Seizing the Airwaves: Pirate Radio Heats Up
It certainly doesn't look like the cornerstone of a revolution. Barely larger than a brick, the transmitters powering the nascent "microradio movement" may be small in size, but they've got the commercial broadcast industry calling for police raids, the Federal Communications Commission tied up in court, and more than a few defenders of free speech smiling from ear to ear.The medium of radio has always had a touch of magic about it, an aura that seems to mark it as more than just another way of serving up captive audiences to advertisers. Perhaps that's why "microradio" -- the notion of individuals bypassing the corporate broadcasting world and setting up their own stations -- seems so romantic, an idealistic rebel sailing the ether. Over the last few years more and more people have done just that. Thanks to the availability of cheap transmitters and easy-to-assemble set-ups, thousands of individuals are simply thumbing their noses at the FCC and going on the air.Louis Hiken of the National Lawyers Guild Committee on Democratic Communications, and legal counsel for Stephen Dunifer's Free Radio Berkeley -- the station credited as sparking the national "microradio movement" -- lays out the heart of the matter. "In the cities of this country, there are many legitimate, important voices to be heard -- all of which get the freedom to talk to each other in their living rooms. They don't own the television stations, they don't own the one newspaper in town, and any attempt to get on the radio is met with the FCC."Cleveland is now emerging as a major player in this movement, with three new microstations going on the air recently. Radio Maranatha at 89.9 FM, Radio Cacique at 91.9 FM, and Radio Sabor Latino at 94.3 FM joined the already existing WSPL at 90.7 FM and GRID Radio at 96.9 FM, bringing the city's total to five, one of the highest concentrations in the country.In response to the micro outbreak, people within the local radio industry have besieged the FCC, and Kent State University's National Public Radio affiliate, WKSU 89.7 FM, is preparing to take legal action against Radio Maranatha. Meanwhile, WSPL looks like it may go to war with fellow micro broadcaster Radio Cacique, possibly jamming the latter's signal.The current situation began in August, when Alberto Vazquez caused a veritable sensation by creating WSPL at 90.7 FM in his near West Side backyard. Though it wasn't the first local microstation -- the West 9th Street GRID nightclub's GRID Radio beat it to the punch -- it was the city's first full-time Latin station, and the reaction within the Hispanic community was electric. WSPL immediately earned a large and devoted following, garnering advertisers as well as a high-profile media presence. Despite receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the FCC -- which considers WSPL an illegal operation and threatened Vazquez with a $100,000 fine and a possible year in prison -- WSPL remains on the air, even co-sponsoring live events with the Diamondback Brewery in the pages of the Free Times.Inspired by Vazquez' example, Angel Dones, the publisher of the Hispanic newspaper Nuevos Horizontes, set up his own Radio Maranatha (Spanish for "Christ is coming"), broadcasting out of his paper's offices on West 25th Street. The station features Christian programming aimed at the Hispanic community, with a mixture of Latin gospel and on-air prayers delivered by a volunteer staff.Seated behind his desk at Nuevos Horizontes, Dones explained why he felt the Hispanic community needed another voice."We've got drugs, gangs, rapes, children having children; the jails are full because they can't handle the social problems in the community. Radio Maranatha is an alternative. There are people here that have been waiting thirty, forty, fifty years for a Christian radio station for the Hispanic community." Smiling, he adds, "Now they've got it."If the FCC's reaction to WSPL is any indicator, Radio Maranatha seems in little immediate danger beyond a cease-and-desist letter. GRID Radio has also received a similar letter, and it too continues to broadcast daily, having heard nothing further from the FCC.Though Radio Maranatha apparently lacks any fear of the federal government, it may have another problem closer to home. Kent State's WKSU, sitting nearby Radio Maranatha at 89.7 FM, says it has received complaints of interference with their signal from several listeners and Cleveland radio engineers. By FCC law, no radio station is ever licensed to operate any closer than a "second adjacent" -- four spots away on the radio dial -- specifically to avoid interference within a station's mandated coverage area. Hence, the airwaves around WKSU's 89.7 were purposely left vacant between Cleveland State University's WCSB at 89.3 FM and fellow NPR affiliate WCPN at 90.3 FM. In fact, in the FCC's eyes, there is no room for a new radio station anywhere on Cleveland's FM dial.Bob Burford, WKSU's public relations director, stated that his station has filed a formal complaint with the FCC, but in light of that body's previous inaction in Cleveland, WKSU is currently in discussion with its lawyers over the feasibility of bringing a civil lawsuit against Angel Dones and Radio Maranatha.Speaking by phone, Burford explained, "Regardless of how slow the FCC moves, we are investigating all our options. That means getting [Dones] off the air. These assertions that he feels 'Oh, gee whiz, he knows a certain aspect of the community that wants to be served' -- I don't doubt that there are people who want to hear what he has to play, but it would be anarchy if we all bought a transmitter and said 'Hey! I want to put on techno tonight because there's an unserved audience.' It's crazy! He's making his own rules up and it's shocking. Shocking!"Dones admits that Radio Maranatha might be causing minimal interference to WKSU in a few areas, but feels that much of that station's NPR programming is duplicated by Cleveland's WCPN. "[WKSU's] community is no more important than mine. They could be more powerful as far as finances are concerned, but they're not more important." Several college stations in Cleveland have a few Latino programs.He believes the heart of the dispute lies in racism, both on the part of WKSU and the FCC, which he says refuses to make room for minority broadcasters in Cleveland.He explained, "There are people here that don't like us because we're Hispanic. They think we've 'invaded' this country. The first language that was spoken in this country was Spanish, but people forget that. The first race that settled California was Hispanics from Mexico, but they don't want to admit that. Hearing the Spanish language on the air -- something they don't understand -- of course they're going to say we're interfering with them. Of course they're going to do whatever they can to destroy that form of communication."So far, WKSU's immediate strategy has been to apply pressure to the owners of the building that houses Radio Maranatha, hoping the landlord would move to shut down the station. It's a strategy that seems to be failing: last weekend, Radio Sabor Latino moved into office space only one floor below Radio Maranatha. As for threats of further legal action, Dones remains unfazed. "I've got a lawyer that's never lost a case. His name is Jesus Christ."Commenting on the increasing proliferation of local pirate radio stations, Mark Krieger, spokesperson for the Cleveland chapter of the Society of Broadcast Engineers and a point man for the FCC in this area, believes that "turf wars" between the pirates are inevitable."As you get more and more congestion [on the dial] and more and more interference, the FCC is going to have to deal with this," said Krieger. "It's not something you can sweep under the rug and pretend it will go away. The next wave is going to be commercial exploitation -- bars, nightclubs, stores. You're going to see people putting up radio stations at every club in the Flats." Laughing he adds, "I'm waiting for Tiffany's to put on 'T&A Radio!'"Those "turf wars" became a reality last Wednesday, as someone began jamming Radio Cacique's signal, making it unlistenable. Suspicions immediately flew to blaming WSPL and Alberto Vazquez.Radio Cacique (named after a small frog indigenous to Puerto Rico) was formed by a ten-member board of angry ex-WSPL staffers, including Vazquez' own cousin, Angel Rivera. Speaking inside Belinda's Bar on the West Side of Cleveland, which houses Radio Cacique in a closet-sized back room, Rivera cited "personal differences" over WSPL's programming content as the reason for his departure.William Peres, the owner of Belinda's and a fellow Radio Cacique board member, was more blunt. "[Vazquez] is greedy! He doesn't care about the community. He just wants to make money."Although Radio Cacique does air commercials (though the staff insists they are merely "announcements" and payment for them is voluntary), Peres is proud of the station's commitment to aiding Hispanics by announcing job and scholarship opportunities, running programs offered through the Spanish-American Committee, as well as having a more diverse and personalized mix of Latin music than WSPL.Still, it's high financial stakes that are apparently the motive behind the jamming, as well as the arrival of Radio Sabor Latino. Last year, $1.4 billion was spent on advertising in Hispanic markets, 30 percent of which went to commercial radio stations. Before the arrival of WSPL, many national Hispanic advertisers largely bypassed Cleveland. With WSPL acting like a regular broadcast outlet, others have come to realize the potentially great sums at stake. Though the pie might not be big enough to divide between three stations playing essentially the same music, considering the miniscule cost of staying on the air (the electricity bill), there's little reason for any of the parties involved to back down.However, many local Hispanic activists have begun to privately criticize the three music outlets for wasting the radical potential of microradio in favor of chasing the dollar. As one figure said, "What a waste! They could be doing so much more for the community than just spinning tunes."With our city's microstations slowly beginning to mimic the practices of the commercial world, Cleveland is actually something of an anomaly. The liberal political activists and underground music fans who characterize most of the microradio movement seem largely absent.In fact, the only station that seemed to be in line with the movement's character in any way was Canton's YACE, which resided at 91.9 FM until it received its own cease-and-desist letter in September, at which point its operators voluntarily turned the station off. Utilizing an expensive, fully automated set-up, YACE rebroadcast many talk show programs off a satellite downlink from the rightist American Freedom Network -- programs many critics have termed "hate radio" or "militia FM.""Sharon," one of the station's owners, bristled at such labels in a phone interview, "We never really had Nazi-type stuff... There was always stuff about new medical breakthroughs or what the government is doing to the water."She alleges that sources within the local law enforcement community tipped her off that an FBI raid was imminent should YACE remain on the air. Although no evidence of such a planned raid could be substantiated, Sharon was adamant."I was told that [the FBI] was going to make an example, and I just didn't feel like being carried out in a body bag," Sharon said in a phone interview. "I might be a martyr someday, but this wasn't the time."Perhaps the best authority on where the microradio "scene" is heading is Kevin Scott of R. Scott Communications Ltd., a Canadian company that manufactures and sells the radio equipment that many American microstations are using -- including WSPL, Radio Maranatha, and Radio Cacique. If you've got a MasterCard, Scott will sell you a complete set-up, no questions asked, for about $750. There's even a one-year parts and labor warranty. Speaking by phone, Scott discussed the precarious legal nature of the equipment he's selling. Since he operates out of British Columbia, Canada, it's perfectly legal to buy his transmitters and own them, but illegal to actually turn them on to their full twenty-watt power.For the cautious pirate, Scott's transmitters even include a special knob. "It's like a volume switch -- you can turn it up and down. If by chance the FCC shows up, you just turn the power down and you're legal at twenty milli-watts."But don't worry too much about that ever happening. Says Scott, "We've sold about four thousand units to the United States and I've very rarely seen anybody get in trouble ... The FCC may send you a nasty letter, but those stories of them showing up with the police are just myth. The only way they do that is if they've been trying to get you off the air for a few years and you won't go off. They're like any other government agency. They don't have time to run around. They estimate there's ten thousand micro-stations in the United States, and I hear of about three getting shut down a year."There has been one notable raid and equipment seizure involving a SWAT team in Tampa, this past November, but even that seemed more an isolated occurrence brought on by the station operators' continual taunting of local FCC officials, even broadcasting their home phone numbers and addresses. The looming question then remains: with only a handful of exceptions, why has the FCC refused to move beyond issuing those cease-and-desist letters?Roger Anderson, the FCC's Midwest District Director, seemed just as perplexed over the matter as everyone else.By phone from his Detroit office, he explained the FCC's position on the five microstations operating in Cleveland, "We're aware of them and they're not supposed to be broadcasting without a license. Information has been sent to our Washington headquarters and it's up to them. Just because we don't do anything immediately, doesn't mean we don't care. It doesn't mean they can continue to operate. I don't know why one station in a particular area might be worked on faster. It's just one of those things."The true reason for the FCC's inaction may go back to Stephen Dunifer and the Free Radio Berkeley court case still unfolding in California. With the presiding judge refusing to summarily dismiss Dunifer's case (as has always been the precedent with FCC proceedings against unlicensed stations), the FCC may be holding off on going after microbroadcasters nationwide to avoid several more drawn-out legal battles, perhaps out of fear that other judges may begin citing the Dunifer decision.Consequently, Dunifer's lawyers relish the idea of a protracted fight, buying the movement more time to grow. In a press release they declared: "[We] welcome the opportunity to have a court identify the real pirates of the airwaves -- not the thousands of microradio broadcasters who seek to communicate with the people of their communities, but rather the billionaire commercial interests that control the airwaves as if they own them. Is it General Electric, Westinghouse, and the Disney Corporation that have the right to control local community radio, or is that a right that belongs to all of the American people, regardless of economic status?"As for Dunifer himself, speaking by phone, he said, "My gut reaction is that [the FCC] is backing off a little bit. They realize that they're not dealing with isolated individuals who just want to play radio. They're dealing with a legitimate movement of all kinds of people seeking to have a voice." He hopes to force the FCC to eventually adopt a new policy for regulating the airwaves, making room for new non-commercial broadcasters. Concerning the microstations in Cleveland, Dunifer has mixed feelings, particularly over the three Latin music station's airing of commercials."There's all kinds of community issues not being covered by the local media in Cleveland. These stations have to recognize that they have a responsibility to that community. They're not talking about the youth on the street, seniors, toxic racism. They're not talking about people who get elected on a progressive agenda and then turn around and say 'screw the people' who elected me. I'm sure people support them for the music they play, but it's got to go deeper than that."Beyond his own station back in Berkeley, Dunifer has been busy helping to set up microstations in Haiti and in Zapatista-controlled areas in Mexico. "I would love to see tens of thousands of transmitters from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle. Free Radio World! If we had a major outbreak of real grass-roots democracy on this planet, it would be a whole different ballgame. I think this microbroadcasting movement could play a major part in that."His main priority right now however, is planning a "Micropower Broadcasting Gathering" to run parallel with the National Association of Broadcasting's annual convention in Las Vegas, the first week of April. The NAB -- the principal lobbying group for the commercial broadcast industry -- is clearly nervous about the event, and has already invited Dunifer's lawyer to speak on a panel as a conciliatory move. Laughs Dunifer, "We've been goofing on them. We've got a web site where we post information about the counter convention, and the NAB has been the number one visitor to that site. They're constantly checking in to see what we're up to." As for what the counter convention's activities will include, Dunifer is purposely vague, promising only tactics modeled on the yippies' famed protests of the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention.He says slyly, "I'm not sure what Hunter Thompson would have to say about our actions in Las Vegas, but Abbie Hoffman would definitely approve."