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.

Eventually, he began to make on-air diagnoses from descriptions of symptoms listeners mailed him, advising them to purchase medication produced and marketed by the Brinkley Pharmaceutical Association. Kansas pharmacists of the time reported taking in more money from the sale of Brinkley's tonics than from legitimate prescriptions.

On June 30, 1930, after hundreds of complaints about the doctor, the Federal Radio Commission denied renewal of his license. The federal government, for the first time, had forced a radio operator out of business because of fraud. After unsuccessfully appealing the decision in the courts, Brinkley made his last broadcast in February 1931. The death of the station, Brinkley lamented on the air, was a blow to free speech.

Because of the Brinkley case and dozens of others like it, Franklin D. Roosevelt, soon after he became president, helped ram through Congress the Communications Act of 1934, still the blueprint for communications regulation as we know it. The act created a Federal Communications Commission of seven members appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

One of the FCC's most important responsibilities is the issuance of broadcast licenses and the regulation of those licensed broadcasters. Without such licensing, the airwaves would be filled with conflicting signals, and interference could make it impossible to receive any particular one. Without the FCC to bring order to the electromagnetic spectrum, radio could well be useless--and not just for talk or music, but for police, aircraft and emergency communications, weather radar and a thousand other niceties central to modern life.

Although the FCC is, by law, an independent agency, it is also a political entity--and has been used on occasion by the executive branch as a tool to enhance the prestige and influence of presidents. In the 1930s and 1940s, when newspapers owned most of the country's radio stations, FDR arranged more than once to have broadcast licenses awarded to his allies in the newspaper business. Lyndon B. Johnson's rise to riches (he made his fortune in the radio and television business) was aided in innumerable ways by the commission. Among other things, the FCC gave a prime dial location to the rising young politician's first station. Later, it helped him acquire television operations all over Texas.

Ronald Reagan also left his mark on the commission. From its inception, the FCC had operated under the principal assumption that broadcasting, while still a profit-oriented endeavor, was also a quasi-public service. With the dawn of the 1980s, however, that mindset largely fell by the wayside.

One of the first things the Reagan FCC did was abolish the "license-trafficking rule," a decades-old mandate that prohibited the sale of radio and television stations within less than three years of their purchase. Wall Streeters bought hundreds of stations, eliminated live and public affairs programming (and the staffers who produced it), then used their pumped-up bottom lines to sell for a quick profit. Within four years of the rule's abolition, sales of radio and television stations had increased 800 percent, and the industry was booming--but critics howled that the "little guy" had been squeezed off the air.

It is this tradition of acting at the behest of politicians (who, in turn, are acting at the behest of powerful corporate interests) that FCC critics cite when they say "persecution" of independent radio operators like Dougan is motivated not by a concern for the public welfare but by the greed of big-time broadcasters who want to keep the airwaves to themselves.

There is, however, limited space on the FM dial, and in Phoenix, as in most other major cities, that space is just about gone. The frequency Dougan occupies with his 1.7 watts is the only interference-free space he could find. It could just as easily, and much more profitably, be taken by a 100,000-watt powerhouse.

And for all the First Amendment bluster of microradio boosters, what is happening at the FCC may be altogether less sinister than conspiracy or intentional censorship. Commission staffers are among the first to agree that technology's march has vastly improved the quality of relatively inexpensive transmitters, which produce far less interference than older models. But how, they ask, can we be sure microstations are using such equipment unless they are licensed and regulated?

The catch, again, is that the FCC doesn't give licenses to low-power stations, or any station that transmits less than 36 hours of programming per week. That this rule has remained in effect in the face of changing technology perhaps has less to do with the back-room influence of some big-radio cabal than with simple bureaucratic inertia.

Dougan had his first run-in with the FCC in 1991, when he raised a 36-foot antenna, put together a transmitter kit and began operating a half-watt station out of the same shed that houses his current station. At 88.9 FM, KACR aired strange, left-of-center programming not exactly common in Phoenix--including 20-year-old shows by Āber-atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, which he still broadcasts today.

It didn't take long for the local branch of the FCC, headquartered north of Douglas, to hear about Dougan's station. It took even less time for the commission to do something about it. The $17,500 fine the FCC issued was its largest ever in Arizona.

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