National Public Radio gets a lot of ribbing, and maybe for good reason. Sure, it's the only talk radio that isn't somewhere to the right of Mussolini, but it encapsulates everything that's wrong with the educated classes: Too many allusions to Raymond Carver short stories, an affinity for Javanese monks who play ceramic bowls, and no Art Bell. In short, NPR has a giant stick up its ass.
It also ain't the lil' liberal sweetie pie it makes itself out to be. NPR has been extremely influential in barring other left-of-the-dial radio stations, known as micropower or low-powered radio stations. There's a reason your high school can't have its own ten-watt transmitter, or your town can't have its own traffic and weather station, and it all points to radio's two biggest kids on the block: NPR and the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters).
According to a spokesman for Prometheus Radio Project, a group in Philadelphia that helps communities establish small, local stations, NPR was one of the biggest voices behind the twenty-year ban on low-power radio. For the past two decades it has been impossible to legally start up a low-power station, no matter how tiny or nonprofit. Local church groups, Cub Scouts, and even city governments couldn't use their own local airwaves. "NPR started in the late '60s as sort of an afterthought to public TV," says the Prometheus dude, who calls himself -- in true populist fashion -- "Pete triDish." "They developed this big network. At one point they had this dream, which was that they wanted to have a single frequency across the country and have every channel in every town be the same, say, 91.7. But they found all these little high-school stations in the way. Wherever they went, there were community groups using the frequency and they wanted them to move."
By 1980, NPR had helped persuade the Federal Communications Commission to stop granting any new community-radio licenses. Not exactly a breath of Fresh Air. "While KQED boasts itself as a liberal station, it did join this effort to silence or at least limit the kind of voice a community would have on FM radio," says Richard Dillman, the mid-1970s founder of SF's KPOO, a small noncommercial station that bills itself "poor people's radio" and "the only African-American owned and operated station west of the Mississippi."
NPR's stance on the whole thing is that little radio stations even three clicks away from them on the dial -- one click being 0.2 kilohertz -- mess up its signals, and that ain't fair to Twyla in San Antonio who doesn't want to hear the junior-high baseball game buzzing in and out of her Car Talk. In response to an FCC proposal to again start granting low-power licenses, NPR president and CEO Kevin Klose went before Congress last year to outline his network's stance: "Although public radio supports a multitude of voices over the nation's airwaves and the general principle of empowering communities to make their voices heard, we do not believe that it constitutes sound public policy to implement LPFM [low-powered FM] in such a way as to interfere with the educational and community mission of public radio."
In other words: We're bigger than you, so get the hell off the playground.
Not surprisingly, proponents of low-power radio say that this interference business is hogwash and that NPR just wants to rule the alternative radio block. In fact, even the FCC disagrees with NPR's notion that significant interference exists three clicks away on the dial. The feds set up field tests in which they found that when stations were two notches away on the dial -- 91.3 versus 91.7 -- there was no interference in 19 out of 21 instances. They set up the three-clicks-between-stations rule just to be safe.
After enough clamor from all over the country, the FCC reexamined its policy on low-powered radio and proposed an about-face that would reopen the airwaves to community stations for the first time in years. In a caveat that was later found to be unconstitutional, the commission said that anyone who'd ever been convicted of broadcasting illegally would be barred from applying for a legit license. But either way, NPR and the NAB got out their lobbyists and went on the defensive. "NPR was very successful in swaying a couple of key Democrats in the Congress against low-powered radio," says Dish. "Congress stopped the FCC from giving licenses out to low-powered stations and said it would have to do a study to see whether or not it could allow hundred-watt stations." So now the issue is bogged down in study-land, government purgatory.
So what does all this spell for underground radio? One word: Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, as in pirates. After it became impossible to legally start up small radio stations, radio enthusiasts, just like the plucky bathtub gin maestros of Prohibition, went underground and began broadcasting without licenses. In 1993, Free Radio Berkeley was just such a station, composed of anarchists and others far enough to the left that they describe NPR's programming as "centrist." Hundreds of micropower stations emerged in the mid-'90s, creating public debate and putting pressure on the FCC that may have led the agency to change its tune.
Free Radio Berkeley disbanded in 1998 after founder Stephen Dunifer lost a long court battle with the FCC, which was trying to shut him down. In the spirit of civil disobedience, however, a rebellious entity called Berkeley Liberation Radio promptly sprung up on the same frequency, 104.1, where it exists today. A Liberation spokesman who goes by the on-air persona Captain Fred likens the battle over micropower radio to the civil rights movement. "We compare it to Rosa Parks," he says. "She didn't feel like giving up her seat to a white bus rider because she was tired, and so she challenged the discrimination laws and was ultimately victorious. ... We call it 'electronic civil disobedience.'" And it also must be said that the microradio movement has taken great pains to make sure that its signals don't deliberately interfere with existing stations. The aim is to have a voice, not to stop others from having one.
But let's say Liberation Radio is miraculously granted a license from the FCC. Isn't part of the thrill of pirating the airwaves that it's a sexy, devil-may-care, in-your-face defiance of the Man? Making it legal would take away its naughty appeal. "Well, it does give a sort of outlaw vibe to the whole thing," admits Captain Fred. "But there's also the stress of wondering, 'Oh God, are they going to come and steal all of our stuff?' They can just show up with a truck and start hauling away all our stuff and there's nothing we can do about it."
And the FCC has done it many times. It's simple to locate a signal and swarm in on some poor shlub in his socks and sandals decrying an invasion of Iraq. At least that's the stereotype of low-power FM users, one that, at least in Berkeley, is somewhat true. But the basic argument for micropower radio couldn't be stronger: Communities deserve the right to be heard. You cannot "own" airspace. Chief Seattle's radio show woulda been the bomb, yo.
Dunifer says he never goes near an illegal radio signal anymore. "I believe in healthy, whole foods, and I don't think prison offers those," he says. He does, however, remain active in the movement, selling affordable transmitters and station "kits" to low-power-hungry communities all over the nation and around the world through an organization called International Radio Action Training Education, or IRATE (sometimes they add the word Promote to spell out PIRATE).
And as for NPR? Well, according to an article in The New York Times in September, the radio giant got a taste of its own medicine in Georgia, when a few of its affiliates were crowded off the air by American Family Radio, a Christian broadcasting network. These affiliates were what's known as translator stations, nothing more than transmitters plopped out in the middle of nowhere that pick up a faraway NPR signal and rebroadcast it. "American Family Radio is one of several national Christian broadcasting networks that have competed aggressively to dominate the noncommercial end of the FM band, in some cases choosing frequencies that would interfere with translator stations carrying NPR affiliates," the Times reported.
To quote Nelson, the bully from The Simpsons: "Haa-ha!"
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