yes! Magazine and the SF Chronicle on Micropower Radio

Why is it all of a sudden micropower radio articles are cropping up in both the mainstream and alternative press? Is it just a slow news time at the end of the year outside of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the Iowa Caucuses? At least the last two I’ve seen have been far more positive.

First up, the alternative press. The theme of yes! Magazine’s current issue is “Liberate Your Space,” with some interesting articles, tips and profiles in creative resistance. The issue features a too-short article on pirate radio, focusing primarily on Pirate Cat radio in San Francisco.

The positive exposure, with positive spin, is a good thing, as writer Brooke Jarvis notes,

grassroots voices are increasingly being denied legal access to radio space….

For those without the money or the desire to be officially sanctioned by the FCC, cheap and accessible technologies are making pirate radio an increasingly popular option….

It may not be legal, but it gets alternative voices on the air.

But, honestly, there’s nothing new in this article that hasn’t already been written about microradio hundreds of times over the last decade. It’s unfortunate that Jarvis takes a tone that implies microradio is some kind of new phenomenon that is “an increasingly popular option.”

It’s also unfortunate that she dedicates the last paragraph of the piece to Pirate Cat’s recycling of the tired CFR title 47 section 73.3542 defense, writing,

The Code grants authority to operate an unauthorized radio transmitter “in extraordinary circumstances requiring emergency operation to serve the public interest.”

It’s a thin, untested theory at best. At worst, it gives would-be microbroadcasters a false sense of security that they can or should hide behind a legalistic defense rather than reckon with the reality of engaging in an act of civil disobedience.

The Chronicle focuses a long feature on Neighborhood Public Radio. It’s “a conceptual art project and mobile pirate radio station,” that “typically sets up in an art gallery with little more than a banner, booth, microphone and transmitter and a rough schedule of hyper-local programs aimed toward maximum neighborhood participation.” However,

Officially, NPR is only streaming broadcasts on the Internet, although, as Montgomery says with a wink, “We can’t stop people from rebroadcasting.”

Separating the studio from the transmitter, either by location or by having separate groups run the different parts, is an effective method for avoiding an FCC enforcement action. While the transmitter will always be somewhat vulnerable, a raid or other action is less likely to compromise the more valuable studio equipment and on-air volunteers.

It seems like Neighborhood Public Radio’s quasi-micropower leanings–without the messy direct use of unlicensed transmitters–combined with its high art aspirations help give it more credibility in the press than a Creole-language pirate in Brooklyn. I can certainly imagine the NY Times covering NPR when it comes to the Whitney with a similarly positive article, while at the same time sounding alarm bells over the microbroadcasters with real transmitters broadcasting to unserved ethnic minorities in the outer boroughs.

My critique, however, is directed not at NPR but at the mainstream press, which is all too willing to fawn over radically populist intentions wrapped in artistic rhetoric than deal with the realities of providing a voice to forgotten communities that doesn’t conform to current art trends. I’m glad NPR is doing what it’s doing and receiving recognition and coverage of the effort. I think it helps spread understanding of the need for true micropower community radio, whether or not the FCC and Congress deign to legitimize it in ways that make it truly accessible everywhere it’s needed.



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One response to “yes! Magazine and the SF Chronicle on Micropower Radio”

  1. LeE Avatar

    thanks for your comments.. I think we are in complete agreement about NPR..and I think NPR would be all too happy to see it’s inclusion in the Biennial as a ladder up onto a gigantic soapbox.. we will see how that works out!!!

    Keep up the good work..and if your in NY anytime between March and May… let us know.. we would love to talk with you on the air or over coffee.

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