As free radio advocates hold hope for the future, it never hurts to look back.
In less than two weeks, the FCC may take the next step in creating a legal low power FM radio service, providing more "meat" for the relatively skeletal vision the agency has outlined so far. What the Commission does in the near future will either be a big step forward or one back closer to the drawing board.
At the same time, it's also important to note that the Commissioner most supportive of the proposal - the Chairman, William Kennard - is a little more than halfway through his term in office. He is not well-liked in Congress for giving LPFM a chance, and it's likely pressures may be brought to bear that could cause his ouster. Without Kennard, this proposal will die.
No matter what the outcome, there's obviously something fundamentally wrong with the current radio landscape that needs to be fixed. Resorting to "pirate radio" has been the choice for many - and its ranks continue to swell.
Ironically, this feeling isn't new - during the first U.S. explosion of low power radio, way back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many had already seen the writing on the wall.
One of them was a 17-year old man in Yonkers, New York named Allan Weiner. He'd been experimenting with radio since the first grade. He put his first AM radio station, WKOV, on the air at the age of 16, and had already received a visit from the FCC.
During the broadcasts of WKOV, another teenager named Joseph Ferraro called to ask him how to put his own station on the air. The two became close friends, and the two set up identical AM stations, trading off broadcast times. They called it WFSR, for "Falling Star Network."
A few months later, Weiner and Ferraro had established their own LPFM stations - WXMN and WSEX. With four radio stations in operation now, they gave themselves the name of the American Radio Broadcasting System (ARBS).
ARBS had an open-mic policy - anyone who had something to say to the community got a chance. They even installed phone patches to take callers live on the air - this was long before talk radio became an acceptable format. The stations became magnets not only for face-to-face debate, but a true reflection of the thoughts and feelings coursing through one community.
With all that activity in Yonkers, it didn't take long before the FCC came around again. After the second visit, the two tried to apply for licenses for their stations. They were laughed off.
Knowing what they were up against, Weiner and Ferraro decided to go back on the air. They were busted again, and this time they asked the FCC agent point-blank why they couldn't get a license. He told them to "take it up with the Commission" - so they did.
The following is a letter Allen Weiner and J.P. Ferraro wrote to the FCC in 1971. This is the opinion of two kids with a dream - and damned if it doesn't strike as many chords now as it did nearly 30 years ago. Prodigious thanks to Gia at Loompanics Unlimited, who published Weiner's story - Access to the Airwaves: My Fight For Free Radio, and from where this letter comes.
So keep up the good fight, and remember that the roots of this whole phenomenon run long and deep.
You have asked us to write you an explanation of on-the-air activities of the American Radio Broadcasting System (Falling Star Network). You have referred to us as illegal and unauthorized, and you representatives have spoken to us as if we were criminals for generating and modulating radio frequency currents as if they were solid entities like telephones that we stole from you and hooked up to your lines without your permission. The distinction lies however in the fact that radio was discovered, and not invented, and that these frequencies and principles were always in existence long before man was aware of them. Therefore, no one owns them. They are there as free as sunlight, which is a higher frequency form of the same energy.
Even you, the FCC, have stated that the airwaves belong to the people. You haven't lived up to it, because if the airwaves belonged to the people, we are the people. The airwaves belong to us. In FCC information bulletin 1B you state that any qualified citizen, firm or group may apply for the FCC for authority to construct a standard AM, frequency modulated FM, or television broadcast station.
Based upon this, we went about a year ago down to the FCC at 641 Washington Street in New York City to apply for a license. Our attempt proved quite humorous to your employees, who sent us away with word of "Forget it." Further investigations showed us why our attempt was then so comical. Licenses were so expensive and hard to get that even small stations were being sold for millions. Broadcasting was reserved for power men. A million dollars or so would get us a license and channel pronto. The people, however, are not represented by millionaires. But that's who owns the stations. Various FCC agents who visited us to shut down the stations told us, "Get a first class license - for you it would be easy. You could then get a job at a station twiddling dials for someone else."
Most stations are designed only to make money. Music is sandwiched between commercials and ads, announcers tell us that programs will resume after station identification. That announcement is always followed by another commercial. But they are right, that's who they should identify with. Advertisers and money. WABC-AM in New York cuts a record by as much as one half so there is more time for ads. Is this radio for the people? American TV is among the worst in the world. And when you try to watch a good program, you are bombarded by three to five minutes of ads every ten. Is this for the people? You have set aside no bands for people to get started in broadcasting. Is this for the people?
While we do not claim to have the best programs on the air, we try to do our best. We don't claim to be the most free-thinking people around, but we do give our microphones to anyone that has something to say on the air. We don't have thousands of dollars to spend on equipment, but we have taken our money and made two high-fidelity stations. This is, we believe, for the people.
We are not disputing, however, your right to assign channels and set aside bands for the prevention of interference. We certainly, however, are disputing your right to reserve broadcasting for the well-to-do only. Our stations have had hundreds of people write to us. People who have written, "What kind of a wonderful station are you?" and the like. We have never had a letter of disapproval or complaint.
We started this whole thing because we love radio as an artistic and creative medium, and to bring freedom to the airwaves. Not because we want fat bank accounts and chaffeur-driven cars. We have chosen our operating frequencies especially so as not to cause interference with any other stations. However, as human beings and citizens of the United States and the world, we have a right to use the airwaves put there by whoever or whatever created the universe, and use them as we will. This is our freedom, this is our right.
Allan H. Weiner and Joseph Paul Ferraro of the American Radio Broadcasting System.