to the Pirates?
FCC May License Low-Wattage Operations
by Frank Ahrens
Adrian Kohn is a Georgetown University junior who runs his college radio
station and says: "I have no desire to get into politics. Our purpose is
to get people into new music."
Until recently, he knew nothing of radio pirates -- the rogue
broadcasters who illegally operate low-wattage FM stations, using them for
topics unheard on commercial radio, such as espousing fringe politics or
addressing community health needs. All Kohn knew was that he wanted to get
his station's signal -- which is now carried by cable to campus dorms only
-- into the surrounding community.
Last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it
would, for the first time, consider licensing low-power FM stations. If
the FCC approves the measure, both the innocuous Georgetown station and
radical pirate radio could benefit.
The radio dial is crowded with stations and precious few slots remain
most markets. To buy an FCC-licensed frequency on the FM dial, a station
must broadcast at least 6,000 watts of power, making it too expensive for
all but the wealthiest to afford. (The WWDC AM and FM stations, for
example, sold for $72 million last year. DC-101 pumps out 50,000 watts.)
So an underground has sprung up, with electronics nerds and activists
cobbling together tiny radio stations that illegally broadcast low-power,
unlicensed FM signals out of garages and vans. Radio Mutiny, one such
pirate station in Philadelphia, was shut down by the FCC last June.
Diane Imelda Fleming, who hosted a safe sex show on Radio Mutiny as
"Condom Lady," says she's happy the FCC is considering low-power licensing
but urges pirate broadcasters to keep the heat on the feds.
FCC Chairman William Kennard "has the power to change history majorly
I hope he takes the opportunity," she says.
The FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents
licensed broadcasters, both oppose the unlicensed pirates, saying their
signals interfere with those of legitimate stations and may disrupt air
traffic control signals. But the two bodies split on low-power FM. The NAB
remains skeptical, even if low-power broadcasters are licensed and
regulated. But Kennard is an advocate for low-power FM, seeing it as a way
to do legally what the pirates have been doing illegally -- getting a
greater variety of voices on the air and serving community needs. Over the
past year, the FCC has received more than 13,000 inquiries from
individuals and groups interested in starting their own stations. The FCC
is soliciting opinions on low-power FM from potential broadcasters and
other interested parties through April 12. The agency will ascertain
whether these stations, if regulated and assigned frequencies, will
interfere with nearby stations and airplanes.
But pirates may have a tougher time than people like Kohn making their
case for a low-power license.
"If someone had a pirate station and, once it was brought to our
attention, we contacted them and they shut down, they're more likely to
get a license," he says. If a pirate station continued broadcasting in
defiance of the FCC, as many do, "we wouldn't have the confidence they
would operate as a responsible [licensed] broadcaster," Kennard says. It's
too early to say when the first low-power license may be issued, he notes.
Low-power AM is not being considered because "it's easier to shoehorn"
stations into the FM band, Kennard says.
The FCC is considering three classes of low-power FM: 1,000 watt, 100
and 1-10 watts. Kohn would like Georgetown's WGTB -- which broadcasts out
of a CD- and record-filled hutch in the campus's Leavey Center -- to apply
for a 100-watt license, which could give it a broadcast radius of about 3
miles, according to the FCC.
That way, he says, WGTB could broadcast music, Georgetown athletics
community affairs -- such as Advisory Neighborhood Council news -- to the
surrounding Georgetown, Burleith and Glover Park neighborhoods. The
station's music format -- with a free-form playlist and featuring 100
volunteer deejays -- would likely not change. "If you want to play, I
don't know, French house music, you can have a show," Kohn says. One
Georgetown official says it's very possible that the university will apply
for a low-power license for the station.
Through the '60s and '70s, WGTB broadcast over the air at 90.1 FM. But
station's lefty political broadcasts ruffled the school's Jesuit
administrators, who sold the station's license to the University of the
District of Columbia for $1 in 1979.
Even though it broadcasts only on-campus now [it's a carrier-current
station --jw], WGTB sells some advertising. Kohn has pitched the
low-power idea to Georgetown officials partly by telling them it will help
community relations but also by letting them know they can make more
advertising money as an over-the-air station.
Kohn, a 20-year-old English major who was inspired to get into radio
Howard Stern and Don Imus, knows WGTB may not get a low-power license by
the time he graduates. But anything's progress. Only two years ago, he
says, WGTB "didn't even have a room."
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