The Low Power FM Deception

Despite the well-intentioned efforts of organizations such as Prometheus Radio Project and Free Press to reform the media landscape, these efforts have only played into the hands of the government and the corporations who control it. This is the nature of reform, nothing more than a discussion about how to make the jail cell more comfortable – leaving intact the established relationships of power, control and finance. In the case of Prometheus Radio Project, they have fallen victim to their own historical revisionism, forgetting it was a national campaign of electronic disobedience (the Free Radio Movement) that forced the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to revisit the issue of low power community broadcasting. Hardly a gesture of beneficence from then FCC chairman William Kennard who began his legal career with a 1 year fellowship from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), assuming the role of assistant general counsel for the NAB shortly thereafter. Moving on from there, he made partner in a DC law firm (i.e. lobbyists) representing corporate communications interests prior to being appointed FCC Chairman by Bill Clinton in 1997. Currently, he is the Managing Director for the Global Telecom and Media Group of the Carlyle Group. It was Bill Clinton who signed the Telecommunications Deregulation Act of 1996, leading to an intense period of further media consolidation and control.

As a whole, the Free Radio Movement was not interested in a few crumbs off the table or an extremely thin slice of the pie — it wanted the entire bakery! The airwaves belonged to the people and the people were going to take them back. Despite its own particular shortcomings, this movement, over a period of less than 10 years, was able to elevate the discussion of media ownership and control to both a national and an international level. Although it did not blossom into a movement until 1993, it owed much to the slightly earlier efforts of radio radicals such as Black Rose, Bill Dugan, Mbanna Kantako, and Tetsuo Kogawi. During this period, normally not well known academic authors and media critics such as Robert McChesney were finally able to find a national platform for their views on media consolidation.

With a history beginning in the early days of radio broadcasting, radio as a tool of popular liberation, struggle and expression has always been the instrument of choice whether as: a voice of US labor in the 1920’s; part of the Resistance during WWII; an expression of the Bolivian tin miners’ struggles in the 1950’s; Radio Rebelde, the voice of the Cuban Revolution; radio ships blasting rock and roll into the British Isles when the BBC refused to play such music; the pirate radio explosion in Europe during the 1970’s and 1980’s; and, Radio Venceremos and Radio Farabundo Marti in El Salvador during the Central American “Dirty Wars” of the 1980’s.

It was this spirit that attracted many individuals and communities to the Free Radio Movement. Although the campaign of electronic civil disobedience did not get really rolling until early 1995, when a Federal Judge refused the FCC’s motion for a preliminary injunction to shut down Free Radio Berkeley, broadcasting stations started taking to air soon after Free Radio Berkeley received widespread publicity in 1993. Unlicensed FM radio broadcast station took to the airwaves across the breadth of the US and divergent areas such as: the traffic medians of Mexico City and Haitian Slums. From the beginning, Free Radio stations operated by communities of color received a rather disproportionate degree of enforcement action by the FCC.

Faced with a radio rebellion, the FCC and National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) responded with the expected heavy hand of repression – the NAB is considered to be the most powerful lobbying group in DC since their member control any given politician’s face time in the media. For the FCC, this consisted of raiding stations and threatening the levying of high fines against anyone who had the temerity to believe that the airwaves belonged to the people. A laughably histrionic PR campaign was waged against the Free Radio Movement by the NAB – one claim being that the proliferation of unlicensed stations would literally cause airplanes to fall from the sky. To many, it seemed possible the NAB might consider the hiring of private mercenaries to deal with the situation if their PR efforts and the enlisting of local radio stations in an overall campaign against Free Radio Stations failed to stem the tide. During the course of their convention in 1998 where they were met with organized demonstrations for Free Speech on the airwaves, an NAB daily trade publication stated that they had originally considered one of the leaders of the Free Radio Movement to be just a minor annoyance, but in light of the protests on their doorstep in Las Vegas, he was now considered to be a major threat.

In fact, this sort of kick-down-the-doors, SWAT team mentality lead to the early retirement of the head of the San Francisco FCC field office during the mid 90’s. He was perceived by his superiors at the FCC as being too much of a loose cannon. (Although, this did not prevent an actual multi-jurisdictional SWAT raid on the home of a Tampa Radio broadcaster, Doug Brewer.) Despite immense efforts and resources, both the FCC and NAB lost the PR battle, as far as the court of public opinion was concerned.

Most likely, cooler heads prevailed at the FCC who told the NAB to back off and allow them to handle the situation in a time tested manner – co-option. Given the trend, it was likely a full-fledged Federal Court victory would be given to the Free Radio Movement – almost achieved in the case against Free Radio Berkeley. A Waterloo moment the FCC sought to avoid at all costs.

Combining co-option with an another trusty tool, divide and conquer, the FCC announced that it would establish a Low Power FM (LPFM) broadcast service, but anyone who had been engaged in unsanctioned acts of broadcasting would not be eligible for a possible future LPFM license. In other words, go off the air now if you ever have any hope obtaining a license at some indeterminate point in the future. To be expected, quite a number of Free Radio folks responded with a resounding “F” you. Other stations went dark.

In typical fashion, the FCC created a rather difficult and costly (at least in terms of what it cost to set up a Free Radio Station – $1000 to $2000) LPFM license application process in 1999. Of course, the NAB got its Congress Critters (the lobbying probably carried out by the FCC Chairman’s former law firm) to immediately to pass a bill ironically titled the The Broadcast Preservation Act of 1999. This bill severely curtailed the number of LPFM stations by imposing upon them harsher technical standards than were applied to non-LPFM stations – thus preventing any stations from being established in urban areas of any size.

Some former broadcasters (labeled pirate by both the FCC and NAB) decided to unfurl the Jolly Roger, sheath the broadswords and spike the cannons, seeking a less confrontational approach by organizing the Prometheus Radio Project to assist communities with the LPFM application process and station building. Unfortunately, they engaged in more than a modicum of historical revisionism in attempt to cast off their past and make themselves more appealing to funding organizations such as the Ford Foundation, who are more than skittish about “illegitimate activities”. These same foundations fund a number of so-called progressive voices, considered by a number of folks to be information gatekeepers.

According to the Prometheus narrative, the entire LPFM service, limited as it was, came about as a result of a reasonable and fair-minded FCC chairman William Kennard seeing the need for such a service. Given his corporate background, pigs were much more likely to fly. Such a narrative was a disservice and an affront to the many people, communities and their supporters and legal groups such as the National Lawyers Guild who had put so much on the line in the cause of Free Speech.

Unprepared to the handle the large number of LPFM applications, it took the FCC an inordinately long time to grant LPFM construction permits and licenses to community organizations who had managed to deal with the entire process. Several large national religious organizations contributed more than their fair share to the confusion by filing hundreds of what amounted to be bogus applications on behalf of local religious groups who had no idea what LPFM was or that someone else had filed in their name.

During this period much of the energy of the Free Radio Movement dissipated due to a number of factors. Engaging in media reform was more appealing and less risky than electronic civil disobedience. The established, progressive left never accepted the Free Radio Movement – concerned about image and offending Democrat Party associated foundations, the source of much of their funding. Being a rather diverse amalgam of anarchists, DIY punks, community activists, libertarians, 60’s radicals and contrarians with very little in the way of funding and resources, the Free Radio Movement was not able to create a more evolved, comprehensive and unified strategy, moving beyond the more immediate aspects of putting FM broadcast stations on the air.

Despite these shortcomings, the Free Radio Movement made a number of significant contributions to the media landscape. One being the idea of sharing media content, specifically MP3 audio, via the internet several years prior to Napster and podcasting becoming household words. Instead of audio cassettes being mailed between radio stations, an audio content sharing website,, was established to facilitate the sharing of radio programs. is still going strong today with thousands of audio programs available for download. This ultimately led to the concept of the open publishing model being applied to all types of media – the basis for the Independent Media Centers. In collaboration with Wired magazine, some the first webcasts of live radio were made from the studios of Free Radio Berkeley. Finally, the first time a webcast had been made of a political protest occurred when live audio from a demonstration outside the Berkeley studios of KPFA in 1999 was relayed by a small FM transmitter supplied by Free Radio Berkeley to a nearby receiver feeding the audio to a computer audio server.

An embryonic LPFM service presented a number of challenges to the Free Radio Movement. Many folks felt this was a small victory but more concessions from the FCC should be demanded. During the commentary phase prior to the official launch of the LPFM broadcast service, the FCC received thousands of letters and such. From the point of view of the Free Radio Movement, if such a service was going to established, it would have to be totally non-commercial, locally owned and controlled and structured in a manner to be as financially and technically feasible as possible for grassroots organizations. Further, with the advent of digital TV (an 80 billion dollar give away of spectrum) looming on the horizon, a demand was made for the ultimate expansion of non-commercial FM broadcasting into VHF TV channels 5 and 6 (to be abandoned when the digital transition to UHF channels took place), thereby adding 60 new FM channels to the broadcast spectrum. Needless to say, this has yet to implemented – the phrase “a snowball’s chance in hell” is appropriate.

A general consensus along with a good deal of grumbling emerged from the Free Radio Movement along the lines of – we will accept LPFM, but the war is not over. At that point, two divergent currents emerged. One being the folks who decided they would keep putting stations on the air no matter what and the other represented by the Prometheus Radio Project. A third wave consisted of people who held a more ecumenical position of maintaining the need for a continuing campaign of electronic civil disobedience while at the same time providing whatever assistance they could to communities who wished to engage in the LPFM process. If a few deserving communities could establish a voice with an LPFM station, then that was all for the greater good of media democracy and Free Speech.

The Prometheus Radio Project did their best to create a firewall between itself and the notion of electronic civil disobedience. Inherently, this is the genesis of the title of this article – the LPFM deception. It was a deception on a number of levels. By distancing themselves from civil disobedience the Prometheus Project deceived itself into thinking it could prevail on the policy level with out the threat of street heat. Instead it found itself in a protracted, decade long legislative struggle to expand the LPFM service. By what amounted to a legislative miracle, they did prevail with the passage of the Community Radio Act of 2010. As a result, the FCC will open the window for new LPFM applications in the Fall of 2013. In addition, in coalition with a number of other organizations, they were able to beat back an effort by the FCC for further media deregulation. Ultimately, their strategy may have worked, but at what cost?

By focusing primarily on the legislative level and achieving legitimacy, another deception has taken place – that being to limit the imaginative possibilities grassroots broadcasting offers. Imagine this, non-union workers are demonstrating outside of a Wall Mart armed with the usual picket signs, leaflet and megaphones. But wait, there are also large signs being held up at key points in the parking lot and entry points on nearby roads. These signs say “Tune to 87.9”. A transmitter has been set up nearby in a van or car to broadcast a continuously looping message at the frequency of 87.9 MHz – an electronic leaflet. Workers who are supportive can listen to the broadcast in the safety of their cars without risking their jobs by being seen by management taking a leaflet directly from the folks on the picket line. Drivers going by can tune to the station to hear about what is happening, hard to hand a physical leaflet to car going by at 35 MPH. Drive by Radio. This is one of many possibilities. Temporary stations pop up at community gatherings such as flea markets, concerts and farmers’ markets. All schools, senior and community centers and libraries should have their own stations as well, an impossibility under the current regime imposed by the FCC.

Another not so obvious self-imposed deception concerns the exact nature of a broadcast license. At the most fundamental level, a license is a business law contract between an individual acting on his own behalf or on the behalf of an organization and the government agency issuing the license. It does not matter whether it is a fishing license, driver’s license or broadcasting license. Signing the license form is an implicit abandonment of normally protected rights and presumption of innocence. Possession of a broadcast license allows the FCC to regulate speech (the 7 dirty words), issue fines without any proof other than their say so and enter the station premises at any time without notice or search warrant. Further, fines and penalties cannot be adjudicated at a local Federal District Court. They must first be appealed through a serpentine process within the FCC itself prior to seeking any other legal remedy. After exhausting all administrative remedies within the FCC, the appeal process is then handed off to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Washington, DC – arguably one of the most conservative and reactionary court districts in the US. Needless to say, the FCC appeal process is an exhaustive and expensive journey. Individuals operating a Free Radio station without sanction or license retain their basic rights of Free Speech, presumption of innocence and protection from unlawful search and seizure – at least in theory with what is left of the Bill of Rights.

At another level, it is deceptive thinking to assume that what the FCC has offered us is the best that can be achieved. Yes, an additional 800 LPFM stations is a good thing, depending who ends up with licenses. The major issue of who owns the airwaves has yet to be resolved in any meaningful way, however. Leading to the more general question of who is going to control and own the Commons – the people or the corporations? The current chairman of the FCC is putting forth a proposal that would allow one corporation to own 8 radio stations, 2 TV stations, one newspaper and internet access in any given market area. By taking the strategy of electronic civil disobedience off of the table, the FCC, in relative peace, can continue to being a captive protector of the corporations it is supposed to regulate.

One could take the cynical position of radio broadcasting does not matter, being a legacy technology in this new era of internet information and such. But the reality is that if they come for my radio in the morning, they will come for your internet in the afternoon. Free Speech is anathema to the state and the corporations it serves. Remember, it was just recently proposed to give the White House an internet kill switch. Events taking place in the Middle East over the last few years demonstrate what happens when governments feel threatened by popular movements and revolt – they shut down the entire communications network, forcing a return to the use of legacy technologies such as fax, packet radio, dial-up ISPs, etc. Imagine the consequences if folks in those countries had had portable FM transmitters with laptop studios ready to go. All the various forms of communications do not exist in isolation from one another. They must be combined together to form a synergistic whole, as the Independent Media Centers have demonstrated, to achieve their full potential as a tools for personal and collective liberation.

While the potential addition of 800 or so new LPFM stations is to be welcomed, it remains to seen as to whether radical and grassroots communities will find a voice by this means. It is a matter that will require a high degree of organizing and the establishing of coalitions on an unprecedented level. Finally, one must avoid self-deception by not seeing LPFM as a final victory, but rather one battle of a continuing war for not only the broadcast airwaves but the entire Commons.

Stephen Dunifer is the founder of Free Radio Berkeley in Berkeley, California.