Microradio Broadcasting:
Aguascalientes of the Airwaves

by Greg Ruggiero

Z magazine, December 1998

Excerpted from a presentation given at the "Festival of Resistance"
organized by the Zapatistas, October 1998


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. Nowhere have U.S. citizens lost greater control of its public sphere than in the government's management of the airwaves.

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, non-commercial radio flourished. Tens of thousands of individuals took to the air waves. By the 1920s, non-commercial 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 non-commercial and nonprofit utilization."

"Declaring that the 'public interest, convenience and necessity' was better served by 'general pubic service' stations," writes microradio lawyer Robert Perry, " (i.e., commercial) than by 'special interest' and 'propaganda' (i.e., non-commercial) stations, the FRC gave non-commercial stations fewer hours than commercial stations. The FRC also limited broadcast radio licenses to three-month terms, effectively requiring non-commercial 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: non-commercial 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 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 non-entertainment 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, non-commercial 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.

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 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.

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 [1998] hundreds of microradio activists gathered in Washington, DC for a national conference on movement strategies and to protest 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

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: "We just received notification that Federal judge Claudia Wilken has granted the FCC motion for summary judgment 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 air.

Judge Wilken did not shut down Dunifer because his constitutional challenges were overruled. Throughout Judge Wilken's 20-page decision, she manages to 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. 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 Side.

In March 1998, Steal This Radio was visited by Judah Mansbach, a notorious FCC agent responsible for shutting down countless micro-stations. 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 court.

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 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.

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 micro-station 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 set up by the micropower broadcast community to oversee the micropower 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 four years.

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 entrepreneurs. "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 presented.

Microradio Coalition

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 organizing.

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

* Lobbying Representatives

* 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 service

* Establishing a free media speakers bureau

* Creating databases for use by activists

* Producing a web page, newsletter, public service announcements, audiocassettes, public fore, and conferences

Long term activities might include:

* Creating public production libraries where media equipment can be borrowed by the public, and where people can receive free training.

* 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 non-profit media as well as public production libraries.

* The 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

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 connection.

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 clinics.


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 v. The FCC. He is an editor at Seven Stories Press, and a co-founder of the New York Free Media Alliance.


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