NABing the Airwaves

By Jennifer Barrios
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) held their annual conference this year in Las Vegas, and high on their agenda was what to do with those pesky microbroadcasters, or “pirates” as they like to call these crusaders of the airwaves. FCC officials turned out to this event en masse, for it is the NAB who really controls the FCC, not Congress. The FCC spent much time telling the NAB what they wanted to hear: that the FCC is on a single-minded mission to obliterate microbroadcasters from the airwaves and save the precious NAB corporate monopoly. FCC Chairman William Kennard, however, in an interesting comment, indicated that he was not averse to licensing small, micropower stations. “Let me be clear about one thing,” he admonished an old NAB broadcaster at the FCC Chairman’s Breakfast. “Let’s not confuse pirate radio with microbroadcasting.” Is this a sign of the FCC finally cracking, or simply another example of straddling the fence? Will the NAB’s monopoly over the airwaves finally be toppled?
The NAB is the most powerful broadcasting lobbying group that exists today. Well-heeled and well stocked, almost every broadcasting station belongs to or is affiliated with the NAB in some way. The NAB is more powerful than the FCC, and its fingerprints are on many pieces of important broadcasting legislation. In fact, it is the NAB, who fears for its monopoly over the airwaves, that is fighting the hardest to get micropower radio stations off the air. But no matter how much money they spend and palms they grease, they can’t seem to beat the power of grassroots community organizing. Despite their protests, thousands of micropower stations are alive and well on the air today.
The Micropower Radio Movement also held their conference at the same time in Las Vegas, and I was determined to get into both of them. The micropower conference was no problem; it was the steely ship of the NAB that seemed closed to me. The convention fee for non-members was $735-not a viable option. The only other alternative was to go as a member of the press. I felt pretty sure they wouldn’t let me in as a reporter for Slingshot, and very sure they wouldn’t let me in as a roving reporter for Free Radio Berkeley, so I talked an alternative weekly in San Francisco into giving me press credentials for the trip. Miraculously they agreed, and I arrived at the NAB convention and received my identificatory dog tag. I was in, and for free, too.
The NAB convention was held on the Strip, a noisy blotch on the otherwise silent, deathly desert. I was particularly excited because of the amount of time that the NAB was devoting to micropower radio this year – they not only were holding a two hour panel on it, but their president, Eddie Fritts, mentioned it twice in his “State of the Industry” address. They clearly saw “pirate” radio as a force to be reckoned with, and I’m sure many were sweating under their white collars.
The Micropower Radio conference, held a few miles away in the quieter part of North Vegas, was attended by more than 60 people and 2 dozen free radio stations from all over the country. It featured talks by Louis Hiken, attorney for Free Radio Berkeley, and Greg Peck, attorney for the Nevada ACLU, a demonstration of how to build a 40 watt transmitter, and a review of the fundamentals of micropower broadcasting by Stephen Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley and David of Radio Limbo in Tucson Arizona. Las Vegas Food Not Bombs provided all the meals, and impressed us all with their tireless efforts at caring for us.
The microbroadcasters were planning to demonstrate in front of the NAB, immediately after their pirate radio panel, and had a two-hour strategy session that night to decide on the precise tactics. Peck of the ACLU spoke to the mostly out-of-towners about the distinctive style of repression practiced by the cops in that locale. “Think of it as another country, and you’ll have some idea,” a man in the crowd offered. In Vegas the casinos run the town. They are granted the very sidewalks, and the cops are but lackeys of this gargantuan industry. “No Canvassing” signs were posted prominently around town and had me wondering upon my arrival. Demonstrations of any kind were immediately crushed. Greg of the Shundahai Network, an organization against nuclear testing on Shoshone land immediately north of Vegas (the Nevada test site), attested to this truth. A place called “The Fremont Experience,” a 4 block paradise of pavement and casinos, received 8 million dollars in federal funding and is called a national park, yet people could not protest there. A lawsuit was brought by the ACLU and is still in the courts. With this dire warning sitting in everyone’s minds, the discussion turned lively with debates over tactics.
Next morning, I arrived at the Strip in time for the FCC Chairman’s Breakfast, an annual affair where the Chairman personally pets the egos of the broadcasters over fruit and danish. I took my place among broadcasters and journalists nibbling on fruit, and waited for the festivities. FCC Chairman Kennard did the usual spiel, speaking about the responsibilities of broadcasters, the community, and the homogenization of viewpoints due to the consolidation of the media industry. After the breakfast a question and answer period was set up, and the very first question asked of Kennard was on pirate radio. “Pirate radio stations have proliferated, and they cause signal interference,” the broadcaster lamented. “What steps has the FCC taken to stop these pirates?” Kennard seemed reservedly sympathetic. “Let’s not confuse pirate radio with microbroadcasting. FCC will do everything we can to get illegal broadcasters off the air – but opportunities must be opened to church and non-profit groups to get their message out over the airwaves.” I am still kicking myself for not asking a follow-up question, but I’m new at this. I wrestled my way up to the front and asked the last question of the day. I am a rabid opponent of commercialism in any form, so I asked a question that is dear to my heart. “What do you think of the partnership between enterprise and public broadcasting? Do you see a future for non-commercial media?” The answer was framed in something I would encounter for the rest of the day, “official-speak.” “PBS is going to go digital,” Kennard replied. “That will open up vast opportunities.” Security ushered him off the stage, and we all filed out.
A half an hour later I was in the pirate radio panel room. This year’s panel was entitled “Pirate Radio Stations: Will They be Walking the Plank?” It was particularly interesting because, unlike the similar panel the NAB held last year, it featured Hiken, attorney for Free Radio Berkeley, as one of the speakers. “Last year they had a panel in which no microradio people spoke, and half the people that got up at the meeting spoke in our favor,” Hiken recalled. “I think this year they wanted a target. I think this year they thought they’d do better because when there wasn’t a target their own people got up and said, ‘look folks, can’t we really, you know, allow them to speak to each other?” (see “Corporations Target the Free Radio Movement” by P.B. Floyd, Slingshot, Spring 1998) Hiken sat alongside Richard Lee, Chief of the FCC’s Compliance and Information Bureau (introduced as the FCC’s “top cop”), Christopher Wright, general counsel for the FCC, and John Fiorini, a Washington lawyer who represents the Radio Operators’ Caucus. The moderator, Jack Goodman of the NAB, addressed many condescending remarks to Hiken, but his first question was about the reasons behind the proliferation of micropower stations.
Hiken, to the dismay of Goodman, held up Dunifer and Ron Sakolsky’s new book, Seizing the Airwaves as a key to the answer. Hiken’s basic argument, which the FCC proceeded to ignore, was that radio was an essential resource for communities that want to talk to themselves, and micropower radio in particular best fills that need, for commercial media tend to restrict speech to that which can sell advertising space. Commercial speech, Hiken emphasized, is different from democratic dialogue, and it is something we cannot trust the corporations to respect. “The pirate radio broadcasters are wrapping themselves up in the First Amendment flag,” Wright said with annoyance, “but in reality the issue is ยง301 of the Communications Act of 1934-broadcasters need a license to operate.” Fiorini made the situation perfectly clear. “The FCC could have licensed a million small stations, or fifty big ones. For efficiency’s sake, they’ve struck a balance, and for better or worse, that’s the way it is, and we must accept it.”
“Top Cop” Lee bragged that in 1997, 97 free radio stations were shut down, and in the first quarter of 1998, 65 stations have been closed. He failed to mention the number that went back up a few weeks later. Lee mentioned that he had appeared at the Micropower Radio Conference in Philadelphia that had happened the week before, and had an opportunity to speak to the more than 200 microbroadcasters that attended the event. “A few people came up to me after I spoke,” Lee said with a proud smile. “They had been thinking of operating a pirate station, but they said that after they heard my speech, they decided not to.”
Questions were taken from the audience, and of ten speakers, only 2 were sympathetic to the microbroadcasters. The interesting thing is that after the panel ended, six broadcasters came up to Hiken and congratulated him on his work. Obviously the support that microbroadcasting does have is intimidated by the NAB machine. The broadcast engineers that supported Hiken didn’t dare go on the record.
In Hiken’s earlier address to the microbroadcasters, he addressed the FCC’s predicament in dealing with the NAB’s desire to see pirate radio banished from the airwaves. “The FCC is an enforcement agency, but it has never had to deal with an uprising. It has never had to deal with a mass uprising,” Hiken said. “The Notices of Apparent Liability that they used to send out used to stop it all. People said, ‘oh, my god, a ten thousand dollar fine, I’m outta here’ – that doesn’t work anymore. So all of a sudden these agencies that have one or two or three local agents have to figure out how to shut down twenty-five stations, and every time they shut them down, another thirty open up. And so they’re sitting there, trying to figure out, what do we do? We’re not a police department. We don’t have agents everywhere to bust people and harass them. So they try to do big, visible, public stunts to try to convince people that they’re doing something. That’s why they’re having this panel. They’re going to get up there and have Richard Lee say ‘Listen, folks, we haven’t been ignoring your calls, we know you’ve called us 400 times, and have sent every tape that Stephen Dunifer has ever run and he’s still on the air. We’re not ignoring your pleas. Here’s what we’re doing. Please forgive us.’ Really, that’s what this panel is for.”
Immediately after the pirate radio panel, the microbroadcasters’ demonstration took place. Regrettably I missed it (I had to hurry to get to the Radio Luncheon, where the NAB inducted Rush Limbaugh into their “Hall of Fame”), but the videotape of the event showed its success. 25 to 30 microbroadcasters stood outside the doors of the NAB convention hall, next to the bus loading zones. They stood silently, wearing cloth gags that said “NAB” or “FCC” on them, their bullhorns covered with tape that said “the FCC took my voice away!” They held a large banner that proclaimed “MicroPOWER.” The bored attendees standing in the bus lines were forced to peer at the congregation. News cameras converged on the scene, and a Channel 3 helicopter hovered above. The NAB soon invoked their private property rights, leaving the cops escorting the protesters out to the sidewalk, where the demonstration continued in full force. Joshua from Free Radio Bob said that many people near the demonstration expressed support for the micropower movement. “People from out of the country were surprised that we couldn’t broadcast-they do it all the time elsewhere.” One attendee from Turkey pointed out that the demonstration alone could not have happened there, let alone community broadcasting.
“It’s really debatable as to what the purpose [of the demonstration] was,” said Dean of Free Radio Berkeley. “I mean, one of the purposes was to show the NAB that there was opposition too – their plans to get rid of all ‘pirates’ and show that we’re alive and we’re human beings and we’re varied. We had people from Christian stations, we had people from all over the country, and that was good. I think the most interesting thing is that both the right and the left are uniting around the issue of microradio, and in particular around the issue of control by the corporations.” Greg from the Shundahai Network and Las Vegas Food Not Bombs “thought we did a good demonstration. We were able to get a good group of people down to the heart of the NAB convention, where we put on gags and stood around and showed how they had gagged us and we weren’t able to speak, and we started making small noises and speaking out through our microphones, and showing people that we weren’t held back, and that we were going to speak out. Being by the main bus collection area, people were forced to sit and watch us – it gave people an opportunity to think, which I think was the most important.”
Brad from Steal This Radio in New York thought that the demonstration didn’t fall on entirely unsympathetic ears. “For most people working in media, microbroadcasters represent no threat. This is a common sense movement-no one disagrees with the need for community radio or the validity of our cause.”
Jennifer Barrios is a freelance reporter living in Berkeley, CA. She is also involved with Free Radio Berkeley.