Microradio Broadcasting Aguascalientes of the Airwaves
layout-grid-mode:line”>Excerpted from notes prepared for a
presentation given at the "Festival of Resistance" organized by the NY
layout-grid-mode:line”>"Where there is even a pretense of
democracy," writes Noam Chomsky, "communications are at its heart." Given
the present state of our society, however, it’s no surprise that we find communications
not at the heart of a vibrant democracy, but rather in the grip of an oppressive and
contradictory system of mass control. Nowhere is this more evident than in the community
struggle for access to the airwaves, and the corporate/ government campaign to crush it.
layout-grid-mode:line”>The problem is neoliberalism–the
unrelenting forces that shape society according to the conditions most favorable to
business. Almost every aspect of our lives–our work, food, housing, education, and
culture is dominated, in one form or another, by the pro-business mission of
neoliberalism. In our present age, business is defined by massive corporations. Since
Reagan, neoliberal influence on law has been to permit corporations to merge into new
monolithic entities that control more economic and political power than many of the
earth’s countries. Indeed, commercial corporations, not nation states, are emerging as the
new global superpowers-and their mission is to make the most possible amount of money in
the shortest possible time.
layout-grid-mode:line”>From 1927 onward, however, the federal
government began interpreting its mandate to serve "public interest" in ways
utterly inconsistent with that of other branches of government. In the case of libraries,
schools, parks, and highways, for example, regulating in the "public interest"
means preserving those spaces from the presence of business. In the case of the airwaves,
this interpretation has been reversed, but not without resistance. As Robert W. McChesney
points out, "Between 1928 and 1935, some elements of American society actively
opposed the emerging commercial set-up and attempted to have a significant portion of the
ether set aside for noncommercial and nonprofit utilization."
layout-grid-mode:line”>The passage of the Federal Communications
Act of 1934 maintained the democratic language of the 1927 Act; regulation of the airwaves
would be carried out to serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity,"
and what was once the FRC then became the FCC. In the 64 years years since its inception,
the FCC did take several steps to fulfill its mandate and attempt to serve civil society.
To the benefit of commercialism, however, each of these steps has long since been
eliminated. At a glance:
layout-grid-mode:line”>2. Genuine democracy requires media that
reflect the cultural diversity and local issues that characterize a community. Thus, the
FCC required that 8 percent of AM radio air time and 6 percent of FM radio airtime be
dedicated to public affairs programming that was nonentertainment oriented. As a condition
of license renewal, the FCC also required that stations actually study the communities to
which they were broadcasting in order to access the needs of the people living there.
During the Reagan years, these requirements were all eliminated.
layout-grid-mode:line”>The general drift toward complete
corporate control of the airwaves reached a new extreme with the passage of the
Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. A defining feature of the act has been to tolerate
a higher limit of media outlets–radio and TV stations–that any one corporation can own.
It also eases the restrictions preventing these huge media conglomerates from merging into
one another, creating huge monolithic powers. As microradio scholar Larry Soley observes,
"almost 4,000 or nearly 40 percent, of the nation’s roughly 10,300 commercial radio
stations have been traded in deals collectively worth $32 billion, with the largest radio
station group owners being the most aggressive purchasers. The ten largest group owners
today control 1,134 commercial radio stations, up from 652 prior to passage of the
Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Dallas investment firm, Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst
Inc., is the group leader, with over 400 stations, followed by CBS with 175 stations.
According to Broadcast Investment Analysts, there are nearly 15 percent fewer radio
station owners than there were prior to the passage of the act. Two group owners, CBS and
Chancellor Media, today have nearly 53 percent of radio listeners in the top 10 markets,
with CBS having 27 percent and Chancellor having 25.2 percent. CBS holds nearly 50 percent
of the news talk listening audience in those markets." And on and on. Corporations
get the licenses, controlling both access and content. Any lingering obligation to serve
"public interest" is completely paved over. Media corporations are not in
business to make democracy possible, but rather to capture the largest possible audience
whose attention they then sell like scrap metal for advertising.
layout-grid-mode:line”>"In the current media
environment," says Robert Perry, "speech is merely another commodity to be
bought and sold, valued primarily for it’s revenue potential." The resulting black
out on local issues, core political speech, and cultural diversity has not been without
serious repercussions: over the past five years, a national movement has been mushrooming
in opposition to corporate control of communications. This is a movement made up of
hundreds of community groups who operate unlicensed clandestine radio stations in much the
same spirit that Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus: to resist and challenge a
dehumanizing and unconstitutional system.
layout-grid-mode:line”>Everywhere that oppressive restrictions
become institutionalized by either government or business, there one finds resistance,
underground networks, and liberation struggles. Among grassroots groups, the thousands of
volunteer movement activists who make up overlapping democracy struggles, there is a
growing consensus to use our precious few resources working on alternatives to corporate
media, rather than attempting to revolutionize the system head-on. "Media wealth is
too concentrated, too solidified, and too integrated into the corporate-government elite
to make social change within the existing system possible," says Project Censored
Director, Peter Phillips.
layout-grid-mode:line”>Alongside the invaluable on-line activism
now proliferating via the Internet, the growing network of microradio broadcasters is
emerging as an energetic force in building viable, community-oriented alternatives to the
neoliberal media. Around the country, hundreds of communities are creating small
aguascalientes, centers of civil resistance, by operating low-watt radio stations where
they can express their cultures, their languages, and their politics with complete
freedom-and in complete opposition to corporate control of the public airwaves.
layout-grid-mode:line”>Microradio In the Courtroom
layout-grid-mode:line”>Judge Wilken did not shut down Dunifer
because his constitutional challenges were overruled. In fact, throughout Judge Wilken’s
20 page decision, she manages to completely avoid answering the constitutional questions
that Dunifer raises as his defense. Instead, Judge Wilken based her ruling on a technical
Catch 22: that Dunifer never applied for a license.
layout-grid-mode:line”>Dunifer was not granted a hearing on
August 7, 1998. Judge Wilken said that she did not require oral presentations in order to
determine if she would amend her judgement. Whether or not she does, public unrest over
the ban on microradio will continue to mount until some form of community access to the
airwaves has been realized. Dunifer’s civil disobedience has ignited a mass movement. As a
result of his activism, communities all over America are claiming a seat in the front of
the airwaves, challenging the injustice of the FCC’s licensing scheme. The FCC has shut
down 250 stations in the past 10 months, but new stations keep emerging.
layout-grid-mode:line”>With the presence of several underground
stations, and the support of activist groups like the New York Free Media Alliance, Paper
Tiger Television, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, NYC has become an active front
in the free media struggle. At the center of the local resistance is Steal This Radio, a
20-watt station that has been broadcasting at 88.7 FM for three years on the Lower East
layout-grid-mode:line”>Steal this Radio’s case is called Free
Speech vs the FCC, and is represented by Robert Perry (independent) and Barbara Olshansky
(Center For Constitutional Rights). Their legal offensive establishes that the airwaves
are a public forum, and as such, are a venue where free speech should be protected by the
Constitution. The FCC’s condition that broadcasters take to the airwaves at 100 watts or
more is one which involves an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars-resources no
community group has at its disposal. STR’s case also argues that the FCC’s procedure for
raiding stations and seizing equipment is illegal even under the FCC’s own statute, the
Communications Act of 1934. "In other words," says Perry, "it’s the FCC
that is breaking the law."
layout-grid-mode:line”>The third petition, RM-9242, proposes the
creation of three new classes of low power stations, one of up to 50 watts, one 50 watts
to 3 kilowatts, and a third for the creation of temporary stations. In order to insure
that these stations are a true organ of community, the petition proposes that license
holders live within a 50 mile radius of the station and that no licensee would be
permitted to own more than 3 stations nationwide. In this petition, micropower stations
are called "secondary service stations" and are designated "to those types
of of broadcasters who do not wish to conform to a more structured and/ or regulated form
of broadcasting." Good as this may sound, even this petition is seriously flawed. J.
Rodger Skinner proposes this license as being deferential to commercial interests:
"the licensee must vacate the channel," writes Skinner, "if a full-power
station becomes short spaced…due to an antenna site move or power increase, or
application by a…primary service applicant." Skinner’s idea here is not to create
sovereign community stations, but rather to provide a temporary slot for folks who are
planning to "upgrade" to a "full-power" station.
layout-grid-mode:line”>1. Non-commercial service
layout-grid-mode:line”>3. Local ownership, no absentee owners
layout-grid-mode:line”>5. That owners be individuals,
unincorporated associations, or non profit organizations. For non-profit corporations,
partnerships, joint ventures, or other organizations may not be owners.
layout-grid-mode:line”>7. That maximum power shall be 50 watts
urban and 100 watts rural. In the event of interference due to power level, a station
shall have the option to reduce power to remedy the situation or be shut down.
layout-grid-mode:line”>9. That equipment shall meet a basic
technical criteria in respect to stability, filtering, modulation control, etc.
layout-grid-mode:line”>11. That there shall be no specific
public service requirements imposed by the FCC. 12. That problems, whether technical or
otherwise, shall be first referred to the local or regional voluntary micropower
organization for technical assistance or voluntary mediation. The FCC shall be the forum
of last resort.
layout-grid-mode:line”>14. That microbroadcasting of special
events (demonstrations, protests, rallies, festivals, concerts, etc) do not need to be
registered, but are encouraged to meet all technical specifications.
layout-grid-mode:line”>16. That amnesty shall be granted for
microbroadcasters who suffered government seizure of property and fines.
layout-grid-mode:line”>Few people are optimistic about any
initial proposals coming from the FCC. Cynics anticipate the Commission trying to diffuse
the movement by permitting a 10 watt or less license, a pathetic gesture that 99 percent
of microbroadcasters will vehemently reject. Others anticipate chair Kennard to act
primarily in the interests of minority entrepreneur. "Given Kennard’s orientation
toward minority enterprise," says Franck, "the risk is that the FCC will simply
set up a lower tier of small commercial stations onto the FM band." It’s up to the
movement to keep the pressure on until a genuinely progressive non-commercial NPRM is
layout-grid-mode:line”>Building a Microradio Empowerment
layout-grid-mode:line”>A concrete example of such work is seen
in the accomplishments of UNPLUG, the successful, well funded campaign waged by a handful
of full-time organizers committed to forcing corporations out of another public space: the
school system. UNPLUG serves as a front in the struggle against an aggressive corporate
campaign to use public school children as a captive audience for corporate advertising.
UNPLUG worked with community groups around the country who were repulsed by the commercial
infiltration of the school system, and won victory after victory, expelling Channel One
from classrooms. We need to study the work done by groups like UNPLUG, and organize
Empowerment Centers that serve to combat corporate infiltration of public spaces, starting
with the airwaves. Essentially, the purpose of the Coalition would be to better coordinate
the work already being done by microradio activists, and to expand it.
layout-grid-mode:line”>Developing a viable proposal for a low
power broadcasting system
layout-grid-mode:line”>Forming alliances with progressive public
interest groups, non-profit organizations, and foundations
layout-grid-mode:line”>Distributing reliable and inexpensive
transmitters & equipment
layout-grid-mode:line”>Offering free workshops and trainings on
starting non-commercial community stations
layout-grid-mode:line”>Establishing a free media speakers bureau
layout-grid-mode:line”>Producing a web page, newsletter, public
service announcements, audiocassettes, public fora, and conferences Long term activities
layout-grid-mode:line”>Initiate legislation for a "Grazing
Tax" for commercial media. Ranchers who use public lands pay one, corporations who
use public airwaves do not, and should. Funds raised could help support nonprofit media as
well as public production libraries.
layout-grid-mode:line”>Microbroadcasting and Revolution
layout-grid-mode:line”>The first Aguascalientes was destroyed by
federal troops after they occupied the township of Guadelupe Tepeyac, on February 5, 1995.
In 1994, it was the site of the Democratic National Convention where 6,000 people from
Mexico and all over the world gathered to meet with the Zapatistas and dialogue about the
possibility of building an international movement of resistance "for humanity and
layout-grid-mode:line”>hotmail.com or call 215. 474. 6459.