FCC tunes in pirate radio: Proposal to allow tiny stations would diversify airwaves

by George Hunter
The Detroit News
April  6, 1999

HOWELL -- Ron Goodsight admits to being a pirate, but he doesn't
consider himself a criminal.
   Goodsight, a 39-year-old electronics repairman, operated an illegal
radio station -- Living Free Radio -- from his Howell home for three years
until federal officials confiscated his equipment last month.
   "As far as I was concerned, I wasn't doing anything wrong," said
Goodsight, who began broadcasting music out of his attic in 1997. "It
wasn't like I was trying to hide -- I used to broadcast my name and phone
number on the air all the time."
   Goodsight said he'd like to operate a legal radio station, "but the law
says I can't. It's currently illegal to have low-power stations -- so if I
wanted to run a radio station, I had no choice but to do it underground."
   That may change. The Federal Communications Commission in January
proposed to license low-watt FM stations and create one or more new
classes of service in the existing FM radio band. The FCC would allow
1,000-watt stations, which would service areas within a radius of
approximately 8.8 miles, and 100-watt stations, which would serve 3.5-mile
radius areas.
   A decision is expected in June.
   The fact that the FCC is considering lifting the ban on
micro-stations is good news for people like Goodsight, who want an
alternative to corporate-owned stations.
   Advocates argue that opening up the airwaves to smaller venues will
bring back diversity of broadcasting voices, which they say has declined
since the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which lifted restrictions on
ownership of media outlets.
   FCC statistics show a 12-percent decline in the number of station
owners the first year after the law was passed, despite a 3-percent rise
in the number of overall stations.
   Caleb Grayson, who owns the Xhedos Cafe in Ferndale, said numerous
local bands such as the Immigrant Suns, which plays a blend of Eastern
European folk and rock, should be getting on the air, but aren't. An
experimental musician himself, Grayson would like to set up a sound booth
in his cafe to transmit performances by visiting musicians.
   "Here we are at the heart of a historic music city, and we can't get
access to the public airwaves," he grumbled.
   But existing broadcasters tell a different story.
   "If you open the door to anyone who wants to open a radio station,
it'll be chaos," said Karole White, president of the Michigan Association
of Broadcasters. "The band is going to be so tight, there'll almost
certainly be interference problems, and citizens will have difficulty
getting stations."
   Improved technology allows radio stations to be placed closer
together on the spectrum without causing interference, FCC officials
said. Just in case, the agency is considering placing a limit on the
number of low-power licenses.
   While a full-power radio station is beyond the means of most
individuals, a would-be broadcaster could cobble together the
small-scale transmitter and other equipment needed to operate a
microradio station for less than $ 1,000. The FCC hasn't decided whether
it would allow such stations to operate for profit, but their
affordability has helped sparked a flood of inquiries, totaling about
13,000 in the past year.
   Another concern for broadcasters is a possible loss of profit. In
October, White sent a letter to legislators stating that "increased
competition could saturate the market. Profits could deteriorate."
   In a free-market system, loss of profit shouldn't be an issue, said
Cheryl Leanza, deputy director for the Media Access Group, a Washington
nonprofit telecommunications law firm.
   "If the corporate-owned stations start losing money, maybe that'll spur
them into providing better service to their listeners," she said. "As it
stands now, the corporate owners are so distanced from the communities
they're supposedly serving, they don't know what the people want."
   The political football surrounding the debate means nothing to Pat
Ernst, a Brighton beauty shop owner -- she simply enjoyed listening to
Goodsight's station.
   "He played a lot of big band music, which you don't hear on regular
stations," she said. "I was sorry when he got shut down. My customers
liked the music he played, too. If he gets back on the air, I'll
definitely tune back in."
   Goodsight ignored several orders from FCC officials to stop
broadcasting. Finally, seven U.S. marshals came into his house while
Goodsight was at work and seized about $ 3,000 in radio equipment.
   But Goodsight said he holds no grudges.
   "I was simply trying to make a statement," he said. "The FCC was only
doing their job. Sometimes you have to break the law to get your message
across. I feel the current rules are unconstitutional, and something needs
to be done."