For nearly 70 years, they've been called "public airwaves." But how long will it be before the term "public" becomes an anachronism?
On June 24, agents from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) paid an unannounced visit to the studios of Radio Free Brattleboro (RFB) and ordered the unlicensed station to cease and desist its operations. No charges were filed or fines issued, but FCC enforcement officers told the station's operators that "things will get much rougher" if they continue to broadcast, according to RFB deejay and co-founder David Long. In other words, the FCC will come back with U.S. marshals, an attorney general's warrant and a truck to confiscate everything from the antenna to the extension cords.
"They also wanted to know who was in charge," says Long. "That's a difficult thing to say in a group of 70 consensus-based participants." For five years, Radio Free Brattleboro has been broadcasting a 10-watt signal on an unallocated FM frequency without a problem. Although the FCC does not respond to press inquiries about ongoing investigations, their agents reportedly told station volunteers they were responding to a complaint that RFB's signal was interfering with WFCR-FM, a National Public Radio station based about 50 miles to the south in Amherst, Massachusetts. But Long contends his station has received only a very small number of calls about interference, usually from people who wanted the problem addressed but didn't think it was serious enough to contact the feds.
RFB is a community station that can only be picked up in or near Brattleboro. Burlington has a similar, under-the-radar operation at 87.9 on the dial. RFB's operators have never referred to what they do as "pirate" radio, as the term implies they are stealing something that doesn't belong to them. Their stated mission is to "uphold and exercise First Amendment rights in the face of increasing homogenization of corporate media" and "return the airwaves to the hands and voices of the citizens as was intended under the FCC's original mandate." RFB's studios have always been open to anyone in the community who wanted to air a non-commercial show. "We've never acted like we were illegal and we don't feel like we're illegal," says Long. "From the very beginning we've had public orientations about how to get involved. At any point an FCC officer could have come to our meetings and heard our spiel."
Why didn't Radio Free Brattleboro ever apply for a license? For one reason, the prohibitive cost. When RFB was formed six years ago, a license would have cost an estimated $50,000 to $100,000, much of which would have been spent in the lengthy licensing process. Moreover, the FCC was not even issuing non-commercial licenses to stations of less than 100 watts. Years earlier, the regulatory agency had eliminated the Class B licenses it once issued to churches, high schools and other community groups.
Then, in January 2000, the FCC announced a new class of licenses called low-power FM (LPFM), which promised to make tens of thousands of previously unused frequencies available to the public. Though LPFM was never killed, it was badly maimed in lobbying attacks by the National Association of Broadcasters and, ironically, National Public Radio. The result has been that in the last three years only a small number of LPFM licenses has been issued nationwide.
Adding insult to injury, FCC rules say that anyone who has operated an unlicensed station for more than six months is immediately ineligible for an LPFM license. It's a Catch-22: In 1998 RFB couldn't afford a commercial license, and the FCC wasn't issuing non-commercial ones to stations their size. By 2000, RFB had already been on the air illegally for more than six months. Should they have ceased broadcasting right away and applied for an LPFM license anyway? If they had, they'd still be waiting. To date, no LPFM licenses have been issued in Brattleboro, despite ample room on the FM dial.
There may be more to this story. Last winter, Vermont Public Radio announ-ced plans to begin broadcasting in the Connecticut River Valley at 88.1 FM, the same frequency Radio Free Brattleboro had occupied for years. Fearing a showdown with National Public Radio, RFB's engineers switched frequencies to 88.9 FM. Now another public radio station is on its back. Some in the Brattleboro area have suggested privately that the FCC complaint was simply a way to muscle RFB out of the picture entirely.
The shutdown comes on the heels of the FCC's controversial ruling on June 2 to allow the nation's largest newspapers and broadcast conglomerates to gobble up even more media outlets. That ruling sparked outrage across the political spectrum. Barely two weeks later, the Senate Commerce Committee passed a bill reinstating the original restrictions. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called it "a dramatic rebuke of a bad decision. The FCC ran right through the warning lights and into a guardrail."
Despite its dead air, Radio Free Brattleboro plans to celebrate its fifth anniversary of community broadcasting on Sunday, July 13, at 4 p.m. at the River Garden in downtown Brattleboro. Station volunteers won't say whether they will defy the FCC, only that they are "researching their options." But as Long describes it, "We're survivalists. We really feel like we have a right to be doing this, as activists and free-speech pioneers."