By Ted M. Coopman
Disclaimer: Broadcasting without a license is a violation of Federal law. Those convicted of illegally broadcasting may face fines of more than $10,000 and up to one year in jail per incident. The author does not encourage any illegal activity nor does he accept any liability for the consequences of the use of the information contained in this article. The reader uses this information at her/his own risk. For more information concerning the penalties for unlicensed broadcasting contact the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
So, You Want to Free the Airwaves?
If you have gotten this far and found this article, I am assuming you know about the Micro Broadcasting Movement and are seriously considering participating. If not, you will want to check out Radio4all for links and detailed information about the Free Communications Movement and micro radio. For deeper background, you may wish to access my master’s thesis on micro radio. This article does not encourage participating in micro radio (although I am on record as supporting the goals of the Free Communications Movement); it simply provides information gathered through researching the Micro Radio Movement and the FCC. I wrote this article to help individuals considering participating in micro radio make informed decisions.
On The Firing Line
FCC enforcement against unlicensed broadcasters has been very inconsistent, even with the stepped-up enforcement in 1998. This is both good and bad. On the upside, you have a fairly good chance of operating for months or even years without getting busted. On the downside, you don’t know what the FCC will do in your case, from a knock on the door to a full- blown SWAT team raid. Simply put, there are risks involved in participating in micro radio. The odds are you will not, as an individual, go to jail or get fined. However, the possibility exists.
Your chances of being busted have a lot to do with your geographic location. The FCC has only 16 or so field offices (down from 35 in 1992) and a little over 100 agents to staff those offices. Proximity to a field office greatly increases your chances of being busted. However, there is an effort under way by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to assist the FCC in identifying unlicensed radio stations. The Compliance and Information Bureau (CIB) of the FCC, charged with shutting down unlicensed operators, has offices in the following cities: Atlanta, GA; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Kansas City, MO; Hayward, CA; Los Angeles, CA; San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; Detroit, MI; Columbia, MD; New York City, NY; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Tampa, FL; New Orleans, LA; Philadelphia, PA; and of course, Washington, DC. That’s 14 states plus the District of Columbia. 36 states are without CIB offices. California is the only state with more than one field office. It has three.
Risks for Announcers
For general purposes, an announcer (or DJ) is anyone who operates a control board and talks live over the air. Here are some common misconceptions as well as questions often asked concerning the risks of announcing on an unlicensed radio station.
The organization who runs our station says that it will take full responsibility if there is a raid. Does this mean I won’t get fined or arrested?
There is no agreement you can come to with the individuals or organization running your micro station that will protect you from prosecution. If you are on the air when the FCC shows up, you will be held responsible for unlicensed broadcasting and you may face fines or jail time.
What do I do if the FCC comes knocking?
Obtain the publication, “What to do when the FCC Knocks at your Door.” Also, I suggest visiting The Free Radio Survival Guide. Read these BEFORE the FCC knocks on your door.
What happens if I do get busted? Will I go to jail? Will I get fined?
Chances are you will not get busted. The toughest penalty laid down so far has been three years probation. To my knowledge, no one has served time for announcing on a micro station. All fines can be appealed on the grounds of financial hardship and the FCC has a history of reducing fines in these cases.
What happens if I have to go to court?
Violations of the Communications Act are a civil matter, not a criminal one (at least at the onset). Therefore, the state does not have to provide you with counsel, and will not. Your station should be in contact with an attorney who will represent you in court for free or for a reduced fee. If this is not the case, I would recommend finding legal aide BEFORE you get visited.
But…..What About My Stuff??!!!
The biggest bite the FCC can take out of a micro station is the seizure of equipment. Equipment related to the direct operation of the station is only the beginning. FCC employees can take everything that’s not nailed down and will use pry bars and power tools to take stuff that IS nailed down if they feel they want it. As Doug Brewer in Florida found out, almost anything can be linked to the “illegal” operation and seized, right down to the picture of Jesus on the wall. In Brewer’s case they took the picture of Jesus and his entire transmission tower (which, I assume, was nailed down). Short of shutting down permanently, there is really no way to fully protect your transmitter and other studio equipment. However, there are steps you can take to minimize your losses.
Keep your Studio Spartan.
You should only have the minimum equipment necessary to operate the station on site. Any production equipment or materials should be kept at a different location. Any computers or other electronics should also be kept at other locations. Announcers should refrain from keeping CD, record collections, and personal property at the studio.
Keep your Studio Mobile
If there is an emergency, you should be able to move your transmitter and other primary equipment in minutes. Free Radio Santa Cruz did a complete breakdown and move in five minutes. A drill to get your time down to this might be in order. Have one or more alternative sites. It is a good idea to move locations after an FCC warning visit. Stations are easy to track, but there is no sense making it easy for them. (There is also the immobility strategy. Some activists suggest putting the transmitter in a hard to move object, say, padlocked in a refrigerator full of concrete, and welding on rings to chain yourself too. While this will not reduce your losses, it does sound like fun for the whole crew!)
Location, Location, Location.
The best situation is to place your studio in a small commercial space. This can be expensive, especially in urban areas. Another good bet is to make an arrangement with a low-income member of the station and have her/him share their her/his living space with the studio, possibly having the station pay utilities. This way, there will be minimal impact in the event of a raid. Some stations have been based out of large communal households. Although this arrangement is in many ways ideal, it is also dangerous. Evictions can happen with a call from the FCC to the landlord and trying to find beds for ten people is much harder than finding a bed for one. Besides, the more people, the more property there is to seize. Always use a rented space. It is foolhardy to operate a micro station from a building that you own.
Mixing Business with Transmitting
Don’t. Many people who get into micro radio are electricians or handypeople. DO NOT locate your transmitter in the same location as your workshop and tools. If you do, you will run the risk of losing access to your equipment, perhaps permanently. As you can imagine, if this is your livelihood, the consequences could be severe.
Watch Your ASSets
The primary tool the FCC has to dissuade people from violating its regulations is the seizure of assets. This goes beyond a transmitter and studio gear. If you have property, investments, or savings, it will be difficult to plead financial hardship. Being unable to prove financial hardship may leave you liable for tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in fines. Where commercial broadcasting is a rich person’s game, micro radio is the venue of the poor. You can only be sure you will lose nothing if you have nothing to lose.
Note on Illegal Activity
Since broadcasting without a license will eventually attract the authorities, it is in the best interest of the station, its members, and the movement in general to prohibit ANY illegal activity on station premises. This primarily concerns the possession of controlled substances, weapons, or the possession by minors of materials restricted to adults. Any of these activities will be used against you and the Micro Radio Movement, and undermine your community’s support for your station.
If you still want to be on the air and are not dissuaded by the risks, then good luck! However, if you are concerned, have assets to lose, have a past to haunt you, or simply don’t want a close encounter of the FCC-kind, there is still a lot you can do to participate in the Free Communications Movement.
Tape a Show
If you want your voice to be heard, you can still get on the air by taping a program. Having enough good content is always a problem when stations have no money. Shows can be taped and supplied to your station, or to other stations, and will enable you to get your message across and help the cause. This is easy to do, especially if the production studio is located away from the broadcast studio.
Raise Some Money
Help with fund raising. The legal fight to free the airwaves is in constant need of cash and most stations operate on a shoestring budget. Donate studio or other needed equipment or help track it down. Most micro stations are held together by a core few people and they can always use the help. Help set up a website or host a site on your personal webspace. The Internet is a valuable organizational tool.
Lobby local business and government and get them on your side. Have them write letters or sign petitions of support. Write the FCC, Congress, or anyone else you can think of. Be polite, firm, and to the point. Demand they act to legalize micro radio now.
Many skills, especially technical skills, are sorely needed by micro stations. Use your talents to help the cause.
Listen to your local micro station and tell as many people as possible about it. Community support is the key to survival.
Ted M. Coopman has a master of science in Mass Communication (1995) from San Jose State University, San Jose, CA. He is also a partner in Rogue Communication, a consulting and research organization. More information about Rogue Communication, micro radio, and other interesting topics can be found by visiting the Rogue Communication Domain.
This article is ©1998 by Ted M. Coopman. Any use without the permission of the author is prohibited.
By Ted M. Coopman