Up against the megastations in a battle for the airwaves, do-it-yourself DJs are deploying two potent weapons - 100-watt transmitters and the global reach of the Web.
By Alex Markels
"Fucking magic," Craven Moorehead says with a grin. The burly electronics repairman turned free-speech rebel has just switched on a homemade FM radio transmitter that's plastered with a sticker that reads: DIE FCC SCUM! Hidden amid the sprawl of tract homes and strip malls near Moorehead's bungalow on the outskirts of Tampa, Florida, the transmitter is part of an ingenious network of makeshift production studios, Internet feeds, and antennas designed to air his illicit Party Pirate broadcasts - while also keeping FCC agents from tracking the signal and shutting him down.
Moorehead, whose Web site (www.cravenmoorehead.com) hypes him as "the world's most notorious radio pirate," emerges from a dark closet packed with inch-thick transmission cables and a dusty collection of vintage radio gear. A self-described white-trash biker, the 45-year-old Floridian has waist-length blond hair that spills out from under a baseball cap emblazoned with a Confederate flag and the words TOMMY HILLBILLY. He saunters out into the daylight toward his 1985 Dodge half-ton. Plopping into the driver's seat, he cranks up the engine and tunes in 102.1 FM - the frequency he's illegally staked out since first hitting the airwaves in 1994 with a quirky programming home brew that includes biker rock, hip hop, country, and more.
"Tampa radio needs an enema," he grunts as the stereo thumps out a grating death-metal beat. "And we're gonna give it one right now."
Moorehead's real name is Doug Brewer - Craven Moorehead is a nickname he picked up at biker rallies - but he's completely serious about the passions of his adopted persona. He loves to rage against what he calls "corporate radio greedmongers" - media behemoths like Clear Channel Communications, Infinity Broadcasting, and Citadel Communications that have consolidated their hold over the FM airwaves in recent years. The current reality is a far cry from radio's early days in the '20s, when just about anyone with a transmitter could stake a claim to the dial. Indeed, the term "pirate" was coined when the airwaves were entirely unregulated, and newcomers often broadcast using frequencies already claimed by others. "It was a mom-and-pop business at the beginning," says Tom Taylor, a radio industry expert with the publication M Street Daily. "The little guys used to rule the airwaves." Even after the government licensing took effect in the '30s, federal regulations restricted national conglomerates from owning more than seven AM and seven FM stations - making it easy for smaller broadcasters to keep control of stations in local markets.
But that's all changed - especially since 1996, when telecommunications laws were revamped, giving large broadcasters the right to own an unlimited number of radio stations nationally (up to eight in a single market). Clear Channel, Infinity, and Citadel have since increased their combined holdings from about 80 stations to approximately 1,200. An accompanying merger-and-acquisition frenzy has bid up prices for existing stations and frequencies to unprecedented levels, all but locking out independent broadcasters from most major markets and reducing the number of owners by more than 20 percent. The biggest players have bought up local outlets that vie with their own, then changed the stations' formats to less competitive genres. They've racked up record profits by consolidating the operations of thousands of stations, slashing local staff, and targeting national advertisers, to whom they can now sell airtime in bulk.
The result, Moorehead says as he tunes in Clear Channel's Thunder 103.5 FM, is the kind of depersonalized "classic schlock" now blaring from his radio. "Some asshole in LA is programming this and 10 other stations at the same time," he says of the heavy-rotation rock tunes, truck commercials, and canned announcements delivered by satellite. "They've taken away all the personality. When you turn your radio on, it doesn't feel like there's anybody there with you - because there isn't anybody there."
In response, Moorehead and a loose collection of free-speech advocates, political extremists, and would-be DJs have been waging a grassroots war involving guerrilla-style piracy as well as legal petitions - both approaches aimed at persuading the FCC to license a portion of the FM band to independent "low-power" stations. Low-power broadcasters transmit at under 100 watts on inexpensive equipment, their signals employing the same high-fidelity frequency-modulation technology that first prompted radio engineers to dub FM stereo broadcasts "fucking magic" back in the '60s. These signals have a range of only about six miles, but that's far enough for the sort of offbeat, local, and community-oriented programming most low-power FM advocates favor.
As it turns out, FCC chair William Kennard wants LPFM, too. Long concerned that industry consolidation has been undermining diversity of both station ownership and programming, Kennard, a former college-radio DJ, spearheaded an FCC vote in January to create an LPFM service for 10- and 100-watt noncommercial stations. "This is an antidote to consolidation," Kennard says. "It creates a vehicle to speak to folks that no one is speaking to."
The decision has been vehemently opposed by NPR and by the National Association of Broadcasters, a powerful industry lobby. Both groups claim that LPFM broadcasts will interfere with existing signals, and the NAB is trying, through Congress and the courts, to overturn the FCC's ruling. In April, the group convinced the House of Representatives to pass a bill that would cut the number of licenses by at least two-thirds. (At press time, the bill was before a Senate committee.) Kennard accused the NAB of presenting fraudulent evidence to Congress to support the trade association's position, calling the radio establishment "an industry that doesn't want new voices, so they've resorted to misinformation." The chair has vowed to begin granting the first of 1,000 or more licenses by early summer.
Alex Markels (firstname.lastname@example.org) , a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, writes about technology from Minturn, Colorado.