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Feature: Strategy Session

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6/5/00

During the last weekend in May, while many Americans were relaxing at the expense of those who gave their lives for their freedom, soldiers in a lower-profile domestic war gathered to plot their next moves in their fight.

The "Micropower Council of War" was called by Free Radio Berkeley founder Stephen Dunifer; if it were not for his ongoing battle with the government (through the courts), there would have been no blossoming of unlicensed radio stations - and no widespread microradio movement.

When the FCC announced its plans to re-legalize a low power FM (LPFM) radio service, Dunifer was one of the first to discount the move as political hype.

"I will not be content with a few crumbs from an ever diminishing slice of pie carved from an ever shrinking pastry," said Dunifer. "It is the whole damn pie shop and bakery, that is what we need to seize. In the art of war the battle goes to the one who determines the field and rules of engagement."

For the last year and a half, the initiative has been on the side of the FCC.  As part of its LPFM rulemaking, the FCC included a provision that would allow previously unlicensed broadcasters to be eligible for a license - if they ceased operation.

Many who had originally taken to the air to get the government's attention complied, hoping to broadcast again later without fear of being busted.

This slightly lessened the burden on the FCC's overworked enforcement agents and allowed the arch-enemy of microradio - the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) - time to marshal its strength for a killing blow.

Even though LPFM plan is being rolled out, its potential has been successfully watered down by its enemies. Because the licensing requirements are worded in such a way as to literally give what licenses remain to "established community groups" and other politically-proper organizations, "former pirates" now find themselves out of luck after all their efforts.

Even the FCC's attempts to cloak LPFM in an aura of public accessibility have gone hideously awry; this past weekend, in the middle of its first filing window for licenses, the FCC's electronic licensing application system apparently crashed .

There is also the NAB's ongoing attempts in Congress to kill the new stations before the first licenses are awarded; these are still alive and well.

Even a sliver-thin slice of pie isn't certain. With this in mind, microradio activists gathered in San Francisco on May 27 to redouble the guerrilla effort to reclaim the radio dial.

The Six-Point Plan

The Micropower Council of War was surprisingly well-attended for such short notice; organized in less than two months and with no budget, about 50 people - many of them involved with active stations from around the nation - met in San Francisco and mapped strategy.

Still, that's only a fraction of all of the unlicensed stations currently operating nationwide; by the FCC's own count, it has closed down as many stations this year than there were participants in San Francisco.

By the time it was over, an organization called the "Micropower Action Coalition" was born, and it adopted a six-point national platform. Proposed by Dunifer himself, this "war strategy" was unanimously approved by all Coalition delegates.

The first half of the strategy reflects a commitment to doing what's already worked - setting up more unlicensed stations.

Taking a cue from the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project (former radio pirates who now tour the country helping people prepare legal LPFM stations), regional and national efforts will be made by Coalition activists to visit communities, hold organized meetings and offer hands-on demonstrations of microradio technology.

Hopefully, in each community these "microradio tours" pass through, there will be a new unlicensed station on the air in its wake. Coalition activists will help set up the station that's right for each community; in the past, most efforts have been directed toward establishing fixed-location stations with regular programming. Efforts will now be made to assist people in setting up mobile, event-oriented stations, too.

The second half of the war plan takes direct aim at the NAB: because it was industry interests who got the government to turn up the heat on microradio stations in the first place, it is time to respond in kind.

The first part of the anti-NAB initiative involves filing formal challenges to existing NAB-member stations' licenses, and will also challenge the construction, sale or transfer of new full-power commercial stations.

Advertisers on NAB-member stations will also be targeted in an informational effort, letting them know what the radio industry is doing to restrict public access to the airwaves. Hopefully, this will spur advertisers to develop a conscience about where they spend their marketing dollars.

Finally, a national microradio convention will be held in San Francisco in September in conjunction with the NAB's annual radio convention. While the radio industry busies itself with "education sessions" like "How To Sound Live & Local -- Even When You're Not," microradio advocates will conduct their own workshops. These may include discussions of the microradio movement's history and future, how-to sessions to help people build and maintain guerrilla radio stations, and legal assistance for those who run afoul of the law.

Protests will be a big part of this initiative, too - plans call for enough hell to be raised to either severely disrupt the NAB convention or shut it down completely.

It's an aggressive strategy, and it's being proposed at a time when many advocates for access to the airwaves are worn out after a long and mostly-futile fight in Washington.

But the microradio movement is in a time of adolescence: while the adolescent years tend to be turbulent ones, they are also often times of explosive growth. If this holds true, the activities the nation's seen and heard over the last few years will pale in comparison to what's to come.