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Feature: New Strategy - First Moves

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7/11/00

As the FCC begins processing the first wave of new low power FM station licenses, microradio advocates who feel the government hasn't gone far enough to open access to the airwaves are shifting into offensive mode.

Just last month, A cadre of former, current and future unlicensed station operators gathered in San Francisco and created the Micropower Action Coalition (MAC). MAC is designed to further organize microradio into a cohesive movement with firm goals in mind.

There are six points to MAC's Action Platform; one of them was tested in battle this month, and the preliminary results look promising.

Punching the Moneybags

It's fitting that the first test of the MAC strategy happens in San Francisco. Not only is it where the MAC Platform was born, but it's also the home of San Francisco Liberation Radio. The goal: strip some Big Broadcasting stations of a lucrative advertising contract - protest through the pocketbook.

If Stephen Dunifer's been the general of the new microradio army, SFLR is one of its master sergeants.  It took to the air in 1993, taking advantage of the gray area in the law that Dunifer's court case against the FCC temporarily opened up for microbroadcasters to use as justification for taking to the air. Fined $10,000, SFLR remained on the air for four years before pulling the plug - only to return in the beginning of 1999 in protest of the FCC's watered-down LPFM proposal.

San Francisco Liberation Radio and its founder, Richard Edmonson, have a proven track record of embracing a fight. He and his station collective have begun a public campaign to get a major corporation to kill its advertising with a high-profile legal station in town.

Actually, SFLR is taking on not one legal station, but two - KOIT-AM and -FM. They're owned by Bonneville International, who controls 15 radio stations in five major markets, and has deals inked to buy four more. Bonneville is a corporation owned by - get this - the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). Bonneville owns a total of four radio stations in San Francisco.

Bonneville's CEO, Bruce Reese, testified at the NAB's not-quite-fraudulent hearing in front of Congress earlier this year, as part of Big Broadcasting's lobbying effort to derail the LPFM plan. Bonneville International has given at least $2,960 in political contributions to the NAB or selected Congressfolk in just the last year alone - and all but $600 of those donations came straight out of Mr. Reese's own pocket.

The KOIT cluster was a perfect target for SFLR - not only is it owned by a major enemy to what little low-power radio will be licensed, but both the AM and FM stations are broadcasting the exact same programming - formulated "soccer mom" soft rock pablum.

Identifying the Target

San Francisco Liberation Radio set out to convince one of KOIT's biggest advertisers, the Albertsons supermarket chain, to pull its advertising with the stations.

Albertsons is one of KOIT's - and Bonneville's - biggest accounts.  Albertsons isn't just San Francisco-based, either: fresh from a merger last year with another mega-food retail corporation, Albertsons, Inc. owns stores across the country under the brand names of Osco Drug, Jewel, Sav-On, and Acme.

Albertsons stores did more than $37 billion dollars in business last year, spending about $500 million of that on advertising.

The attack takes the form of an education campaign; it's hoped that "corporate conscience" will prevail.  Richard Edmonson explains it as exposing "Bonneville's attacks on freedom of speech over the airwaves - as well as Albertsons' role in supporting those attacks with their advertising dollars."

The first volley in this battle wasn't even fired yet when the enemy got wind something was amiss.

Setting Up the Strike

SFLR began the attack on Albertsons in June. It contacted advertising director, Felicia Weaver, to present their case. It also faxed over evidence to her office. Coincidentally, just days after doing so, SFLR founder Richard Edmonson got a call from a KOIT sales executive, asking why "you seem to have some sort of problem with our radio station."

A week after that call, San Francisco Liberation Radio received a threatening warning letter from the FCC, threatening a $100,000 fine and prison time for unlicensed broadcasting.

It should be noted that San Francisco Liberation Radio has applied twice for a license with the FCC; both of the applications have not been responded to.

Even though the enemy was now on alert to their attack, the San Francisco Liberation Radio collective pressed it home.

Unlikely Ally

Twice last week members of San Francisco Liberation Radio stood at the entrance of the Albertsons supermarket store on Sloat Boulevard, handing out flyers to its employees and passerby protesting the chain's advertising on KOIT stations.

At least one supermarket employee came out of the building and asked for a flyer, outwardly expressing his dismay with his company's fiscal irresponsibility. He even promised to call Albertsons' advertising director himself and sound off on the issue.

Actually, most of the response from those who took the time to listen to the story on Sloat Boulevard sided with the protesters. "Once people understand what this issue is all about, the free speech aspects of it and so forth, they respond with total enthusiasm," said Edmonson.

The station collective plans further protests in front of the store and is continuing its phone campaign to its advertising director to stop buying spots on KOIT.

Hey, They Blinked

This new battle between microradio and Big Broadcasting in San Francisco is the first shot in what could be a new front in the war to take back the airwaves. Not only is an unlicensed station on the air there, but its operators are openly challenging the legitimacy of current license holders - instead of the other way around.

KOIT's - and Bonneville International's - reaction to the attack hints that this fight won't be easy, either. Edmonson explains:

What does all this mean? Well here is what we know for sure:

We know the people at Albertsons talked to the people at KOIT. (Otherwise how do you explain the phone call from Warren? We had had no contact with KOIT prior to this.) Did the people at KOIT, in turn, then call their parent company, Bonneville, and explain the situation? And did Bonneville then contact the FCC and say, "These people are fucking with our advertisers, shut them down now!"?

Well perhaps we're just paranoid conspiracy theorists. But then as Judi Bari once said, "You're either a conspiracy theorist or a coincidence theorist."

But hey, Big Broadcasting is once again reacting to microradio's moves. That, after the pummeling on the LPFM issue, is a step in the right direction.

To get involved in SFLR's KOIT Campaign: Call Albertsons director of advertising, Felicia Weaver. Her office is in San Leandro, California. The main switchboard there is 510-678-4200. To reach Felicia Weaver's voice mail you punch in the letters W-E-A when your call is answered by the automated operator.

Request that she cancel her advertising not only on KOIT, but on all the radio stations the corporation runs advertising on.  If you're not up to making a phone call, you can always e-mail Albertsons' Customer Service Division.