Research and Resources on
Micro Radio/Low Power FM
So, You Want to Free the Airwaves?
Risks and Strategies You Should Know Before You Broadcast
Ted M. Coopman
Rogue Radio Research
Operating an FM radio transmitter in the United States without a license or waiver from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is a violation of Federal Law and may result in a fine, imprisonment or both. Currently, the FCC is considering licensing LPFM. Operating a LPFM station without a license may endanger your ability to obtain a license when or if LPFM licenses become available.
So, You Want to Free the Airwaves?
If you have gotten this far and found this article, I am assuming you know
about the Micro Broadcasting Movement and are seriously considering
participating. If not, you will want to check out Radio4all for links and detailed information about the Free Communications Movement and micro radio. For deeper background, you may want to click on Research on Micro Radio or explore the Annotated Web Links displayed in the column on your left.
On The Firing Line
FCC enforcement against unlicensed broadcasters has been very inconsistent,
even with the stepped-up enforcement in1998-99. This is both
good and bad. On the upside, you have a fairly good chance of operating for
months or even years without getting busted. On the downside, you don't
know what the FCC will do in your case, from a knock on the door to a full-
blown SWAT team raid. Simply put, there are risks involved in participating in micro radio. The odds are you will not, as an individual, go to jail or get fined. However, the possibility exists.
Your chances of being busted have a lot to do with your geographic location.
The FCC has only 16 or so field offices (down from 35 in 1992) and a little
over 100 agents to staff those offices. Proximity to a field office greatly
increases your chances of being busted. However, there is an effort under
way by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to assist the FCC in identifying unlicensed radio stations. The Compliance and Information Bureau (CIB) of the FCC, charged with shutting down unlicensed operators, has offices in the following cities: Atlanta, GA; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Kansas City, MO; Hayward, CA; Los Angeles, CA; San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; Detroit, MI; Columbia, MD; New York City, NY; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Tampa, FL; New Orleans, LA; Philadelphia, PA; and of course, Washington, DC. That's 14 states plus the District of Columbia. 36 states are without CIB offices. California is the only state with more than one field office. It has three.
Risks for Announcers
For general purposes, an announcer (or DJ) is anyone who operates a control
board and talks live over the air. Here are some common misconceptions as
well as questions often asked concerning the risks of announcing on an
unlicensed radio station.
The organization who runs our station says that it will take full
responsibility if there is a raid. Does this mean I won't get fined or
There is no agreement you can come to with the individuals or organization
running your micro station that will protect you from prosecution. If you
are on the air when the FCC shows up, you will be held responsible for
unlicensed broadcasting and you may face fines or jail time.
What do I do if the FCC comes knocking?
Read the publication, "What to do when the FCC Knocks at your Door." Also, I suggest visiting The Radio Survival Guide on the Free Radio Network (FRN) Site. Read these BEFORE the FCC knocks on your door.
What happens if I do get busted? Will I go to jail? Will I get fined?
Chances are you will not get busted. The toughest penalty laid down so far
has been three years probation. To my knowledge, no one has served time for
announcing on a micro station. That was an extreme case. All fines can be appealed on the grounds of
financial hardship and the FCC has a history of reducing fines in these
What happens if I have to go to court?
Violations of the Communications Act are a civil matter, not a criminal one (at
least at the onset). Therefore, the state does not have to provide you with
counsel, and will not. Your station should be in contact with an attorney
who will represent you in court for free or for a reduced fee. If this is
not the case, I would recommend finding legal aide BEFORE you get visited.
But.....What About My Stuff??!!!
The biggest bite the FCC can take out of a micro station is the seizure of
equipment. Equipment related to the direct operation of the station is only
the beginning. FCC employees can take everything that's not nailed down and will
use pry bars and power tools to take stuff that IS nailed down if they feel
they want it. As Doug Brewer in Florida found out, almost anything can be
linked to the "illegal" operation and seized, right down to the picture of
Jesus on the wall. In Brewer's case they took the picture of Jesus and his entire transmission tower (which, I assume, was nailed down). Short of shutting down permanently, there is really no way to fully protect your transmitter and other studio equipment. However, there are steps you can take to minimize your losses.
If you Think a Raid is Imminent
The FCC does not just "pop by" with a Federal Marshall to take your stuff. You will be warned, either by a visit and personal threat or through the mail. If you are in this position, you need to go to the Committee on Democratic Communication site and their Resources Page and get a copy of their Complaint For Injunctive Relief Prohibiting Ex Parte Seizure. This has been effective in blocking the seizure of gear. Remember, if the FCC takes your gear the chances of you ever getting it back are slim to non-existent.
Keep your Studio Spartan.
You should only have the minimum equipment necessary to operate the station
on site. Any production equipment or materials should be kept at a
different location. Any computers or other electronics should also be kept
at other locations. Announcers should refrain from keeping CD, record
collections, and personal property at the studio.
Keep your Studio Mobile
If there is an emergency, you should be able to move your transmitter and
other primary equipment in minutes. Free Radio Santa Cruz did a complete
breakdown and move in five minutes. A drill to get your time down to this
might be in order. Have one or more alternative sites. It is a good idea
to move locations after an FCC warning visit. Stations are easy to track,
but there is no sense making it easy for them. There are several micro stations that are completely mobile with no fixed location. Although technically more challenging, it does save on rent. (There is also the immobility
strategy. Some activists suggest putting the transmitter in a hard to move
object, say, padlocked in a refrigerator full of concrete, and welding on
rings to chain yourself too. While this will not reduce your losses, it
does sound like fun for the whole crew!)
Location, Location, Location.
The best situation is to place your studio in a small commercial space.
This can be expensive, especially in urban areas. Another good bet is to
make an arrangement with a low-income member of the station and have her/him
share their her/his living space with the studio, possibly having the station pay
utilities. This way, there will be minimal impact in the event of a raid.
Some stations have been based out of large communal households. Although
this arrangement is in many ways ideal, it is also dangerous. Evictions can
happen with a call from the FCC to the landlord and trying to find beds for
ten people is much harder than finding a bed for one. Besides, the more
people, the more property there is to seize. Always use a rented space. It is foolhardy to operate a micro station from a building
that you own.
Mixing Business with Transmitting
Don't. Many people who get into micro radio are electricians or
handypeople. DO NOT locate your transmitter in the same location as your
workshop and tools. If you do, you will run the risk of losing access to
your equipment, perhaps permanently. As you can imagine, if this is your livelihood, the consequences could be severe.
Watch Your ASSets
The primary tool the FCC has to dissuade people from violating its
regulations is the seizure of assets. This goes beyond a transmitter and
studio gear. If you have property, investments, or savings, it will be
difficult to plead financial hardship. Being unable to prove financial
hardship may leave you liable for tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in
fines. Where commercial broadcasting is a rich person's game, micro radio is the
venue of the poor. You can only be sure you will lose nothing if you have
nothing to lose.
Note on Illegal Activity
Since broadcasting without a license will eventually attract the
authorities, it is in the best interest of the station, its members, and the
movement in general to prohibit ANY illegal activity on station premises.
This primarily concerns the possession of controlled substances, weapons, or
the possession by minors of materials restricted to adults. Any of these
activities will be used against you and the Micro Radio Movement, and undermine your
community's support for your station.
If you still want to be on the air and are not dissuaded by the risks, then
good luck! However, if you are concerned, have assets to lose, have a past to
haunt you, or simply don't want a close encounter of the FCC-kind, there is still a lot you can do to participate in the Free Communications Movement.
Tape a Show
If you want your voice to be heard, you can still get on the air by taping a
program. Having enough good content is always a problem when stations have
no money. Shows can be taped and supplied to your station, or to other
stations, and will enable you to get your message across and help the cause.
This is easy to do, especially if the production studio is located away from
the broadcast studio. There are several web sites where you can even up-load your material for micro stations to use. Some of these can be found under Broadcast Content on the Rogue Radio Research Links Page.
Raise Some Money
Help with fund raising. The legal fight to free the airwaves is in constant
need of cash and most stations operate on a shoestring budget. Donate
studio or other needed equipment or help track it down. Most micro stations
are held together by a core few people and they can always use the help.
Help set up a website or host a site on your personal webspace. The Internet is a valuable organizational tool. For more information on funding your micro radio station, go here
Lobby local business and government and get them on your side. Have them
write letters or sign petitions of support. Write the FCC, Congress, or
anyone else you can think of. Be polite, firm, and to the point. Demand
they act to legalize micro radio now.
Many skills, especially technical skills, are sorely needed by micro
stations. Use your talents to help the cause.
Listen to your local micro station and tell as many people as possible about
it. Community support is the key to survival.
Contacting the Movement
Explore the Micro Radio Movement through the Annotated Web Links section on the Rogue Radio Research site.
Links are grouped by catagory and internally indexed for easy searching.
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Ted M. Coopman has a master of science in Mass Communication (1995) from San Jose State University, San Jose, CA. He is also a partner in Rogue Communication, a consulting and research organization. More information about Rogue Communication and other interesting topics can be found by visiting the Rogue Communication Domain.