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Debasing Democracy?

by Bill Duryea Tuesday, Jul. 15, 2003 at 6:57 AM

A Tampa pirate radio activist says an FCC proposal favoring media conglomerates can be detrimental to us

On June 2 the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 (three Republicans versus two Democrats) to enable media conglomerates to gobble up more radio and television stations and newspapers in the same market. One of the people most alarmed by the increasing consolidation of mass media is Kelly Benjamin, a former Tampa City Council candidate and sixth-generation Tampa resident, who operated a pirate radio station in the 1990s that was shut down by the government. Benjamin, 28, spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about fomenting democracy on the left of the dial.

Times: You've got experience trying to be a small media outlet in an environment that's becoming more and more consolidated. Tell us a little bit about your radio station.

Benjamin: The station started in the fall of 1995 down in Ybor City before Ybor was going through the whole gentrification process that it's going through today. There was a community of people down there - a lot of artists and punks and hippies. It was a ghost town. There were pretty cheap rents. A friend of mine had an old Army transmitter that he got from scouring thrift shops. We eventually bought a kit. We were pretty low wattage.

Times: How many watts?

Benjamin: Initially it was 30 watts. We were mainly trying to serve as a community media source for the Ybor City area, the punks and the squatters and the people down at Ybor Pizza and Subs, and a couple of the shops down there, like Three Birds (a bookstore).

Times: How far did your signal go?

Benjamin: It was a couple of miles. We were on the air about six or eight months at (Blue Chair Records) and then right about the winter time, Adams City Hatters, which was right next door, got a knock on the door from the Feds.

Times: What were you playing?

Benjamin: It was pretty diverse, rants about the gentrification of Ybor City, about rents skyrocketing overnight, the new clientele the bar district was drawing down there. We were using our voice to dissent against that and playing music that appealed to us. Cookie-cutter, mainstream radio was not serving the people in our demographic.

Times: What FM frequency were you broadcasting at?

Benjamin: 87.9. Bottom left-hand side of the dial. We weren't interfering with any other frequencies. The Feds started giving us a lot of harassment anyway.

Times: What form did that take?

Benjamin: Our first official visit from the FCC came in, I think it was February '96. They banged on the door. They started threatening us - two years in prison or a ,000 fine if we continued broadcasting. They said they had a legal right to enter and inspect our transmitter. We played sort of a cat and mouse game with my lawyer sending their lawyer letters for a while.

In the meantime we started to go full thrust and come out of the closet about the station and start to get mainstream media attention. We had a full range of DJs coming in. People playing jazz, hip-hop, punk. We had local bands coming in playing live. People who were sitting at home on house arrest with their ankle bracelet who couldn't come out to the show could at least hear the shows on the radio.

It was a real experiment in civic participation on the airways to kind of see this community develop around this media source. It created this collective consciousness, people getting involved, getting excited about something as the area was changing around them.

Times: Why was it a violation of the law that you were running a radio station?

Benjamin: The FCC mandates, according to Section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934, that all radio broadcast on the FM and AM bands are subject to licensing by the FCC. In order to get that license you have to have some serious corporate connections or serious money.

Times: How much money?

Benjamin: Just the application fees alone and the lawyers' fees to figure out the application, you're talking about ,000. And then the licenses themselves are around ,000. But they didn't even offer licenses for what we were doing - low-power broadcasting, anything under 100 watts. We eventually went to a 24-hour schedule, moved to another location, raised our antenna about 80 feet, boosted our wattage to about 80 watts. We had a digitally stabilized signal that wasn't interfering with any other signal in town.

We felt it was important that the airways not be seen as some golden soapbox that you have to have millions of dollars to have access to.

Times: And it's worth reminding people that the airwaves do belong to the public.

Benjamin: Exactly. If you look at the demographics of how the licenses are issued around the country, there is a pretty small number of stations owned by minorities. When it comes to the large 1,000-watt stations, they're all being gobbled up by Clear Channel, Viacom and Cox Enterprises. There's basically four or five media conglomerates around the nation that control what everyone sees and hears and reads. Now with this recent ruling, the FCC and the neo-conservatives in there have tried to consolidate it even further.

When we first started out, honestly, we were having fun. We didn't see this as part of a greater movement. But as we started networking more heavily with other stations around the country we realized this is more of a genuine struggle for a true democracy than people just going around playing records.

Times: How many pirate broadcasters were there at the time?

Benjamin: At one point there was eight stations on the air in Tampa. And nationally, the FCC said there was over 1,000 pirate stations. In the Miami-Dade area, there was tons of immigrant-operated radio stations, people coming from countries that didn't have an equivalent to the FCC.

Times: The FCC made a major change in 1996 and loosened up the rules affecting the number of radio stations one company could own in a market. How much did ownership of stations in this area change?

Benjamin: That's really when a corporation like Clear Channel came to power. They might have owned a dozen radio stations. But because of that ruling they were so incredibly lethal.

The FCC allowed a cap to be lifted. The reason there is a cap is so there would be much more localism, much more opportunity for competition and diversity on the airways. What the FCC allowed was, maybe instead of owning three stations in one market, they said you can own five stations in the AM and 10 in the FM and one or two cable channels.

Times: After the 1996 ruling Clear Channel went from 43 stations nationwide to more than 1,200. Locally, they own eight stations.

Benjamin: One of the positive things about this most recent ruling (June 2) is that it has really thrust the issue into the public consciousness. It's made ownership of the media into a political issue, which it should be.

A lot of mainstream networks did not want to cover this issue at all until they saw there was a groundswell of grass-roots opposition to what the FCC was proposing. If we have unequal distribution of the media we're never going to live in a true democracy. If you're a millionaire you're going to have your voice amplified by many more stations, many more frequencies.

That was particularly evident with this war that we just had. Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting did a study (about war coverage). There was no interviews with academics, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or people who were at all doubtful about it. All the people who were interviewed were either former or current generals or bigwigs in the military. They all had a pretty right-wing, hawkish agenda. I think it was something like out of 700 interviews they found that less than 2 percent were at all critical of the war. (Actually, of 1,617 on-camera interviews observed during three weeks, 64 percent of subjects were categorized as "pro-war.")

Times: Were you nervous broadcasting? You'd been informed what the penalties were.

Benjamin: It was more a reckless collision course with destiny at that point. We were seeing how far we could take it.

Times: Why didn't they just shut you down?

Benjamin: The FCC was a little overwhelmed, with a thousand radio stations across the country. What are they going to be able to accomplish with limited manpower? The truth is in the summer of 1997, the National Association of Broadcasters had a meeting with the FCC in Las Vegas. The NAB was paying good money to have this captive audience and all these pirate stations were getting on there for free, stealing listenership. They asked the FCC to start enforcing the law.

Times: What happened when they raided you?

Benjamin: My girlfriend and I were in bed, about five minutes before the alarm clock goes off. We heard rustling in the bushes. They surrounded the house. They started banging. They brought out the U.S. marshals and the local police, so they had about a dozen people there.

Times: They had guns?

Benjamin: Yeah, they had guns. They were drawn, but they weren't pointed at me. I was just in my pajamas and they realized I was just a long-haired kid. They kept us handcuffed on the front porch for a good couple of hours. Went to jail. Got out that afternoon. My girlfriend was substitute teaching at the time. They let her go so she could go teach. She was a shambles. I got out of jail about the time she got out of school. The gist of that was that because of the raids, the FCC started to question the amount of access that everyday people have to the airwaves. They opened up this petition for rule-making.

Times: But even though the rules were relaxed to allow for low-power broadcasts you still have the decision on June 2 that is going to further consolidate ownership of the media.

Benjamin: There's only been a handful of stations that have benefited from that rule anyway. They claim that in cities like Tampa and New York there's too much crowding on the bandwidth to allow for a low-power station, which is a completely bogus argument. There's precedent in other countries. Stations are able to serve their local communities. That argument has been debunked by a number of academics.

Times: Describe for me some of the most significant changes under the new rules.

Benjamin: They're saying now that a television station can be owned by the same company that owns a newspaper in the same market. That's unprecedented, except here in Tampa (Media General owns the Tampa Tribune and WFLA-Ch. 8) and one or two other instances around the country where there has been some experiments to see if that really hinders localism and diversity.

Times: One of the worst-case scenarios critics are describing is that in one city, one company could acquire up to three television stations, eight radio stations, the cable television system, cable TV stations and the only newspaper. Why should we be afraid of that?

Benjamin: It's a huge threat because the opportunities to engage in debate, serious critical examination of critical issues that affect our lives, is limited if we have one or two sources of information rather than if we had 10 sources.

Times: What if people like it this way? What if this is the will of the people and not the will of the corporations?

Benjamin: This has been the most hotly contested decision the FCC has ever made, and the most commented on proposal.

Times: They received more than 700,000 comments, didn't they?

Benjamin: More than any other comment period in the history of the FCC. They were 99 percent against relaxing the ownership rules. That speaks for itself. How many of those commissioners have been lobbied, been put up in luxury hotels, traveling all around the country, traveling all around the world on the bill of Cox and Clear Channel, the people they're supposed to be regulating?

Times: The FCC proposed these rule changes, they're not official, they have to be approved by Congress. What's going on now?

Benjamin: There's been some backlash in Congress, some mounting resistance from surprising places. You expect it from some of the more liberal congressmen, but Trent Lott has come out and said, "This is the FCC's big mistake." In fact, they drafted some legislation to try and counter the FCC proposal.

Times: Why would there be this bipartisan opposition given that it was such a partisan decision at the FCC?

Benjamin: The Republicans see a liberal conspiracy in the media and people on the other side see a right-wing conspiracy. So both of them are on the same page when it comes to diversity of opinion.

Times: How many pirate stations are there now on the air in Tampa?

Benjamin: Not many. In Ashcroft's America, a lot of people who have transmitters at home aren't using them because there's kind of a chilling environment right now for anyone who expresses dissent against the status quo. It's a much different environment right now than it was six years ago.

Times: How come you're not doing it?

Benjamin: I'm moving on, fighting different battles, running for office, trying to finish school, trying to make a living. Other people have taken the reins. I know there's at least one.

Times: Who's that?

Benjamin: If you search for them, you'll probably find them. I'm not going to rat them out.

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