Give Me Pirate Radio

The following is the (heavily) edited text of the microradio “mass turn-on” proposal/presentation given by Tom Ness of the Michigan Music is World Class Campaign to a packed house at the Metro Detroit Area Green Party Clearinghouse on September 19, 2001.
Tom lays out an exciting and potentially powerful vision for the future of microradio in America. It will take more organization then has ever been seen before to pull it off – but it IS possible.
Dare to dream….If you would like a copy of the full text, simply Tom and he’ll be happy to send a copy your way.
If you can control what people think — or even what they think about — you don’t need expensive and messy armies. If you can control what people think, you’ve no need for police because people will happily do what you want — and think all along it is their idea. That is the power of the media, and why this subject is so acutely important.
It’s important because we are living in a world where the same people increasingly control the books, newspapers and magazines we read, the TV networks we watch, the radio stations we listen to, the movies we enjoy. This is extremely dangerous, and demands to be challenged.
We cannot have democracy in a nation where most people have no role other than listening passively. Where there is a lack of active participation, it can not be considered democracy.
But we are here to talk about radio. And I say again that democracy is not a passive act. In fact, the quality and authenticity of our democracy might well be measured by how many are allowed to use the microphone, instead of only the headphones.
And the question I raise several times is this: “When is it our turn?” When is it our turn to use the public airwaves to say what WE think? Will it be our turn tomorrow? Next year? Ten years from now? Or will it never be our turn.
Radio remains, and will remain for many decades to come, among the most powerful and popular means of communication.
Radio has unique qualities. Unlike the Internet, radio is very inexpensive for both the broadcaster and the listener, and can be enjoyed while driving, washing the dishes, while at work. Unlike print, radio is immediate. It allows personal nuance. It is unintrusive. In fact, in emergencies, radio is often the communications medium of last resort.
Of all these unique qualities however, that which is most important to me is the remarkable affordability of radio, which has obvious implications for democracy. If we truly want democracy, that means our poorest of neighborhoods must be able to participate. And for our poorest neighborhoods, there are perhaps no better options for expression than radio.
We need to provide public access to the airwaves to advance democracy and to promote social stability. We need to defend our legitimate rights to radio as our public property. And the poorest, most vulnerable among us need the unique benefits of radio as a simple survival tool. Community radio is essential to the economic health of our communities, and the right to profit off the public airwaves should not be reserved for the rich. And community radio advances culture, for the fundamental benefit of all.
LPFM: A Dream Denied
A meaningful community radio service, in my eyes, should be substantive enough to serve the entire range of diverse interests in our region: cultural, political, ethnic, religious, etc. That is, of course, a very tall order, and perhaps simply impossible because of the laws of physics alone.
For perspective, our own analysis a few years back determined a need for a minimum of perhaps 100 such stations in order to begin serving Metro Detroit’s enormously wide range of communities and interests. And when LPFM community radio was finally legalized in January 2000, some 60 or 80 groups in our area expressed interest in applying for such a license. But in the end, we were told that there wasn’t room for even ONE in the whole City of Detroit. So again I ask, “When will it be our turn?”
Now in 1996, my wife and I launched the Michigan Music Campaign, specifically with the goal of reinvigorating our dismal local music economy. If we are to enjoy the benefits of cultural diversity, musicians and artists need to feed themselves, of course, among other things. So how could we get people to consider spending a portion of their entertainment dollar on local, independent original music?
We became aware of the pirate radio movement exploding around us, and also of a growing and eventually successful mainstream lobbying effort to change unfair FCC regulations. We dove right in, and I’m very proud to say our awesome volunteers quickly lifted the Michigan Music Campaign into a leading role of that lobbying effort.
The mandate of the FCC again, is to administer the airwaves in the “public interest, necessity and convenience,” so we set to work with our allies across the country to demonstrate public demand for community radio. And it was easy. Virtually everyone in this country has an instinctive love for democracy and free speech, and we had a very difficult time finding anyone opposed to the idea of community radio. We gathered perhaps 10,000 supporting letters from the public at large, along with 47 supporting resolutions passed by city and township governments representing millions of people.
Gathering those resolutions was particularly instructive because, of all 47, there was just a single vote cast against us. Of perhaps 400 mayors and council persons, only one disagreed with what we were trying to accomplish. That’s quite remarkable!
Then we went to Lansing, and tried to get a supporting resolution from our state government. It was very interesting, because at that level the influence of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters is rather intimidating. The MAB fought us tooth and nail, desperate to maintain their monopoly over the public airwaves. And they successfully pressured the legislative leadership to bury our resolutions in committee. But nevertheless we were eventually able to demonstrate the support of a majority of the State House along with about half the Senate.
Then we went to Washington, where the power of the broadcast lobby casts a shadow over every institution. Our Congress and Administration cower before the people who own the radio and TV stations, and it was difficult to find a friend anywhere.
Nevertheless, the FCC rulemaking petitions progressed to an actual rulemaking procedure and, by Washington’s standards, at lightning speed. Along the way, a record amount of public comment was filed on this issue with the FCC — more people responded about this issue than anything else in the agency’s 70-year history. And virtually all of it was in favor of community radio.
And then, on Jan. 20, 2000, a mere year and a half after we’d joined the battle, the FCC formally announced the creation of the new Low Power FM community radio service.
It was rather amusing, at this point, to watch members of Congress jump on the “me too” bandwagon, and trumpet how they’d been for community radio all along.
But it’s important to understand that at every step along the way, the original plan kept getting scaled back, with endless compromises to placate the monopolistic commercial and public mega-broadcasters. So what we eventually ended up with was perhaps one percent of what we’d asked for!
And that’s when things really got interesting, because with record speed the broadcast lobby demonstrated its notorious muscle and got a bill to decimate the FCC’s new plan introduced into a House subcommittee. The bill raced over to the full committee and then to the floor for a vote in mid-April, where it passed overwhelmingly. We were able to stall things in the Senate, but eventually it was attached as a rider to an appropriations bill and, as one of his last acts as President, Clinton signed it, and reduced our hard-fought victory to something largely meaningless.
Out of Options
So what is to be done?
First, we need to convince Congress and the FCC to take this matter seriously. And that task is utterly enormous. We must convince Congress and the FCC that they simply have no choice but create a meaningful community radio service.
This will be terribly difficult for them, for example, because ultimately it may require the most powerful interests to actually give up their spot on the dial in some cases. Certainly no one in Washington can imagine that today and that’s why they will only respond to this issue when our elected officials and public servants are convinced they have no other choice.
If we can accomplish this first task, that of being taken seriously the rest, I suspect, will actually be relatively easy.
The question of how we might convince Washington to take this seriously leads directly to the matter of civil disobedience.
I believe in the rule of law. And especially in these trying times following Sept. 11, my desire for the rule of law has greatly intensified, as we’ve all witnessed the very worst kind of lawlessness. I want to live in a safe and civilized world, and that requires law.
I also believe in a regulated broadcast environment. Much to the dismay of my anarchist and libertarian friends I’m sure, let me say that I respect the authority of the FCC. Because without a regulated broadcast environment, I’m pretty sure that Westinghouse will build a gazillion-watt transmitter and an antenna which reaches to the moon, and when we turn on our radio we will hear nothing else.
I believe that without a regulated environment, the poor and working class of this country will never have their turn at the microphone and a spot on the dial. So I respect the authority of the FCC, and believe that our task is that of convincing the agency to put a much higher priority on media democratization.
Now, in our country, we have a legislative branch which creates the law, an executive branch which administers it, and a judicial system which interprets it. And the role of the citizen is largely that of obeying the law. That’s okay with me. I believe that for democracy to function, we must generally recognize the will of the majority, and submit to the rule of law.
But there are times when citizens are duty-bound to play another role. Our public servants generally do a good job, and for the most part pass good laws. But they sometimes make mistakes. And sometimes unjust laws and regulations are put on the books.
In those circumstances, I believe citizens are duty-bound to speak up, and lobby for change. And that’s precisely what we did with community radio between 1996 and 2000.
In fact, I believe citizens must do everything in their power and exhaust every possible avenue in challenging unjust laws and regulations. And again, we feel we did precisely that.
But having exhausted every avenue and finding oneself still burdened with an unjust law, citizens are left with but one honorable option, and that is civil disobedience.
I know my pirate friends will be horrified for saying so, but I think the FCC has acted in relatively remarkable restraint. But as things grew totally out of control in the late ’90s, there was an attempt to make an example out of Lonnie Kobres, a far-right wing activist of Florida, who utterly refused to respect the FCC’s authority, and continued to broadcast after repeated warnings and raids.
I like Lonnie and respect his integrity, and was shocked when he was charged and convicted on 14 criminal counts of unlicensed broadcasting, facing a potential sentence of life in prison and a multi-million dollar fine. But this tactic of making an example out of Kobres backfired on the FCC and, as a result of an enormous public outcry, he ultimately received a $10,000 fine and one year of mere home arrest.
Having said all this, I must also mention that our new FCC Commissioner is moving towards a greater crackdown with more serious penalties for pirates. This should be seriously considered before anyone thinks about launching a station.
Strength in Numbers
I am very grateful to my lawyer friends who seek to keep me out of jail. And out of respect for their goals, allow me to clarify that I am merely speaking speculatively. I am not encouraging anyone to engage in pirate radio or to actually adopt any part of this plan.
This strategy rests entirely on the principle of “united we stand.” Over the last decade, hundreds of stations have been raided by the FCC, picked off one by one. And I am reminded of the Allied invasion of Normandy in WWII. Correctly, our generals chose not to send over one boat at a time over the course of months or years, allowing the Axis forces to pick them off one by one. Instead, we patiently gathered our forces, amassed our numbers and assembled our resources — and waited. And we proceeded only when we were able to present a force too great to be resisted. That is the key, I suspect.
Now, today, when one person launches a pirate station, eventually the FCC finds them and shuts them down. If ten people launch stations, one by one they too are shut down. But the agency has severely limited resources, and there is only so much they can accomplish.
So let’s look at this from the other perspective. What if every single one of the almost million residents of the City of Detroit decided to launch a pirate radio station? Certainly that is high enough of a number that the FCC and Congress would simply throw up their hands and be forced to deal with the issue. Of course, it may be difficult to get everyone to participate but we’d surely still succeed if with half a million stations, or even 50,000, or even a thousand in a single city. Or a hundred in several cities. Or a dozen each in hundreds of cities.
What is the exact number, I wonder, needed to convince Washington to take this seriously? What is the formula for success? I’d really like to know! And I think there is a way we can find out.
We begin by finding five to ten groups in Metro Detroit who might consider launching a station. These could be individuals, but more valuable are community groups which are already serving their neighborhoods and demonstrating their public commitment.
We start by researching the subject, and learning all there is to know about radio: not only the technical aspects, but the political and legal ramifications as well. We reach out to the media and let our intentions be known to our community. We attempt to initiate a dialogue with the FCC, and alert our members of Congress. We also begin developing teams of lawyers and engineers whose legal and technical expertise might be shared among everyone who participates.
As we progress, we reach out to five or ten more groups. At this point we begin discussing where we might locate our stations, planning out their operation, etc. Perhaps one will go in this person’s garage. Perhaps another group will consider locating one above a storefront.
We continue approaching the media, Washington, reaching out to our communities, continue building the shared legal and other resources.
We find another five to ten interested would-be broadcasters. At this point, perhaps, we begin raising money for equipment. And it won’t be much, a few thousand for each station. So we start organizing benefits, bake sales, rummage sales, anything. We’re in no hurry! Like Gandhi, we are patient, relaxed but determined. Of course, these events will be of interest to the media and the surrounding community, not to mention fun!
By now, people in plenty of other cities will have taken notice. If history is any guide, lots of them will pick up our pattern in their towns.
Now we begin buying equipment, turning the money we’ve raised into actual broadcast equipment. No laws have been broken, other than the most ridiculous kind of “conspiracy laws,” which will be very difficult to use against us, especially if we have built up solid community support. But a key function of this strategy is to break no laws until we absolutely have no choice and until we have organized a support network large and strong enough to defend ourselves.
We find another five to ten potential stations, and now number 40 to 50 in Detroit alone. Perhaps at this point this is being duplicated in a dozen other major cities, and many more smaller population centers as well. We continue to appeal for dialogue with the FCC, and by now there will likely be something serious in that regard. And as our numbers grow, experience leads me to believe that growing numbers of Congress, seeing which way the popularity wind is blowing, will be eager to carry our flag.
We find another five to ten. Now we begin installing our equipment, plugging everything in. Testing everything, perhaps, except the antenna. Of course, it is not against the law to learn about radio, nor to buy or own a transmitter, nor to set it up in your basement. One only breaks the law by turning it on.
Five to ten more. At this point, stations begin really planning their programming, building up a staff of potential DJs and hosts, and building up music libraries. Contacting groups and individuals who might be interviewed. It will be helpful to gather supporting statements from members of the community, groups, businesses, everyone. Stations should accumulate thousands of these.
Five to ten more, and we are now 60, 70, maybe 80 stations strong in Detroit alone. By now, in our city we should have at least a couple dozen lawyers and an equal number of engineers helping. Momentum and excitement around the country should be enormous.
At this point, some of the earliest stations will need to sit patiently, and allow the newer participants to catch up. Fundraisers can continue and stations can develop a financial surplus. Stations can conduct tours, and otherwise continue building support. By now, we will also be of such a substantial number that we’ll have to work out time-sharing plans between the stations; you may get Mondays and Thursdays, while another group gets Tuesday and Saturday, etc. There will simply be more stations than can possibly broadcast at the same time!
Add another Five to ten stations. The pressure will be unbearable. By now, if we haven’t already reached some kind of acceptable understanding with Washington, we will have to begin making some difficult decisions. That is to say, we might have to think about firing up our transmitters.
Flipping the Switch as Last Resort
Now, I really hope that we can accomplish our goals without ever breaking a single law, even something as harmless and benign as broadcasting from a tiny station without a license. And I really believe it can happen. But if it comes down to it, we must be prepared to broadcast, if necessary. This won’t work if it is merely a bluff.
So at some point, we may have to decide that this is it, and on a certain day or week, we are all going on the air together. I suppose there will be lots of Internet and email debate. Perhaps conferences will have to be hosted throughout the country. But the net result will be a decision that on a particular date, unless satisfied, we will all go on the air together.
And it will have to be made clear that the hundred or thousand or ten thousand of our stations across the country will act together, and that if one of us is threatened we will respond collectively.
And what an exciting day that will be, as thousands of stations everywhere heat up their transmitters collectively! What a historic event that will be when we finally decide together that our turn comes today.
Actually, such an event seems so inspiring, I’m almost inclined to hope it comes down to that! But frankly, I like my friends at the FCC, and I know they are reasonable. In fact, there are lots of people at the FCC who support community radio completely. As far as Congress, I am confident that WHEN they realize we are serious and that we have overwhelming popular support, they too will only be too eager to champion our cause.
So I believe that we can and will succeed without firing a single shot, so to speak. We will win without ever breaking the law, or infringing on a single regulation.
Then there remains the extremely difficult task of actually finding a way to put all these stations on the air. Of course, at this point it is largely the FCC’s problem, although I’m sure we will want to help.
One possibility is that the FCC might carve out an entirely new portion of the spectrum for community radio. This will be painful because spectrum is already scarce and subject to enormous competition. And then of course, we will all need new radios which can receive that part of the spectrum. All very, very difficult but on the other hand, people happily bought FM radios the last time a major change like this occurred.
Another option I’ve heard is for the FCC to mandate that radio manufacturers produce receivers of much more exacting standards, capable of defining many more signals in the same given amount of spectrum. Again, this would mean that listeners would need a new, more modern radio.
Now, we come to my favorite solution, politically the most painful of all.
There are, in this country, companies which have essentially owned their spot on the dial for decades now, and will continue doing so presumably for eternity. It is as if they’ve reserved a lane of the public highway for their own use. This is because the FCC has a policy which presumes automatic license renewal, barring any unforgivable act.
This doctrine exists in respect to those corporations which spend millions setting up their station. And surely it is not realistic to grant say, a one-year license after a company has made that kind of investment.
But as it stands today, if you are lucky enough to grab a spot on the dial, it is presumed to be yours forever. And keeping in mind the scandalous amount of money generated off of our public airwaves, I simply find this unacceptable!
I’d guess that anyone who’s been lucky enough to profit off the public airwaves for, in some cases, 70 years now, ought to be plenty grateful and rather polite about giving up their license so someone else might have a turn.
And I hope you also find this to be reasonable attitude. But such talk is considered pure heresy in Washington.
But frankly, I don’t understand how our democracy can ever function without precisely this fundamental reform.
The presumption of license renewal must go. I’m rather certain of that, regardless of how ridiculous it sounds to some.
If the FCC approaches even just one of the corporations in a city, and politely insist they surrender the license of just one of their massive stations which covers our entire region, even just one will make room for dozens of small stations.
Where there is the will, there is a way. And if we have enough self-respect to demand our rights as citizens, Washington will find a way, however difficult, to accommodate us.
But I just can’t imagine anyone will be disappointed for having participated in a project like this. If we succeed, we will have elevated our democracy to an entirely new level which no one could ever have expected. What a wonderful gift to future generations, and the planet as a whole.
I’ll conclude by saying that whether or not this strategy has any value, and whether or not it is set in motion, something must be done to promote media democracy, to allow many more voices to be heard.
And I also want to say that life is short and best spent in adventurous pursuit. We ought not waste our precious days. What an honorable thing it is to aspire to greatness, to follow bold visions, and to appreciate that history is not just something to be read, but also to be made.
So let’s make history. And so, of the question, “When will it be our turn to use the public airwaves,” I say that the answer is entirely up to us.