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2004-07-30 13:50:11
The following short history of microradio was prepared by Sara Zia Ebrahimi of Prometheus Radio Project, Philadelphia in 1999.

Your best, most exciting source of programs will be the thousands of people in your area who have  never had a broadcast station come to them and offer them time for free to talk, to be interviewed, to sing.  American broadcasters - both commercial and "educational" - have built a mystique that says you must have magic to have access to the microphone. . . You will give them the secret which is really no secret at all: that is:  the radio station owners and the schools and the colleges are not the priests and magicians that control ten thousand American transmitters; but rather, just frail ghosts who we are programmed to think they have the right and the duty to keep us out. - Lorenzo Milam, from Sex and Broadcasting, A Handbook On Starting A Radio Station For the Community, 1975

How the Radio Airwaves Became Inaccessible

When radio technology was first introduced on a mass scale to the American public, the idea of including advertisements as a component of broadcasting was ridiculed.  Yet, as a culture of consumerism was cultivated in the 1920's and 30's advertisements came to dominate the airwaves.  Additionally, in 1934 the government passed a Telecommunications Act which established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and regulations for the radio airwaves which favored commercialism.  This created outcry among much of the American public, including prominent founders of the radio industry such as Lee Deforest.  In order to alleviate the growing dissatisfaction with the trend towards commercialism, the FCC used the introduction of FM technology in 1948 as an opportunity to create a strictly non-commercial educational radio service.  A small portion of the far left side of the FM radio dial was set aside for these stations. Radio visionaries such as Lew Hill and Lorenzo Milam seized this opportunity to create what is now referred to as community radio (stations that are listener supported, volunteer run, and have no ties to a university, foundation, or other large institution).  During this time the FCC also created a Class D license, which, for an affordable amount, allowed individuals and groups to broadcast at 10-20 watts.  These licenses became incredibly popular, such that by the mid-1960s over half of the radio licenses held in the country were class D licenses.

Also in the mid-60's, a group of intellectuals at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations joined to create National Public Radio (NPR).They felt that the Class D stations were too eclectic and inconsistent and preferred a nationally based service done by radio professionals.  NPR was instrumental in persuading the FCC in its decision to repeal the Class D license in 1978.  The low power community based stations were forced to either upgrade to 100 watts or go off the air.  Although a few Class D stations were grand fathered in and allowed to continue broadcasting, the majority, due to a lack of funds and resources, were forced to close down.

The abolishment of the Class D license meant that there was no longer any affordable means for a community group to establish a radio station.  The FCC has continued to enact policies which favor large commercial broadcasters, culminating in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  The 1996 Telecom Act was arguably one of the most influential pieces of legislation passed in the past decade.  It was largely written by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), an association of entities which own the majority broadcast media in the country, and passed with almost no changes or public input.  One of the essential components of the Telecom Act which effects the state of radio is the change in ownership laws.  Before the Act was passed no single entity or corporation was allowed to own more than 20% of the radio stations in a given "market" or community; this was then changed to no more than 1/3 of the market (up to eight stations in the biggest markets). Additionally the National limit of 20 FM and 20 AM stations was lifted such that a single corporation can now own a unlimited number of stations nationally.

The result of all this is that we find our communications media, which is essential to a democratic culture and society, in the hands of only a few corporations.  If the rate of media consolidation continues at its current rate, within 10 years only 3-4 corporations will own up to 3/4 of all the media in this country.  This consolidation of ownership is a type of censorship that is sometimes subtle and goes unnoticed; censorship through ownership.

How the Airwaves Were Reclaimed

There always have been radio  "pirates" whose broadcasts have taken a variety of forms, but unlicensed radio broadcasting as a civil disobedience movement is most often credited as beginning in 1986.  In Springfield, Illinois a man named Mbanna Kantako founded Black Liberation Radio (later renamed Human Rights Radio). Kantako broadcast to the housing project community in which he lived with only 1 watt of power. It wasn't until he did an interview with a neighbor who had been brutalized by the police that he got the attention of the general public.  Despite threats by local police and FCC agents, Kantako continued broadcasting asserting the people's right of access to the airwaves.

With Kantako as an inspiration, a cohesive civil disobedience movement of microbroadcasters emerged in the mid-1990's in protest of the FCC's regulations. Microradio stations usually operate at anywhere between 10-40 watts which gives a broadcasting range of anywhere between 2-15 miles.  This is in contrast to the commercial stations which can broadcast at up to 100,000 watts and often cover whole geographical regions.

In 1993 Stepehn Dunifer, a Berkeley radical and engineer, was taken to court by the FCC for broadcasting without a license.  With the generous help of the National Lawyers Guild Committee on Democratic Communications (NLG-CDC), Dunifer was able to convince Judge Claudia Wilkens not to grant an injunction against him. The NLG-CDC also argued that this was a First Amendment case of a right to freedom of speech, an argument which Judge Wilkens decided needed further consideration.

As a result of this, Dunifer had complete legal immunity (meaning the FCC could not touch him).  He took advantage of this by founding Free Radio Berkeley, a round the clock unlicensed community radio station. He also began producing and distributing technical information on how to get on the air as well as transmitters he had designed.

Within the next few years there was a microradio boom.  Hundreds of stations across the country were confidently reclaiming the airwaves and gaining community support.  These seemingly small operations and assertions of free speech were enough of a threat to the NAB that at their 1997 national conference they demanded that this "pirate" problem be dealt with immediately.  Not too long afterwards, William Kennard (a former high ranking NAB official) was appointed Chairman of the FCC.  He attempted to intimidate microbroadcasters by sending FCC officials, ATF and SWAT teams, FBI agents and Federal Marshals into the homes of three microbroadcasters in Tampa, Florida.  The effort resulted in negative backlash from the mainstream press as well as persistence by microbroadcasters to organize community and national support.  National networking and microradio conferences on both the west and east coasts in 1998 helped build pressure on the FCC.  Chairman Kennard responded to this pressure by giving lip service support to the idea of creating a low-power FM service, while at the same time still continuing to bust microstations.  By their own count, the FCC had fined and shut down over 400 stations.

There were at the same time some serious blows to the microradio movement.  In June of 1998, Judge Wilkens, after three years, made a final ruling on the Dunifer case.  She concluded that Dunifer had no standing to question the constitutionality of the matter since he had not actually tried applying for a license and gotten rejected.  In addition to refusing to address the First Amendment argument, Judge Wilkens granted an injunction to the FCC against Dunifer forcing Free Radio Berkeley off the air.  Several other legal strategies were pursued by other stations including Steal this Radio of New York City, San Francisco Liberation Radio, Beat Radio of Minneapolis, and Grid Radio of Cleveland.  Though some battles in lower courts were won, none of the cases turned into huge wins for the microradio movement.

Although numerous stations were pushed off the air during the summer of 1998, all momentum was not lost.  In October over a hundred microradio broadcasters and their supporters gathered in Washington DC for a conference, protest, and live broadcast outside the FCC and NAB buildings.  Within a  month of the event, the FCC announced that it would be issuing a proposal to create a legal licensing scheme for microradio stations.

In January of 1999 the FCC officially issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NORM) to create a Low Power FM (LPFM) service.

(This piece was written in 1999.  For information on how the story unfolded in subsequent years, please refer to the rest of the articles in this handbook).

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