Radio Revolution or Airwave Anarchy?

NPR and the broadcast barons fight the FCC's attempt to make pirate radio legit and let a thousand stations bloom.

IT'S ANOTHER RADIO NIGHT in Seattle: down the dark corridor, up the steps, and through the counterweight-loaded trapdoor to a handbill-plastered back-alley studio the size of a closet in a Redmond chateau. I don't know whether to be flattered or disappointed that the operators of this covert (a.k.a. "pirate") radio station don't insist on blindfolding me, as they will a KPLU reporter coming the next night. "Him" and "Her" are hosting their weekly news show Evening Sedition. Him (who's really Jeff Pearson of the public-access show Deface the Nation) delivers the top stories: a long discourse on the health perils of Olestra, another on the toxicity of PVC plastic toys (with directions for calling Wal-Mart to complain), a lament that Seattle will forever be known for hosting the World Trade Organization's upcoming "Seattle Round" talks, and a rebuttal of the "absurd notion" that unlicensed microbroadcasting like this will "block reception and cause planes to drop from the sky." Meanwhile, Her (Mary Jones) provides color commentary and spins LPs for music cutaways: Elvis Costello and the Harmonicats' all-harmonica rendition of "Mack the Knife" at the moment. (She and Pearson have lately scoured the thrift shops to boost their library.)

Just in case listeners haven't noticed, Him reminds them that all this is "something you won't see in the mainstream media." That's even more true of the show that will fill this slot tomorrow—Bringin' Down da Man with DJ Tart and DJ Sanyal—and of tonight's next show: It's called Two Fucking Nuns, although only one—Sister Olive of the AIDS outreach group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—shows up tonight. He has, however, brought two friends, and they joke about and play a recorded mock dialogue touching on the unsafeness of felching. But first they get to serious business: reading a sheaf of listeners' responses, solicited at last week's show, to the demise of Seattle's annual AIDS Memorial Vigil. These compose a rare dialogue, by turns thoughtful, poignant, and soul-baring—talk radio stripped to its barest essentials, lacking even a phone, just a single tape-wrapped mike. "And if you can hear us," concludes Sister Olive, "you're just a stone's throw away."

Not necessarily; I've caught snatches of Free Seattle Radio (at 87.9 FM) from the other side of Lake Union. But at all of 33 watts—less than one three-thousandth the power of the top commercial and public-radio stations—FSR is by default a station of and for its Capitol Hill environs. Erratic and self- indulgent as it can be (in the usual way of volunteer cooperative efforts), FSR is a striking anachronism in an age of rampant chain-media consolidation: a neighborhood radio station. Queer and radical radio for Capitol Hill? What could be homier?

At the same time, FSR is one eruption in the spreading and increasingly clamorous groundswell of microradio. It is the successor to the late Belltown-based pirate station FUCC, whose audio equipment (originally donated by Eddie Vedder) it inherited. It may soon be joined by another, Wobbly-tinged, local micro, North Seattle Grassroots Radio. It follows the same pattern, at least in its politics—progressive to ragin' radical—as scores of other illicit micro stations (no one keeps a good tally, of course, but some estimates run to 400) around the country. And it shares with them a studied defiance of the federal rules that forbid micro stations and effectively make it impossible to secure new FM channels in urban areas.

THOSE RULES, AND THE IMPASSE they've engendered, may soon undergo sweeping change. On January 28, the Federal Communications Commission took the first big step toward transforming the radio landscape and possibly eliminating the need for pirate skulking. The FCC (which currently only allows commercial stations of 6,000 watts and up) proposes to open up new classes of 100- and 1,000-watt stations, and perhaps 10-watt micros that would be exempt from most regulations. This alone would have little effect in metropolitan areas, whose FM dials are already crowded. But the FCC also proposes to reduce the number of channels (currently three) that must be kept vacant between station signals to prevent bleeding and interference; two—and perhaps just one—vacant channel would do. A new station might then drop in at 94.5 on the FM dial, between KMPS at 94.1 and KUOW at 94.9. Or stations. Since the new low-power stations would have limited reach (from a 1- to 2-mile radius at 10 watts to 8.8 miles at 1,000), several might be distributed on the same local channel, each serving micro-local needs—such as, say, broadcasting PTSA and community-council meetings. Seattle's hills would further help separate the signals, just as they now work to mess up reception.

All this signals a dramatic policy reversal. Until 21 years ago, the FCC licensed low-power and microstations (as Canada still does). But then it cleared out the little guys after heavy lobbying by big broadcasters and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which wanted to clear signal space for the infant National Public Radio.

NPR and the National Association of Broadcasters (the big guys' lobby) are once again girding for battle against low-power intrusion. But the battleground has changed, and low-power interests may be reaching critical mass. The FCC reports receiving "over 13,000 inquiries" from what chair William Kennard (in a written statement) calls "churches, community groups, elementary schools, universities, small businesses, and minority groups . . . who want to use the airwaves." Legalizing what's now pirate radio would save the FCC from wearying court fights and the ugly spectacle of staging armed raids on illegal stations. It also appeals as a way to mitigate the notorious effects of the 1996 Communications Act, which largely deregulated station ownership and let a few national conglomerates buy up every plum in sight. This has accelerated both the decline in minority ownership of FM stations and the numbing homogenization of programming, as computer wizardry lets one "host" pretend to DJ local shows all over the country.

The FCC proposes to prevent such consolidation of low-power stations by barring current broadcasters from acquiring them and letting each new owner have only one in each market and possibly no more than five or 10 nationwide. But Harold Furchtgott-Roth, the only commissioner to oppose the proposal, notes that this raises two problems: After Congress forbade limits on multiple-station ownership in 1996, how can the FCC limit low-power ownerships? And, ensuring "that no one with any actual experience in broadcasting" could get the stations would breed "second-class performance and quality."

Ah well, after the cookie-cutter inanity of so much "professional" radio, a little Fucking Nuns and Evening Seditionstyle amateurism might not be such a bad thing. But other troubling and hotly contested issues haunt the proposal. The FCC suggests low-power stations might be able to go commercial; current pirate operators urge they be kept strictly noncommercial. The FCC doesn't say whether "local" low-power broadcasters should be allowed to rebroadcast satellite programming, which could make them fronts for national religious and commercial operations.

NPR AND THE COMMERCIAL broadcasters warn that, as an NPR brief puts it, "low-power broadcast stations are likely to pose unacceptable interference to full service stations and undermine the transition to digital radio broadcasting." The FCC insists it will maintain ample oversight and signal separation. But expert minds disagree as to whether these will indeed protect current signals.

Kerry Swanson, KPLU's veteran operations director, insists they won't: "Reception will be impaired. The original rules were definitely based on good, sound engineering. This proposal seems to be based on politics." But Robert Unmacht, the publisher of the Nashville-based radio-trade journal The M Street Journal and a former station owner, suggests such alarms are either overwrought or smokescreens. Unmacht notes that low-power equipment must still pass FCC muster, and that it likely will be new and well-made, hence not prone to leak into other signals: "It's the commercial stations that still have a lot of crappy old equipment." The gear—in particular the FM radio itself—has improved greatly in recent years and can hone in much more precisely than it could when the current rules were written, so signals can be more closely spaced.

Even some in public radio shrug off the alarms. KUOW manager Wayne Roth calls the low-power proposal "a pretty good plan" that, far from threatening public radio, will provide a "farm league" of new talent. But KUOW and KPLU have different interests at stake. KUOW might benefit because micro stations could both divert KCMU-loving hotheads and deflect complaints that its news/talk programming is too tame. Meanwhile, KPLU fears for the network of translators that extends its signal as far as Aberdeen and Bellingham—and which could be lost if new, local operators want those channels. KPLU staffers still smart at losing their Kelso translator to a religious broadcaster; legalize low-power radio, warns one, and "you'll be replacing NPR [in outlying areas] with amateur radio."

It's out in the sticks where NPR especially wants to keep low-power stations away and channels open, in hopes of eventually establishing more of its own stations. That agenda bolsters Unmacht's claim that the issue for microradio's opponents is really "competition, not interference." So goes NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton's polemical mantra: "If everybody owns a radio station, then nobody hears anything." What a shocking thought: that real folks might be able to talk to their neighbors over the air and the car radio, not just over the Internet. But the Internet is precisely where NPR and the commercial broadcasters recommend that microradio be consigned—safely out of their air.

For more information, contact Community Powered Radio, a Seattle group campaigning for microradio legalization (cpr@gurlmail.com), and check the Web sites of the Radio4All clearinghouse (www.radio4all.org); and the Federal Communications Commission, including the rulemaking notice and commissioners' comments (www.fcc.gov).

 
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