signal to be heard about a mile away.

FCC public notice number 2262 requests the creation of three new classes of low-power stations that "would provide enhanced broadcasting opportunities for individuals and small business." One class would be powered by transmitters of up to 3,000 watts (providing coverage for about a 15-mile radius). The petition calls for a station's ownership to be limited to people living within 50 miles. Fiske has received about 150 comments so far, he says. After public comment ends June 27, the FCC will decide whether to shape the petitions into policy. If the FCC makes licensing small stations a priority, it could begin within a year, says Gordon Godfrey, an electronic engineer in the FCC's Policy and Rules Division. Most likely, though, the process will take two years, if it happens at all.

Pirates carry on

It's pretty easy to put together a radio station, technically speaking. All you need is a small transmitter, an antenna (a simple receiving-type antenna will do), some cable, a microphone or two, an audio mixing board, a turntable and one or two CD/cassette players.

The Free Radio Asheville antenna is 50 feet high. Its broadcasts reach as far as seven miles. To elude the FCC, Free Radio Asheville DJs move the equipment each broadcast day. Before going in to go on the air, DJs call a hotline to find out where the station is located that day. If the feds do show up, the DJs are briefed on what to do: A pamphlet called If an Agent Knocks, put out by the Center for Constitutional Rights, travels with the station. But the station is growing -- in volunteers and equipment -- and one day not far into the future, the DJs plan to make the station's location permanent and to begin broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A permanent station might attract attention from the government, admits Furious George. "It's inevitable that we're going to have to deal with the FCC.". Still, he sees this as a good time in pirate-radio history -- the right time, perhaps, for pirate radio to show its face.

Even if the FCC does try to force the station to shut down, it's important that the station continue to broadcast, says Robert Red. This remark, and the decision to find a permanent home for the station, are likely inspired by Stephen Dunifer, who started the pirate station Free Radio Berkeley in 1993.

Dunifer is a guru in the pirate-radio movement. He's inspired a legion of other pirates by staying on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week, despite being wrapped up in legal proceedings with the FCC and facing a $10,000 fine.

The twist in Dunifer's case is that a federal district judge refused to impose a restraining order that would have forced Dunifer off the air. Dunifer's claim that FCC policy violates his right to free speech might have some merit, ruled Judge Claudia Wilken.

As far as The Whistler is concerned, the right to free speech is something people in this country already fought for. His father and grandfather went to war for freedom, he says. "I think everyone should have a voice and be able to get it out over the airwaves," he says. "I think it's our right. Don't you?"

Free Radio Asheville
P.O. Box 1485
Asheville, NC 28802 

The station accepts tapes from prospective DJs. 

You can view petitions to the Federal Communications Commission for licensing of low-power stations at the FCC site.(Find other functions and then select low-power FM radio service). Information on how to make public comments is also available here. Or, call David Fiske in the FCC's Public Affairs office at (202) 418-0513. 

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