When asked about micro radio and the “pirate radio problem” the FCC and the NAB often give answers citing interference and other unspecified technical concerns. We believe their statements to be an attempt to confuse the public and the press, and create the impression that these matters are best left to “experts”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is important to understand that despite all the knobs and dials and meters, the major obstacles to creating a low power FM  (LPFM) community radio service are not technical— they are political and economic.   Radio is a very well understood technology that has been around for a hundred years.  Other countries (like Japan, Canada, Italy) allocate their radio spectrum in a very different manner from ours. They consider community radio an essential element of a robust democracy, and encourage it with favorable regulations, and support it with public money.  In the US, radio is regulated in the interest of large commercial broadcast corporations, with a sop to NPR.  There is no law of physics that says that there is room for six computer programmed “adult contemporary” music stations in the same city (or “market” as the broadcast industry refers to us) but none to broadcast the local high school football game.

These questions and answers should help sort out the disinformation from the FCC and the NAB.

   Can “pirate” radio signals really make airplanes fall from the sky?

Malfunctioning equipment in the broadcast band, CB radios, cable TV lines, and even garage door openers can cause interference problems. None of these services is denied to the American public because of the possibility that something might go haywire. LPFM is technically no different from any of these other services, and no more likely to cause harmful interference. If you ask them, the FCC’s engineers will have to admit that the overwhelming majority of pirate radio operators operate within the specs for licensed radio stations.  If the FCC really cared about public safety, they would take a pragmatic approach, enforcing the law when interference occurs.  Instead, they have focussed their resources on a hysterical “war on pirate radio”, using the emotional issue of air safety as bogey–man to scare off rational consideration of the issue.  Interference would be better prevented through legalization and education than heavy-handed enforcement.

According to Dharma Bilotta-Dailey and Tracy Jake Siska, two jounalists who have researched the matter extensively,  the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has records of a single case of micropower interference since 1990.  There were, however, several cases of FM interference by large licensed  stations.  The most notable are from three separate antenna farms in Oregon, New Mexico, and Florida.  These were cases of high powered stations transmitting very closely to the  FAA's own towers.  The FAA's engineering study from New Mexico said there'd been interference problems since 1965.  In Oregon, the FAA engineers had to haggle with the station owners to get them to correct their problem— and gave them four months to do the work.  Two reports on North Perry Airport in Florida indicate that they have changed their frequencies several times since1976 to accomodate interference from commercial stations.  In 1990, there was a fatal mid-air collision at this airport.  One FAA report indicates that, just prior to the crash, one of the pilots may have been flying in a so–called a "radio blackout" area said to be  caused by an antenna farm two miles away from the airport.

  Do “pirate” broadcasters interfere with licensed broadcasters?

Not nearly as often as licensed broadcasters interfere with each other. No responsible community radio station operator wants to cause interference.  We’ve found ourselves some small openings in the regular FM broadcast band.  This band was set up when receivers were much less sensitive and selective, so the FCC left lots of room between channels. When one station interferes with another they both suffer. We like to follow the same technical standards as the big guys;  a clean, stable signal is the way to go, and recent developments in circuit design put reliable low powered transmitters within the budget of almost any group. Maybe that’s what they’re worried about.

  What about the waivers that Judge Wilken cited?  Why don’t you just apply for licenses?

LPFM community radio activists, forced to operate without licenses because such licenses are practicially never issued, have been trying to challenge the FCC’s licensing procedures.  These challenges have all been deflected on narrow procedural grounds; no federal court has yet taken up the substantive first amendment issues.  In the case of FCC vs. Dunifer, Judge Claudia Wilken of the Federal Court’s Ninth District held up the FCC’s motion for injuction and summary judgment for almost five years while she considered The National Lawyers’ Guild and Dunifer’s constitutional arguments.  She finally ruled for the FCC, once again on narrow proceedural grounds, stating that since Dunifer had never applied for a license or waiver of the 100 watt minimum requirement for a license, he had no standing to challenge the FCC’s regulations.  The FCC has in fact issued two waivers in the 20 years since the Class D license was abolished, one for a remote Indian reservation in New Mexico and the other for a small community in the interior of Alaska.  Rather than supporting Wilken’s contention that Dunifer had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, these examples seem to support his claim that practically speaking, these waivers are never issued.  Even so, several LPFM stations are going forward with waiver applications, if only to prove that such applications are indeed futile.

  Isn't the fcc going to legalize this soon anyway?

There are three petitions for Rule Making, along with several alternative schemes contained in public comments on these petitions currently before the FCC.  Some of these proposals will do nothing for non–commercial LPFM, others would permit stations of up to 3,000 watts under loosened regulations.  We want to make sure that there is a portion of the current FM band reserved for locally controlled, non-commercial radio stations, and that they can be set up and licensed simply and cheaply.  LPFM advocates and community broadcasters can be forgiven their skepticism of the FCC’s intentions; until six months ago the FCC was absolutely unbending in its opposition to micro–radio.  What it took to get them to consider legalizing LPFM was thousands of people committing electronic civil disobedience, by defying their unreasonable rules and demonstrating that low power FM works, is an asset to communities, and doesn’t cause undue interfence with anything.  As long as the campaign of harrassment and disinformation against microbroadcasters continues, the proposals for legalization would seem to be no more than a public relation ploy.

  Will there be chaos on the airwaves?

Up until 20 years ago the FCC issued “class D” licenses for noncommercial stations operating at a minimum of 10 watts, but abolished them under pressure from NPR and the CPB, who sought to consolidate control of non–commercial broadcasting, and what public money was available to support it. The FCC already licenses “repeaters” at power levels of less than 100 watts.  These stations are not permitted to originate programming, but only to rebroadcast the signal of another station.

There is no technical reason why the class D license, or something even less restrictive, couldn’t be re–instated. What looked like chaos to a bureaucrat, who would prefer to have fewer, larger stations to regulate, would look like greater opportunity for expression and communications for local writers, musicians, teachers and activists.

Micro–radio stations would have a self–interest in keeping their part of the band reasonably “tidy”— without some agreements about power levels and frequency assignments, the band would be useable to noone. In its comments on the LPFM proposals now before the FCC, the National Lawyers’ Guild Committee on Democratic Communications proposes the creation of local micro–radio associations to resolve disputes between stations, with the FCC getting involved only as a last resort. The FCC has already handed off certain routine regulatory tasks to regional commercial broadcasters associations, and permits neighboring stations to settle interference problems among themselves.  Ham radio is another example of effective spectrum management by voluntary radio operators at no expense to the state.

In a recent press release concerning enforcement operations against a microradio station, the FCC said the station was operating at 1400 times the legal maximum. What does that mean practical terms?  Is any kind of low power FM broadcasting allowed?

Part 15 of the FCC’c regulations permit stations to operate at about 1/40 watt without a license, which would give you a range of about half a block, if the wind were right. You’d be better off with a megaphone.  The effective range of a radio transmitter varies with the square root of its power; increasing power 1400 times would increase range by a factor of 38.  The effective range of the station cited would be a mile or so, at best.
The use of these kinds of astronomical numbers is a good example of the FCC’s attempts to spin the issue with ominous sounding technical half-truths.

  Why don’t you guys just use the internet?

The bare minimum computer with the capability to download and play real time audio now costs about $1000. A portable radio can be purchased new for $20, and for a couple of bucks at a swap meet. There’s hardly anyone who can’t afford an FM radio.  While there are many things that are encouraging about Internet Radio, the price of the equipment makes the medium inherently undemocratic.

  Aren't fewer, bigger stations a more efficient use of the spectrum?

That would all depend on what you meant by efficiency. If keeping expenses down for multi-station owners, and having the same programming available from coast to coast is your aim, then sure. But if what you’re after is more voices and viewpoints on the air, and greater community participation in public life, then more lower powered stations are the way to go.  NPR and the Pacifica stations do a good job at national and regional coverage, but the 100 watt minimum, coupled with the tendency of these operations to become slicker and more professional (read: more expensive) makes it impossible for them to do justice to local issues.  Both are necessary.  Why shouldn’t people be able to hear their city council, or school board meetings on the radio?

More Info: Pete triDish, (215) 474-6459;
Amanda Huron, (202) 518-5644;

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