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Low-power to the people
By JESSICA STANLEY Colorado Daily Staff
It all seemed very "top secret agent" right from the beginning. How do I
get in contact with you? "Only through e-mail." What's your name? "I
really can't say." Where should we meet? "At a location of my choice."
And when I asked them about certain issues ... they were not at liberty
to divulge "that sort" of information. So who are these stealthy people,
who live such secret double lives? In a word, they are pirates.
At first glance they didn't look like pirates, not in the conventional
sense anyway. No eye patches, or parrots on their shoulders, just a man
and a woman who came in peace to discuss the merits of free radio. Their
code names, Sapphire and Carl. Their real names, I will never know.
Sapphire and Carl are DJs at KBFR, Boulder's pirate radio station, which
is also known as Boulder Free Radio, and can be found just to the left
of your dial at 95.3 FM. The station's mission, "To create diversity on
the airwaves ... and to create a platform for new voices, new music,
access to the airwaves for local musicians and alternative points of
view." Why have they been dubbed pirates? Because of the movement's
tendency to hijack frequencies, and transmit the music and chatter of
their choice, which is currently deemed illegal by the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC).
How did it all get started? KBFR is a part of a growing trend that began
back in 1989, when Mbanna Kantanko started the first one-watt "pirate"
station in a Springfield, IL housing project. His Black Liberation
station has since turned into a full-fledged guerilla radio network that
is dedicated to speaking what it sees as the truth. Soon after its
establishment, underground stations began to sprout up across the
nation. People began to realize how easy and inexpensive it could be to
create a station, and with that, a low-power radio revival began.
A man known only as "Monk" caught light of this idea, and began
transmitting in Boulder on 95.3 a few years back. Monk and two other
cohorts began transmitting music and talk all day, every day. However,
soon after the station's inception, the three decided that they might
not be providing the best format for what they had wanted to be a
community station. Carl explains, "They realized that while the three of
them was (sic) cool, all three of them had the exact same musical taste,
the same political taste, and the exact same things to say ... and they
said well, if you are going to serve the community, you need a more
diverse set of voices." With that in mind, they reached out to the
community and started acquiring more volunteers. Boulder Free Radio is
currently made up of about two dozen Boulder citizens, known as BURG
(the Boulder Underground Radio Group), who range widely not only in age,
but in musical taste and political leanings.
How does an operation of this magnitude run with such secrecy? The
answer is, the van. KBFR broadcasts from a nondescript van that moves
from place to palace within Boulder. Carl, a technically minded network
administrator, helped to explain in detail exactly how the system works.
"We have a very intricate network around Boulder of places that are
friendly to our cause and provide us with Internet, as well as host
transmitter sites. We also have a couple of businesses downtown that
have let us use some spaces in their basement for a studio when it isn't
practical to use the van. But most of the time, it's the van, everybody
loves the van." And for good reason. Not only is the van an exciting
place to transmit from, but it also allows ease of movement for a
station that is constantly evading the FCC.
The pirates have been fairly successful at staying out of trouble, with
only a few run-ins with the FCC. Carl explains, "Basically, one day the
FCC came to a location that the van had been at for a long time, and
they issued a cease-and-desist order which allows 10 days to either shut
down or provide a silence. Ultimately, they (the people of BURG) shut
the van down, did some research on what exactly the laws were, and
eventually moved the van and set up shop a few weeks later."
This sequence of events has happened more than once, and yet 95.3 is
still on the airwaves. This is due to a sort of loophole in FCC code.
"There are specific rules the FCC has to follow regarding how they deal
with infractions," Carl explains, "and there have been a couple of
visits (by the FCC), and at each one it's the same thing because it's a
new address and a new incident, so they have to follow the same
procedure." Therein lies the importance of the van. As long as the
station keeps moving, they can't get more than a primary infraction.
Why is it that Monk and others with like-minded stations are unable to
get a license and operate legally? The answer is apparently "CLEAR"
according to Carl, Sapphire and others in the low-power movement.
Originally, the FCC had reserved frequencies from 88 to 92 megahertz for
non-profit broadcasting. However, in 1979 the FCC began to stop issuing
licenses to stations with less than 100 watts. The FCC's reasoning
behind this was that the larger the wattage, the more efficient the use
of the spectrum. In turn, small public radio stations across the country
were forced to close their doors.
With smaller stations disappearing, there were a large number of newly
opened frequencies on the market. At the time, media corporations were
unable to buy them due to existing anti-trust laws. However, much to
their chagrin, radio was deregulated with the 1996 Telecommunications
Act, which effectively doubled the number of stations a company could
own in a single market.
These actions created the radio backdrop that we currently enjoy (?)
here in Boulder. The media conglomerate Clear Channel, which owns eight
local radio stations, including KISS-FM, The Fox, KBCO, Peak, KTCL and
KBPI, dominates the Denver metro area.
This is not what people like Sapphire and Carl want to get out of radio.
Carl passionately informs me, "Not only does Clear Channel own the
majority of stations in our market and 53 others nationwide, they also
operate TV stations, and have vested interest in newspapers and
advertising."
Sapphire adds, "This means that they are identifying the artists, they
are producing the artists, they are making money off the sales of the
artists, they are promoting the artists, and they are playing only these
artists on their stations. So what about all the other people out there
who aren't parts of Clear Channel? There are a lot of artists out there
who just don't get a chance." Carl articulates, and many people in the
Boulder community seem to agree that, "It all comes down to what five or
six people want you to hear, whether it's music' news or advertising."
This is where Boulder Free radio takes its cue. Carl fervently affirms
the reasoning behind KBFR's mission. "There are a lot of voices, not
just in this community, but in every community, that need to be heard,
whether it's music or politics. Boulder is ideal because there's so much
going on here, there's so much diversity of all types in this community
and these people don't have a voice. Who's going to speak up for all of
these people, and who is going to offer to put these outcast bands on
the radio? Somebody's gotta do it."
Someday soon ,KBFR and stations like it may have the chance to reflect
on becoming legal members of the broadcasting community. Would they even
consider it? Possibly for a minute, but Carl and Sapphire agree that it
wouldn't be likely. Reaffirming the station's goals, Sapphire states
that, "What we are about is free speech, and having no restrictions at
all, and if we were licensed we would have to start abiding by their
laws, and its not just about being able to say 'fuck,' it's censorship
issues, you can't play certain songs, or you have to beep out certain
words ... and by that you are essentially taking a piece of art and
changing it, and that's not fair to the musician."
The concept of pirate radio can be a confusing one. But if there was one
thing the pirates would like you to understand it's that, "Most people
think that pirate radio is all about a couple guys in a basement who
want to get on the radio and say 'fuck,' and that's how a lot of
stations start, but we are here to serve the community, not ourselves."
So flip the switch, tune the dial, and you decide.

http://www.coloradodaily.com/articles/2003/10/23/news/audience/audience01.prt

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