"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both." -- James Madison
The spectrum of voices in American media has been shrinking for years. Only a handful of conglomerates now control the media landscape. According to Robert W. McChesney, nine out of 10 Hollywood films are produced by six firms, half a dozen chains control the vast majority of newspapers across the country, seven firms dominate the book industry, five dominate the music industry and six run the cable roost.
"Nearly all of these are now parts of vast media conglomerates," he wrote in the November issue of The Progressive.
And, thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which makes it easier for communications firms to link up or merge, the number of conglomerates that control American media could shrink farther in the future.
This trend has not just forced minority voices -- both in terms of race and ethnicity and political viewpoint -- to the margins, but in most cases out of the debate altogether. In cinema, it has meant the suffocation of independent film, as directors are forced to bow to Hollywood to ensure distribution of their films, and the continued growth of high-priced action flicks or syrupy love stories. The same blockbuster virus has beset the book industry, with large sums doled out for celebrity scandal and political kiss-and-tells.
The effect on radio has been just as extreme. According to the National Lawyer's Guild Committee on Democratic Communications and the Stephen Dunnifer Legal Defense Team, the relaxed ownership rules mandated by the Telecommunications Act resulted in more than a third of the nation's 11,000 radio stations to change hands, including 1,000 radio company mergers, with three firms controlling more than 50 percent of advertising revenue in the nation's 50 largest markets. "Small chains have been acquired by middle-sized chains, and the middle-sized chains have been gobbled up by the few massive giant companies who have come to dominate the industry. This sort of consolidation permits the giant chains to reduce costs by down-sizing their editorial and sales staffs and running programming out of national headquarters," according to a Guild/Dunnifer position paper presented to the National Association of Broadcasters in April 1998 by Louis Hiken.
Each year, there is more and more control of playlists by marketing hacks, more and more carving of the audience into small subsets that have their own sub-genres of musical styles. And political discourse is limited: The right-wing gets most of the AM dial, with the occasional, if nominal, liberal sprinkled here and there to offer the semblance of balance; the center has National Public Radio; and the left has a handful of Pacifica stations.
And anyone looking for real local news is out of luck.
"Across the nation, these giant firms use their market power to slash costs, providing the same handful of formats with barely a token nod to the communities in which the stations broadcast," the Guild/Dunnifer paper says.
Into that void has swept micro-radio stations, commonly known as pirate radio, small, grassroots stations broadcasting on frequencies between 10 and 100 watts that produce "programming for those communities that are historically disenfranchised and left out of mainstream corporate media," according to an essay by Peter Franck of the Lawyer's Guild's Committee on Democratic Communications posted on the guild's Website. "These stations not only diversified the perspectives and voices that we hear on the radio, but created public awareness on the issue of access to media."
Micro radio stations are relatively cheap to build and operate. A small station might cost $2,000 to get on the air.
"A transmitter can be plugged into a regular outlet, and hooked to a small antenna strung up somewhere on a roof, A tape deck, microphone or other input device is plugged in, and you're on the air," Jesse Drew writes in "Free Radio Takes to the Airwaves" on the Paper Tiger Website (www.papertiger.org/radioboycott.html). "By turning on the FM radio in the house, operators can find a dead spot on the FM band, then tune the output of the transmitter until they hear it on the radio."
Stations have popped up across the country -- everywhere from San Francisco and New York, to Springfield, Ill., and Canyon Lake, Texas. What they all have in common, says Alan Korn of the Microradio Empowerment Coalition, is the desire to serve a population not being served by mainstream radio. That could be with music, news or opinion, with perspectives ranging across the political spectrum.
The most celebrated of the radio rebels is Stephen Dunnifer, who began operating his unlicensed micro-power radio station in Berkeley, Calif., from a mobile van in 1993 offering a mix of music and political discussion. Dunnifer, who now faces an FCC fine of $20,000 for putting Radio Free Berkeley on the air, also sells a do-it-yourself radio broadcast kit for $55, to help others join him on the airwaves to distribute what he calls "the leaflet of the '90s."
Micro radio offers communities a number of things. David Huff's Canyon Lake Radio in Canyon Lake, Texas, offered a menu ranging from local bands to church yard-sale announcements, according to Rolling Stone (Nov. 25). And when a flood submerged the region last year, the station was the only way for the area's 25,000 residents to get news.
Mbanna Kantako's Black Liberation Radio broadcasts music, commentary and oral readings of African-American literature from a housing project to the black community. A station in Grover Beach, Calif., broadcasts council meetings, Korn said, allowing residents there access to their local government.
In California, San Francisco Liberation Radio has been broadcasting analysis and news on homelessness, animal rights and other topics and has been offering music not on the playlists of commercial radio.
Mainstream broadcasters object to the micro radio movement, saying that unlicensed stations interfere with the transmissions of licensed broadcasters. Historically, the Federal Communications Commission has sided with the large broadcasters, favoring translator licenses for transmitters with less than 100 watts to import outside signals over broadcast licenses for stations with less than 100 watts of power. And it has been cracking down on the stations, confiscating equipment and charging station operators.
But the tide could be changing. FCC Chairman William Kennard has offered a set of new rules that would allow hundreds of micro stations to win FCC license.
The rules are not without their flaws -- they appear to treat stations that serve community interests the same as commercial stations and, in fact, may favor commercial stations -- but Kennard's action is a step in the right direction. Kennard told Rolling Stone that the "unprecedented feeding frenzy" currently underway "is changing the character of local radio. It has had an impact on the ways people have relied on radio, particularly the music business. It puts more pressure on independent labels and local artists trying to get airplay. Low-power FM is a counterinsurgency, an effort to give the airwaves back to local voices so they can speak to their communities."
The public comment period on the new rules was due to expire in November. But Korn of the Microradio Empowerment Coalition says supporters should still contact their local congressmen and the FCC to show their support for diverse voices.
Micro radio is an important addition to the American media landscape. As fewer and fewer stations get bigger and bigger and come to dominate more and more of the media market, the presence of this band of modern-day pamphleteers and techno-Thomas Paines becomes more and more necessary.
Below are some resources on the micro radio movement:
The National Lawyer's Guild Committee on Democratic Communication, 558 Capp St., San Francisco, CA 94110; (415) 522-9814; www.nlgcdc.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
www.radio4all,org serves as a clearinghouse for the free distribution of micro radio broadcasts and information worldwide.
Hank Kalet is poet and journalist who lives in South Brunswick, N.J.