In his “From the Editor” column Radio World’s Paul McLane takes up Matthew’s recent calculation finding that pirate radio generates a half-billion dollars worth of jobs. Recall that my esteemed Radio Survivor colleague was riffing off a recent study sponsored by the National Association of Broadcasters that claimed $135 billion in economic output is attributable to commercial radio and television broadcasting.
McLane admits that he “chuckled” at Matthew’s “poke of NAB’s huge, speculative ‘ripple effect’ numbers.” But apparently he can’t let the joke continue to ride on his high horse as he chides Matthew’s subject of choice, writing,
“Lasar would have done better to discuss the economic value of other legal forms of radio rather than that of pirates. I do not endorse illegal radio, and neither should you.”
McLane goes on to explain that he is a supporter of eclectic college and community radio and sympathetic to “people who want to bring more diverse, nontraditional voices to the broadcast spectrum,” but only provided, “they comply with the law.” He advises that those who disagree with the current legal and regulatory regime should “work to change it, just as LPFM advocates have done.”
Even though LPFM is only a decade old, it would seem that Mr. McLane has forgotten the circumstances that led up to the FCC creating this service. Let’s consider one of LPFM’s strongest and most tireless advocates, Pete TriDish, a founder of the Prometheus Radio Project, which advocates for the service and helps LPFM stations get on the air. What did Pete do before Prometheus? Why, he was an unlicensed broadcaster with the Radio Mutiny collective in Philadelphia during the 1990s.
Radio Mutiny was not alone as unlicensed micropower stations went on the air across the US during the latter half of the 1990s. Many of these stations–especially those calling themselves “micropower” rather than “pirate” –were broadcasting as an act of civil disobedience, protesting the negative effects of the radio consolidation in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the lack of licenses available for low-power community radio.
I would argue that former FCC Chairman William Kennard was responding to dual pressures when he spearheaded the creation of LPFM. Yes, on one hand he was answering the calls made by a growing number of civic, community and religious groups for an expansion of community radio. But on the other hand, Kennard was actively battling, and arguably losing, a war against a rising tide of unlicensed broadcasters that the Commission was unprepared to defeat. Kennard and his fellow commissioners wisely recognized that creating a low-cost low-power radio service would help take the wind from the rhetorical sails of many microbroadcasters, while also making the FCC appear supportive of true community service radio. The Commission also was betting that some would-be unlicensed broadcasters would abandon their plans in favor of pursuing an actual LPFM license.
McLane observes that Radio Survivor, “professes to love radio ‘in all its forms’ and is up front about including illegal radio in that.” I don’t claim to speak for my fellow Radio Survivors, but I’ll admit to some fondness for pirate radio. However, I do not love all pirate radio, in the same way that I do not love all commercial and noncommercial radio. Like so many other underground activities, unlicensed broadcasting often exists to fill a need that is unmet by licensed or legitimized services. The most responsible pirates run technically clean operations, taking care not to cause interference with other stations. I am not a fan of pirates who broadcast dirty signals that trounce on adjoining stations and spit out interference.
We would not have LPFM if it were not for the pirates and microbroadcasters who forced the FCC’s hand. They demonstrated that there was room on the dial for low-powered community stations not through lobbying and engineering studies, but simply by showing their communities that it could be done, and without interference or harm. This could only have been done without a license, the FCC would have endorsed no exception or trial.
I’m sympathetic to the fact that the editor of Radio World can’t really come out in support of pirate radio. And, to be honest, we appreciate the nod from Mr. McLane, even if it comes with a dose of criticism. But it’s important not to lose Matthew’s original point. An underground economy is still an economy. Pirate radio has made significant contributions to broadcasting in the US, and our dials would not be the same had it never existed.
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