On November 30, 2012. the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced implementation of the bipartisan Local Community Radio Act of 2010. The legislation instructs the FCC to license more small, local Low Power FM (LPFM) stations. These stations broadcast on up to 100-watt transmitters, usually with a 3-4 mile signal range. The legislation replaces a 2000 ruling first recognizing LPFM. The 2000 legislation was hailed a groundbreaking victory for unlicensed radio, which had seized the airwaves and refused to be removed. However, the radio industry through inside deals from powerful lobbying arm the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) with the FCC and Congress quickly maneuvered to strategically undermine the process to eliminate even the smallest level of competition for the profiteers.
Over a twelve year period the net result is about 800 small, non-profit corporate LPFM stations nationally. Virtually none have been licensed in major urban areas, including none in the Bay area. The majority are rural stations owned by a well-funded national religious network, most others by schools and emergency responders. The result is a corporate jukebox of songs from the top ten record labels, AP wire service briefs, and government-funded propaganda from NPR.
The current LPFM legislation is again hailed as ground breaking by the media and radio activist organizations that worked hard for passage. It should provide a few more good quality, local stations. But will it help or actually hurt LPFM in the context of the overall goals of the original movement, which started out as “pirate radio”?
Within a week or two after the LPFM announcement, the FCC quietly announced another round of corporate media deregulation, the third attempt in the past decade. This legislation expands and includes radio in recently implemented cross-ownership rules to allow one corporation to own one newspaper, two TV stations, and up to 8 radio stations in any one market. The FCC’s complicity in expansion of corporate license approvals threatens to further limit the amount of dial space left for LPFM licenses.
In two weeks, media activist organizations delivered over 200,000 letters in opposition, minority media organizations protested, and 57 Congress people signed a letter in opposition, reminding the FCC of legal obligations it is ignoring. Yet, this year the FCC marches forward despite similar defeated attempts by organized public action in 2003 and 2007, with the only public support coming from industry profiteers.
Consolidation levels are already ridiculous. In 2003, 50 corporations owned 90% of the media. Now, six corporations own that 90%. People of color control 3.6% of TV stations and 8% of radio stations, and women less than 10% overall. 1996 legislation began the escalating consolidation, broadening radio ownership from about 35 stations nationally per company to about 35% or more in any geographic market. In 4 years, hated conglomerate Clear Channel grew from 35 to over 1200 stations nationally.
Estimates of the number of new LPFM stations that will be licensed are low, completely dependent on implementation. While virtually no LPFM stations were added over 12 years, countless thousands of big corporate applications were rubber-stamped, with estimates of up towards 10,000 of these applications on hold in the pipeline. Most aren’t even new, rather “repeater” or “translator” stations that either expand the signal range of an existing station or rebroadcast existing stations in different markets. An FCC brief last year suggested allowing 1 LPFM station for every 70 new licenses issued.
LPFM started towards the mid-90’s as a civil disobedience “pirate radio” movement. Stations such as Free Radio Berkeley and San Francisco Liberation Radio jumped onto open dial spaces with cheap equipment, as a broadcasting voice for the exploding homeless populations totally shut out of institutional media. At that time, homeless activists involved with Food Not Bombs and Homes Not Jails took over unused buildings, creating space for LPFM broadcasting, and communities for collective living.
The local power structure reacted by jailing activists and criminalizing homeless people while the FCC reacted similarly; criminalizing “illegal broadcasters” for operating without a license despite the fact that no low power licensing process existed. The criminalization included removing stations in armed multi-jurisdictional raids to seize “illegal transmitters.”
Broadcasters were sent civil fine notices in the tens of thousands of dollars, property owners threatened with both civil fines and property seizure for hosting “illegal” activities. The FCC to this day uses it’s limited public resources to spy, infiltrate, harass, threaten, and remove by force unlicensed stations as if an FBI investigating criminals on a most wanted list. This scares away broadcasters, results in frequent evictions, drives stations underground in need of internal security, and makes it really risky to hold public events and interact with the community.
Why didn’t this level of repression end, or even slow down the movement? Negative FCC publicity from armed raids and failed legal challenges dissuade higher profile challenges. How do people react to news reports that a volunteer DJ on air had multiple guns put to his/her head by multi-jurisdictional police forces that burst into the studio space under the direction of an FCC bureaucrat?
More to the point, unlicensed broadcasting isn’t and never was “illegal”. No legalities exist either way. Would the FCC win or lose a court challenge on grounds that it is mandated to provide for things like local, affordable access and diversity in membership and content? LPFM exists and is now legal, because of the brave, unyielding civil disobedience actions of these DJs and supporters.
Free Radio Berkeley pioneer Steven Dunifer recently raised the issue of the radio movement having been formed for much, much more than 800 little private corporate stations. Dunifer has produced for worldwide distribution basic radio starter kits that get a station broadcasting for less than $1,000. Many unlicensed stations broadcast good radio as non-hierarchical collectives on as little as several hundred dollars a month, mostly for cheap rent and utilities. Many are self-financed with small monthly DJ donations, used equipment, and occasional fundraising benefits.
Unlicensed radio and web broadcasting has and can continue to provide much more than songs and talk, namely direct action politics. The web-based independent media center movement started around the “Battle of Seattle”. Internet sites can broadcast audio live on location worldwide and archive shows for free download and rebroadcast at minimal cost. When an FM radio station is willing to link to that live site, it can simulcast live from the studio with a click of a bottom.
San Francisco Liberation Radio (SFLR) was broadcasting good quality radio to central San Francisco in 2003 when bombs started dropping in Iraq, before shutdown by armed FCC raid. At that time, licensed broadcasters were summarily fired for uttering even a word in opposition to this destructive war, resulting in nothing but corporate “cheerleading” and self-censorship.
The SF Bay Independent Media Center (indybay.org) formed a web radio station called Enemy Combatant Radio (ECR). The day after the Iraq war was announced, it broadcast from the studio live call-in reports from the streets on a day the Financial District was completely shut down with anarchist-oriented tactics, costing Wall Street millions. SFLR broadcasted ECR live. Broadcasts from subsequent rally sites and break-away marches were streamed live with SFLR rebroadcast live in public parks. Internet hits were logged from indymedia sites worldwide. Event-specific street broadcasts have been held at major anti-war rallies and anti-globalization events, including live documentation of police-protester clashes in breakaway marches.
Occupy movements created live streams to document activities and for radio re-broadcast. Several years ago, Puerto Rican students and supporters seized public university campus’ over university fee hike/service cuts, with police/protester riots across cities. Part of a worldwide student movement, students set up an LPFM station on the seized campus. A student leader I interviewed while visiting the Bay Area said they’d gotten the idea from reading about Berkeley Liberation Radio.
The current licensing process is led by liberal/progressive organizations with very little advocacy for or involvement from the unlicensed community. Most pirate broadcasters I’ve heard from – including myself – want nothing to do with being a corporation, playing it safe, having a station manager, raising big money, or having anything to do with the FCC. In my opinion, radical, direct action stations have a better chance staying on the air without a license. If licensed and unwilling to self-censor, the first thing to fight will be industry-fueled FCC witch hunts that take back the license. Stations paying tens of thousands of dollars start-up costs are likely to play it safe with non-confrontational liberal politics, and push out socialist, anarchist and other leftist viewpoints.
Why did the 2000 LPFM legislation accomplish virtually nothing? The legislation was flawed in the first place, only allowing for non-profit corporations such as schools and churches. FCC and cheap industry tricks quickly destroyed the rest. Instead of granting licenses to existing unlicensed stations, the FCC implemented a retaliatory “lifetime ban” for anyone having participated in these “illegal activities”. Artificially limiting dial space, unrealistic application costs, hiding a court-mandated study, refusal to open new available spectrums, and not administering the process are some of the implementation blocks. NPR has bought up most small stations, driving the price of a license into the millions and leaving few small local stations left.
In my analysis, the new LPFM movement is needed more than ever just to replace the fast disappearing traditional “non-commercial” radio spectrum. Unlicensed radio activists can look to the roots of pirate radio and current independent media movements to re-invigorate a radical direct action movement for quality radio free of government control.