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Sputters and crackles sounded over District airwaves last Sunday as a new radio station stumbled its way onto formerly silent 97.5 FM. The three-hour broadcast featured a grab bag of home-grown goodies including poetry readings by Bell Multicultural High School students, announcements from community groups, and live sets from musicians representing the local music spectrum.
The fledgling signal suffered from technical difficulties, fluctuating sound quality, and occasional moments of dead air, but it somehow traveled to such disparate points as the Carter Barron Amphitheater and the National Cathedral. Radio Free Mount Pleasant, as it was christened, had everything to offerspontaneity, diverse voices, noncommercial musiceverything, that is, except a license to broadcast from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Federal law requires any radio wannabe to purchase a broadcast license from the FCC, even though the bandwidth is technically public domain. “[The FCC] want to sell you the airwavesthey want to sell you the air you breathe. But we know better. We know it’s ours for the taking,” says Athena Viscusi, Radio Free Mount Pleasant’s DJ and an active member of Stand for Our Neighbors, a neighborhood group that regularly presents cabaret performances featuring local artists. The group helped orchestrate Sunday’s low-power pirate broadcast.
Stand for Our Neighbors aired the live radio show in cooperation with the Free Radio Coalition, a national microbroadcaster’s group that had blown into D.C. for a weekend of protests against the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)the black hats of the microbroadcasting movement, according to activists. Free Radio Coalition organizers hoped to create a buzz by airing an illegal broadcast in the FCC and NAB’s own back yard.
But NAB officials say they’re more than happy to make room for micro-brethren, as long as the renegade broadcasters fill out the required paperwork. “There’s an already crowded spectrum on the radio band,” says Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for NAB. “We certainly don’t want any air-traffic interference from pirate broadcasters. We’re all for diversity on the airwaves, and we would love for the microbroadcasters to just get a license, like any other broadcasters.”
Besides being the home office for the czars of the American radio dial, D.C. suffers from the numbing effect that corporate monopolies have on local radio. Of the 25 FM stations in the District, at least 14 are owned by major conglomerates: Chancellor Broadcasting owns five, CBS owns four, Bonneville International owns three, and Disney-ABC owns two. The net effect is that little local programming makes it onto the airwaves.
Even free-form college radio has gotten crowded out. Fierce competition for bandwidth in the District has kept stations at American and Georgetown Universities confined to closed-circuit broadcasts that barely serve their own campus communities. The University of the District of Columbia sold its popular jazz station last year to close a cavernous budget deficit; the frequency now airs C-SPAN radio. With the exception of WUMC, a 10-watt student station broadcasting from the University of Maryland, there is no college radio presence on the D.C. dial.
For people in search of a local alternative presence, there is really no alternative, says Benn Kobb, an Arlington-based trade reporter and the author of SpectrumGuide, an annually published handbook of radio frequencies. “The legal alternatives are prohibitively expensive,” says Kobb. Still, he says, “I’m not aware of any regularly broadcasting illegal radio stations here.”
For at least a few tenuous hours, Radio Free Mount Pleasant offered District residents a sampling of treats that only community-based radio can offer. While Viscusi and her cadre of local performers provided the content for the broadcast, a small group of rogue amateur radio technicians tinkered with 20-watt transmitters and a precariously mounted antenna on the roof of La Casa in the 3300 block of Mount Pleasant Street NW.
The pirate radio cabaret was audible within about a 3-mile radius of Mount Pleasant, perhaps beaming all the way to 1919 M St. NW, where the FCC resides. Viscusi and other speakers taunted the FCC during the three-hour broadcast, daring FCC agents to shut them down and promising to resume the broadcast from the very steps of the FCC building the following day. (On Monday, protesters broadcast live on 97.5 as they marched from Dupont Circle to the FCC and on to the NAB, where they cut down an NAB flag and ran up one with a skull and crossbones.)
Organizers of Sunday’s broadcast insist that this will not be the last the FCC hears from them. “As far as alternative radio goes in Baltimore and D.C., there just isn’t any. It’s just simply not there,” says a would-be pirate radio operator hoping to start Baltimore Free Radio in the coming months. “I’m interested in more than just talking about this thing and fighting for the right to do it. I just want to do it. The fight is meaningless if you’re not trying to do something besides the fight.”
Amanda Huron, one of three main organizers of the Mount Pleasant microbroadcast, works for the Latin American Youth Center and is currently developing a radio project there for Latino and minority youth. She has developed public radio programming and worked for National Public Radio in various capacities over the last five years, and she believes that a huge segment of her community is being neglected by mainstream radio. She understands that delivering alternative programming will not be a simple matter.
“There’s just so much going against it,” says Huron of her hopes to create a permanent low-power station. “This is the seat of power. The FCC’s here; the NAB’s here. D.C.’s kind of a ludicrous place to start a pirate radio station, so, you know, all the better.”
The corporate stranglehold on the airwaves might seem surprising, given the fact that print alternatives are spinning up every other week and the Web provides a megaphone to almost anyone with a point of view. But erecting an antenna is a different matter altogether: Representatives of the Memphis-based Constructive Interference Coalition came to D.C. this weekend with harrowing tales of FCC property seizures, complete station shutdowns, and fines that can reach nearly $20,000.
Pirate radio advocates insist that they can’t be silenced, though. “The injunctions didn’t work, the fines didn’t work, so now they’re going in and seizing people’s stuff,” says Alan Korn, an attorney with the Committee for Democratic Communications. Korn has worked on the case of Stephen Dunifer, the man behind Free Radio Berkeley, whose hassles with the FCC have become a rallying point for the burgeoning free-broadcast movement. Korn says that there may be alternatives within the system, and he is exploring filing waivers with the FCC in order for radio stations to service particular constituencies.
Even though the Radio Free Mount Pleasant broadcast was interrupted for several minutes and was freighted with interference and persistent hissing, most considered it a success. Local poet Quique Aviles surveyed the crowd at La Casa while radio technicians sorted out some technical difficulties and considered the plight of bringing community radio into a world of commercial behemoths: “Ay ay ay. Diversity can be so painful.”CP