Fight the Power
by Gwen Shaffer
Philadelphia City Paper, 4/9/98
During the first public showdown between pirate radio stations and their archnemeses - federal regulators - microbroadcasters defiantly vowed to start up 10 new stations for every one the government shuts down.
In a conciliatory move, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) insisted it would like to establish a low-power frequency that would allow all pirate stations to operate legally.
A brave (or stupid, depending on your perspective) FCC representative put himself in the hot seat by agreeing to face a roomful of radio pirates on April 3, kicking off the First East Coast Microbroadcasting Conference. About 100 pirates attended the debate, which took place before a backdrop of anarchist posters spouting slogans such as "FCC, Enemy of Liberty" and "Air Power to the People."
The three-day conference was sponsored by Radio Mutiny-91.3 FM, a 20-watt station that broadcasts without a license from its West Philly studio. The conference brought together both established and fledgling stations from around the country to exchange tips and to strengthen the solidarity of the movement.
The battle of the bandwidth has raged for decades between the FCC and pirates, but citation-to-amplifier combat has intensified recently. In just the first three months of this year, the FCC has squashed more than 60 pirate radio stations. That's in contrast to 97 shutdowns during all of 1997.
The agency estimates that anywhere between 300 and 1,500 stations throughout the United States broadcast without a license. And that number is growing.
An FCC rule bars stations with less than 100 watts of power from obtaining licenses, on the basis that it is not cost-effective for the agency to permit such stations.
At the same time that the FCC is pursuing an aggressive attack to close pirate stations, officials appear to be softening their verbal stance against them.
"I have heard and talked to some pirate radio people and their supporters," FCC Chairman William Kennard told Radio World during a recent interview. "They have a legitimate issue in that there are, in some communities, not outlets for expressions on the airwaves. And I believe that this is a function in part of the massive consolidation that we are seeing in the broadcast industry."
During the conference panel, Richard Lee, chief of compliance & information for the FCC, stressed that the agency is obligated to enforce the laws established by Congress. He attempted to distance himself from charges that armed SWAT teams have been raiding pirate stations without warning and using excessive force and intimidation tactics.
"When we issue an order to cease, U.S. Marshals come out. The FCC does not carry guns," he said.
Lee repeatedly declined to comment on contentious issues, contending that the answers were out of his purview. "I am not a policy person. I am here to talk about enforcement."
That response prompted an irate audience member to yell, "And we are here to tell you that we are not going to allow the FCC to enforce anything on us."
Lee stressed that Chairman Kennard is "serious" about wanting to open up the radio dial to more diverse voices. On Feb. 5, the commission requested public comment on two petitions, including one that entertains the idea of creating a "community-based" lower power structure.
"Give us some ideas," Lee said. "You are the experts...craft some lawful solutions."
Constitutional law is already on the side of microbroadcasters, said Stefan Presser, legal director for the ACLU and lawyer for Radio Mutiny. He defended the First Amendment rights of pirate radio stations.
The FCC may argue that radio is not protected like print speech because anyone can get ahold of a copy machine and publish a pamphlet or newspaper, as opposed to broadcasting, where the airwaves are limited, he said.
Comparing how the FCC parcels off the airwaves to divvying up a dollar bill, Presser contended that the FCC has chosen to give most of the available frequencies to a small number of corporate stations, rather than subdividing them for many small stations.
"You could break down a dollar bill into four quarters. But if you were more generous, you could hand out 10 dimes, or even 100 pennies," he pointed out.
Similarly, the FCC has created a facade for shutting out microbroadcasters, he told the pirates. "For certain people with lots of money, the FCC is willing to expand the bandwidth. But for people like you with no money - who are literally operating with pennies - there is no space."
In December, Presser wrote Chairman Kennard on behalf of Radio Mutiny, requesting a waiver from the FCC's 100-watt rule. "Our clients would deeply welcome the opportunity to secure a license....Moreover, they are prepared to work with your agency to address any concerns which their broadcast may raise."
To date, Presser has not received a reply.
Some conference attendees speculated that Lee showed up at the conference not to work towards a solution with microbroadcasters, but to further his own agenda.
"The FCC is threatened by our presence and that's why Lee is here," asserted Sharin, a pirate for the New York City station Steal This Radio. "But once the FCC sees we are united, it will have to start making some serious concessions."
A Radio Mutiny operator, who goes by the pseudonym Pete triDish, agrees that federal regulators have come to the realization that there is "no stopping" microbroadcasters. "They may be shutting down two stations per week, but there are way more going up."