By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Denver resident Dave Granger is a radio junkie who's not afraid to make waves in order to satisfy his addiction. So when the former disk jockey, production man and programmer with KTCL-FM/93.3 FM burned out on corporate rock and "too many dick jokes" on the commercial dial, he decided to take matters--and microphones and transmitters--into his own hands. In July 1998, Granger began operating Capitol Underground (88.9 FM), a low budget, low-power radio station pieced together from pawn-shop deals, thrift-store leftovers and electronic cast-offs. With its poor-man beginnings and a broadcast radius of under five miles, Capitol Underground was a far cry from the big-budget culture of his previous gig. The bare-bones endeavor, however, was growing: Earlier this month, Granger and his all-volunteer staff traded in their previous digs--a roving van rigged with broadcasting gear--for a permanent space on the rusted edge of the Golden Triangle neighborhood off Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
But on July 8, nearly twelve months to the day after the station's first broadcast, Granger's fledgling enterprise faced a premature, though certain, death. Minutes into his first shift from the new location, he was visited by an unwelcome pair: two federal agents with "FCC" emblazoned on the backs of their government-issued jackets. As a trio of Denver police officers looked on, Granger was asked to leave the airwaves as the last strains of a tune by local punkers the Gamits faded into static. "That was the last song anybody heard on Capitol Underground," he recalls of the departed indie-rock and community-news station, which reached a modest listenership during its brief tenure on the air.
"The transmitter was right there," he says, pointing to an empty utility shelf in his eight-by-twelve-foot headquarters at the back of an alternative art gallery. "That's the co-ax to the antenna that was up on the roof," he adds, pointing to a cable that snakes toward the ceiling. "What made it worse, I had to take it all apart myself and hand it to the FCC agents--'Okay, here's my baby.'"
But while Granger took the antenna down from the roof of his space, he was hardly surprised to be dismantling his vision. Capitol Underground, broadcasting at an anemic twenty watts, was an illegal enterprise, Denver's lone "pirate radio" station and one of many illegal radio outlets around the country struggling to reach listeners without making a blip on the radar screen of the almighty Federal Communications Commission. In the past three years, the number of these low-power stations (also known as "micro-power" stations, since they send signals considerably leaner than the FCC's allowed 100-watt minimum) has increased significantly.
In response to public pressure from both operators and supporters of low-power FM stations (known as LPFMs), the FCC is now considering action that would alter current licensing restrictions and make LPFMs legitimate. On January 28 of this year, the FCC unveiled a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that raised questions pertaining to how the FCC might make low-power a legal reality. The document touched on numerous LPFM issues, from whether or not they should be legalized to who should be allowed to operate the stations and how the radio dial would be altered to accommodate their presence. The FCC is seeking comment from the public on these issues, and opinions can be submitted to the agency through August 2. That initial comment phase will be followed by a reply period that lasts until September 1. No concrete date for a decision on the issue has been set. (More details and comment applications can be found at the FCC's Web site, www.fcc.org.)
According to David Fiske of the FCC office in Washington, D.C., his group has contacted over 500 pirate stations over the past two years and given citations for offenses ranging from operating without a license to failing to utilize FCC-sanctioned equipment. Pirate operators are asked to stop broadcasting, and those who opt not to pay the price: Fines range from $1,000 to $100,000. Fiske believes that the number of pirate operators currently operating has shrunk to around 100 nationwide. Along the Front Range, the exact number of illicit radio stations is difficult to pinpoint, as estimates vary depending upon whom you ask and where they live; micro fans have reported transmissions from outside Vail, in the foothills above Boulder, in remote areas of southern Colorado and in various mountain communities. Earlier this spring, the FCC reportedly contacted and closed a station in the Longmont area.
Credit for the boom in swashbuckling broadcasting lies in part with the proliferation of inexpensive low-power broadcasting gear and a growing army of wannabe pirates eager to use it. This new wave of ham operators has scrapped for a tiny sliver of elbow room on America's airwaves while pushing the FCC into making changes in how space on the radio dial is rationed off and who has access to it. Groups such as the San Francisco-based Radio4all are now encouraging supporters to contact the FCC and chime in with a pro-low-power voice. In Denver, Granger and his allies are fronting the Denver Low-Power Radio Coalition with a similar aim.
According to Fiske, the FCC shutdowns of low-power stations are born out of a necessity to regulate use of the radio band, not an attempt to quash freedom of speech, as some pirates have alleged. "The broadcast spectrum is limited," he says, "and the courts have upheld licensing as constitutional and consistent with the First Amendment."