View Electronic Edition

Micro-Powered Radio

In 1984, I worked for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation in the Inuit town of Nain, Labrador, a community in the Canadian Arctic reachable only by airplane. The micro-powered radio station was the communication hub in this town of 1,200. Listeners regularly posted on-air announcements for food or supplies, or to find help. Life in town slowed down during Radio Bingo, which provided fun, a little bit of cash, and fund-raising for the station. And if you wanted to find out what was going on between individuals, you could try to interpret the subtle messages played out in the song dedications.

Until late in the 1980s, when cheap satellite TV service came to Nain, there were few media sources other than radio in northern communities. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio and television service later became available via microwave, but the Inuit in Nain desired not southern urban programming supplemented by a tiny bit of native content, but their own local service, combining the Inuktut language and English. So, beginning in the 1970s, they?in cooperation with more than 300 other aboriginal communities in Canada?scrounged together recording and radio equipment, and strung up low-powered radio transmitters to talk to their families and friends.

Now I listen to San Francisco Liberation Radio (SFLR), a micro-radio station that broadcasts from an apartment near my home in the Richmond District. While the Bay Area has many times the number of media channels available in Nain, micro-radio's raison d'Ítre is surprisingly similar in both places. SFLR broadcasts news, views, and music from groups you seldom hear on the radio dial?from Food Not Bombs to rank-and-file labor, African American and Native American activists, and little-known young musicians. It's unpredictable and often quirky.

There are more than 1,000 US micro-radio stations. In contrast to mainstream radio, in which stations are primarily repeater stations for major corporations, micro-radio staffs are local, and program content focuses on local needs. There are no commercials, no costly studios, no capital and license fees costing upwards of a million dollars. Nor are there syndicated programs or music playlists.

Instead, micro-radio stations operate on otherwise unused FM frequencies; with a basic transmitter and equipment package of $1,000 to $1,500; in mobile or borrowed spaces; and mostly with volunteers. They can afford to experiment and take risks. The stations serve a wide range of constituencies, from politicos to the Christian Right to local government and school boards to musicians who are trying to break the stranglehold held by the Big Five global music corporations.

For more than twenty years US micro-radio activists have been in a David-and-Goliath battle with the status quo. Micro-powered stations were legal in the United States until 1978, when the FCC stopped issuing Class D licenses, which had been held mostly by educational, nonprofit, and community-based groups. The move was part of a general trend to allow more corporate mergers and less regulation of programming, with the rationale that market forces would effect the most efficient use of the public airwaves. At the same time, both the National Public Radio network and the Federation of Community Broadcasters opposed micro-radio on the grounds that the nonprofit frequencies?the left-hand side of the radio dial?should be run by professionals. Some of that era's micro-powered stations were able to keep their licenses, but the mergers soon drove the cost of new frequencies and licenses beyond what most nonprofits or small businesses could afford. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 increased consolidation even further, according to FCC commissioner Gloria Tristani, with the number of radio station owners shrinking by more than 12 percent after its passage. The recent merger of Clear Channel and AM/FM means that 1,000 stations, out of 12,000 licensed in the US, are now under one corporate umbrella.

During most of the 1980s and 1990s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) waged war against what it called the "pirates," closing down 500 of them. By the end of the decade, the Commission had been humbled by the increasing number of stations, the high cost of policing, and the positive media garnered by the micro-radio movement.

After a year of public discussion, the FCC voted in January, 2000 to license low-powered FM radio stations.

The two new classes of license encompass one- to ten-watt stations with a neighborhood radius of one to two miles, and 50- to 100-watt stations serving a 3.5 mile radius. In comparison, the smallest current FM station is 6,000 watts. FCC chairman William Kennard said that the rapid consolidation of the broadcast industry had prompted the decision and that the new licensing would enhance community-oriented radio. The commission was also responding to tens of thousands of briefs and letters supporting micro-radio, submitted from all across the US by nonprofit and educational groups, ethnic and religious groups, state and local governments, students, labor unions, and musicians.

The decision to license low-powered FM stations was a major shift in direction for the FCC and US broadcasting, a victory for micro-radio activists. It came as a result of a sustained campaign by nonprofit stations willing to engage in civil disobedience by going on the air without a license. Micro-radio broadcasters were united primarily by their desires to go on the air, and their belief in the right to free speech. The campaign's grandfather is Mbanna Kantako, the first broadcaster to publicly challenge the FCC. On November 25, 1987 he broadcast a one-watt signal from his family's small apartment in the John Hay Public Housing Project in Springfield, Illinois to an eight-block radius. Given class and race segregation, that was enough to reach several thousand African Americans on the East Side and in the downtown area. From the beginning, Kantako used the airwaves to mobilize for social justice.

His station's several name changes?from W-Tenants' Rights Association (WTRA) to Black Magic Radio to Black Liberation Radio to Human Rights Radio?reflect the widening of his concerns from the local to the global: from tenants' rights issues to local municipal utility practices that implicated Shell Oil to global solidarity with oil workers and communities fighting Shell in Nigeria.

Kantako never sought licensing, but instead promoted the idea of poor communities seizing the airwaves and opening their own unlicensed stations. Facing constant harassment and threat of closure from the FCC, housing authorities, and local police, Kantako and his supporters were able to recruit positive coverage in mainstream press such as NPR, MTV, Spin magazine, and the Los Angeles Times . The idea of communities creating their own local media began to take off.

One of the people inspired by Kantako was anarchist and activist Stephen Dunifer. In 1992, Dunifer hiked into the Berkeley hills with a radio transmitter tucked into his backpack and began Free Radio Berkeley. He began to produce and distribute small broadcast kits, becoming the Johnny Appleseed of the growing micro-radio movement. When his station was shut down by the FCC in 1993, he decided to make a test case and fight for freedom of expression.

With support from the National Lawyers Guild, Dunifer argued that ordinary people were being shut out of the public airwaves by the prohibitive cost of licensing and equipment. Dunifer said that micro-radio represented a resistance to the enclosure of the media by entertainment giants who were fencing off the public airwaves and silencing public discussion; he compared it to the enclosure of the commons and exclusion of the commoners by the sheep agri-businesses of the Middle Ages.

Alan Korn of the National Lawyers Guild argued, "You have to remember that most of the station licenses were given away during the era of the Jim Crow laws where it was very difficult for African Americans or any minority groups to own a station. Now...the only people who can afford to buy a broadcast license are not the mom and pop stations, but the biggest multinationals, biggest cultural enterprises...who own hundreds and hundreds of stations. So our belief is that low-power FM should really only be opened up, at least initially, to noncommercial entities and community groups that need a voice on the airwaves. We need a set of rules that would permit the maximum number of users, with local content and local ownership".

Korn and other micro-radio activists are calling the January FCC ruling a victory. However, they remain concerned about a number of issues; for instance, that a relaxation over time of ownership requirements (which will restrict the new licenses to local owners for the first two years) could allow well-financed mainstream broadcasters or Christian Fundamentalists to monopolize the licenses. They are also worried that the technical requirements to limit interference (which require protection of existing stations on their channel and two adjacent channels) are too conservative, and may effectively bar new low-power licenses in urban centers such as New York.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the industry lobby group, has used the "interference question" in their opposition to licensing micro-radio stations. They argue that low-power stations will interfere with their signals, and with the introduction of digitalization, take up too much space on the frequency spectrum.

Both the FCC and the Microradio Empowerment Coalition have conducted engineering studies to show that this is not the case. Alan Korn thinks the NAB wants the same deal the FCC gave the television conglomerates when new extra bandwidth?made possible by digitalization?was just handed over to the existing stations. The NAB is considering seeking a court order against the new regulations.

Whatever happens, the micro-radio movement has demonstrated a communications model that emphasizes local voices over state-controlled and corporate monoculture, and a grassroots campaign to democratize the airwaves in opposition to cash-heavy lobbying to maintain the status quo. More than a decade ago, Korn and his colleagues took on Dunifer's case, believing in its just cause but not thinking they would win in the courts. He now sees micro-radio as a stepping stone to greater issues of media democracy. Can local communities go on to wrest frequencies back from the broadband and cellular channels (VHF, cable, and dish TV)?