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Radio World editor chuckles at Matthew’s economic analysis of pirate radio, but forgets his radio history

Paul McLane

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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6 Responses to Radio World editor chuckles at Matthew’s economic analysis of pirate radio, but forgets his radio history

  1. Rebecca Lewis August 5, 2011 at 12:51 am #

    For a much more robust analysis of the economic impact of pirate radio on a market (London in thsi case), I suggest you check out a thick new book called “Kiss FM: From Radical Radio To Big Business”. It tells how London’s dozens of pirate stations (and Kiss in particular) took many listners away from licensed FM stations and became successful businesses. I found the book at Amazon.

  2. Guise Faux August 5, 2011 at 6:59 am #

    Eh, Matthew’s original premise was okay – strong on hyperbole, light on data. But anything that champions the cause of free radio is a good thing, even if the economic effects can’t be quantified as readily as conventionally licensed commercial radio.

    I could rhapsodize about the intangible benefits of vibrant free expression in all forms, but I haven’t had enough coffee yet. Good thing for you.

  3. Paul McLane August 5, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    Thanks for the response to my column.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree. I haven’t forgotten my radio history, I was there; Radio World covered the conception and rollout of LPFM from Day 1, profiled Pete Tridish, published comments from numerous “micro” operations and covered the opinions of other advocates of change. I knelt on the floor of a convention center lobby with a notebook in hand as I tried to interview LPFM advocates who had bolted themselves together in protest and had to be cut out by police with power tools.

    I acknowledge that many people, including some of our own contributors and writers, have a fondness for what they deem “pirate” radio, even having started their own garage operations as young people. Sympathy for such outlets is also an understandable and common viewpoint in our modern age of large media corporations having access to limited spectrum.

    I also understand that for many observers, benevolent microbroadcasters who operate clean facilities should be considered as distinct from evil dirty “pirates” who don’t give a damn.

    But having said that from atop what you call my high horse, I feel that it’s not true that “pirates forced the FCC’s hand.” The historic change of LPFM came about due to a great amount of vigorous political and business advocacy, cultural pressure, spectrum wrangling and more. It had many elements and came due to the work of many different interests. As you note, the FCC “was answering the calls made by a growing number of civic, community and religious groups for an expansion of community radio.” I do not believe the commission was “forced” into change by illegal broadcasts, anymore than it is forced into further change now by the many continuing illegal broadcasts that intrude on licensed operations in New York, Florida and elsewhere. In my view, the tactic of illegal broadcasting did not deserve a place in the strategy of an otherwise well-intended movement. (In this I differ from many in broadcasting, who simply opposed the broader idea outright.)

    Keep up the good and interesting work at Radio Survivor. I welcome the back and forth, and will happily publish your views in our opinion section if you like.

  4. John Anderson August 5, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Amen, Mr. Riismandel!

    But Mr. McLane, you need to revisit the history of microradio.

    1. I was in SF in 2000 for the NAB Radio Show. The folks who locked themselves down in the Moscone Center were part of a larger movement for media democracy that coalesced around that particular event, of which LPFM advocacy was only a part. (We also played Media Monopoly outside the hall, and had some microstations on the air in the vicinity). See http://www.diymedia.net/feature/f092600.htm

    (Mr. Riismandel and I were also in Seattle for the “Mosquito Fleet” activities at the 2002 NAB Radio Show: see http://www.diymedia.net/feature/fmosquitofleet02.htm)

    2. Indeed, William Kennard and the FCC *were* acting under pressure from electronic civil disobedients. In a documentary entitled “LPFM: The People’s Voice,” produced by the United Church of Christ back in the early ’00s, he said:

    “Many, many people around the country helped to inspire the idea of low-power FM radio. Churches, community groups, and even some

    organizations that were broadcasting illegally – so-called ‘pirate radio’ operators. Clearly there’s a need out there for people who want to use the airwaves for democracy, to speak to their communities, to provide information and entertainment to their communities that are not being met by the commercial broadcast industry.”

    I’ve chronicled the history of unlicensed broadcasting in the U.S, from before the FRC through the rise of LPFM. Direction was (and remains) a huge part of the phenomenon.

  5. John Anderson August 5, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    Sorry, make that “direct action,” not “direction.” :-/

  6. Dennis Nilsson February 11, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

    The best way is to allow small scale broadcasters, to give them a opportunity to be legal, like in New Zealand.

    In New Zealand residents are allowed to broadcast licence free at a maximum of 1 watt EIRP in the FM guardbands from 87.6 to 88.3 and from 106.7 to 107.7 MHz under a General User Radio License (GURL) issued by Radio Spectrum Management. Prior to June 2010, the lower band was located between 88.1 and 88.8 and a maximum of 500 mW EIRP allowed.

    Broadcasters on these frequencies are required to cease operations if they interfere with other, licensed broadcasters and have no protection from interference from other licensed or unlicensed broadcasters, contacts details must also be broadcast every hour. There exists a 25 km rule: You may operate two transmitters anywhere (close together), but a third transmitter must be at least 25 km away from at least one of the first two transmitters.

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