Lowering the Bar for Community Radio

The thing about pirates is that they love radio. They literally will pay to do it
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The thing about pirates is that they love radio. They literally will pay to do it.

We all know the official line. Pirates interfere with real broadcasters and maybe other services. Back when the Federal Communications Commission had field offices, they put some effort into shutting down pirates. It�s a scene out of a B&W Prohibition-era mobster movie� the Feds come in and shut down the speakeasy while the patrons scatter and the movie goers cheer on the bootleggers.

Commissioner Michael O�Rielly wrote: �[Pirates] are not cute; they are not filling a niche; they are not innovation test beds; and they are not training grounds for future broadcasters. If broadcasting were a garden, pirate radio would be poisonous crabgrass.� He was neither right or wrong; but expressing a value judgement.

When he penned,�In practice, pirate radio causes unacceptable economic harm to legitimate and licensed American broadcasters by stealing listeners,� he voiced broadcasters� fear. Pirate radio is often more fetching than commercial radio. Of course, internet radio and satellite radio steal listeners too, but that�s deemed acceptable economic harm.

Then there is interference. The broadcast bands are buttressed on the principal of �acceptable interference.� Obviously, pirates look for �open� slots on the dial. There�s not much point in broadcasting on an �occupied� frequency. In the next round of rule relaxation, those are the slots that probably will get the next wave of commercial station permits.

If punishing and eliminating radio pirates were just about preventing interference, we�d want purveyors of cheap LED lights (and other RFI devices that have wiped out far more RF spectrum than any buccaneer has) to do hard FCC time.

Getting a license is an arduous task. You could compete with the equity firms to buy one. You could hire engineering and legal service and attempt to squeeze in a slot. Or you could become an engineer and a lawyer and DIY; in any case, it takes a pile of money, time and patience.

Operating a station is no small task either. The rules require a minimum number of hours, staffing, type accepted EAS gear, etc.

Here�s other thing: Some pirates would become community broadcasters, if they could.

One brush with a pirate station sticks with me. For some time, I�d been listening to a very rural station on and off. The big stations that served the area had all moved into the city, leaving only the unwanted backsides of their �rim shot� receivable. Truthfully, I didn�t know the station was illegal. Eventually, an FCC inspector shut them down, but he also hooked them up with an engineer and a lawyer, and after a year or so off the air, they were back with more power and call letters of their own. The volunteer staff, the community announcements, the quirky playlists and patter are compelling.

We talk about the value of community radio, but we have made it virtually illegal. There are any number of high schools, churches, bunches of folks with a studio in the attic that would be on the air for a few hours here and there.

We say that �all broadcasting is local,� yet most stations today are jukebox servers or syndicated content, with some local ads and sometimes a liner sounds like it could be local.

I love radio. When I travel, I scan for the locals. Like peculiar regional restaurants, they each are an experience, if not a gem. They�re not easy to find, but well worth the effort. I�d like to think that radio is more than corporate cash flow.

I�d like to see the de facto prohibition on those who would broadcast locally lifted at a level somewhere above Mister Microphone and below the fortunate with a license and the critical mass to make the required full use of that spectrum.

It�s not entirely magical thinking. Check out http://recnet.com/lpam, where you�ll see some proposals.

The concept is to lower the technical barrier for a community low-power AM station to simple, ultra-conservative criteria on the expanded AM band and specify an easy to build, safe, transmission system. The regulatory part is a simple application. The operating requirements are to the point where a school or church or group of volunteers can put on a station that covers a small town or large neighborhood.

I posit that three things would transpire. First, the �white hat� pirates go to LPAM. Second, AM is revitalized, as there is once again attractive content to find there. And finally, commercial radio would get better as competition in the free world seems to inspire.

There is absolutely no reason LPAM won�t work. The obstacle to adoption originates from broadcasters, and it isn�t our better angels at work. Rather, it�s commerical broadcasters� fear that an AM station with a 30-foot antenna and power levels that can barely shock you will take a big notch out of our revenue. And that would be the ultimate embarrassment to our industry, if it did so.

The Wandering Engineer is an industry stalwart who has been in broadcasting since the days of Marconi and Tesla. He gives his thoughts on the current state of broadcast engineering and the broadcast engineer.

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