By Edward Lewine
The pirate radio operators, two Haitian guys from Brooklyn, looked nervous. The operators - Michel Limontas off Radio Inetercontinental (88.9 FM) in Midwood and Frantz Gourgue of Radio NaGo (89.3 FM) in Flatbush - had been operating unlicensed, low power stations for two years . In November, agents of the Federal Communications Commission told them to shut down.
The pirates complied, for fear, they said. of being fined or having their equipment confiscated, but they were eager to get back on the air. So they called the Prometheus Radio Project, a group dedicated to helping unlicensed community radio stations. On Tuesday, Prometheus called a meeting at the Center for Constitutional Rights, at Broadway and Bond Street in Manhattan, to put the broadcasters in touch with First Amendment lawyers.
“The question is whether something will keep these stations on the air” said Greg Ruggiero, a Prometheus member. One of the lawyers, Robert Perry, who is representing an East Village pirate station named Steal This Radio (88.7 FM) in a suit against the F.C.C. had an idea. “We are suggesting that these stations become party to our lawsuit,” he said. “Maybe that will make the F.C.C. back off.”
The Prometheus Radio Project was founded a few months ago by four young people in New York and Philadelphia who oppose corporate ownership of communications media.
Other media activists, as they call themselves, said Prometheus
was the first group to devote itself fully to offering legal, technical
and organizational advice to anyone interested in operating a nonprofit,
low-power community radio station. Low-power stations violate F.C.C.
rules, but Prometheus was founded because it looks like the Federal
policy could change.
“The ban on microradio may be lifted,” Mr. Ruggiero said. “The point of prometheus is to prepare people for that moment.”
As radio ownership has consolidated into the hands of a few companies, the number of micro, or low-power, stations has been on the rise, according to microradio operator. Such station, usually aimed at a particular political, religious, ethnic or neighborhood group, broadcast below 100 watts, reaching listeners within a radius of just a few miles, often for only a few hours or days a week.
The F.C.C. calls these radio stations pirates because they are unlicensed and because since 1978 it has banned all broadcasts below 100 watts, in part to avoid interference with the broadcasts of larger stations.
Operators and supporters or pirate radio argue that the Federal agency is giving corporate America a monopoly over the airwaves.
“One 100,000-watt station going off the air would mean that every
community in the area could have a station,” said Deejay Chrome of Steal
This Radio, who would not reveal his real name, because he prefers that
the F.C.C. not know his identity.
But the new chairman of the agency, William E. Kennard, has expressed support for licensing radio stations under 100 watts, with an eye towards increasing minority and community ownership. “ We’d like to have a proposal in the first quarter of this year,” Mr. Kennard said on Wednesday. He added, “By creating a new class of FM stations we will have new voices.”
Such a move is opposed by the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the commercial broadcast industry. The industry argues that adding low-powerstations to the FM dial will interfere with the reception of all radio stations. “The FM band is already severely overcrowded,” said Dick Ferguson, a vice president of Cox Radio and a chairman of the broadcasters’ association. “We don’t know how you could add more stations.”
It was against this backdrop that Mr. Ruggiero, 34, an editor at a small press in SoHo, and David Murphy, 26, who does freelance electrical work, began discussing the idea for Prometheus during the summer. They knew each other casually because both are fixtures in the local microradio scene. Both have been disk jockeys, station managers and protest organizers over the years. Mr. Ruggiero, an energetic speaker with a piratical black beard and a ready laugh, concentrates on Prometheus’s public relations. Mr. Murphy, who is tall and quiet and wears a ring in his right brow, is an expert on the technical aspects of setting up a station.
Prometheus has no financing, no offices and no membership aside
from its four founders, but the group is already taking action. It
has planned a six-week tour of the East Coast, advising community groups
that want to start radio stations, and a Web site, scheduled to go on line
today, that will eventually offer news and information related to microradio.
The group is attracting attention in the tight knit microradio world, which stays in touch via the Internet. “The Prometheus Project is a hot topic right now,” said Jessica Glass, a video editor and media activist. “If it works it will go down as the Johnny Appleseed of radio.”
In spite of the F.C.C. chairman’s encouraging words about the future off microradio, the agency has been cracking down on unlicensed microradio stations in the past year, warning or closing down more than 297 of them, an agency spokeswoman, Elizabeth Rose, said.
And there is no assurance that the new microradio rules will be approved, or what form they will take. That is why, Mr. Ruggiero said, the Prometheus Project has kicked into action. We want to make sure that microradio isn’t for business,” he said. “We believe microradio should be for non-commercial, community use.”
As the meeting of Prometheus advocates, First Amendment lawyers
and the pirate radio operators from Brooklyn came to a close, the pirates
decided to join the lawsuit and go back on the air, with hopes that the
F.C.C. with leave them alone.
“But will this be successful?” Mr. Limontas asked. Everybody laughed.
Radio4all's Micro Radio News Page