FCC Ruling Legalizes Micro Radio – But the devil is in the details.

After a dozen years of radio civil disobedience in which thousands of people around the country started their own micro-powered radio stations to protest Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) rules banning all but the wealthy from access to radio broadcasting, the FCC issued an order “legalizing” micro radio January 30. It is not yet clear whether the order is a shocking vindication of the rag tag coalition of radicals, techies, artists and musicians who dared to challenge the FCC, or a textbook example of how government bureaucracies work to neutralize a radical movement by granting “reforms” and keeping the underlying system intact.

The answer to this question will come in part later this spring when the FCC begins taking applications for licenses to build legal micro power radio stations. Under the FCC’s new rules, there is little doubt that a lot of new radio stations will begin broadcasting: probably around 1,000 nationwide. It is possible that hundreds of the newly licensed stations will match the dreams of free radio advocates: fearless locally oriented stations that will give diverse voices a space on the radio dial, featuring a more local focus and alternative news, ideas, music and formats.

It is equally possible that the new stations will mostly be snapped up by religious broadcasters or other boring, narrow minded users like mainstream non-profits- -Boy Scouts, YMCA, local Chambers of Commerce- -who will use the new stations to extend their already considerable institutional channels of communication. In this scenario, micro radio would have few new voices, few new ideas, and the struggle of the last few years for a local, diverse and creative alternative would have been wasted.

As at every stage of the micro powered radio struggle, the outcome will largely depend on how well free speech advocates can quickly get organized to apply for new, legal radio licenses. Everyone reading this article ought to figure out how they can get together with others to put in an application for an available micro powered radio station in your community.

Direct Action Gets the Goods

The FCC’s ruling is directly in response to a national, radical, direct action movement. Once again, direct action gets the goods, but it’s sometimes hard to predict exactly what you’re going to get or whether you even want it. From the beginning, the national movement was split between people for whom the direct action was a goal in and of itself, and those pushing for legal reform.

For the former, the “golden age” of micro radio was during the period when hundreds of stations blossomed illegally around the country. These stations were experimental, visionary and exciting. The rebel broadcasters didn’t want the red tape associated with a legal license-they were doing excellent work just fine as long as no one seized their equipment. The struggle for legal broadcasting, and especially the Federal judge Claudia Wilkin’s refusal to issue a preliminary injunction against Free Radio Berkeley in their legal case, gave considerable legal cover for a thousand transmitters to bloom. With the FCC’s legalization order, the FCC is more likely to take a get tough attitude against those broadcasters who decide to ignore the process for a legal license and instead just keep broadcasting. For activists who wanted to live “free radio” with no laws, the FCC’s order is irrelevant, or at most a bureaucratic reform that will give the FCC an excuse to shut them down.

Other free radio activists were always focused on changing the law so that more risk averse potential broadcasters, not just brave (or reckless) rebels, could get on the air across the country. When the FCC issued their Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) last year, it was filed with a lot of provisions the legal reformers hated: it would have made the new stations open to commercial broadcasters, it didn’t contain local residency requirements, and it allowed for much higher wattage stations than necessary for true local niche broadcasting.

Lobbying Effort Generally Effective

The Committee on Democratic Communications (CDC) of the National Lawyers Guild spent last summer putting together an impressive national coalition to pressure the FCC to improve the proposed rules.

Amazingly, most of the ideas proposed by the CDC, with a few glaring exceptions, were adopted in the final FCC order. Issues where free radio reformers “won” include:

  • All of the new stations must be “non-commercial” and owned by non-profit entities;

  • No entity owning an existing radio station or other media outlet will be permitted to get a station;
  • During the first 2 years that the FCC issues licenses, stations will only be granted to organizations based within 10 miles of where the signal will broadcast., promoting local orientation of programming (this restriction will end after the 2 year “head start” for localism);
  • During the first 2 years, each entity will only be permitted to own one station (after 2 years, one entity can own up to 5, after 3 years 10 nationally, but still only one in each area);
  • When two or more entities apply for one station (which is probably going to be very common), the FCC will go through a number of creative steps to resolve the “mutual exclusive” applications, rather than using an auction (which favors the rich) or hearings, which are expensive and take a long time. These steps start with a point system, favoring community presence and local program orientation, and if the point system does not resolve the conflict, stations will be encouraged to reach a negotiated settlement by agreeing to share airtime. As described below, this usually inflexible approach is probably one of the most important victories for free radio advocates;
  • Only stations operating at 100 watts or less are permitted, allowing room for more stations (the original NPRM proposed to allow stations up to 1,000 watts);
  • Low Power FW (LPFM) stations won’t have to protect other radio stations on the “3 rd adjacent” channel, contrary to FCC rules for higher power stations. This decision in the FC order opens up space for 1,000 new stations-under previous FCC rules, the radio dial was generally considered “full.” The relaxation of the rules won’t apply to full power stations, only to micro stations. This is complex and important, so here’s an example: If there is a full powered station on 104.5 FM, the first adjacent channel is 104.3, the second adjacent channel is 104.1, and the third adjacent channel is 103.9. Under the new rules, an LPFM station can be located on 103.9 if there is a full powered station on 104.5 and nothing within 2 channels below 103.9 FM.

    While this last point is an important change in the FCC rules, the FCC didn’t go far enough.

    The losses

    Under the FCC order, LPFM stations will still have to protect other stations on the “2nd adjacent” channel, a massive victory for corporate radio forces, who made the potential for radio interference without 2nd adjacent channel protection a center-piece of their campaign against legalization of micro powered radio. This decision by the FCC is undoubtedly the worst aspect of their new rules. By forcing LPFM stations to protect on the 2nd adjacent channel, the FCC has denied the opportunity for thousands of new stations. The FCC decision also means that there will be very few new stations in large urban areas, where they are needed the most.

    This aspect of the FCC order is especially troubling since the FCC’s own technical study, and several independent technical studies, seemed to indicated that there would not be unacceptable levels of radio interference if the FCC lifted 2nd adjacent protection. In real world conditions, Free Radio Berkeley, which operated for 3 and a half years at 104.1 FM, did not noticeably interfere with two full powered stations, one at 104.5 and one at 103.7 FM. Both were 2nd adjacent channels from Free Radio Berkeley.

    The FCC decision regarding 2nd adjacent protection seems to be the secret loophole designed into the new rules by the FCC to nullify them. By writing the rules as they did, the FCC gives free radio reformers most everything they asked for, the FCC gets to hold a press conference and announce that they are in favor of democracy and free speech, but in the smoky back rooms, the FCC is still “taking care of business.” The FCC decision on this issue allows them to innocently proclaim that there “just isn’t any space” for very many new stations, especially in dense urban areas, when in fact this shortage of space is due to their own mis-decision on 2nd adjacent protection.

    The other and much more popularly discussed flaw in the FCC rules is that broadcasters who engaged in civil disobedience to force the issuance of the new FCC rules won’t be permitted to apply for licenses under the new rules. This is like lifting restrictions on bus seating after Rosa Parks’ famous ride for everyone else, but still requiring Rosa herself to sit in the back of the bus.

    Another very important flaw in the rules is that, except in certain rare instances of mutually exclusive application restrictions, all LPFM licenses issued under the rules will be renewable every 8 years indefinitely, just like “full” power licenses. This means that this May, when the FCC starts taking applications for new stations, may be the last time in human history when any non-mainstream organization will have an opportunity to get on the air in the United States. (Or at least until the Federal government crumbles.) This means that its extremely important to organize now-there won’t be another chance.

    It also means that over time, it is highly likely that any really radical, innovative, ground breaking stations will eventually “mellow out” and learn to fit in with the rest of the vast wasteland on the radio dial. Witness the example of KPFA, once an extremely radical broadcaster. At the moment it is attempting to transform itself into what NPR might have been like a few years ago; NPR itself is now pretty much like ABC. There is something about the passage of time-volunteers are replaced by “staff”, staff wants to be more “professional” as they get more experienced, once fearless people need to be more careful as they have kids and buy houses-that causes most radical, volunteer based non-profits to eventually get completely boring and mainstream. Witness the Sierra Club making deals with big business. Or even, some would say, the trends within Earth First!

    If the FCC had made the licenses nonrenewable, this would have meant that every few years, a new crop of adventurers would have gotten their chance at the microphone. This should be remembered weh any radical group that get ahold of a license is writing its bylaws: kick everyone out every few years and let the kids take over.

    There are a lot of other details, both good, bad and indifferent in the FCC rules, which are over 50 pages long. Read it at www.fcc.gov if you’re interested. The new stations won’t be able to broadcast dirty words, they’ll have the same political access rules as full powered stations, they’ll have to have an expensive decoder to broadcast Emergency Broadcast System announcements, stations will have 4 letter cal signs followed by “LP” for Low Power-”WXYZ-LP”, stations will have to broadcast at least 36 hours a week, at least 5 hours a day, and at least 6 days a week, etc.

    Reformist Sell-out or Opportunity

    As with any campaign for reform short of a total transformation of this system, the government making the reform intends reform to defuse radical demands. The reason the micro-radio movement may be different is because even winning 1,000 stations has the potential to materially increase the amount of social communication outside the control of corporate elites. Communication can promote resistance and ultimately social transformation. It remains to be seen whether LPFM will be a “non-reformist” reform, or yet another source of babble on the airwaves, and another meaningless attempt to make life under this intolerable system more fuzzy.

    Slingshot publishes this stuff in detail because we’ve been into the detail since the beginning. This might be almost the last article on Micro powered radio. We hope you care.