Making Airwaves

This summer the FCC pulled the plug on the county's most innovative radio stations. Some are already back on the air.

Marshall has hired two lawyers to reclaim his transmitters and other equipment. "I think it's a First Amendment issue," says Bill Ferguson, one of the attorneys. "You've got a bunch of kids locked out of the system who built 'em a radio station that was a power tool, one that was used in the community. They became so good at it that the FCC decided, 'We've got to shut them down because they're interfering with big competitors.'"

Though the pirates appear to be a riding a wave of the future, prosecutors cited an old federal law as the basis for last summer's closures -- the Communications Act of 1934. The basic purpose of the measure, passed in the early days of commercial broadcasting, was to prevent chaos on the frequency spectrum, which has a limited amount of space. Today the FCC enforces the law by requiring licenses for specific frequencies, and by penalizing unlicensed broadcasters. (An exception is made for extremely weak transmissions that reach no more than about 100 feet from the source.) Punishment can include confiscation of equipment and thousands of dollars in fines.

Most big American cities are saturated with radio. Virtually the only way to get a broadcast license is to buy an existing station, and that can cost millions of dollars. Commercial giants, whose transmitters typically blast 50,000 to 100,000 watts, dominate the dial. But between them are the pirates, who usually use transmitters of 100 watts or less.

Hundreds of the rogues hit the airwaves each night, and their numbers have increased radically in recent years. (A year ago the FCC counted 300 unlicensed stations nationwide.) One reason is that the technology has become more affordable than in the past: For less than $1000 just about anyone can buy a transmitter, antenna, and other hardware needed to start a radio station. Even if the FCC confiscates a pirate's equipment, it can be quickly replaced (a 100-watt transmitter, the heart of the system, costs a few hundred dollars). And the stuff is portable, which means it sometimes disappears from the studio before FCC agents can get a search warrant. Word travels fast among pirate DJs when a station is shut down, allowing others to cease operation and hide their equipment. The pirates' use of relay systems is another FCC headache. Broadcasters can send weak signals from a studio to a more powerful transmitter in a different location. Or they can use the Internet to legally pass along a broadcast.

They'll do anything to provide an alternative to the banal banter and soporific sounds of mainstream commercial radio, says a former pirate broadcaster, who declined to give his name because he still owes the FCC a fine. "We consider radio to be an art form. I take bits of sound and paint the airwaves," he proclaims. The broadcaster was once involved with the now-defunct Radio X (88.3 FM), a southwest Dade station that the FCC shut down in 1991 and again in 1993. Mainstream commercial stations "put out radio like people who manufacture tires and rubber bands," he says. The FCC, which he dubs "the FUCC," is "a workhorse for the commercial licensees," he gripes.

That is the kind of antiestablishment spirit that inspires many members of the so-called microradio movement, including Stephen Dunifer, who started California's Free Radio Berkeley (104.1 FM) in 1993. That year the FCC ordered him to shut down the unlicensed 50-watt station, but he appealed and remained on the air while the case dragged on in court for more than a year. Dunifer argued that an FCC policy -- still in force -- that prohibited licensing of stations under 100 watts violated his First Amendment rights. In January 1995 U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken of San Francisco denied the FCC's request for a preliminary injunction to halt Dunifer's broadcasts.

Wilken's denial of the injunction was a Pyrrhic victory for the pirates, a victory that delayed FCC action, but eventually led to the Miami raid. Agency directors wanted the legal weight of a court victory behind them before launching an extensive and costly crackdown, says Joe Casey, deputy chief of the FCC's Compliance and Information Bureau in Washington. Wilken finally ordered Dunifer to close down this past June, nearly five years after the FCC began its effort.

But the rebellion had spread. By this past August the FCC had counted 40 unlicensed stations in Florida alone, most in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. "It became obvious that things were just getting too bad out there. There were lots of unlicensed stations, and we were concerned we might start having some really major interference problems and that this was just getting away from us," recounts Casey. "We said, 'We gotta move out and do something about those pirate radio stations because there are just too many of them.'" Plans for the FCC's assault on South Florida began.

Fears that a pirate station could cause a plane crash prompted the FCC to make a move in Miami in October 1997. Flight controllers at Miami International Airport had complained that a broadcaster using 105.5 FM was disrupting their communications with pilots. FCC agents immediately shut down the unlicensed broadcaster. That same month, the agency also silenced a pirate who was wreaking havoc with frequencies at West Palm Beach International Airport. In November FCC agents went a step further, closing three unlicensed Tampa Bay area stations that apparently did not interfere with air traffic.

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