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.

Devotees spend anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars on equipment, set up shop in an extra bedroom or shed and start chatting to their neighbors. The low-power transmitters they usually use give them limited range--anywhere from a few city blocks to five miles. On a good night, Dougan's station can be heard from 6 to 10 in an area of north Phoenix bounded on the east and west by Tatum Boulevard and 35th Avenue and on the north and south by Deer Valley Road and North Mountain.

In the past few years, low-power broadcasters have popped up all over the country. The FCC has not taken the trend lightly; it has tracked down offenders with radio direction finders, sent federal marshals to their homes, seized their equipment and levied large fines. The commission's actions seem erratic; some broadcasters are shut down after (or during) their first-ever transmission; others, like Black Liberation Radio, operated by a blind black man out of a Chicago housing project, have broadcast for years without incident.

Free Radio Berkeley went on the air in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1993. It is owned and operated by Stephen Dunifer, a 40ish radio engineer who became interested in the possibilities of community radio while protesting the Vietnam War. He also sells transmitter kits, which cost between $600 and $1,000, to people interested in starting their own stations.

Dunifer first got into trouble with the FCC in November 1993, when the commission fined him $20,000 for 24 illegal broadcasts. He appealed the fine to the FCC, and as he waited for a final decision on it, the commission asked U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken for an injunction to stop him from broadcasting until the matter could be settled.

Dunifer's attorney, Luke Hiken, says the legal challenge was what the two had been waiting for.

"The FCC has always acted like having to talk to the American citizen was beneath them," Hiken says. "We knew that the issue would have to be resolved in court."

Hiken argued that the FCC's refusal to allow microbroadcasting was based on a 1978 study showing that the crude equipment then used produced high levels of interference with other broadcasts. Technology has improved, Hiken says, and the gremlins have been worked out of low-power transmitters. Canada has allowed microradio broadcasts in rural areas for nearly 20 years, and in 1994, it began allowing such broadcasts in cities, as well.

Attorneys for the FCC relied on a multitude of previous court rulings that uphold the so-called scarcity doctrine--the FCC policy that, because only a limited number of radio frequencies are available, the government must regulate their use to avoid electromagnetic chaos. (As far as Canadian radio policy goes, the FCC has long held that U.S. rural areas are more densely populated than Canada's, so that country's microradio policies would not deal with the signal interference even rural operators would create here.)

Judge Wilken agreed that the FCC had authority to license radio stations, but she also ruled that the commission had failed to provide any way for people who wanted to broadcast at less than 100 watts of power to apply for licenses. That failure, she ruled, violated the FCC's constitutional duty to regulate communication by the "least restrictive means available."

The judge refused to shut down Free Radio Berkeley; Dunifer and his lawyer, along with microradio buffs all over the country, rejoiced. It was the first setback the FCC has encountered while trying to keep free-radio stations off the air.

Whether this ruling represents a serious challenge to decades of FCC action against free stations is debatable; it is, after all, only a ruling on a temporary injunction sought in one case. The decision sets no precedent for other courts.

Dougan voices his opinion that the ruling represents a sea change in radio regulation often and vigorously. But, then again, Dougan's problems with the bureaucrats at the FCC go way back.

Dougan uses another old sound bite to introduce some of his broadcasts. It comes from the beginning of the TV show The Outer Limits; a male voice solemnly intones that "we are controlling transmission. We can control the vertical. We can control the horizontal.

"For the next hour, we will control all you see and hear and think."
Dougan leaves the impression that he is talking about himself. He might be more aptly describing his principal antagonist, the Federal Communications Commission.

It is not an overstatement to say that over the last 60 years, the FCC has become the most important regulatory body in the U.S. government. Right now, you are probably within ten feet of something the FCC regulates. Every radio and television station, satellite or cable system, by law, must have a license to broadcast.

Every cellular or cordless phone, kid's walkie-talkie, television or computer monitor, radio-controlled car or airplane, and garage-door opener bears an identification number certifying that it meets FCC standards for transmission, reception and interference.

If you're wondering why the FCC is important, consider the case of John Richard "Doc" Brinkley, a goat-gland surgeon from Milford, Kansas.

Brinkley rose to prominence in the 1920s after pioneering an operation in which parts of glands from Toggenburg goats were transplanted into the organs of older men--men who needed "rejuvenation." Though the American Medical Association dismissed Brinkley's practice as a fraud, he purchased a radio station to advertise the procedure. It made him a fortune.

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