A Modest Proposal

As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) grinds forward with its implementation of a minuscule low power FM (LPFM) community radio service, media activists around America are looking at new ways to further the gains they’ve made in opening access to the airwaves.
The FCC tried to acknowledge pressure from unlicensed microbroadcasters as a reason for attempting to widely legalize LPFM, but these so-called “pirates” were eventually cut out of the new opportunities through lobbying by the radio industry and National Public Radio.
That spurred many stations to redouble their broadcast efforts and brought new blood into the unlicensed microbroadcasting scene. For example, recently-visited free radio station KBFR – Boulder Free Radio – in Boulder, Colorado was originally run by applicants for an LPFM license. They decided to buck the law only after Congress stepped in and killed potential LPFM stations in America’s cities, including Boulder.
This is good news for microradio supporters because it shows that the movement of resistance which nudged the FCC in the right direction is going to continue – and probably flourish.
One high-profile LPFM supporter in Michigan wants to ratchet up the pressure through a unified mass movement of unlicensed broadcasting. It’s only an idea right now, but if it happens, it’ll make the activity sizzling in Florida – the reigning hot spot of pirate action in America, where several dozen stations are currently on the air – look like kid’s play.
The man with the plan is Tom Ness. Ness gained national attention during the LPFM rulemaking by spearheading a “resolution drive” in his home state. Ness and his helpers got more than two dozen city, township and county governments to pass resolutions supporting the original LPFM plan. He also led a lobbying effort to pass a pro-LPFM resolution in the Michigan Legislature (which was thwarted by a sliver in the state Senate).
Based on his work for LPFM, Ness was tapped by the Green Party to run for a seat in Congress in 2000. While he lost that race by a large margin, Ness said the experience taught him a lot about how government actually works.
“If we’re going to have a true democracy in this country, it became apparent to me that we also have to democratize our media to the greatest extent possible,” Ness believes. “But we are SO far away from that now.”
Ness is also very disappointed with the outcome the LPFM effort. “Here in Detroit, the analysis we did based on cultural, religious, ethnic and political groups we have, we determined that a city the size and makeup of ours needs at least 120 stations to serve all those needs.”
Several applications for LPFM stations in the Detroit metropolitan area were filed in the summer of 2000. One applicant, Ness says, “had lined up something like 60 or 80 groups to share just one station.”
After the budget bill containing rules gutting the new LPFM service was passed into law, all applications from the Detroit area became null and void. Nationally, Ness says, “We ended up with about one percent of what we had asked for.”
The Idea: A Mass Turn-On
Tom Ness is afraid the issue of media democracy is losing steam. The public is no longer engaged to the extent that it was during the LPFM proceedings (which was minimal at best).
So Ness has come up with an idea to not only rejuvenate the debate over low power community radio, but also take the “war of the pirates” to the next level. Here’s how it works, as he explained it to me:
“What I think would be really fabulous is to get 20 to 30 citizen activist groups to get transmitters, find a slot on the dial where they’re not going to interfere with anybody in their neighborhood, and all go on the air,” says Ness. The actual number of stations he’d like to see go on all at once is 100 or more, all in the Detroit area.
“I would like to do it very publicly. I would like to say to the FCC that we’ve decided, say as of January first, that we’re all going to go on the air at the same time to demonstrate that we need these resources (the airwaves), and if they feel that this is important, come on in and shut us down.”
There have been plenty of past pirates who’ve been very public about their broadcasting – but nobody’s preannounced their intent to set up shop on the FM dial without a license, and nobody’s ever tried a coordinated effort of this size before. Ness’ plan also bucks a common assumption among unlicensed broadcasters that steps should be taken to lengthen a station’s lifespan for as long as possible.
To Tom, it seems like a logical progression of the resistance that’s already been taking place, where the main strategy has revolved around creating an unenforceable situation for the FCC. “So often in this country it’s taken civil disobedience to make things happen…We’re going to have to break the law to make the point,” he explains. Presenting the FCC with the problem of 100 unlicensed stations operating in just one city would be a powerful point indeed.
Still, there are plenty of unknown variables. The first major hurdle will be getting enough committed activists together to run all those stations. It will take a dedicated pool of engineering-types to provide the technical skills necessary and a group of lawyers willing to handle all those eventual cases.
There’s also the potential threat of the FCC treating the plan as a criminal conspiracy and ramping up its enforcement efforts accordingly.
Ness himself says he’s not willing to go all the way through the FCC’s enforcement protocol: “If it were my station, I would probably push it until they came in and took my equipment.”
Strategy and Tactics
Tom Ness is plans on inviting the FCC to an initial meeting about his mass microbroadcast idea this month.
The FCC has a District Office located in Farmington Hills, MI, just outside of Detroit. The agents there are pretty regular about keeping tabs on unlicensed activity in the area, although they appear to be relatively laid-back about their approach to unlicensed broadcasting. Contacts reported by pirates with “the Detroit office” have been at best quasi-friendly and at worst devoid of the gruff and authoritarian menacing found elsewhere around the country.
Ness, who’s organized protests at the Farmington Hills FCC office during the LPFM rulemaking, agrees with this assessment. “Several times we’ve been out there,” he says. “They seemed very nervous, even locking their door once afraid we were going to come in and turn over their file cabinets or something. I definitely don’t feel any kind of intimidating aura coming from there.
“They’re nice folks at the Farmington office. There’s a feeling that they don’t like enforcing these rules. But the pressure is coming from only one way, and the public isn’t really involved in this.
“It would be best of all if we didn’t have to put one of these stations on the air,” Ness admits, “but we have to do something to attract attention to change the rules. I mean, 99.9% of the people we’ve talked to thinks community radio is a good idea. We just have to get the public back into the game, pushing to change the rules. We’ve already done it once.”
If you are interesting in attending the brainstorm session on this coordinated effort in the Detroit area, meet at the Green House (the Metro Detroit Green Party Clearinghouse), located at 22757 Woodward, Suite 10 in Ferndale, MI. The meeting will take place on Wednesday, September 19.
Or, to discuss taking Tom’s idea and implementing it (or a version of it) where you live, feel free to e-mail him directly – his address is jamrag@glis.net.