Microradio Broadcasting Aguascalientes of the Airwaves
Excerpted from notes prepared for a
presentation given at the "Festival of Resistance" organized by the NY
"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.
To begin building a better world, we must
first achieve democracy–the process by which whole communities may meaningfully
participate in decision making. And to make intelligent, well formed decisions, we must be
able to receive, produce, debate, and share information openly and freely. It is for this
reason that a public access media system is a non-negotiable demand in the struggle for
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.
Nowhere have U.S. citizens lost greater
control of its public sphere than in the government’s management of the airwaves. To study
the history of radio policy in this country is to study the movement of neoliberalism: how
business interests gradually gain control over a priceless public resource without
benefiting civil society. Radio was introduced to the Western world by Guglielmo Marconi
in 1895. By 1907 interest in the technology had reached the general population, and by
1912 hundreds of pioneers began broadcasting in the United States. In August of that year
Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912 which required all broadcasters to first acquire a
license. Under the Radio Act of 1912, noncommercial radio flourished. Tens of thousands of
individuals took to the airwaves. By the 1920s, noncommercial stations outnumbered
commercial stations by a ratio of two-to-one. To cope with the explosion of interest,
Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927, thereby creating the Federal Radio Commission,
prototype of today’s FCC. The purpose of the FRC was to regulate the airwaves "in the
public interest, convenience, and necessity."
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."
"Declaring that the ‘public
interest, convenience and necessity’ was better served by ‘general pubic service’,"
writes microradio lawyer Robert Perry, " (i.e., commercial) stations than by ‘special
interest’ and ‘propaganda’ (ie, non-commercial) stations, the FRC gave noncommercial
stations fewer hours than commercial stations. The FRC also limited broadcast radio
licenses to three-month terms, effectively requiring noncommercial stations to expend
their limited financial resources fending off license renewal challenges from commercial
stations every three months." The FRC’s pro-business interpretation of "public
interest" served to privatize the airwaves: noncommercial radio virtually disappeared
between 1927 and 1934, shrinking to barely 2 percent of all radio airtime by 1934.
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:
1. Genuine democracy requires an informed
public that has access to a diverse range of controversial and contrasting views. Thus, in
1949 the FCC adopted the Fairness Doctrine, requiring radio stations to provide reasonable
coverage of opposing views on issues of relevance to the community. During the Reagan
years, the Fairness Doctrine was eliminated.
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.
3. Genuine democracy is based on broad
public participation, a condition made possible not by political representation, but by
direct public access. Beginning in 1948, the FCC permitted public access to the airwaves
by issuing "Class D" low power broadcasting licenses to community groups,
colleges, and churches. As a result, noncommercial radio flourished for the first time
since the 1920s. In 1978, under pressure from an ambitious National Public Radio
organization that hoped to consolidate audiences, the FCC enacted a ban on all
broadcasting under 100 watts, with no cases of waivers granted to this day.
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.
This scenario and the policies that
protect it provide a clear portrait of the neoliberal agenda: maintaining the face of a
democratic society while enacting laws and policies, enforced by government, that decrease
the public arena, redefine citizenship in terms of consumerism, and provide unfettered
conditions for corporations to evolve with the rights of individuals and the power of
nation states. In the resulting free-for-all of corporate mergers, "the public
interest" is duly served with a variety of entertainment options, while the spectrum
of political and social information reaching public awareness narrows to the point of
meaninglessness. The notion of a public discussion pursuing any real increase in social
welfare, freedom, or self determination is thus unthinkable in a neoliberal system,
impossible because there are no longer any public venues through which to express such
thoughts. In such a climate, it then becomes understandable why it is legal to purchase a
fully assembled Uzi machine gun in this country, but it’s not legal to purchase a fully
assembled low-watt radio transmitter.
"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.
Networks of Alternative Communication
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.
Realizing that under neoliberalism, civil
society will continue to be denied the kinds of information and access that make
participatory democracy possible, the Zapatistas have proposed the formation of an
"intercontinental network of alternative communication" as a way of sharing
movement news, organizing, and celebrating the art and culture of resistance. In his video
message to the Freeing the Media gathering that took place in New York City two years ago,
Subcommandante Marcos said, "In August 1996, we called for the creation of a network
of independent media, a network of information… We need this network not only as a tool
for our social movements, but for our lives: this is a project of life, of humanity,
humanity which has a right to critical and truthful information."
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.
On October 4 and 5 hundreds of microradio
activists gathered in Washington, DC for a national conference on movement strategies and
to protest against the Federal communications policy and the corporate forces that
pressure it. Over the weekend, microradio activists sent a team of lobbyists to meet with
representatives on Capitol Hill, launched a new DC station (Radio Libre), staged a panel
at the Freedom Forum that was broadcast to 86 countries, and conducted dozens of
interviews with the mainstream press, resulting in coverage in the Washington Post,
NPR, MSNBC and many others. The weekend culminated with a massive march and puppet parade
from Dupont Circle to FCC headquarters, and then on to the headquarters of the National
Association of Broadcasters-the pro-industry group that most intensely pressures the FCC
to eliminate microbroadcasting. DC cops on motorcycles blocked intersections and stopped
traffic so that marchers could parade with three huge Bread and Puppet Theater puppets
showing FCC Chair "Kennardio" in the likeness of Pinnochio being controlled by a
bigger puppet, a TV headed monster–The NAB, which, in turn, was being puppeteered by an
even larger, more heinous looking beast: the corporate media monolith. The march came to a
head when microbroadcasters overpowered NAB agents (attempting to keep marchers off
headquarters’ property), hauled the NAB flag down from the top of a high pole, and rose up
in its place a pirate radio flag. The action filled the air with cheers of joy, and
resulted in two arrests.
Microradio In the Courtroom
Until now, the FCC have done everything
possible to avoid having the constitutionality of their regulations questioned. For more
than two years, the micropower radio movement was watching the case of Stephen Dunifer and
Free Radio Berkeley, hoping that Judge Claudia Wilken would consider the FCC’s ban
unconstitutional and rule in favor of the broadcasters. But on Tuesday, June 16, Stephen
Dunifer emailed networks across the Internet. Dunifer’s message read: "We just
received notification that Federal judge Claudia Wilken has granted the FCC motion for
summary judgement for a permanent injunction against myself and all others acting in
concert with me." Two days later Dunifer’s station, Free Radio Berkeley, was off the
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.
Dunifer’s attorneys are contesting Judge
Wilken’s decision. On Monday, June 29 they filed a Motion to Alter Judgement and requested
a hearing for August 7. Their motion argues that Wilken was in error, and the logic of
applying for a license and a waiver as prerequisites to challenging the constitutionality
of the FCC’s microradio ban is like demanding that Rosa Parks ask for a waiver to sit on
the front of the bus.
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.
Steal This Radio, NYC
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
In March 1998, Steal This Radio was
visited by Judah Mansbach, a notorious FCC agent responsible for shutting down countless
microstations. Following Mansbach’s visit, STR decided to temporarily go off the air until
the station was able to strike first against the FCC with a full-scale legal/media
assault. That action began on April 15, 1998, when Steal This Radio held a demonstration
and press conference at the site where George Washington took oath as first President of
the United States (directly across from the New York Stock Exchange.) That afternoon,
Steal This Radio’s lawyers initiated the lawsuit by submitting formal papers in Federal
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."
Outside the courtroom, microbroadcasters
are also using channels opened by the FCC themselves to alter regulation. There are
presently several petitions before the FCC which seek to open the airwaves to varying
degrees of public access. Two of these petitions are meaningless tokens: RM-9208 proposes
low power license of one watt or less, which basically means shouting distance, and
RM-9246 proposes "Event Broadcast Stations" to provide temporary stations access
to the airwaves.
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.
Even though these are the only three
petitions that the FCC have formally presented for public comments, new regulations are by
no means constrained by these three petitions alone. Thanks to the National Lawyers Guild
Committee for Democratic Communications (CDC) a proposal that genuinely expresses a
non-commercial, self-determined, public interest orientation has been crafted. The CDC are
free media activist lawyers who’ve been fighting with microbroadcasters ever since Mbanna
Kantako gave them a call back in 1989. Their mission is to focus "on the rights of
all peoples to have a worldwide system of media and communications based upon the
principle of cultural and informational self-determination." As an alternative to the
three petitions which the FCC presented for public commentary, the CDC propose, and have
won wide support for, new regulation that would permit:
1. Non-commercial service
2. Only one station per owner
3. Local ownership, no absentee owners
4. That stations shall be locally
programmed. However recorded materials such as music, poetry, documentaries, features,
etc. may be used. Sharing of program materials and resources among micro and community
stations is strongly encouraged.
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.
6. That stations may be established on
any unused frequency within the FM broadcast band down to 87.5. Second adjacent channel
would the closest spacing allowed.
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.
8. That a microstation shall fill out a
simple registration form, and send one copy with an appropriate registration fee to the
FCC, and a second copy to the voluntary body setup by the micropower broadcast community
to oversee the micro power stations.
9. That equipment shall meet a basic
technical criteria in respect to stability, filtering, modulation control, etc.
10. That registration shall be valid for
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.
13. That when television broadcast
stations go digital, leaving Channel 6 free, it shall be allocated as an extension to the
bottom of the FM band strictly for low power community FM service. Radio receivers
manufactured or entering the country after that allocation must meet this band extension.
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.
15.That micro stations licensed during
the present analog system of broadcasting shall be permitted to renew their licenses
during and through the transition to digital broadcasting.
16. That amnesty shall be granted for
microbroadcasters who suffered government seizure of property and fines.
Intense and sustained pressure from
microbroadcasters’ civil disobedience strategies, lawsuits, and media campaigns are
clearly impacting the FCC. Confirmation of this came in the aftermath of the October
protests, when high level officials at the agency met with CDC attorney Peter Franck to
discuss technical issues involved in lifting the ban. According to Franck, by the end of
December 1998 we can expect the FCC to either put forth a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
(NPRM) that proposes new regulation legalizing some form of low power broadcasting or to
put forth a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) asking for public comments on specific technical and
policy issues involved in setting up a new low power radio system. In either scenario,
microbroadcasters will continue to insist that any new regulation opening access to the
spectrum be access that is preserved through radio’s inevitable transition to digital.
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
"Until our free speech is permitted
over the airways at up to 100 watts, we will continue to fight, to organize, to attack the
FCC in the courts and in the media, and engage in civil disobedience by starting as many
new stations as possible, " said Pete tri Dish, an indefatigable free radio activist
and one of the key organizers of recent conferences in Washington DC and Philadelphia. In
the winter of 1998 Pete tri Dish and friends from Philly’s Radio Mutiny launched a major
"start your own station" micro radio tour, presenting free workshops to dozens
of east coast communities. A follow-up tour is being planned for February 1999.
Building a Microradio Empowerment
A key lesson to be learned from the
Zapatistas is their mission "not to usurp power, but to exercise it." As a
movement, we must now organize and fund a Microradio Empowerment Coalition that
coordinates a national legalization campaign, building working alliances with non-profit
groups committed to placing democratic communications at the heart of our society. As a
long term goal, the Coalition could strive to create local Media Empowerment Centers that,
like the Aguascalientes in Chiapas, serve as regional resource points for activism and
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.
Short term activities would include:
Developing a viable proposal for a low
power broadcasting system
Forming alliances with progressive public
interest groups, non-profit organizations, and foundations
Creating regional, self regulation
mechanisms for microbroadcasting
Distributing reliable and inexpensive
transmitters & equipment
Media Coordination, i.e, booking
spokespeople in the mainstream
Offering free workshops and trainings on
starting non-commercial community stations
Providing a legal/technical referral
Establishing a free media speakers bureau
Creating databases for use by activists
Producing a web page, newsletter, public
service announcements, audiocassettes, public fora, and conferences Long term activities
Creating public production libraries
where media equipment can be borrowed by the public, and where people can receive free
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.
Beautify Community Act forced all
advertising off Federal highways. The Beautify Community Act would help communities
reclaim public space by forcing billboard landlords to give over all signs in residential
areas for community messages and art two months out of every twelve.
Microbroadcasting and Revolution
As a counteroffensive to this degrading
assault on our everyday lives, the most effective use of our resources may not be to
engage the neoliberal media system head-on, but to concentrate on building sustainable
venues and alternative networks. For those with computers, the Internet provides immediate
possibilities for entering such a network, possibilities being realized through the
efforts of groups like Tao Communications in Toronto, and others elsewhere. For those
without access, for those who cannot read, for those with little resources, for those who
struggle, micropower radio is a powerful weapon, a source, an invitation, a resistance, a
Like Rosa Parks, we are not willing to
wait for court cases or petition results to sit in the front of the airwaves. Like the
Zapatistas, we will continue to organize, continue to agitate, continue to seek one
another out at meetings, over the airwaves and in the streets until we have won the
freedom and the resources to realize genuine democracy, a necessary victory, but not an
end, in the struggle to build a better world.
Aguascalientes literally means "hot
water." In the Zapatista democracy struggle, Aguascalientes refers to the civilian
cultural resistance centers that serve surrounding communities by providing a space for
political meetings, cultural events, dialogue and "encuentros" with civil
society, as well as being places that contain schools, women’s cooperatives and health
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
For information about holding a free
Radio Mutiny workshop in your area, contact: petetridish
hotmail.com or call 215. 474. 6459.
Greg Ruggiero is a plaintiff in the case
Free Speech vs The FCC. He is an editor at Seven Stories Press, and a co-founder of the
New York Free Media Alliance.