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.