FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly doesn’t seem to be getting the kind of publicity he hoped for after taking a hyperlocal news outlet in a suburb of Boulder, Colorado to task for reporting on the existence of a pirate radio station there. The Longmont Observer ran a short piece back in December noting the existence of Green Light Radio, the FCC’s protocol for shutting such stations down, and ending with the statement, “In the meantime, enjoy Longmont’s pirate station while it lasts.”
This stuck in O’Rielly’s craw so badly that he penned a letter to the editor of the Observer admonishing it for providing “tacit support” to an unlicensed broadcaster. In O’Rielly’s mind, the Observer’s journalists should have acted as freelance FCC agents and not only reported the station to the agency’s field office in Denver, but encouraged readers to not listen to “KGLR,” due to the supposed “harm” it would cause.
A follow-up article in the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper (and its Longmont affiliate, the Times-Call) seems to suggest that Coloradans don’t appreciate O’Rielly’s scolding. According to Brooke Ericson, O’Rielly’s chief of staff (who, incidentally, has been in the job for less than four months and most likely ghost-wrote the letter to the Observer to score points with her new boss), this was “the first article (he) has come across that appeared to actively promote this illegal activity,” and thus justified a response.
Not according to Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition executive director Jeffrey Roberts, who said it’s totally within the rights of a news organization to “inform their readers, viewers and listners. They have a First Amendment right to do that.” And according to “Rocky Flats,” a founder of Green Light Radio, the signal in Longmont is an independent FM relay, “apparently using our internet stream to play music until they get their own crew formed. Thus is the way of the pirate.”
The Daily Camera article also provided a capsule-history of the founding, operation, and collaboration of multiple pirate stations in the state over the last decade-plus (many of whom had hoped to go legal through the LPFM service, but lost out when Congress kneecapped it). Furthermore, it notes that other unlicensed stations have actually done meaningful work preserving public safety in their communities, which utterly contravenes Commissioner O’Rielly’s narrative that the stations are net harmful.
For example, “KWHR,” or “Way High Radio,” was founded more than twenty years ago in the town of Ward, Colorado and currently broadcasts with 75 watts from a studio next door to the town hall, with town permission. It “proved to be an invaluable resource during 2016’s Cold Springs Fire, using generator power to broadcast vital emergency information over its own signal and that of sister station KNED in Nederland. Way High’s crew stayed on the air for five straight days.”
According to Way High participant “Porsche Steve,” O’Rielly’s claims are laughable. “Look, we’re not stepping on anybody else,” he explained to the Daily Camera. “We’re trying to keep people informed about things they may not hear from other sources. It has a true community function.”
Green Light Radio has also responded to O’Rielly via its own letter to the editor of the Longmont Observer. It’s a well-written breakdown of O’Rielly’s specious claims, noting that it was the FCC’s own trashing of media ownership policies over the last twenty years that led to the corporate consolidation of radio and a dearth of meaningful community coverage, which in many respects has inspired the very “problem” that O’Rielly et al. claim to address.
It also debunks the Commissioner’s claim that their station, and others, are stealing listeners and revenue from Colorado’s licensed stations. “[W]e choose not to accept money for air time because we disagree with this principle, and the involvement of money introduces a monumental liability,” wrote the unnamed GLR volunteer. “[W]e do not concede that anyone who listens to our stations is technically stolen from any other station, as that implies that the listeners are property and somehow unable to decide what they find entertaining.
“Use of the word ‘steal’ in this case is a legal tactic and not a moral argument framed in the public good.” They also provide more detail about how their operations enhance public safety, not damage it: “We make every effort to ensure that we can be of the utmost help in a real crisis.” In addition to helping out during fire seasons, “We were also commended by FEMA with one of our affiliate’s coverage and local communications in the community during an emergency situation in 2011.
“Emergency preparedness and vital communications with the local populace during emergencies is one of our main objectives. It is one of the important ways we serve our local communities, as we know many corporate stations do not actively seek to help the local communities they serve because they simply don’t live in them. We make every effort to remain local and connected. Given that there is no real way to have a micro radio station whose goal is to give voice to and serve its local community in a legal manner, the choices are either do it or don’t do it.”
Here’s hoping that the stations in the Colorado Community Radio Network are taking the appropriate actions to avoid and resist the inevitable enforcement-activity that will descend upon them due to all this publicity – and the fact that Mike O’Rielly and his staff aren’t likely to take these rejoinders passively. There are lots of ways to do this, including separating studios from transmitters (a tactic some of Colorado’s pirates have been at the forefront of developing) and generally decentralizing station operations.
There’s also plenty of opportunities for the stations to generate more “official” kinds of community support as well. This strategy has a long history in the microradio movement: in the 1990s and 2000s, the local governments of communities with active pirate stations passed resolutions supporting them, and elected officials would even show up at station-raids to berate the FCC for silencing an important community media outlet. For example, Radio Free Brattleboro in Vermont was so instrumental to its community that citizens publicly shamed FCC agents when they showed up to move against the station; later, the town would vote by a margin of more than two-to-one in a referendum giving the station “local authority” to broadcast.
Though Radio Free Brattleboro ultimately left the air, the resultant publicity educated many folks, both in Brattleboro and far beyond, to the compromised state of radio regulation and inspired others to join the microradio movement. It also made the FCC’s work much more complicated, both fiscally and politically. Brattleboro itself now has its own legal LPFM station, thanks in large part to the electronic civil disobedience of those who came before it.
It is not so much that these acts of resistance have the ability on their own to change the nation’s media policy, but collectively they illustrate the compromised nature of contemporary broadcast regulation, and they represent a powerful tool to make the execution of unjust laws much more problematic, which in and of itself has been a prime objective of contemporary American protest for decades.
Meanwhile in Florida, it would seem that the FCC’s now more open to negotiating penalties with pirates. Last week the agency published a consent decree with Kedner Maxime, who’s accused of operating multiple unlicensed stations in Broward County over the last decade. Although the agency intially hit Maxime with a $15,000 Notice of Apparent Liability in 2016, Maxime responded with documents demonstrating an inability to pay, which apparently sparked more than a year’s worth of negotiation.
According to the terms of the deal, Maxime admits that he broadcast without a license and will make a $2,500 payment to the U.S. treasury in $200 installments over the next three years. He’s also been put on probation of sorts for the next twenty years – if he’s caught running a pirate station during that time, the FCC will seek the full $15,000 penalty from him. It’s a clever twist on the forfeiture-process, for sure, but it’s anyone’s guess if the agency’s willingness to be flexible on the (partial) collection of forfeitures will affect their deterrent value.