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."
The forced sign-off of Capitol Underground and hundreds of other low-power stations across the country may seem superfluous when one considers that the FCC is entertaining serious thoughts of allowing their existence in the months ahead. But, according to Fiske, regardless of whatever decision the commission eventually makes, low-power radio is still an unlicensed class. And in the radio world, unlicensed quickly translates into unlawful.
"These stations are illegal, and they cause interference with the system," Fiske says. "Our job is to manage the spectrum because you can't have two people on the same frequency. Where do you stop once the premise is that anybody can own their own station and use what they think is a vacant frequency?" Fiske says the FCC's 100-watt minimum power requirement was adopted because it was seen as the minimum power level that allowed stations to reach the most people for the dollar. "Now what we're hearing is that people are not interested in area-wide programming, but community programming," he says, "and that's what we're looking at. But it's got to be done in a lawful licensed way that doesn't cause interference to existing users."
Low-power supporters, however, disagree that stations operating at levels below 100 watts would lead to chaos on the FM dial. They say such fears are unfounded in real-world science, and that today's new micro-watt technology performs with little or no interference with nearby frequencies. As evidence, pirate supporters cite the fact that many stations operate without detection, and that claims of interference often follow announcements that a low-power station has been forced to cease broadcasting.
One of the better-known pirate stations of recent years is Free Radio Berkeley, a low-power outfit launched by electrical engineer Stephen Dunnifer in 1996. Dunnifer has become a cult hero among low-power broadcasters for creating and marketing an arsenal of cheap and highly effective gear that puts pirates on the air for as little as $300. His products have led him to be dubbed the "Johnny Appleseed" of low-power radio, and many of today's pirates are sending signals on Dunnifer-designed gear.
Dunnifer is equally revered for his battles with the FCC in federal courts in California. Despite threats of FCC fines, he and his staff remained on the air in some form until last summer, when a federal judge banished him from the airwaves. His court battles were led by Louis Hiken, a San Francisco attorney and member of the National Lawyers Guild's Center for Democratic Communication. "We don't think of the micro-radio broadcasters as the pirates," Hiken points out. "We think the pirates are the megawatt broadcasters that have stolen the airwaves from the American people. The radio spectrum is totally dominated by multi-billion-dollar corporations...and nobody from the local community can broadcast to their area. We don't see that as democratic communication."
Hiken's group provides pro bono legal help and advice to low-power stations under assault from the FCC, and his efforts helped keep FRB on the air until June of last year. In the process, Hiken, Dunnifer and their counterparts around the nation have forced the courts and the FCC to recognize and address a variety of low-power issues that were, until recently, all but ignored.
Today, low-power's list of adversaries includes a trio of deep-pocketed opposers: the National Association of Broadcasters, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and various corporate radio giants. They're lobbying the FCC to deny special licensing classification to low-power stations and retain the status quo--despite public pressure. "For so many years the FCC has done nothing but whore for the NAB," Hiken says, "but they have to do something now because they're getting such a black eye on this and it's so embarrassing to them." These groups gained further dominance of the airwaves with the passage of the Communications Act of 1996, which deregulated the radio industry and allowed companies to own more stations in any given market. Hiken says the NAB, CPB and others "are afraid of losing money and losing financial domination over the industry and this boondoggle that says only the rich can broadcast. They're political people who basically don't want to give up power."
Jeff Bobeck, a spokesperson for the NAB, shrugs off such characterizations. "There's only so much spectrum out there, and there's no attempt to deny anyone access to it," he says. "Our biggest concern is the interference that creating low-power stations will have on existing stations. Our tests have shown that low-power will definitely create interference."
Jenny Gentry, a vice president for Colorado Public Radio, has similar fears and wonders if low-power operations and the possible reduction of dial space between existing stations will cause problems. "We're concerned about loss of coverage in communities we've been serving for a long time," Gentry says. "The [low-power] proposal has raised many questions for all of us, and until we're comfortable with the answers, we're not certain about LPFM being approved."
But Hiken maintains that all of the arguments surrounding low-power will eventually be decided on the airwaves, not in America's courtrooms. "When people decide they have a right to speak and communicate, they shouldn't have to do it with the goodwill of the CEO of Time-Warner or Ted Turner," he says. "Real free speech offends people, and to hear people speak honestly is a shock in our society. When people turn on micro radio, they're amazed--it's honest broadcasting. It's very different from what happens when you're trying to sell a product and appease the greatest numbers of people." Hiken says it's understandable that enemies are fearful of low-power. "When people hear meaningful things that don't have to be interrupted to sell some garbage product, people listen."
How big of a threat is a station like Granger's to his corporate counterparts in the Denver market? "We're not worried about low-power FMs at all, and I don't see those stations as a threat to our revenues," says Mike O'Connor, program director for KTCL-FM/93.3 and KRFX-FM/103.5. "I'm much more threatened by alternative media outlets on the Internet. Those are going to have impact on us, but the low-power FMs aren't going to matter to a hill of beans as far as I'm concerned."
For Granger, the fact that he's off the air is a heartbreaker for him and his staff of twenty-plus, but not for financial reasons. If anything, being shut down will save them all a few bucks, as each DJ paid for his or her own time on the air, depositing expense money in a cash box nailed to the side of the studio's two-by-four console desk. "You put your name on an envelope, you throw it in the box. Man, we were ready to go," says Granger, who pays his bills by waiting tables in a downtown brewpub. "It was our first week--everybody was so excited. And then the FCC said 'Thou shalt not broadcast.'"
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Fiske and the Denver FCC office refuse to offer details on who or what led them to Granger's door a few weeks ago. Fiske says that stations are usually discovered through complaints from listeners or stations experiencing interference and that the FCC does not actively monitor the airwaves for pirates. He says many stations are discovered as a result of their own promotional efforts, such as Web sites and T-shirts that advertise a station's dial location or city of origin. Granger wonders if one of his former employers ratted him out, but those on his short list deny any hand in his closing. Fiske acknowledges that the power supply, transmitter and antenna the FCC took from Granger (which Granger values at around $500) will not be returned to him. The FCC has suggested, though, that since Granger cooperated with their request to cease transmission, his pirate status shouldn't keep him from being deemed fit to broadcast should he apply for a low-power license if the FCC approves such stations in the future. According to Fiske, the FCC's decision-making process could last well into next year. Considering that, even if the FCC decides in favor of low-power, when vilified pirates will be allowed to legally broadcast is anyone's guess. Until then, he points out, "enforcement will continue."
In the meantime, Capitol Underground's now-defunct request line (303-TALK-889) will serve as the Denver Low-Power Radio Coalition's conduit to Denverites interested in flooding the FCC with a pro-low message. Granger is left to ponder his future and that of Denver's listeners. "There's a part of me that wants to put something back into this city and into people's lives," he says earnestly. "If this service came around, I think it could be a rebirth of radio. This is real radio, run by real people who play real music, not the demographic, targeted stuff on the air now.
"If there's a town meeting or an important debate, who's gonna broadcast that?" Granger wonders. "Not KHOW, not KOA. We take a microphone, set it up and broadcast it. And maybe only two people are interested, but you still do it. That's how radio used to be, but now it's all about getting the most listeners that you can for the buck. It's about being Howard Stern and putting lesbians on and getting listeners. But people don't want the corporate crap that they're getting. Why not put some local information on there, some local news, some political voices, and let us hear some music that you don't get to hear? The Fugazis, the Sebadohs, and forget about Seven Mary Three and Limp Bizkit and bands you hear forty times a day? Why not give us a chance to put some community radio on?