Jeff Pearson & Mary Jones, In Conversation with Williams Cole
Beneath the hullabaloo that surrounds our “wired” contemporary life, replete with internet-ready communication devices and esoteric online communities, local and community media outlets have diminished, largely due to the bottom-line imposed by media conglomeration. It’s thus refreshing to think that people all around the world can—and do—put up a low-wattage radio antennae and microcast to anyone that cares to listen within a few-mile radius.
Pirate Radio USA, directed by Jeff Pearson and produced by Mary Jones, looks at the history and struggle of microbroadcasting, specifically low power FM (LPFM), in the United States. It shows how, due to federal regulations, many indie broadcasters have had to go “pirate” to assert this seemingly simple right to free speech.
Much of the film follows the low-power radio movement during the 1990s, when there was a growing and vibrant effort to challenge the restrictions that the Federal Communications Commission had been imposing on the public airwaves for decades. While the film mostly concentrates on radio pirates associated with grassroots progressive politics, such as the Independent Media Centers, it also shows that federal prosecutions—and even jail time—have been meted out to urban radicals and rural libertarians alike. Pirate Radio USA has been making the rounds at festivals, small screenings, and on DVD. I recently corresponded with Pearson and Jones, who live in Seattle, via e-mail.
Williams Cole (Rail): What is the history of microbroadcasting in the U.S.?
Jeff Pearson & Mary Jones: Radio broadcasting in its early days was largely unrestricted, though there were limits in frequency and range that were placed on broadcasts by the government. During WWI restrictions were tight but loosened up afterwards for a few years, enabling the clever, creative, and curious to experiment with this exciting new tool for communication. But then by early 1922 all amateur stations were explicitly prohibited by the government. All of the early stations of this type then had to either change to fit the requirements of the government’s Department of Commerce or went off the air and most of these amateur broadcasters were told that this was a temporary measure until new regulations could be drawn up. Yet it was looking like this new "radio" stuff could be profitable, so licensing for low power, local, amateur stations was not introduced for a very long time and by long time we mean until 1998!
Rail: Can you give examples of how diverse some of the microbroadcasting around the U.S. has been (or is) and the role it plays in communities?
Pearson & Jones: For a long time pirate/micro radio has been the realm of folks who want to play the music they love, as opposed to your mainstream radio where you hear music that the marketing machine loves. But as more people have gotten involved it has become a much more diverse scene. Immigrant communities in larger cities—such as the Haitians in Boston—are using the technology to speak directly to their communities, typically in their native language. It’s a great tool to disseminate information to people who may not know how to navigate in their adopted country. There are also a very large number of microbroadcasters who are from religious communities and churches. Since these are often very well organized entities, they have found it relatively easy to jump through the hoops required to obtain an LPFM license. There are also those who you would expect doing this: small community groups that decide their town needs a radio station because they don’t get any local coverage whatsoever or have very limited media because they’re so rural.
Rail: How does microbroadcasting fit the fundamental ideas of freedom of speech and the First Amendment?
Pearson & Jones: Use of the Radio spectrum is really the right to speech through contemporary means. Jefferson said, “The Constitution belongs to the living.” We take that to mean we must grow our rights so they still have meaning today. Currently, our media landscape is centralized, non-local, and privately controlled by a few big companies. Why does it have to stay that way? 99.99% of citizens are shut out. What good is the right to speak if no one can hear you? It’s not a coincidence that the only technological “medium” in pre-industrial America—the printing press—was written into the Constitution. The Founding Fathers wanted people to have direct access to means to communicate. If there were an Internet in 1776 we can’t imagine that we wouldn’t have a written, fundamental right to safe, secure, and private e-mail today.
Rail: How did the FCC and media corporations justify a licensing system and how did they use that system to silence dissent?
Pearson & Jones: The way they usually do—fear. In fact, the Radio Act of 1927 was helped to pass by stoking fear of airwave “chaos” which was really fiction. It’s the same argument the government makes whenever they take any of our rights away from us: because it’s “for your own good” and because “we know better than you.”
Rail: Can you summarize why and how the FCC finally decided to start granting LPFM licenses?
Pearson & Jones: The FCC began granting LPFM licenses because there was finally enough citizen pressure to force it to happen. There was never an airwave interference issue that was real and the pressure of that truth coming out, coupled with the movement, created the climate to allow a new low-power licensing to happen. This has meant that over 700 community stations that are non-profit and serve their communities are now microcasting and so there’s been a positive effect. But it has also meant that for those who think that it’s not the government’s role to control the airwaves that this new licensing scheme is a co-optation of the low-power radio movement. So, the new FCC licenses cut both ways. People now say, “You can get a license so stop complaining!” But a major problem is that the window to apply for a station license has come and gone so anyone who wants to get a station going now will still have to go pirate. Yet, now, Kevin Martin, the FCC chair is stepping down and that can only be good news. There is a good chance that LPFM will get another window of opportunity as new studies are brought forth illustrating that interference is not an issue when radio stations are placed as close as one adjacency to one another.
Rail: How can true grassroots media be reborn in the age of the media consolidation?
Pearson & Jones: The only way true grassroots media can be reborn in this climate is to get busy and do it yourself. Like all the promoters of the Internet and new media are hot to point out—YOU can now make media at a very low cost and get it out there via the internet. And people should make their own media because it is an excellent way to reach your neighbors, communicate about important issues, and perhaps even create a forum for change.
Rail: Well, some might say that the Internet “solves” a lot of the issues by allowing free and unfettered dissemination of anything, including Internet radio stations. How would you comment on that?
Pearson & Jones: That’s easy! Believe it or not, everyone doesn’t have access to the Internet or a computer. Also, while there’s lots of great information available online, there’s also a lot of bullshit. Most citizens don’t have time to wade through the informational mire of the Internet to find out anything much more than the major media corporations want them to know, just as, prior to the Internet, most citizens did not have time to seek out more information than their local newspaper and what the national TV newscasts told them. I heard a story on NPR not long after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. I think it was from a student who was trying to make his way home from school that day. He said that as he travelled through town, he noticed people on the street gathered around radios to find out what was going on. Not their computers. Not their Blackberries. Yep, radios. I thought that was a significant reminder of the potential of local radio and that radio is where people go for information during an emergency.