Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

FCC Enforcement Difficulties with Unlicensed Micro Radio

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

FCC Enforcement Difficulties with Unlicensed Micro Radio

Article excerpt

The 1996 Telecommunications Bill has far-reaching implications for media consumers, producers and regulators. While the majority of discussion and debate has centered on the ramifications for consumers and producers, little attention has been devoted to the regulators who enforce Congress' will. The responsibility for enforcing the nation's telecommunications laws falls to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). "Under the Bill, the FCC will do everything from determining how phone, cable, and media companies pursue ventures in markets previously off-limits to perhaps even becoming the arbiter of decency standards for television programs and the Internet" (Antonucci, 1996, p. 1A). However, the FCC has neither time nor resources to enforce current communications laws, let alone this new mandate from Congress. "`Right now, we know we don't have the resources to do all that we're already mandated to do,' FCC spokeswoman Maureen Peratino said the day the [telecommunications] bill passed" (Antonucci, 1996, p. 17A).

Nowhere is the FCC's inability to enforce even the most basic telecommunication regulation more evident than in the case of unlicensed micro broadcasting. This study examines and critiques FCC regulatory and enforcement strategies concerning micro radio. Micro radio stations have proliferated since 1994. I have identified at least 60 stations in operation as of October 1998. Stephen Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley estimates there are as many as 1000 stations nation-wide (Lelyveld, 1998). The FCC estimate is 300 to 1000 (Curtius, 1998). Micro radio stations are typically low-wattage FM radio stations that are community based, activist oriented, and egalitarian in their organizational structure. Due to the success of these micro radio stations, non-activist and commercial stations have opened under the umbrella of micro radio. Because micro radio is fundamentally different from traditional licensed and unlicensed broadcasting, customary FCC enforcement procedures have proven ineffective.

Micro radio poses a unique problem for the FCC as well as for commercial broadcasters. When on January 20, 1995, Federal Judge Claudia Wilken refused to grant a preliminary injunction against Stephen Dunifer and Free Radio Berkeley, the normal constraints of spectrum regulation were called into question (No. C94-03542 CW). Although Wilken eventually granted the FCC's request for an injunction on June 16, 1998, the case was still in appeal in October 1998 (No. C94-03542 CW). Micro broadcasters assert that current guidelines for broadcast licensing are unfair in cost and signal strength requirements. The broadcasters further intend to exercise civil disobedience as a way to challenge these regulations.

Large scale "squatting" by unlicensed, politically-motivated broadcasters in defiance of the FCC is a major headache for the agency (Dunifer, 1995; National Lawyers Guild, 1992). In a letter dated May 2, 1995, Charles Morgan, Senior Vice President of Susquehanna Radio, urged the FCC to take action against micro radio "to stop these illegal operations before this concept spreads throughout the country" (p. 4). Moreover, according to Dunifer in an October 1997 news release, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has issued a memo to its commercial members to report all "pirate activity" immediately to the FCC.

The first section of this paper provides a definition of unlicensed micro broadcasting, comparing current micro broadcasters to radio "pirates" and "drive-by" radio. The second discusses the legal and constitutional issues associated with unlicensed micro broadcasting. The third provides background information on the current status of micro broadcasting. The fourth explains my data gathering strategies and procedures. Fifth are findings, focusing on FCC enforcement difficulties concerning micro broadcasting. Finally, implications in light of emerging micro telecommunication technologies are presented. …

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