SMALL RADIO, BIG STAKES
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.
The contradictions in his speechifying build upon one another. He is an avowed liberal who staunchly supports gun rights, a baby boomer who more closely identifies with the slacker crowd, a theatrical rant 'n' raver whose studio is neater than a West Point cadet's footlocker. Dougan is a leftist radical nut who sits in a shed and broadcasts subversive propaganda--to perhaps a couple of hundred middle-class people living in the quiet neighborhood surrounding the house he shares with his mother. Dougan is an unapologetic, howling fugitive from justice--if fugitives can spend a lot of time landscaping a yard with meandering brick paths through exotic plants and past lawn gnomes that seem to number in the dozens.
Dougan's appearance hardly fits the radical-lefty mold, either. Of about average height and slight build, he is not a physically imposing presence. He doesn't dress like a radical, unless radicals wear slippers as they sit behind microphones.
The motives behind Dougan's forays into broadcasting seem as contradictory as his lifestyle. He says he is not interested in a career in commercial radio, implying that microradio is somehow purer, nobler, unblighted by commercial interests. But the carefully written notes hanging before Dougan in his studio--reminders not to stutter or say "uh" too much when speaking--seem a bit self-conscious for a dilettante, a little meticulous for a pirate.
Dougan insists he operates his station professionally only to present a legitimate alternative to Arizona talk radio, which, he says, suffers both in terms of quality and plurality of viewpoints.
"Talk radio is dominated by conservative hosts, and it's dominated by fat, white old men," he says, snorting. "I think because of that, you're dealing with single- or double-digit IQs in many cases. It's like hate radio."
Dougan's fascination with radio started when he was a boy living in Missouri and Oklahoma, crouching under the blankets at night with a flashlight, listening to whatever far-flung stations he could pull in with his transistor radio.
"It was AM radio back then; you could hear stations seven or eight hundred miles away," he recalls. "I used to get WABC in New York. When I was a teenager, I could hear KNX in Los Angeles. That's a big thing when you're a kid. California, when you're 16, living in Missouri, seems like another planet."
At the University of Tulsa, Dougan worked at the school radio station at the expense of almost everything else in his life. But he didn't make broadcasting a career, instead becoming a graphic artist. It wasn't until years later, after he moved to Arizona and became dismayed with the right-wing homogeneity of the state's political discourse, that he decided to start putting his own views in front of the public. The first delivery system for Dougan's ideas was not a radio station. It was a newsletter, originally titled Mormon Watch but later renamed Arizona Political Watch.
"My circulation started out among a few friends," he says. "But there was a lot of word of mouth, and eventually, it grew to about 250 people. This was during the Mecham era, so that really gave me a lot of fuel. Every time he opened his mouth, I had something to write about."
The newsletter indeed focused on politics, the media and cultural issues. But even then, Dougan seemed to be grinding his biggest ax against the religious right, at whose feet he lays blame for most conservative "flat-Earth, know-nothing" thought.
"If I can get people royally pissed, that's fine," he says. "Because at least if I get 'em pissed, they're thinking. Nobody is interested in public affairs anymore. I have some younger people tell me that they can't listen to the radio station because they have to watch Beverly Hills, 90210."
What upsets him as much as the apathy of the younger generation, however, is what he sees as the lost promise of his own. Dougan is 41 years old. Some of his harshest words are reserved for his boomer brethren.
"What happened to my generation? We were the ones who were supposed to change everything, and now we're coming into power, and it's sickening. They're just like the ones before them. It's getting worse."
Though Dougan bristles at the term, broadcasting without a license is widely called "pirate" radio. Pirates have been around as long as radio itself, operating in almost every part of the broadcast spectrum, including long- and short-wave, AM, FM, television and microwave bands. Pittsburgh's KDKA--generally considered the first true American broadcast station--actually started out as a "pirate" in 1920. The operator, a Westinghouse Corporation employee, broadcast news reports as a hobby in the evenings after work. When he ran out of things to say, he played records. His broadcast caught on so quickly that soon Westinghouse was paying him to stay home and run his station, hoping it would encourage purchases of the company's radio sets.
Although pirate broadcasting began at the dawn of the medium, the free-radio movement is largely a phenomenon of the last 20 years. Free-radio operators broadcast for a variety of reasons. Some are simply disc jockey wanna-bes, poseurs who can't find work at a commercial station. Others feel an alternative to regular broadcasting needs to be presented. Still more do it because they think the quality of local commercial radio is not up to par.
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.
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 ber-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.
Dougan decided to fight the FCC with a lawsuit he filed himself in U.S. District Court. When it became apparent he couldn't fight the FCC without legal aid, he dropped that suit and went lawyer hunting. The lawsuit that attorney filed was dismissed on a jurisdictional technicality. Running short on patience, hope and money, Dougan let the issue rest a while. But he kept listening for news about Dunifer and other free-radio operators. Within a couple of years, he secured another lawyer, Victor Aronow.
On December 20 of last year, Aronow sent the FCC a letter advising the agency that Dougan was about to begin broadcasting again, this time with a 1.7-watt signal at 92.7 FM. The new call letters were KAFR, for "Arizona Free Radio."
After almost three months of operation by KAFR, the FCC has yet to threaten or take any action against Dougan. But Stephen Tsuya, a supervisory engineer at the FCC's office in Douglas, says the question of whether microradio broadcasts are legal is settled.
"They aren't," he says. "They just aren't. We are the body given the authority to license and regulate radio stations, and we don't allow what they're doing. They are breaking the law."
FCC rules say that to obtain a license, a broadcaster must have a signal of at least 100 watts, more than 50 times more powerful than KAFR's. Even 100 watts is not high power for a commercial station; Valley country-music powerhouse KNIX-FM, for example, broadcasts at 100,000 watts. Also, the station must be on the air for at least 36 hours per week. Currently, Dougan's station airs only 20 hours per week.
In a letter sent to Dougan's lawyer last month, the FCC said there is no licensing system for the type of station Dougan operates. Years ago, low-power stations were allowed to operate with a Class D license, but the FCC stopped granting such licenses in 1980.
Aronow also has asked that Dougan's station be licensed as experimental; but the FCC says experimental licenses are not given for low-power FM stations. The commission typically uses experimental licenses for emerging technologies, and broadcast radio can hardly be called "emerging."
"The harm that's done by these unlicensed broadcasters," Tsuya says, "is the interference they can cause to other broadcasters or aircraft radios. Also, we can't just have anybody who wants one to start radio broadcasts. There would be no coherent broadcasting at all if that were the case.
"There would be chaos."
Dougan differs from many other microbroadcasters on the question of FCC licensure. It's fine with him, he says, if licenses for low-power stations are offered for free, or at a reasonable cost.
"I think that the FCC is bound and required to accommodate my request to operate this radio station," Dougan says. "And how they do that is something that has to be worked out."
Not everyone else feels that way. Stephen Dunifer, the operator of the microstation in Berkeley, thumbs his nose at the FCC and any hint of regulation of any kind. Dougan calls Dunifer an "anarchist." His own approach, he says, is more pragmatic: try to play nice with the FCC; see if a compromise can be made.
But that's behind the scenes. As another edition of The People's Forum winds down, Dougan is lambasting newly minted House Speaker Newt Gingrich. After several minutes of vituperation on the subject, highlighted by an assertion that Newt Gingrich is a "bald-faced, hypocritical liar," Dougan finishes up the show with another few seconds of film dialogue. This snippet is from Stand by Me, and is Dougan's personal message for Gingrich:
"Suck my fat one, you cheap, dime-store hood."
With that, the show ends. Now Dougan can put on his slippers, turn off the recorders and the microphones, shut off the lights in his shed and go back into the house with his mother.
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