Rebel Convoys

Civil disobedience changes FCC policy--again.

Citizens Band radio was born in 1945, when the Allied victory freed some military frequencies for civilian use. Policemen and big boats were already using two-way radios in other parts of the ether; Motorola executive Daniel Noble suggested letting small businesses--delivery trucks, fishermen, valets--do the same. The Federal Communications Commission agreed, and reserved some shortwave space for a service along those lines.

Alas: This was an ultra-high-frequency zone, an area useless to all but the most expensive and sophisticated radios. The service remained moribund until 1958, when the FCC siphoned 23 channels from the amateur ("ham") band and rededicated them to CB.

The commissioners hoped the revamped Citizens Band would provide a place for "substantive and useful messages related either to the business activities or personal convenience of private citizens." The displaced hams argued that it would become a giant party line instead. The amateurs proved more prescient than the regulators: Within a year, the feds were battling "improper" uses of the Citizens Band, at one point even trying to keep people from speaking in "hobby-type expressions."

The harder the authorities fought, the unrulier the CBers became. The FCC imposed a license application fee, hoping that would squeeze out the riffraff. Instead, people simply neglected to get licensed. Tens of thousands joined the band each year, mostly blue-collar workers whom the government never expected to use the service. A freewheeling, down-home subculture evolved--one held in check, not by statutes, but by ever-evolving customs.

The regulators lacked the resources to enforce their edicts. Eventually, they threw up their hands and accepted that the Citizens Band had been overrun with actual citizens.

In the 1970s, of course, CB became a fad, a topic for trucker movies and country songs; even Betty Ford joined in, signing on as "First Momma." By 1975, the FCC was getting 200,000 license applications a month. In 1976, it took in 4.8 million. And that was just the people who bothered to apply: No more than half the country's CB users were licensed at all.

The commission was so overwhelmed that it simply gave up charging for licenses. Even that didn't deter the scofflaws. It still took the authorities a few months to process that permit, and they obviously weren't serious about enforcing the rules. So why bother applying?

A quarter of a century later, the radio world is again debating illicit transmissions and popular access to the airwaves. In January, the FCC announced that it would start licensing low-power radio stations, little FM outlets whose signals will cover a radius of four to seven miles. The established industry, naturally, dislikes this plan, as it opens the door to more competition. At its urging, Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) is pushing a bill that would repeal the plan before it gets underway. Meanwhile, the National Association of Broadcasters, the foremost industry group, is suing the FCC.

In the debate over low-power radio, the Citizens Band story has come up a few times, usually as a cautionary tale. The CB saga, after all, has an unhappy ending. With only so much space available, conversations piled atop conversations. CB signals interfered with other transmissions. Once-formidable informal sanctions began to lose their power; people felt freer to exceed power limits, step on other people's discussions, or otherwise act like jerks. Something had to give, and that something turned out to be CB itself. By the early '80s, the Citizens Band was a virtual ghost town, a Yogi Berra paradox played out in real life: Nobody ever goes there anymore. It's too crowded.

The industry argues that microbroadcasting will do the same thing to the FM band, by increasing interference with licensed stations. But that stance flies in the face of the FCC's field studies, as well as an independent report commissioned by micro radio supporters. (An NAB study concluded otherwise, but it was based on technical standards that existing stations can't meet.) Besides, there's no comparison between broadcast signals, which are limited to one channel apiece, and CB transmissions, which by necessity take place in a common pool.

But there is a much more interesting parallel between CB and micro radio. Just as ordinary Americans created a rich CB subculture by ignoring official dictates and simply going on the air, the FCC would never have legalized low-power FM if hundreds of pirates hadn't gotten there first. Over the last decade and a half, a host of microcasters have started stations without licenses, a wave of civil disobedience aimed not just at getting good programs on the air but at forcing the FCC to defend its restrictive, protectionist policies. It was this pressure, more than anything else, that put micro radio on the feds' agenda.

The commission, of course, will not admit that it's taken an idea from the very outlaws it's been trying to shut down. Indeed, the new plan will refuse licenses to anyone known to have broadcast illicitly since last February. That's hardly a friendly attitude.

But the very phrase micro radio was popularized by the pirates, long before FCC Chairman William Kennard adopted it. No one in Washington would have thought to let more people on the air by legalizing low-power radio if the pirates hadn't made that their central demand. And one doubts that the notoriously slothful FCC would have passed this plan so quickly were it not for the hordes willing to broadcast without its sanction. The pirates didn't just put the issue on the table. They created a crisis of authority that the government had to address.

The question now is how much the new arrangement will really do to open the airwaves. It is, after all, a very limited plan. It will free up many new frequencies in the countryside, but very few in big urban areas: just one in Philadelphia, for example, and none at all in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. (In such places, the feds feel the dial is already full--which should surprise all the pirates who've operated there for years.) The new outlets will also face many of the costly regulations that burden existing stations, from outmoded technical standards to the commission's recently revamped Equal Employment Opportunity rules. And then, of course, there is the FCC's unwillingness to license people with a recent history of piracy.

Some of this may be redressed legally. "The task now is to get as many new stations licensed as possible," says Michael Bracy of the Low Power Radio Coalition, a pro-micro lobby. "We need to show that the technology works, that there's no interference with other stations--and then go back in 2001 and ask for more."

Fair enough. In the meantime, there's one simple measure of how effective the new plan will be. How many people will still go broadcast illegally, risking fines and forfeiture, now that the commission has created this new service? Will pirate radio become an obscure hobby again, or will it remain a vibrant movement?

If piracy's still thriving this time next year, that will only mean that there's more room for reform--and, one hopes, that the FCC will be forced to act again.

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