SMALL RADIO, BIG STAKES

A BROADCASTER KEEPS AIRING LIBERAL VIEWS TO A TINY PART OF NORTH PHOENIX. THE GOVERNMENT SAYS HE'S BREAKING THE LAW.

Bill Dougan started off the broadcast by opining that state Senate President John Greene is a "tin-plated, swaggering, obnoxious, power-hungry thug."

Then Dougan got nasty.
The usual targets of his bombast--other politicians, local power brokers, the Arizona Republic--took their share of abuse. In one particularly vitriolic five minutes, he called the Phoenix Suns "Jerry Colangelo's trained seals," said Campus Crusade for Christ is "nothing more than a cult that preys on weak, lonely, isolated individuals" and dubbed Governor Fife Symington "the leading asshole in the state."

The show is The People's Forum, which Dougan tapes on Sundays and broadcasts twice a week from the 1.7-watt radio station he has constructed in the white shed behind his north Phoenix home. He bills it as "the only show of, by and for the people." Although his rhetoric might suggest an erratic or volatile personality, the neat, orderly layout of the station paints a more accurate picture of the person who built it. Tape decks are stacked evenly atop one another; mixing boards are laid out carefully in front of him; tapes are labeled. There is no dust anywhere. Bill Dougan is a fastidious man.

He is also one of several thousand people nationwide who, the government says, operate unlicensed "microradio" stations that broadcast news, music and political commentary to neighbors a mile or two from their homes. Traditionally, the Federal Communications Commission has come down hard on the unlicensed broadcasters it has been able to find, levying large fines and occasionally confiscating equipment.

In fact, Dougan has not paid a $17,000 fine the FCC handed him a few years ago. "Never will," he says.

He and other low-power broadcasters see themselves as pamphleteers--would-be Thomas Paines with microphones--and they claim the FCC is trying to keep off the air anyone without the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to operate a high-wattage transmitter. They point out that the FCC requires a license to broadcast, and fines any broadcaster who does not possess one--but refuses to offer licenses for low-power radio. Through this Catch-22 licensing policy, microradio operators say, the FCC squelches alternative voices and violates First Amendment rights.

The FCC, however, has a legal duty to allocate limited broadcast frequencies in the radio-wave spectrum. And FCC regulators are fairly matter-of-fact when talking about microradio; they say that shutting down unlicensed transmitters has nothing to do with censorship or the First Amendment.

A profusion of unregulated stations could create enough interference in urban areas to render portions of the radio bandwidth essentially useless, they say. Also, they claim, uncontrolled radio broadcasting can affect public safety--for example, by interrupting communications between airplanes and airport control towers.

And without licensure or regulation, it would be impossible to stop broadcasts most everyone finds objectionable, such as fraudulent business solicitations. The FCC suffered its first-ever defeat in its legal war with microradio broadcasters two months ago in Oakland, California.

In that case, a U.S. district judge refused to close down a microradio operator in Berkeley, even though he had no FCC license. Whether the decision was a turning point for the free-radio movement (as Dougan and other boosters claim) or a temporary procedural setback (as the FCC suggests), the battle is clearly far from over.

Ultimately, both sides admit, the questions about low-power broadcasting probably will be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, Bill Dougan will broadcast hours of odd left-wing rhetoric into the strange right-wing Phoenix night.

After one break in his show, Dougan's lead-in is Jack Nicholson's soliloquy from the film Easy Rider--the scene when he sits fireside with Dennis Hopper. (A few minutes after he delivers this speech, Jack's character is killed.)

"What you represent to them is freedom. . . . Oh, yeah, that's right, that's what it's all about, all right. But talkin' about it and bein' it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you're bought and sold in the marketplace. . . .

"Course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' an' maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they wanna talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em. . . ."

After Jack's done, patter follows; then Dougan starts in on his next victim, Arizona Republic columnist William Cheshire.

He suggests Cheshire is a "broken-down Moonie Times derelict," claims that Cheshire has used slanted polls to exaggerate antiabortion sentiment in America and asserts that supposedly anti-big-government conservatives actually want to expand government to "subjugate women into the role of brood mares."

For a professed liberal, Dougan is solidly anti-big-government himself. Having suffered from what he perceives as governmental intrusion into his private life, he sympathizes with others who voice the same lament.

He rarely brings up the topic of the FCC on his broadcast, though; he says he doesn't want to bother the public with his own problems. Mostly, he talks about more mainstream issues: schools, taxes, crime and diminishing personal freedoms.

Though the bulk of his rhetoric is bent toward the liberal, time and again, he contradicts his own basically leftish line: He dismisses the current emphasis on multiculturalism as "stupid crap," and he says that in a pinch, he could support the "right Republican" for president in 1996.

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