By Juan R. Palomo

Several months ago, college student Mario Hernandez walked with his mother to a house in her San Marcos, Texas, neighborhood to pick up a prize she'd won from a radio station operating out of that house. Ten minutes later, the 23-year-old Hernandez, who had not a single second of on-air experience, walked out of the house a disc jockey.

Today, Hernandez's two-hour hip-hop show, The San Marcos Hip-hop Connection, airs every Tuesday night, serving mostly a young audience in this central Texas town of about 30,000.

Hernandez knows it was a matter of luck and pluck that he was able to get his own radio program, but he also knows that if the San Marcos radio station had been anything but a "microstation" (or pirate station, as the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broad casters would prefer to call it), his chances of getting on the air would be close to zero.

Kind Radio, as the San Marcos station is called (not K-I-N-D, for the station, like most microstations, has no call letters), is one of about 1,000 such stations across the country operating with very low frequency and serving very small radiuses. Kind Radio, can be heard only in San Marcos.

The stations, most of them commercial-free, serve as platforms for views and music that are rarely allowed on the air by commercial stations. They are an antidote to an industry that is rapidly becoming superconsolidated to the point that many smaller communities no longer have radio stations to serve their needs - an industry more concerned with profits than with service.

Take San Marcos, for instance, which I recently returned to. When I last lived here 19 years ago, it was served by KCNY, the local AM station that offered extensive news coverage of the city's civic and political lives. Its news division had several reporters who covered all the meetings of every local governmental body. It had regular interview shows featuring local newsmakers. And it had extensive news and entertainment programming in Spanish serving the large Mexican-American community.

A few years ago, all that ended. KCNY was sold to nonlocal interests who turned around and sold its entire broadcast day to an out-of-town Spanish-language religious broadcaster, leaving San Marcos with no local news broadcast outlet. An FM station licensed to San Marcos concentrates on serving Austin, 30 miles to the north, and offers no local programming.

That huge vacuum has now been filled by Kind Radio, offering, in addition to Hernandez's show, rap music, news and interviews with local elected officials, commentary, feminist (Estrogen Hour of Power) and gay and lesbian programming. In all, about 75 people are involved in keeping the station on the air 24 hours a day.

Granted, most of the programming is sporadic, and some of it is downright sophomoric (as I write this, two people are having an on-air discussion on whether the Beatles created hippiedom or hippiedom created the Beatles), but that's beside the point. The point is that Kind Radio and stations like it are filling the void left by corporate broadcasters. Local communities are being served.

Government bureaucrats, however, don't see it that way. The FCC says rules are rules and that it alone is empowered to decide who can use the nation's airwaves. It claims the low-power stations interfere with other stations' signals and with airport ground-to-air communications. Both claims are disputed by microbroadcasters. They insist that the FCC's primary role is protecting the interests of commercial broadcasters, who have been pressuring the federal government to crack down on the pirate stations.

The FCC has done so. It recently closed down a Tampa, Fla., station, and it is continuing its campaign to silence the granddaddy of microstations, Free Radio Berkeley, despite a federal judge's recent refusal to grant the agency an injunction against the California station.

While Kind Radio has so far been left alone by the FCC, it was forced to fend off local bureaucrats in court to stay on the air. San Marcos officials sought to shut it down, claiming a zoning violation because the station operates out of a garage in a residential neighborhood. The station successfully convinced a municipal court jury that the operation was no more than a hobby, much like that of a backyard gardener who shared his garden's bounty with his neighbors.

What is amazing about all this is the extent to which bureaucrats go to keep these enterprising voices of free expression off the air. Yes, the government has a legitimate right to regulate what goes out over the public's airwaves, but those airwaves are not very public anymore; they have become the exclusive domain of the wealthy corporations that can afford to pay the exorbitant cost of obtaining a broadcast license, and of buying and maintaining the expensive broadcast equipment needed to operate high-power stations.

If the government fears chaos over the airwaves, it could easily find a way to license and regulate low-power, low-cost stations (Kind Radio's start-up cost was about $500, and its operating expenses a few dollars a month) the same way it does high-power broadcasters. The only alternative is to continue to fight its expensive battle to silence these stations, a battle it should know it cannot win.

Juan R. Palomo is managing editor of The Salt Journal newspaper in San Marcos, Texas, and a member of the USA TODAY board of contributors. He can be reached at