Prometheus Unbound

Prometheus Unbound

The once-hunted outlaw of low-power radio is now a hero–including at the FCC.


For a guy whose pirate radio collective had been busted six times by the Federal Communications Commission and who still goes by an illegal broadcaster’s nom de air, Pete Tridish looked unusually at ease at a February hearing inside the commission’s Washington headquarters. He and a few dozen other activists had gathered for LPFM Day, a morning’s worth of informal hearings on the state of new low-power community FM radio stations. All five commissioners–Democrat and Republican–greeted them and praised their efforts to give more Americans access to the airwaves. And just as the event got started, Senator John McCain of Arizona introduced a bill that would expand the number of low-power FM licenses.

Contrast that with the situation in the late 1990s, when the FCC made six visits to Radio Mutiny, a k a West Philadelphia Pirate Radio, or WPPR, the pirate station that Tridish and a few other activists ran out of the back room of a former squat. The chief of the commission’s Compliance and Information Bureau came from Washington to lead the final raid himself. He sat down behind the mike, announced on the air that the station was closed, then seized its equipment.

That bust catalyzed Radio Mutiny’s metamorphosis into the Prometheus Radio Project. Over the intervening seven years, Prometheus came to play a prominent role in the media reform movement: In the late 1990s the group lobbied for new community licenses. Once the FCC started issuing them, Prometheus helped build several of the most successful new stations and train volunteer staff. And Prometheus was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that stopped in its tracks then-FCC chairman Michael Powell’s efforts to further deregulate the ownership of broadcast stations. The pirates had become players.

The Prometheus Radio Project’s headquarters is three rooms in the basement of West Philadelphia’s Calvary United Methodist Church, across the street from the former squat that served as Radio Mutiny’s studio and where Tridish still lives. Inside the office, shelves sag under the weight of boxes that bulge with electronic odds and ends, wires protruding. Some of the office’s computers look like they’ve been cobbled together from those parts. The walls are covered with posters that assail the corporate media and photos that document pranksterish protests. It’s a tiny operation: Tridish is one of only four paid staffers. When the group ran out of grant money last year, he went on unemployment. “That’s why I sometimes call Prometheus a public-private partnership,” he says.

One of the other full-time staffers, Hannah Sassaman, says the group’s broad aim is to reform the broadcast media as a whole. But “our strategy is to focus on something that’s winnable–low-power FM–and that no one else really is specializing in. We want the new stations to serve as an example for other groups who might use a more appropriate technology in their particular communities”–technologies like the Internet, or even cable television.

Prometheus doesn’t build or operate stations. That’s done by the community organizations to which the FCC grants licenses. Instead, the Philadelphia group is a clearinghouse for technical, organizational, regulatory and financial information. Tridish gives advice to the scores of community groups that applied for LPFM licenses in 2000 and 2001 but whose applications are still stuck in the FCC bureaucracy. He and Sassaman also advise stations that have already been licensed on raising money, building stations and staying on the air. Then there are the “LPFM barn raisings,” weekend-long events organized by Prometheus during which dozens of volunteers converge on a station that’s about to go on the air. Tridish and Sassaman train volunteers and help build studios and raise antenna masts.

Tridish says “community” is more important than “radio.” “What’s important isn’t the box that broadcasts the radio. What matters is the social structures that evolve.” He says that’s why Prometheus calls the events barn raisings: “It used to be that if you wanted to build a barn, you had to be at least on speaking terms with all your neighbors. You had to go out and say, ‘Hey, my barn burned down last week. Could y’all come out and help? We’ll feed you.’ Now what do you do? You go in to your job, make a lot of money, hire a crane and they put it up for you. What these community radio stations do is bring people together. Those are the sorts of public community institutions that I think need to exist in order to counter the power that corporations have now.”

Prometheus won’t help the single biggest category of LPFM stations, those licensed to fundamentalist religious groups. When one of them calls, Sassaman refers them to Prometheus’s opposite number in the religious world, the Christian Community Broadcasters. “We only work with fundamentalists on matters of common interest,” Tridish says, “like passing legislation and changing regulations that will benefit both community radio and fundamentalist stations. It’s not our mission to build stations for fundamentalists, so we don’t do it, especially since there is someone else whose mission it is to do it.” Prometheus has even actively opposed applications by a group of fundamentalist stations–under the name Calvary Chapel–that, Tridish and others suggest, were submitting hundreds of applications in hopes of creating a nationwide network, instead of the community outlets the FCC intended. Radio itself is a kind of religion in the Prometheus offices. “It’s a democratic medium,” Sassaman says. “You can take a radio apart and figure out how it works. Everyone has a radio in their home, and they’re going to continue to for the next fifty years. The power of that to people living outside the Internet world is staggering and I think not clear anymore to broadcasters, community members, organizers and the government. Radio is far from dead.”

But some of Prometheus’s neighbors in Philadelphia–sympathetic neighbors, at that–take issue with that sentiment. “As much as I love terrestrial radio, there are limits to the things you can do with it,” says Bruce Schimmel, a longtime public broadcaster and former editor and publisher of Philadelphia’s free weekly the City Paper. “When it comes down to it, the only people it’s going to affect are people in rural areas. The radio spectrum is already too crowded, and the signals just won’t carry.”

Schimmel says he likes Prometheus–especially the energy and enthusiasm that Tridish and Sassaman bring to their efforts –but he wishes it would join the struggle to roll out wireless municipal broadband in Philadelphia. “There’s no question that the best way to reach a lot of people and promote democracy is through radio, but what the Internet taught us is that if there’s an obstacle, you simply work around it,” he says. “Podcasting is the way to do that now, not radio.”

Tridish says he’d love to bring some kind of wireless (WiFi) network to the West Philly neighborhood where he first helped set up a pirate station, but he doesn’t think that’s where Prometheus should focus its efforts. Besides, he says, WiFi networks don’t stir the romantic ardor that radio stations do. “You can find three or four wing nuts in every town who are gonna make it their life’s work to build a community radio station,” he says. “Sometimes people at the grassroots don’t have the giant, expansive policy understanding of the hot technology–what’s gonna come, what’s gonna go–but people know what they want to do. People want to communicate.”

Pete Tridish (as in Petri Dish) wasn’t always interested in media reform. He didn’t always go by the pseudonym, either. The two changes happened at around the same point. As a teenager in Brooklyn, when he was still known as Dylan Wrynn, he envisioned himself becoming a scientist. But he burned out on the competitive atmosphere at New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. Inspired by physicist Michio Kaku’s opposition to the Star Wars antimissile program, he joined the antinuclear movement, then the antiapartheid struggle. At Antioch College he interned for environmental and housing groups. After graduating, he moved to Philadelphia and stayed active. But something wasn’t working right.

“Every single campaign I had ever worked on–we might’ve learned how to hold up a sign and got five seconds on the news by shouting something that rhymed, but we could never get taken seriously,” he says. Their opponents did, however. “The next day, they would be on MacNeil/Lehrer, and all their policy wonks would say why we were a bunch of idiots. I started to realize that there was a very serious problem of media ownership and control.” Wrynn decided that media reform was a kind of grand unified field theory of progressive activism. “Working against the domination of media by a handful of corporations was the key to supporting all the issues I’d worked on before.”

Wrynn and his fellow West Philly activists didn’t have much more than the theory until they heard the story of Stephen Dunifer, who launched Free Radio Berkeley in 1993 by climbing into the hills above the California city with a transmitter in his backpack. The FCC fined Dunifer $20,000. He fought the fine and articulated the core arguments of the nascent media reform movement: that media conglomerates had abandoned public service and left local communities voiceless, and that low-power broadcasting could give that voice back.

The FCC asked a federal district court to shut down Dunifer’s station, but the gambit backfired: The court instead asked the FCC to justify its regulations. Dunifer stayed on the air while the case ground through the courts. Meanwhile, he sold low-power transmitter kits assembled at home and urged civil disobedience–in essence, sit-ins on the public airwaves.

The West Philly group bought a kit and threw the parts together. It didn’t work. They “stared at it a lot,” Tridish says. They lost parts. Things blew up.

A copy of Rebel Radio: The Story of El Salvador’s Radio Venceremos, an oral history of the FMLN guerrillas’ own pirate operation, jolted them out of their electronic torpor. “These guys–some of them had no education. And they ran a radio station for eleven years without missing a single day.”

When the whole group had read the book, Wrynn says, they chastised themselves: “God, we’re lame! We live in the world of Radio Shacks and the Internet, and we can’t even figure out how to make this radio station work, when these people who had nothing were tromping through the hills and getting shot at.” Within two months, Radio Mutiny was on the air. Members of the collective adopted their noms de air in part to make things tougher for law enforcement, and in part to have a little fun.

The station’s programming included Incarceration Nation, hosted by an ex-con who talked about prison issues and played a lot of Johnny Cash songs. Africa Report provided an overview of news to West Philly’s burgeoning community of African immigrants. Radio Mutiny ran well enough until the sixth and final FCC bust. They weren’t alone: In Florida, a SWAT team raided the home of progressive pirate Doug Brewer and his wife, while another Florida bust took right-wing antigovernment activist Arthur “Lonnie” Kobres off the air. Dunifer’s Free Radio Berkeley fell silent when the federal district court reversed itself.

Tridish says the Radio Mutiny crew opted for full-frontal confrontation with the authorities. Tridish says he called reporters and left messages: “Hello, I’m Pete Tridish from the Radio Mutiny collective. The other day the FCC came and threatened to kick down our door unless we let them take away our community radio station. So we dare them to come down, high noon, Monday, in front of Benjamin Franklin’s printing press, and we dare the FCC chairman, William Kennard, to put the cuffs on us in public if he thinks community radio is such a bad thing.”

Reporters showed up to hear the Mutineers issue a platform for the legalization of low-power community radio. “We said that we were gonna go on tour, and for every station they harassed or shut down, we would teach people to build ten more,” Tridish says.

Around the same time, the pirate movement was turning its efforts toward Washington. Congress had unleashed a wave of media consolidation with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and many supporters of broadcast civil disobedience saw licensed low-power broadcasting as an antidote. A Virginia couple submitted a formal proposal to the FCC to license community stations. A few months later, a Florida radio engineer turned activist submitted his own, complete with detailed technical arguments. While the crackdown on pirates continued, the commission took up both proposals.

But the Philadelphia activists stuck to confrontation. They hit the streets of Washington, beamed an unlicensed broadcast at FCC headquarters, then hoisted the Jolly Roger, literally, at the commercial broadcasting trade group the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). “We had someone from Earth First! who was good at that stuff,” Tridish says. “We thought, Yes! We win!”

In retrospect, Tridish admits, the stunts didn’t help the cause. But a few months later, Tridish took a step inside the Washington process when he accepted an invitation to speak on a panel at the Cato Institute. “I didn’t know what it was,” he says. “I didn’t even know places like that existed.”

After the event, an FCC employee asked him whether he agreed with Cato’s position that the commission should be abolished. Tridish said he probably did. That didn’t faze the staffer. “He said, ‘You don’t have to believe me at this point, but the chairman has looked at a lot of this, and he really wants to go forward with legalizing a low-power radio service. And over the course of the next year we’re going to need a lot of engineering evidence to prove this is really gonna work, that there’s no interference. We wanna hear how we should do it.’ And it became evident to me that the FCC one way or another was going to create a low-power radio service, and it was really only a question of whether we planned to participate in it or not.”

Prometheus abandoned confrontation in favor of collaboration. Tridish boned up on technical issues, submitted proposals and learned that the FCC wasn’t the “corporate lapdog” he’d assumed. “There are a lot of people who go to work there feeling they want to do something good for the public,” he says. “I’ve come to have more sympathy for them, because they try to set up rules that they can apply universally and fairly. Thinking that I was gonna bike-lock my neck to my transmitter so that they couldn’t shut me down wasn’t the right response when the FCC shifted its position in favor of LPFM.”

Early in 2000 the FCC approved a plan for licensing hundreds of LPFM stations. Almost immediately, commercial broadcasters acting through the NAB, and public broadcasters acting through National Public Radio, argued that the FM dial was already too crowded and that the new stations would only cause interference.

In the United States FM stations are licensed to transmit on “channels” that sit two-tenths of a megahertz apart, for example at 91.5, 91.7, 91.9 and so on. The early proposals for LPFM asked the FCC to open up licenses on frequencies with only a single channel of buffer space to minimize interference. So, for example, if a particular city already had licensed stations on 91.5 and 92.7, two LPFMs could come onto the air, at 91.9 and 92.3. The FCC increased that buffer to two channels, so in the example above, only one LPFM could take to the air, at 92.1.

Even so, the NAB and NPR complained that the FCC’s proposed spacing was too tight and fought to change it. The NAB didn’t return calls seeking comment, but NPR president Kevin Klose says public broadcasters did what they had to in order to protect their interests. “In any one of these situations where you have a disagreement between a federal entity and another group, like us and our member stations, you have three options to work it out,” Klose says. “One is administrative, one is legislative and one is judicial. We tried administrative through the FCC. It didn’t work. There were people in Congress who were interested in this thing. So that seemed to us to be an appropriate place to turn.”

LPFM advocates say the resulting legislation–passed in late 2000 as a rider to an appropriations bill–was unprecedented: It overrode the FCC technocrats, whose tests showed minimal interference with a two-channel buffer. The law increased the buffer to three channels, so our hypothetical city wouldn’t have been eligible for a new license at all. The law meant that the nation’s top ten markets, whose FM bands are most crowded, lost the some two dozen stations they’d have received under the FCC proposal. The largest city to get a license was Spokane (metro population about 420,000). LPFM was born as a mostly rural service.

Klose says that aside from the interference issues, public broadcasters like the idea of more noncommercial radio stations. But LPFM activists say public broadcasters have been hostile to community broadcasting for decades. In the late 1960s the newly created Corporation for Public Broadcasting pushed to eliminate hundreds of Class D low-power FM stations that were already on the air. “CPB didn’t want to support little 10-watt stations or student stations, because that would dilute what little resources they had,” says Bill Siemering, who at the time was writing NPR’s mission statement and laying the groundwork for Fresh Air and All Things Considered. Some of the small stations professionalized, but most went dark. Siemering says public radio was supposed to make up for the loss, but hasn’t. “You have programs that’ll bring in the most dollars from listeners, and most of those are the major network programs rather than local ones,” he says. “This is something public radio should be debating.”

The NPR- and NAB-backed law that restricted the FCC’s original plan for LPFM mandated a technical study on interference between closely spaced stations. The FCC assigned the study to the MITRE Corporation, a Massachusetts nonprofit that advises the Defense Department, FAA and IRS, among others, on technical issues. Two years ago MITRE confirmed the FCC’s original tests and recommended a two-channel buffer between stations. Klose says NPR has “questions” about the study, but the results energized LPFM advocates on the right and left alike, pushing the preachers and the pirates into coalition.

Since then, they’ve been lobbying for legislation, like McCain’s bill, that would reinstate the FCC’s original proposal. In January Sassaman went to an LPFM Success Seminar organized by the Christian Community Broadcasters. “Prometheus cleans up nice, but we’re not politically able to get senators like Sam Brownback or Trent Lott or even Kay Bailey Hutchison to talk to us as openly or as communally as we’d like,” she says. Prometheus is trying to organize the fundamentalists. “In order to be able to expand low-power FM on the Hill, we’re going to need these people. ”

Prometheus got its first exposure to those strange bedfellows in 2003, when left and right lined up to attack FCC plans to loosen media ownership restrictions. Tridish and cultural conservative Brent Bozell found themselves aligned in arguing against allowing media conglomerates to grow. When the FCC went ahead with the plan anyway, a group of media reform lawyers chose Prometheus as lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to overturn it. Conservatives submitted amicus briefs. Prometheus prevailed, and the courts overturned the FCC proposal.

Last year Prometheus got inside information from a Georgia-based evangelist who talked up LPFM during conference calls between the religious broadcasters and the White House. Although McCain’s bill died in committee last year, he reintroduced it this year on the very morning that the low-power broadcasters met at the FCC. But the coalition of LPFM supporters didn’t convince any Republicans to co-sponsor the measure. Nonetheless, supporters of the reintroduced bill remain optimistic, in part because of the galvanizing effect of Prometheus’s involvement. “They understand the complexities and difficulties of the policy process, but they face the challenge with hope and with optimism,” says Washington lobbyist Michael Bracy, policy coordinator for the Future of Music Coalition, an activist group. “And they’re tireless. They’ve transformed themselves from gadflies to effective advocates, and that’s inspiring.”

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