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Feature: No More Mickey Mouse Microradio

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5/15/98

Pete triDish is one of the driving forces behind West Philadelphia's Radio Mutiny, and the founder of the Prometheus Radio Project. He's got a very well-thought out way of thinking about the potential for legal low power radio. Read on:

There has been an ongoing debate in the micropower radio community as to whether or not a legalized micro-radio service should allow for locally owned, commercial stations. Advocates for allowing small-time businesses having stations raise a number of compelling arguments. One is that these small stations would be an excellent business opportunity for minority-owned stations which would serve markets that are currently ignored as a result of the artificially high hurdle to get involved in broadcasting. Indeed, we have already seen this in the example of a station like Hippolito Cuevas's station in Connecticut - a station that was very quickly accepted by the Latino community, in a town where a fourth of the population is Latino and there is no Spanish language radio.  Cuevas makes the argument that there would be no way for him to make his station work without some commercial revenues. He says that  the commercials that he would take - for example, from local stores that could never afford the outrageous rates of regular stations - are in fact a form of community service.  A growing number of entrepreneurs are becoming interested in this possibility, and the few hints that the FCC has dropped about what sort of proposal it might accept for a legalized micro service have mentioned minority entrepreneurship as a major factor.

I find these arguments pretty compelling and probably would support them if I thought that it stopped there. I don't have a lot of problems with locally owned businesses making a few dollars to sustain their operators and put good, local radio on the air. The business world has certain efficiencies of outlook which are far less restrictive and more efficient in getting things going than the non-profit world I live in - volunteers, endless meetings, chronic scarcity of resources and so on. However, I  am deeply concerned that due to the predatory nature of the corporate behemoths of our age, any micro-radio proposal that allows for any type of commercialism will be doomed to being swallowed up by big business.

Here's an example: Years ago, I lived in the Lower East Side in Manhattan. This primarily Latino neighborhood had a long-standing tradition of painting great murals on the sides of just about any building that had a blank wall. It was beautiful - murals of all sorts of things - tributes to Puerto Rican Independence, street scenes, memorials to teenagers that died young - exactly the sort of expression that creates a vibrant, cohesive local culture. One day, some bright advertising wonk must have seen these skillful murals and his eyes must have lit up with dollar signs. Coca-Cola sponsored a contest in the neighborhood - whichever youth did the best mural with a bottle of Coca-Cola in it would get a $500 dollar prize. In this low-income community, dozens of youth snapped at the opportunity and soon every free wall had a goddamned stylized Coke logo on it. For a lousy pittance, Coke bought access to advertising that would have cost it hundreds of times the price if it had gone through conventional channels - and bought the soul of a neighborhood to boot.

I think that the logic of this sort of corporate predation is inescapable without clear rules against advertising on microradio. For every community oriented project where committed individuals pour out their heart and soul to make good radio for the sake of free speech,  community voice and neighborhood cultural expression, there'll be a dozen sleazy operators trying to make a quick buck.  There'll also be 2 or 3 principled local operators like Cuevas, who won't accept money from the corporate giants, taking only local ads. For the trouble of his convictions he'll be swamped out by his competitors with fewer principles and thus higher revenues.

Another good example is WPRB in Princeton, one of my favorite legal stations. Saturday morning,  they have a Hindi film music show, and it is HOT! Trouble is, somehow this college station got permission to run commercials and now a good 40% of the show is commercials - the same commercials for the same Indian restaurant are played twice per hour! It's become practically unlistenable.

The micropower movement needs to do some hard thinking. We don't want to have broadcasting opportunities available only to clever grant writers and obsessed voluntaristic martyrs a la Lorenzo Milam. He started a number of non-profit community class D stations  in the 60s and 70s on a shoestring budget that embodied what community radio can be all about. These stations are  a great example to all of us, but  it takes an exceptional level of talent, commitment, organization and leadership to pull off the kinds of accomplishments of stations like the Krab Nebula. Our essential problem is the tragic fragility of non-profit, community institutions in the midst of a culture dominated by the forces of profit.

One thing to keep in mind is that while spectrum scarcity is a manufactured crisis, it nevertheless exists in the current way of doing things. Unless there are major reforms in spectrum allocation, I don't think that there is room for both commercial micro-stations and the community stations along the lines of Free Radio Berkeley, Free Radio Memphis, Iowa City Free Radio and so on.  Commercial forces will always have more resources and will likely win out the battle for the microspectrum that does exist. In a strange way, the current illegality has opened up a special space in which community stations comprised of lots of people with surplus guts and nothing to lose in the face of 10-thousand dollar fines have thrived where no businessman dares to tread. I fear that this will disappear with legalization. This would be ironic since it has been us non-commercial folks who have forced the issue. I've signed onto the Committee for Democratic Communications proposal, because for me the point of legalizing microradio should be to provide communities with access to the airwaves, not providing entrepreneurs with opportunities.

I think that  what we'll probably end up with is a compromise. Personally, I could live with a portion of the available micro-bandwidth going to micro-entrepreneurs who are fairly drastically regulated, though I know that this opens the door to abuse of the system by big business. There must at least be a set aside space - much like 88-92 MHz in conventional FM - for non-profit radio. I'd say that non-profit, educational radio really deserves at least half of the available micro spectrum in any given area. I have great admiration and respect for honest local entrepreneurs like Cuevas - I hope that they can agree to a proposal with a fair amount of restriction, which would actually preserve their chances of surviving on the dial.  For that spectrum which is commercially used, these are the minimum criteria that I think they should have to meet:

  • There should be only one station per owner
  • The owners should live within the listening area
  • They should have no more than x % of their airtime devoted to commercials (I'd take a wild guess of 5%)
  • The radio station should be the primary business of the owner. The business owner should not have more than a certain level of assets or revenue or whatever from other sources - mall radio and used car lot 10 minute loop advertisements are not appropriate!
  • Commercials should not be accepted from firms larger than a certain size, or that are based outside of the listening area

Who's going to enforce all of this? I think that demanding enforcement around these issues is no more absurd than the current  enforcement of obscenity regulations. I frankly doubt that anybody will enforce anything against advertising. That's why my first choice is a completely non-commercial micro-radio: at least the lines will be cut and dry and enforcement would be relatively simple.

One of the worst things about radio today is that radio has been reduced from a tool of democracy and an outlet for cultural  expression to a scientifically managed selling machine.  Advertising has a role in almost everything that sucks about our culture. Advertising helps to reduce citizens to consumers. It discourages critical thought and works subconsciously on people's fears and desires. It socializes people to believe that happiness comes from purchasing objects rather than from meaningful work and fulfilling social and family relationships. It creates demand for useless objects, and thus promotes the profligate waste of our world's resources. It creates dissatisfaction and insecurity with who we are and what we look like by causing us to constantly compare ourselves with artificial standards of beauty.

Advertising sells Americans on a lifestyle that can only be maintained by the brutal, wasteful extraction of resources of the third world and the maintenance of an enormous gap between the haves and the have-nots on this planet. The average American is exposed to 1500 ads a day.  Microradio has come this far without advertising. It betrays the promise and potential of  microradio as a tool of local self expression to make it just another billboard for the shrieking salesmen that already have too many invasive venues to hawk their wares.

-Pete triDish
a short, cylindrical, transparent piece of laboratory glassware, useful in observing resistant strains of culture in liquid media