The WNFC Manifesto

by Tom Ness, Michigan Music is World Class Campaign
For a Measured Act of Civil Disobedience,
Regarding our Nation’s Public Airwaves
& the City of Ferndale, Michigan.
I. Background: History of the Michigan Music Campaign and the national movement to legalize community radio.
II. Why Ferndale needs our own radio station.
III. The FCC’s role.
IV. The problem.
a. Existing legal options.
b. Our efforts to reform the system.
V. Civil disobedience.
VI. Our plan to demonstrate the potential of Ferndale radio via a temporary unlicensed station.
a. The basics.
b. Support and participation.
c. How it will unfold.
d. When it’s over.
VII. The risks.
VIII. The future: What a permanent Ferndale radio station might be like
and who might run it.
I. Background
History of the Michigan Music Campaign & the national movement to legalize community radio.
The “Michigan Music is World Class” Campaign united in 1996 as an ad hoc assembly of local musicians and music-related business owners, etc., with the goal of making room on the public airwaves for local music and, more largely, addressing fundamental problems with how our nation’s public airwaves are officially administered and allocated.
Every citizen is guaranteed equal access to our public highways, public parks, public beaches, public libraries, public sidewalks. But only the richest and most powerful among us are allowed to use the public airwaves — and for private gain!
From 1996 through 2000, we met and planned our activities at Ferndale’s Xhedos Cafe. We helped lead a successful national movement to create a whole new form of community-based radio station, “LPFM” (Low Power FM) radio, introduced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Jan. 20, 2000. But the powerful broadcast lobby convinced Congress to strangle LPFM, keeping the new stations out of the top 50 radio markets completely. The
radio dial is already highly congested in these areas, and the corporations which monopolize the airwaves in cities like Detroit refuse to give up even a sliver for community use.
In September 2003, we re-inaugurated the MMWC Campaign, this time with both a broader and also a more narrow focus:
* Broader in the sense that we now hope to serve our entire local community, not just musicians.
* And more narrow in that for the project at hand we have chosen to specifically focus on one town, the City of Ferndale (where the Michigan Music Campaign was born and where many of us live). We want to demonstrate the critical need for local, community-level content on the public airwaves, to supplement the regional/state/national/international content which
currently exists.
After months of debate and discussion, we chose to launch an unlicensed, “pirate” radio station in 2004, as a measured act of civil disobedience. We will demonstrate the value and necessity of a radio station which serves Ferndale specifically: Ferndale news, politics, community life and projects, businesses, music, religion, health information, etc.
We believe our history of the past eight years, detailed below, illustrates that we have exhausted every legal option well beyond any reasonable standard, in pursuing our legitimate goals. Indeed, our aim is to assist the FCC with its Congressional mandate of serving the public interest first and foremost.
We’re going to break the law in order to put news and information about Ferndale on the air. We will do it for the immediate benefit of Ferndale residents.
But, primarily, our goal is to create a groundswell of support for once again changing the existing rules about broadcasting to increase opportunities for local broadcasting all over the country. It was overwhelming public demand which forced the FCC to change its rules in 2000.
Lots of cities should have their own radio station, not just Ferndale! Ferndale will be an example for the rest of Metro Detroit, and beyond. So this project is also for the benefit of the entire country.
We think Ferndale residents are going to love turning on their radio and hearing about our neighbors, our friends, our local government — about ourselves! When this demonstration is over, we think Ferndale residents are going to demand the FCC change its rules so we can have such a station all the time — without anyone going to jail.
This paper will describe in detail our plans, goals and justifications for this controversial measure.
II. Why Ferndale Needs Our Own Radio Station.
Radio is unique. Radio allows immediate feedback, timely response and debate, comprehensive discussion, broad participa-tion, etc. Radio can be enjoyed anywhere, while doing many other things. Radio is meaningful to young and old, rich and poor, and people of all levels of education. Radio unites us, and helps build community.
Radio is a fundamental mode of American communication with an important historical role in developing our unique culture.
Ferndale residents demand local, community-oriented news and information. This is proven by the continued success of local publications such as The Mirror and The Daily Tribune. So why is it impossible to find this kind of Ferndale-specific information anywhere on our radio dial?
We greatly admire The Mirror and The Daily Tribune, and we think they make excellent models for what a Ferndale radio station which might be like. However, print and broadcast media have different character-istics, and one cannot substitute for the other. For example:
* A Ferndale radio station would allow far more people to express their views than with print, due to the cost of paper and ink.
* Radio provides a timely response so that rumors, gossip and questions of fact can be immediately challenged.
Thus, for example, a Ferndale radio station could facilitate call-in town meetings and debates in which everyone could participate — even those who are home-bound! And if a candidate, etc. said something which wasn’t true, they could be immediately corrected — even by someone halfway across town.
* We need a Ferndale radio station to promote local commerce. Why should our local businesses be shut out of the enormous profit potential of the public airwaves?
* We need a Ferndale radio station to promote our local organizations and community projects.
* We need a Ferndale radio station to serve our community in emergencies, such as the recent extended blackout.
* We need a Ferndale radio station for vital announcements from the police, fire and other City departments about health, safety and other matters.
* We need a Ferndale radio station to bring local church service to the home-bound.
* We need a Ferndale radio station to bring the whole city closer to our many annual festivals.
* We need a station to promote local garage sales, block parties, etc.
* We need a Ferndale radio station to spread the word about weddings, births, deaths, illnesses, residents who need a helping hand.
* We need a Ferndale radio station because there are a lot of world-class musicians living among us, and we should be proud and able to enjoy them!
* We need a Ferndale radio station to talk about our schools, and get the word out to parents about ever-changing schedules, etc.
* We need a Ferndale radio station to supplement the public access television broadcast of school events. Many Ferndale residents cannot afford cable! But everyone can afford a transistor radio.
* We need a Ferndale radio station to also supplement the public access
television broadcast of City Council meetings.
Every Ferndale resident has their own unique reasons for why Ferndale must have its own radio station.
III. The FCC’s role.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created by the 1934 Communications Act, and was charged with administering our nation’s airwaves in a manner which serves “the public interest, necessity and convenience.”
On this fundamental quote rests the concept of the “public airwaves,” enshrining the notion that we citizens own this property and that we alone legitimately determine its function and use.
In reality, of course, the most powerful corporate interests in our nation exert an influence over the FCC which almost entirely overshadows the efforts of the few tiny media public-interest groups in existence. Thus, the FCC has historically bent to the will of corporate America, and consistently drafted regulations which helped create the awesome mass-media empires which currently dominate our politics, culture, education, recreation and so many other facets of life.
Our public airwaves remain incalculably valuable in terms of communication, commerce, culture, civics and beyond. Yet we have lost control over our own property — our airwaves are monopolized by select private interests for their personal commercial gain.
If the FCC worked as its original creators intended, the public interest would always prevail over the corporate interest on our nation’s airwaves. Although it rarely works that way, our victory in 2000 proves that the public interest can still prevail at the FCC, at least with sufficient public demand.
At this present time, we cannot expect this government agency to withstand the awesome influence and pressure from corporate America on its own. In order to defend the public interest, citizens need to exert pressure, too. There seems to be no end of space on the dial for mindless commercials and the same ten songs heard in every city in every state across the country.
Surely there must be a sliver — one tiny spot on the dial — available for Ferndale citizens to use. It is so clearly and obviously in our public interest, necessity and convenience. Therefore, it is the duty of the FCC to make it possible.
It is our duty to make the FCC understand that.
IV. The Problem.
After extensive effort over several years, we appear to have exhausted all normal legal avenues for creating a radio station which specifically serves our community.
At the core of the problem is the matter of a relatively congested radio dial, and enormous competition over that bandwidth. The situation is complicated in Detroit by international treaties with Canada.
a. Existing legal options.
* Buying an existing full-power station – Needless to say, this is not practical for the kind of local entrepreneur who might eke out a humble living by running a Ferndale-specific radio station. Existing stations are multi-million dollar investments.
* Influencing existing full-power stations: We’ve lobbied the local commercial stations with rallies, letter-writing campaigns, etc. with some success, to broadcast some token “local music” shows, usually ending up on the graveyard shift. This, of course, is not a substitute for a station with a truly local focus.
* Leased time: Some of us lease time on local stations such WPON-AM in Pontiac.
* College/high school stations: Some of us also participate in college and high school radio. Again, these are no substitutes for a Ferndale-specific station.
* Internet radio: We utilize Internet radio — but the medium excludes Ferndale citizens who don’t own a computer, don’t know to use it, or don’t want to use it. However, everyone can afford and knows how to use a transistor radio.
* Ham/shortwave/CB radio: Of course, these options are unrealistic given the relatively few Ferndale residents who use them.
* Part 15: The FCC provides for stations so small and of such little wattage that they do not require licenses (known as “Part 15” stations). These are often found at car dealerships or in houses for sale, to provide information for potential customers who might drive by. We’ve invested a great deal of time, research and testing into “Part 15” options, both AM and FM. But our engineers tell us these are simply not feasible in downtown Ferndale — likely only able to broadcast effectively about 20 or 30 yards, even from the best location downtown.
b. Our efforts to reform the system.
Beyond exhausting these options, we have also attempted — and succeeded — at reforming the system, and convincing the FCC to change its own rules to allow for more local broadcasting. But even this has not brought us any closer to a legal Ferndale radio station!
* Convincing the FCC to create LPFM radio stations required a monumental national effort over a period of about five years. The victory was won by a movement with two major prongs: Those engaging in civil disobedience in the form of thousands of “pirate” stations across the country, and those engaging in mainstream lobbying of government and educating the public at large. (The Michigan Music Campaign was exclusively involved in the
mainstream lobbying effort.)
This led to a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission on Jan. 20, 2000 to create LPFM radio. These 100-watt stations have a range of just a few miles, and are intended to serve local communities. According to the FCC’s rules, LPFM stations must be locally owned and operated. LPFM radio is not everything we wanted, but it is a remarkable step forward in terms of media democracy — allowing average citizens to participate actively, instead of being mere passive consumers of information. (LPFM stations are just now beginning to broadcast, and about a thousand in all are expected over the next few years.)
* However, months later, Congress rolled back the FCC’s plan by about 90%, keeping LPFM out of all of the top 50 markets including Detroit. Congress was reacting to lobbying from the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio, which claimed the tiny 100-watt stations would grossly interfere with their 100,000 watt versions. (Naturally, we provided extensive evidence proving this to be false.)
* However, Congress also mandated an independent study, the “Mitre Study,” to determine the truth about the interference question. That study might never have been released without pressure from public interest volunteers — but in July 2003 we finally learned that the Mitre Study had concluded that LPFM stations, as originally created by the FCC, would create no significant interference!
Now, however, a new bill must be introduced, passed and signed by the President, in order to implement the Mitre Studies findings! This will be very difficult, considering the past history of LPFM.
* And even if we succeed — there still won’t be room for a single LPFM station in all of Detroit (although many of the other top 50 markets will get one or two LPFMs)! Clearly the rules must be expanded well beyond what the FCC created in Jan. 2000, and far beyond what Congress has so far allowed.
* We’re now working to create LPAM radio in the exact same manner we fought for LPFM. Thus, we hope to bring Low Power radio to the AM dial. But such a potential victory is several years off — and even if we succeed, the engineers already tell us, again, there will be little room for such stations in Detroit.
THUS: We believe we exhausted every legal avenue for creating a Ferndale-specific radio station. Furthermore, we feel we have made an extraordinary effort to reform the rules which seem to be in conflict with the FCC’s original mandate.
Yet our community’s need, interest and convenience remains denied. Thus, the FCC must again revisit their rules. There is simply no other option.
V. Civil Disobedience.
We’re not criminals. We’re responsible Ferndale citizens interested in bettering our community. We’ve invested years of our lives and gone into considerable personal debt in addressing the misappropriation of this invaluable public resource. We seek and demand respect, not condemnation.
We regret having to break the law in order to conduct this demonstration.
The national movement to legalize community radio was successful in creating LPFM radio in 2000 only because while the Michigan Music Campaign intensively lobbied our government, many others actively engaged in civil disobedience. Thousands of “pirate” radio stations operated in defiance of the FCC in the late ’90s, and it was this combination of grassroots lobbying and broad civil disobedience which forced the FCC to concede the public’s right to use the public airwaves.
Democracy is well-defined as the active participation of a responsible citizenry who engage and help guide their government in setting policy. Democracy is about ordinary citizens playing a role in government. Civil disobedience is a traditional, proud, historic, recognized method for citizens to do that, by giving the citizen a subtle check-and-balance influence over our government itself. Civil disobedience has brought some of the very best things to America, and made this country much more honorable and just!
We believe in following the law even when we disagree with it — unless the law is so patently intolerable and unjust that it must be resisted. And even then, we believe in dignified, civil, and exclusively non-violent resistance.
We respect the authority of the F.C.C. We welcome and appreciate the FCC’s role in regulating and policing the public airwaves. We believe that an unregulated airwaves would be a catastrophe for democracy because those who could afford to build the most powerful transmitters would simply overpower all others.
Our decision to severely limit the duration of our disobedience is intended to demonstrate our fundamental respect for the F.C.C.’s overall regulatory authority. We do not wish to embarrass or challenge the agency by manner of ongoing, flagrant violation of their regulations. Instead, we will broadcast for the briefest period of time necessary to conduct our demonstration. Then we will voluntarily go off the air.
Every governmental agency strays from it’s intended path from time to time, and makes mistakes. It is a proud role for citizens to engage an agency when it has strayed from its mandate.
“Pirate” broadcasting is an especially unoffensive, unintrusive form of civil disobedience. Unlike even a mere sit-in or picket line, etc., which might actually inconvenience people — if you hear a pirate station and don’t like it, you can just turn your dial!
We’re not at war with the F.C.C. In fact, we’ve met plenty of people there who are committed to media democracy, and are doing their best to defend the public interest from within the agency — and who agree with us!
We can help these people do their job by demonstrating public demand. Wewant to help them implement programs like LPFM radio — and we do it best by rousing the public to speak up and make it possible.
We believe the next necessary step in our struggle to democratize the airwaves and compel the FCC to do its duty is to demonstrate what a Ferndale radio station might be like. Frankly, we appear to have run out of other options.
VI. Our Plan.
a. The basics.
We plan to assemble a Low Power FM station over the next few months with sufficient power to reach all of Ferndale. We plan to call it WNFC-FM (We Need Ferndale Community). The station location will be disclosed at a later date.
* We will operate without interfering with any existing signals. We will ensure our signal “protects” all other existing licensed stations on the dial. We will transmit at just enough power to cover Ferndale, perhaps about 100 watts.
* We intend to operate WNFC for just two weeks, as a demonstration. We will make public the date of the demonstration well in advance so that Ferndale citizens can listen — and participate — in the station.
* We will ask Ferndale residents to host their own shows.
* We will host debates and town meetings.
* We will maximize call-ins.
* We will provide free advertising for all Ferndale businesses.
* We will provide free community announcements for all Ferndale residents, organizations, etc.
* If you’re in Ferndale — we want you on WNFC!
* It goes without saying that all content will be appropriate for listeners of all ages at all times. We will insist on the highest standards of propriety with our on-air guests and content.
b. Support and participation.
We will not go on the air until we have the support and direct participation from the broadest range of Ferndale:
1. WNFC air time will be divided proportionately among conservative and liberal voices.
2. WNFC will speak to old and young.
3. WNFC will present the broadest possible range of religious, cultural and ethnic perspectives, news and information.
4. WNFC will promote the broadest possible range of Ferndale businesses, and help boost our local economy.
5. WNFC will provide a venue for challenging debate over every imaginable Ferndale issue: DIFT, the school board, IRV, light rail, the Woodward bridge, etc.
We will not proceed with this demonstration until we can provide these things.
We will also not go on the air until we can promise the direct participation of a broad range of our community’s most respected and admired individuals.
We will plead our case to every elected official from school board to senator, and urge them to lend their dignity to our demonstration. We will also seek out the direct participation of our business, religious, cultural, civic and other leaders.
We want the Mayor, the police and fire chiefs, the Council Members, the City Manager and all of our other friends at City Hall to have their turn on WNFC-FM, to talk about what they think is important for Ferndale to know.
We will gladly tape interviews with any such leaders who are hesitant about participating directly in the WNFC studio. However, in order to really demonstrate the power and value of radio, we want the majority of air-time to be live broadcast.
We will also not go on the air until we can provide a way for the broadest range of Ferndale’s ordinary citizens to participate.
c. How it will unfold.
We begin by distributing this manifesto to every home in Ferndale. This will happen in March or April of 2004. It will be accompanied by a postcard suggesting ways that people can endorse the project, help out or, best of all, participate directly.
One by one, we will grow our list of endorsers. We will also begin scheduling VIPs, community organizations, etc. for interviews, debates, talk shows, etc. We will contact every Ferndale business and offer free advertising. We will contact Ferndale musicians and solicit their participation. We will contact the churches and community organizations and do our best to provide something useful to them.
There is no deadline for this part of the project. We cannot go forward with the actual broadcast until the broadcast will represent Ferndale as a whole — liberal and conservative, traditional and progressive, etc.
And we will also not go forward until we have secured the active participation of an impressive list of Ferndale and beyond’s most well-known, admired and respected individuals and organizations. We want our civic, cultural and other leaders to appear on WNFC to demonstrate their support. Our concerns about media democracy are shared by a majority of Americans. WNFC will provide our elected officials and public leaders with an opportunity to draw attention to this serious problem.
We’re not criminals. We’re responsible public citizens. We will conduct this project in a manner in which any member of Congress would be proud to be associated. Along the way, we will try to raise awareness about the project via press conferences, rallies, fund-raisers, etc.
Meanwhile, we will assemble the basic mechanics of the station: control room, transmitter, antenna, etc. This, by far, will be the easy part of the project. Radio stations do not have to cost millions of dollars! And our station will be as professional as any in terms of signal integrity, etc.
When we are satisfied with our two-week schedule of programming and the diversity and stature of our guests, hosts and content, we will distribute our schedule to every home in Ferndale well in advance of the actual broadcast date.
Then it’s show time! We will do everything possible to draw attention. We will ask the City to block off part of 9 Mile for a launch rally with a pirate theme, designed to attract TV cameras. We will ask to have our signal piped in to the existing 9 Mile public address system for the two-week demonstration period.
For the following two weeks, we will endeavor to capture the imagination of our city and inspire a longing for a permanent, legal, licensed solution.
d. When it’s over.
At this point, we will assess the situation, and choose the next course of action. This project is intended to be the first stage of something which will again convince the F.C.C. to rewrite their rules. But it is impossible to predict what our new movement will look like even six months from now. While we are conducting our pirate station in Ferndale, others around the country are moving forward with the Mitre Study, LPAM, FCC localism hearings, new LPFM filing windows, etc. It is impossible to say which of these might be on the fast-track six months from now.
This project is intended to light a fire around media democracy issues in Metro Detroit. It should be exciting and entertaining enough that after it is over a circle of energized activists will remain, who want to take the fight to the next level. They will decide — based on the outcome of the project and news from the rest of the country — what comes next.
VII. The Risks.
It is illegal to broadcast with any kind of significant power without a license. Those guilty risk fines, forfeiture and prison. And we’re going to be guilty.
History suggests that the risk of serious penalties are not great. Tens of thousands have broadcasted without licenses. Well over a thousand have been contacted by the FCC over the last ten years. Hundreds have had their equipment seized. The number who have been fined may also be in the hundreds.
The equipment is not a concern. We are prepared to surrender every microphone, CD and roll of electrical tape. A few thousand dollars of equipment is a small price if it eventually leads to a major policy shift in Washington again.
The fines can be significant, typically $10,000.
But, based on the history of so many other stations around the country and the specific nature of this project, we don’t think we’re going to have trouble. Naturally, we will be ready with legal representation and a specific strategy should there be any problems.
Of course, from time to time, agencies such as the F.C.C. seek to make an example out of someone. A perfect example is Lonnie Kobres of Florida, who refused to stop broadcasting even after several raids and seizures. He eventually faced a possible life sentence for broadcasting without a license! But the outcry around the country was so overwhelming that Kobres received limited sentence of house arrest.
It is hard to imagine any risks whatsoever to those who merely appear on the air, either as a guest or host of a show, etc. And we will have hundreds of hosts and guests over the two-week period.
VIII. The Future: What a permanent Ferndale station might be like and who might run it?
The purpose of WNFC is to demonstrate what a Ferndale radio station might be like. If we do our job well, Ferndale won’t want to give it up after two weeks! Thus, with public support rallied behind the effort, we can once again begin the awesome task of convincing Congress and the FCC to revisit the existing rules.
We intend to make it possible, in the future, for someone to launch a permanent Ferndale radio station without fear of fines or prison. But it won’t be us. If there can be only one such community station for all of Ferndale, it must be owned and operated by an impartial entity which is responsible to all of Ferndale’s citizens.
Again, The Mirror and The Daily Tribune provide excellent examples. Although both are private entities, they clearly provide a voice for all of Ferndale, not just those with whom their owners personally agree.
Some will surely argue that a Ferndale radio station should be owned by the City. Eventually, Ferndale may decide that a single station is just not enough and that there must be competition. (Then perhaps there will be another fight to win back yet another slice of our own airwaves!)
These are difficult and important questions. But they are for someone else to answer. The job of the Michigan Music Campaign is simply to create a legal option for others to appreciate and employ.
Towards a better democracy…
Tom Ness
Michigan Music Campaign