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Microradio Blues: SF Liberation Radio's Court Defeat Exemplifies Federal/Corporate Control
On February 15, 2007, three years after its demise, San Francisco Liberation Radio’s (SFLR) case against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally reached the Ninth Circuit Court. This was the station’s third appearance in court, and it unfortunately reached the same conclusion as the previous two: a decision overwhelmingly in favor of the FCC. A victory would have done nothing in regard to the station’s ability to broadcast, but would have made it more difficult for the FCC to raid and shut down unlicensed microradio stations.
With so few options for the public to make its voice heard through the media, many see unlicensed broadcasting as an act of civil disobedience. A look at the FCC’s role in radio raises many questions and contradictions. SFLR lawyer Mark Vermeulen argued that the station had operated responsibly as a community-based radio resource, interfering with no other broadcasters. He also asserted that the public has a right to the diversity in content and that SFLR’s legitimate efforts to apply for a license were twice rebuffed. Although Circuit Judge Clifton interrupted the defense to ask why a station openly “breaking the law” has any right to be in court, Senior Circuit Judge Betty Fletcher feigned sympathy for the station’s plight. Fletcher noted, “Congress made it difficult for people who were the pioneers” by inserting a provision in the Low Power FM (LPFM) law banning access to licensing to any station that has ever engaged in unlicensed broadcasting. He also suggested station operators “ought to be lobbying Congress to change the statute.” Good advice or bureaucratic shuffle? The crackdown on microbroadcasting raises many questions: Where is the due process when the FCC hands down an ultimatum to either cease broadcasting or pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines? Who oversees the FCC? Should the FCC be allowed to operate like an FBI? Unlicensed broadcasters have reported agents questioning neighbors, staking out stations, watching and copying license plate numbers, transcribing shows word-for-word, infiltrating meetings and public events, pressuring landlords to evict, and sending notices threatening broadcasters and landlords with major fines before heavily-armed raids. A look at the present state of radio—basically a public-private political oli- gopoly—finds the FCC presiding over a mass of contradictions. In 2000, the FCC voted to issue FM licenses to Low Power stations after being unable to eliminate them. While hailed as a victory for the movement, the celebration was brief. An outraged National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)—an aggressive industry lobby arm—quickly got Congress to pass a “three band space” rule requiring several dial spaces left empty between each FM station to avoid interference. Based on phony science, it was overturned after a required study showed no interference. This rule eliminated about 75 percent of the potential LPFM dial spaces and the “bad pirate” rule eliminated all existing unlicensed broadcasters forever. In late 2006, the Future of Music Coalition updated a study first commissioned in 2002 supporting the need to fight further media consolidation. Before the Clinton Administration’s 1996 deregulation bill, a radio station could own a maximum of 24 stations nationwide. Clear Channel Communications owned over 1200 stations by 2002 as a result of the legislation. The study indicates the number of companies owning stations peaked in 1995 and has declined dramatically since, as have jobs in radio. Between 1995 and 2005, holdings of the ten largest companies increased by over 15 times! Local ownership declined from 97 percent to 70 percent, with most of the new licenses going to the big ten, including “repeater” stations, a transmitter that repeats the signal of another radio station; most are used to fill out or extend the broadcasting of an existing radio station. In addition to the problematic situation of a few conglomerates controlling the bulk of information on the airwaves, music fans are also losing out. The original 2002 study highlighted a “twin bottleneck” in which the ten radio companies interact with the five largest record companies for 80 to 100 percent of songs played, with local artists completely shut out. The dial has become a nationalized corporate jukebox with virtually no news, repetitive Top 40 music, and more commercials and computerized announcer voices. The “non-commercial” FM spectrum space is dominated by NPR, funded and tightly content-controlled through grants from the federal government’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting. NPR continues to build an empire, buying up college and other independent stations that can cash in for millions of dollars for the band space. What about the FCC’s last attempt at deregulation? The entire campaign was based on the premise that more consolidation brings more local programming. It has since come to light that the FCC’s own study, suppressed and ignored, shows just the opposite. Millions of people contacted the FCC with over 98 percent opposed to the deregulation that was passed and later overturned in court. Payola continues as a standard industry practice, reportedly far beyond the scope uncovered by a recent New York State Attorney General’s investigation. Radio listenership has declined 22 percent from its peak in 1989. Is this the result of more media choices or just bad radio? Then there’s the media democracy movement lobbying against further attempts to deregulate media. Eliminating the “three band space” rule and filling the dial spaces with “legal” LPFM stations will only make the current unlicensed broadcasters extinct by eliminating unused frequencies. The entire LPFM licensing bill is targeted at non-profit organizations, with most of the licenses going to churches in small, rural markets. The few broadcasters who do get on have to follow the same self-censorship process as others to avoid arbitrary, excessive FCC fines intended to drive them off the airwaves. Meanwhile, Clear Channel shock jocks continue to inflame problems such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, and some have even sponsored pro-war rallies. Do these corporate lackeys have the sole right to define public discourse? Unlicensed “pirates” have little inter- est in limiting themselves to corporate-sponsored models of polite speech or to stay within liberal/progressive political discourse. “Advocacy journalism,” in which broadcasters choose content as an activist tool, is under attack as we read insulting corporate newspaper debates about whether or not local journalists such as Sarah Olsen and Josh Wolf have any legal rights because they are not employed by a big media company. Activists want to go beyond the liberal/progressive limits on issues and pro- gram radical politics. Music programmers want to play all kinds of music, as they and listeners want less repetitive formats and more local music played. Independent programmers do not want play lists, station managers, fund-raising bureaucrats, or government officials telling them what and they can and cannot broadcast. The corporate-government powers are naturally afraid of losing advertising revenues, but political motivations are obvious despite continued FCC denials. SFLR started broadcasting in the early 90s, along with Free Radio Berkeley in the East Bay, to report on the criminalization of the homeless in San Francisco—a population that had absolutely no voice in the media. In 2002, SFLR moved to a location high in the hills above the Castro, expanding its signal and broadcasting hours to provide clear listening for the central and south parts of the city. When the bombing and occupation of Iraq started in 2003, SFLR provided numerous independent anti-war voices while a licensed radio broadcaster was fired for uttering a word against it. Indymedia activists assisted with a nightly news show otherwise relegated to the web. As activists shut down San Francisco for a day with street protests, web-based Enemy Combatant Radio initiated internet broadcasts in real time with cell phone call-ins describing the street actions. SFLR broadcast this for several days, and other micro stations outside the area were able to stream it, allowing activists with Indymedia stations around the world able to tune in live via the web. Another example of the organizing potential for radio is community members in Oaxaca, Mexico using radio to rally solidarity among US activists. Freak Radio Santa Cruz has done phone interviews with activists directly from Oaxaca, as well as direct reports from immigrant actions around California. Berkeley Liberation Radio provides a platform for homeless activists. Imagine the possibilities if every town and every Independent Media Center had a right to dial space? What if activists had access to airwaves for event-specific coverage—such as when Houston-based activists set up a public service broadcast in the Astrodome after the New Orleans tragedy? Can people-to-people communications happen outside of the Internet without the filter of corporations and government agencies? SFLR chose to engage the authorities and got nothing. They have not broad- cast on the airwaves for over three years. Since then, Pirate Cat Radio (87.9FM) and West Add Radio (93.7FM) have left the SF airwaves after receiving written FCC threats, leaving the city without a microradio station. Berkeley Liberation Radio and Freak Santa Cruz continue broadcasting in their respective towns despite threatening notices and armed raids. The FCC has announced another deregulation process with a bad LPFM component. Several bills have been debated in Congress for LPFM access not under control of the FCC, but none have made it to a full Congressional vote, and the FCC continues dragging its heels on licensing stations. Meanwhile, real microradio continues as an act of civil disobedience.
From Fault Lines #21