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Feature: Microradio - Moving Forward

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11/20/01

As the government increases its police powers to root out "terrorists," the microradio movement has been waiting quietly to see what changes there would be on the battlefield of the airwaves. If recent events are any indicator, it seems to be back to "business as usual."

Enforcement agents with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have been busy lately, making contact with stations in Virginia, California and Florida during the last three weeks. The terms of engagement do not seem drastically different than they did before 9/11 - visits and letters are still the primary weapons and the feared influx of SWAT-style raids has not materialized.

In fact, of the three most recent FCC actions, only one has resulted in a fine - the rest were seemingly just for intimidation purposes.

Many microbroadcasters aren't taking any chances, though, and the reports we've gotten indicate several well-known "pirates" have gone to ground for the time being. They're either staying off the air completely or operating much more sporadically in hopes of avoiding notice and persecution.

FCC activity, coupled with renewed interest from the nation's amateur radio operators in forming a "citizen corps" to police the airwaves, definitely makes it an interesting time to be a radio rogue!

This does not mean, however, that the microradio movement is laying low. Effort is being made to coordinate on a national scale. Within the next couple of weeks, committed activists from around the country are planning to hold a "virtual microradio conference" online to discuss new tactics and strategies.

The conference is the brainchild of the California-based Association of Micropower Broadcasters and will be spread out among several servers. Tools in the works include multiple chat discussions and streaming audio feeds in places where groups can physically be together.

The logistics of such an event are tricky and plans are tentative at best right now, but any expansion of communication among microradio activists is better than none.

Strategy-planning couldn't happen at a more critical juncture, either: the FCC has just announced it's planning to revamp radio ownership rules.

According to the 50-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), the FCC is plotting a wholesale change in the way it interprets the impact of radio ownership on the nation's media environment. Comments on the NPRM will be accepted by the FCC through February 2002.

The FCC believes changes in radio ownership regulations are warranted due to the emergence of satellite radio and the continued growth of the Internet. The widely-held belief in Washington is that since there are many more potential outlets for communication available to Americans today, overly-specific ownership rules with regard to only one kind of outlet may be doing more harm than good. Of course, the actual availability of these technologies to the public isn't considered: radio is much more accessible to everyone than the Internet is, and it'll stay that way for the foreseeable future.

This should set off alarm bells in the mind of any civic-minded person. The proposed rulemaking makes much hay of "marketplace concerns" and "consumer choice," but there is hardly any mention of "public interest" or of citizen involvement and impact.

Under the leadership of FCC Chairman Michael Powell - who has already publicly discarded the public interest standard as an outdated and inefficient way of thinking - this rulemaking seems to be another step down the path of regulating the nation's media not as a forum for public discourse, but rather as a business opportunity.

Time and time again the argument has been made that such a regulatory system hurts Americans' ability to communicate with one another and puts the privileges and tools of media ownership in the hands of entities unconcerned with healthy democratic discourse.

The microradio movement has been a tangible example of public protest to this way of thinking. Apparently the FCC hasn't learned from the events of the last decade and is pushing forward with its designs to completely turn over the public airwaves for private monopoly. That is why it is more necessary now more than ever to continue the fight against it.