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By Ted M. Coopman
Disclaimer: Broadcasting without a
license is a violation of Federal law. Those convicted of illegally broadcasting
may face fines of more than $10,000 and up to one year in jail per incident.
The author does not encourage any illegal activity nor does he accept
any liability for the consequences of the use of the information contained
in this article. The reader uses this information at her/his own risk.
For more information concerning the penalties for unlicensed broadcasting
contact the Federal Communications Commission
So, You Want to Free the Airwaves?
If you have gotten this far and found
this article, I am assuming you know about the Micro Broadcasting Movement
and are seriously considering participating. If not, you will want to
check out Radio4all for links
and detailed information about the Free Communications Movement and micro
radio. For deeper background, you may wish to access my master's
thesis on micro radio. This article does not encourage participating
in micro radio (although I am on record as supporting the goals of the
Free Communications Movement); it simply provides information gathered
through researching the Micro Radio Movement and the FCC. I wrote this
article to help individuals considering participating in micro radio make
On The Firing Line
FCC enforcement against unlicensed broadcasters
has been very inconsistent, even with the stepped-up enforcement in 1998.
This is both good and bad. On the upside, you have a fairly good chance
of operating for months or even years without getting busted. On the downside,
you don't know what the FCC will do in your case, from a knock on the
door to a full- blown SWAT team raid. Simply put, there are risks involved
in participating in micro radio. The odds are you will not, as an individual,
go to jail or get fined. However, the possibility exists.
Your chances of being busted have a lot
to do with your geographic location. The FCC has only 16 or so field offices
(down from 35 in 1992) and a little over 100 agents to staff those offices.
Proximity to a field office greatly increases your chances of being busted.
However, there is an effort under way by the National
Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to assist the FCC in identifying
unlicensed radio stations. The Compliance and Information Bureau (CIB)
of the FCC, charged with shutting down unlicensed operators, has offices
in the following cities: Atlanta, GA; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Kansas
City, MO; Hayward, CA; Los Angeles, CA; San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; Detroit,
MI; Columbia, MD; New York City, NY; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Tampa, FL;
New Orleans, LA; Philadelphia, PA; and of course, Washington, DC. That's
14 states plus the District of Columbia. 36 states are without CIB offices.
California is the only state with more than one field office. It has three.
Risks for Announcers
For general purposes, an announcer (or
DJ) is anyone who operates a control board and talks live over the air.
Here are some common misconceptions as well as questions often asked concerning
the risks of announcing on an unlicensed radio station.
The organization who runs our station
says that it will take full responsibility if there is a raid. Does
this mean I won't get fined or arrested?
There is no agreement you can come to with the individuals or organization
running your micro station that will protect you from prosecution. If
you are on the air when the FCC shows up, you will be held responsible
for unlicensed broadcasting and you may face fines or jail time.
What do I do if the FCC comes knocking?
Obtain the publication, "What to do when the FCC Knocks at your Door."
Also, I suggest visiting The
Free Radio Survival Guide. Read these BEFORE the FCC knocks on your
What happens if I do get busted?
Will I go to jail? Will I get fined?
Chances are you will not get busted. The toughest penalty laid down so
far has been three years probation. To my knowledge, no one has served
time for announcing on a micro station. All fines can be appealed on the
grounds of financial hardship and the FCC has a history of reducing fines
in these cases.
What happens if I have to go to
Violations of the Communications Act are a civil matter, not a criminal
one (at least at the onset). Therefore, the state does not have to provide
you with counsel, and will not. Your station should be in contact with
an attorney who will represent you in court for free or for a reduced
fee. If this is not the case, I would recommend finding legal aide BEFORE
you get visited.
But.....What About My Stuff??!!!
The biggest bite the FCC can take out
of a micro station is the seizure of equipment. Equipment related to the
direct operation of the station is only the beginning. FCC employees can
take everything that's not nailed down and will use pry bars and power
tools to take stuff that IS nailed down if they feel they want it. As
Doug Brewer in
Florida found out, almost anything can be linked to the "illegal"
operation and seized, right down to the picture of Jesus on the wall.
In Brewer's case they took the picture of Jesus and his entire transmission
tower (which, I assume, was nailed down). Short of shutting down permanently,
there is really no way to fully protect your transmitter and other studio
equipment. However, there are steps you can take to minimize your losses.
Keep your Studio Spartan.
You should only have the minimum equipment necessary to operate the station
on site. Any production equipment or materials should be kept at a different
location. Any computers or other electronics should also be kept at other
locations. Announcers should refrain from keeping CD, record collections,
and personal property at the studio.
Keep your Studio Mobile
If there is an emergency, you should be able to move your transmitter
and other primary equipment in minutes. Free Radio Santa Cruz did a complete
breakdown and move in five minutes. A drill to get your time down to this
might be in order. Have one or more alternative sites. It is a good idea
to move locations after an FCC warning visit. Stations are easy to track,
but there is no sense making it easy for them. (There is also the immobility
strategy. Some activists suggest putting the transmitter in a hard to
move object, say, padlocked in a refrigerator full of concrete, and welding
on rings to chain yourself too. While this will not reduce your losses,
it does sound like fun for the whole crew!)
Location, Location, Location.
The best situation is to place your studio in a small commercial space.
This can be expensive, especially in urban areas. Another good bet is
to make an arrangement with a low-income member of the station and have
her/him share their her/his living space with the studio, possibly having
the station pay utilities. This way, there will be minimal impact in the
event of a raid. Some stations have been based out of large communal households.
Although this arrangement is in many ways ideal, it is also dangerous.
Evictions can happen with a call from the FCC to the landlord and trying
to find beds for ten people is much harder than finding a bed for one.
Besides, the more people, the more property there is to seize. Always
use a rented space. It is foolhardy to operate a micro station from a
building that you own.
Mixing Business with Transmitting
Don't. Many people who get into micro radio are electricians or handypeople.
DO NOT locate your transmitter in the same location as your workshop and
tools. If you do, you will run the risk of losing access to your equipment,
perhaps permanently. As you can imagine, if this is your livelihood, the
consequences could be severe.
Watch Your ASSets
The primary tool the FCC has to dissuade people from violating its regulations
is the seizure of assets. This goes beyond a transmitter and studio gear.
If you have property, investments, or savings, it will be difficult to
plead financial hardship. Being unable to prove financial hardship may
leave you liable for tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in fines.
Where commercial broadcasting is a rich person's game, micro radio is
the venue of the poor. You can only be sure you will lose nothing if you
have nothing to lose.
Note on Illegal Activity
Since broadcasting without a license will eventually attract the authorities,
it is in the best interest of the station, its members, and the movement
in general to prohibit ANY illegal activity on station premises. This
primarily concerns the possession of controlled substances, weapons, or
the possession by minors of materials restricted to adults. Any of these
activities will be used against you and the Micro Radio Movement, and
undermine your community's support for your station.
If you still want to be on the air and are not dissuaded by the risks,
then good luck! However, if you are concerned, have assets to lose, have
a past to haunt you, or simply don't want a close encounter of the FCC-kind,
there is still a lot you can do to participate in the Free Communications
Tape a Show
If you want your voice to be heard, you can still get on the air by taping
a program. Having enough good content is always a problem when stations
have no money. Shows can be taped and supplied to your station, or to
other stations, and will enable you to get your message across and help
the cause. This is easy to do, especially if the production studio is
located away from the broadcast studio.
Raise Some Money
Help with fund raising. The legal fight to free the airwaves is in constant
need of cash and most stations operate on a shoestring budget. Donate
studio or other needed equipment or help track it down. Most micro stations
are held together by a core few people and they can always use the help.
Help set up a website or host a site on your personal webspace. The Internet
is a valuable organizational tool.
Lobby local business and government and get them on your side. Have them
write letters or sign petitions of support. Write the FCC, Congress,
or anyone else you can think of. Be polite, firm, and to the point. Demand
they act to legalize micro radio now.
Many skills, especially technical skills, are sorely needed by micro stations.
Use your talents to help the cause.
Listen to your local micro station and tell as many
people as possible about it. Community support is the key to survival.
Ted M. Coopman has a master of science in Mass Communication
(1995) from San Jose State University, San Jose, CA. He is also a partner
in Rogue Communication, a consulting and research organization. More information
about Rogue Communication, micro radio, and other interesting topics can
be found by visiting the Rogue Communication
This article is ©1998 by
Ted M. Coopman. Any use without
the permission of the author is prohibited.