In Creole Country, Zydeco Seeks Place on the Dial


This article originally appeared in

Opelousas, population 20,000, rests on the eastern edge of southwestern Louisiana, where Highway 190 crosses Interstate 49. It is the seat of St. Landry Parish, and it is also, Opelousas native Michael Levier says, "the zydeco capital of the world." But you wouldn't learn that from listening to the area's radio stations. "They want to play only the music of the larger record companies," says Levier. "They're pushing everybody else out. Nobody has an opportunity. They shut out the local people."

That could well be a sound business decision for the absentee owners who run those stations; Li'l Pookie, Step Rideau and Rosie Ledet may be fine musicians, but they won't necessarily attract the audience that the richest advertisers want to reach. Fortunately, the city's many zydeco devotees have another option. In January, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it would start issuing licenses for low-power FM radio, a k a micro-radio stations, a k a LPFM: outlets just big enough to broadcast to a small town or a handful of neighborhoods. It will thus add a shot of diversity to a consolidating medium where "variety" ordinarily means a station that plays 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys.

From May 30 through June 8, the FCC received the first wave of applications, from would-be broadcasters in 12 states and territories. One of those states was Louisiana, and one of those applicants was the Southern Development Foundation, an Opelousas-based group that sponsors agriculture programs, leases land to farmers, raises money for scholarships for needy kids and helps people learn to read, in addition to sponsoring a popular zydeco festival.

The group also employs Levier, who stumbled on the FCC's micro-radio initiative while exploring the Web. Intrigued, he started talking with his colleagues about the ways the foundation could translate its programs into radio shows. They could broadcast public meetings: school boards, the city council. They could tell listeners where their literacy classes were meeting. (These are already announced in the newspaper, but that doesn't necessarily do much good.) Some of the foundation's agricultural education work could be turned into broadcasts on how to restore farm equipment and recycle manure as compost. And, of course, they could let open their microphone to local musicians. Especially the ones who play zydeco.

CITIZENS IN 10 MORE STATES AND PUERTO RICO will be able to apply for licenses soon, probably in August; hopefully, the Opelousians will know by then if they'll get their station. But it may take awhile for the FCC to process everyone's requests—it's received over 700 applications. They're an engaging mix: a sanitarium in Wildwood, Ga.; an Episcopal church in Prince Frederick, Md.; some environmentalists on the nearby Chesapeake Bay; a native village in the Bering Straight, barely east of the International Date Line. Some of the applicants have radio experience: Several members of the Athenstown Media Enthusiasts Association in Athens, Ga., used to be DJs at the local college station when they were students and had to give up their shows, while Charley Goodman—representing the Friends of the Library in Grover Beach, Calif.—used to run a popular pirate station called Excellent Radio. Others have never sat behind a microphone in their lives.

It's helped that there are groups specifically dedicated to getting amateurs onto the air. Philadelphia's Prometheus Radio Project began as a pirate program, traveling across the Eastern Seaboard teaching people how to broadcast without a license. When the FCC announced the LPFM service, it retooled itself, and now shows people how to get on the air legally. In the west, the National Lawyers Guild has helped several community groups file applications. Another organization, Christian Community FM, has set up a Web site for ministries that want to take advantage of the plan. (A lot of churches are applying.)

In order to qualify for the licenses, you have to be a non-commercial, non-profit organization, but that hasn't prevented a lot a lone hobbyists from filing. "I hadn't though about it, but if I had, I would have expected something like this to happen," comments Shawn Ewald, a micro-radio activist in upstate New York. "People are applying without a clue about what the guidelines are. I guess the FCC can expect a shitload of defective applications as news of LPFM starts to spread."

Fortunately, there are many legitimate applicants as well—so many, in fact, that the FCC will have to reject a lot of them. This is a shame, especially since there's actually plenty of room for new stations on the dial: The commission bent over backwards to appease the competition-fearing radio industry, which has argued, with little evidence, that low-power radio will cause a marked increase in signal interference. Thus, while the plan has freed up many new frequencies in the countryside, there are very few slots in urban areas: just one in Philadelphia, for example, and none at all in New York, San Francisco or Washington, D.C.

In such places, the Feds contend, the dial is already full. The issue at play relates to how close two signals can get without causing interference. The FCC insists that stations maintain a distance of three adjacent (odd-numbered) frequencies—so if one's at 95.3, the closest local broadcasters can get are 95.9 and 94.7—even though, under most circumstances, one can safely fit a station only two spots away.

Even so, this restriction has not satisfied the National Association of Broadcasters, which has been fighting the idea of licensed micro-radio stations ever since an odd coalition of preachers, punk rockers, unions, businesses, militiamen, anarchists and others searching for greater access to the public started pushing for it in the early 90s. (At the same time, many members of this unusual coalition started illegal, unlicensed stations in protest.) Nor was the NAB calmed by the other rules the commission imposed—its refusal, for instance, to license anyone known to have broadcast illicitly since Feb. 26, 1999, unless they "ceased engaging in the unlicensed operation…within 24 hours of being advised by the Commission to do so."

Needless to say, this "character qualification" (the phrase is the FCC's) has angered pirate-radio activists like Ewald—the very people whose civil disobedience put micro-radio on the Washington agenda—though most everyone realizes that former pirates can still slip onto the air: They just can't be part of the group to which the station is licensed. Some unlicensed operators are trying to get around even this. San Francisco Liberation Radio, a seven-year-old pirate outlet with a leftist bent, has applied for a low-power license. Attached to its application are two special requests: one to waive the requirement for third-adjacent spacing, and one to waive the anti-pirate rule. "At SFLR," station founder Richard Edmondson explains, "we feel our 'character' clearly outshines any labor-exploiting, environment-raping CEO in America."

Edmondson doesn't seriously expect to get what he's asking for, but other waiver applicants are more optimistic. The Mount Pleasant Broadcasting Club, for example, believes it can broadcast to four D.C. neighborhoods at 94.3 FM—a second-adjacent channel—without breaking into any other signals, and has given the FCC hefty documentation on this point. It is still unclear whether the commission will even respond to such requests.

INDEED, IT ISN'T CLEAR whether any of these stations will make it onto the air at all. The broadcasters association has filed a suit to stop the new FCC program, and Representative Michael Oxley, a Republican from Ohio, introduced a bill late last year to do the same thing. When it began to look like Oxley's measure might not pass, Representative John Dingell, Democratic of Michigan, amended it to require yet more testing on the question of signal interference. Though neutrally worded, the actual effect would be to bar 80 percent of the new stations from going on the air. National Public Radio lobbied House Democrats to back the revised bill, and it passed 274-110; the Senate equivalent, introduced by Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, has gathered 35 co-sponsors. Its chief foe is former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, a one-time critic of low-power radio—last year he infamously suggested that would-be microcasters should just start Web sites—who has since become an unsteady supporter of the idea.

McCain has proposed a compromise bill, one that would allow LPFM to exist but would also give larger stations the right to sue the newcomers if they cause interference, with the loser paying the winner's legal bills. That might not be a bad idea in the abstract, but McCain's proposal contains some odd features. The burden of proof would be on the defendant, not the plaintiff. The micro-stations would not have the equal ability to sue stations that make changes to interfere with them. And "interference" would be defined by the National Academy of Sciences. (Scientists may be qualified to measure interference, but that doesn't mean they should be the ones to define it. That's a political decision.) At any rate, the bill has not acquired any co-sponsors so far—a McCain spokesman says that this is merely a "technicality"—and is opposed by most micro-radio activists as well as the NAB. It nonetheless poses trouble for Gregg's rival measure, since the latter must pass through McCain's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee before reaching the Senate floor.

Some pirates, conversely, would be happy to see the Senate kill the FCC's plan, in hopes that this would radicalize micro-radio's more moderate supporters, leading ultimately to a more far-reaching proposal to open the airwaves. "The plan is limited," one activist exclaimed in an interview a few weeks ago—and this was someone who'd lobbied for the FCC's proposal. "I ain't expecting much. I hope some good stations get started, somewhere."

Like, say, in Opelousas. "You've got local radio stations that are owned by larger companies," drawls Michael Levier in a Creole accent that rarely graces the American airwaves. "There should be some programming concerning the music that is from here, and the people from here. But there's not." With fortitude and luck, that may soon change.