Lyn Gerry's house begins near where the pavement ends on a hilltop overlooking Highland Park. The road is narrow, flanked by leafy green trees and handsome wooden houses. A worn white Honda, dotted with bumper stickers, is parked out front near a jumble of firewood, dozens of empty plastic bottles and a rain-speckled placard that reads, "Bill Clinton = War Criminal." It's a harsh assessment. But then again, in the eyes of the Clinton administration, Gerry is something of a criminal, too. For nearly three years, she's been broadcasting on an unlicensed radio station, a crime she sees as being about as unlawful as pulling the tag off a pillow but one for which the U.S. government has been charging people in unprecedented numbers lately.
"If you want to talk on the radio to people because you have something to say, why shouldn't you?" asks Gerry, echoing the sentiments of the hundreds of illegal "microradio" broadcasters nationwide. Unburdened by concerns about audience share and advertising revenue, these scofflaws broadcast for the sake of the music, or the political views, or the public-interest information they feel commercial radio has ignored.
The result, says Stephen Dunifer, founder of Free Radio Berkeley, flagship of the so-called pirate radio movement, is programming that is "a helluva lot more interesting at the very least. Some of the stuff we've heard [on microradio] sounds pretty stupid. Some of it's lame, some of it's downright brilliant. You get the whole range. Commercial radio is about commodification. It's about squaring off the rough edges and not really presenting a true reality of people's lives."
Little more than a generation ago, young upstarts such as Johnny Rivers or fledgling bands such as the Beach Boys could--and did--drop homemade tapes off at local radio stations, secure in the knowledge that their music would be played. That air time not only helped launch their careers, it popularized new musical genres as well. Today's highly programmed, market-sensitive commercial broadcasters take few such chances with air time. That's where microradio comes in.
If commercial radio reflects popular culture, microradio helps create it. Consider England in the early 1960s, when rock 'n' roll was still considered the devil's music. The button-down BBC largely ignored the new sound, so microbroadcasters paddled out to sea in small boats and, safely outside the reach of British law, beamed rock music back to the island.
Similar scenes play out across America today. In suburban Detroit, both Norman Andresen, founder of Storm Records, and coffeehouse owner Caleb Grayson favor music that lacks the mass appeal necessary to attract a major record label, which means they have virtually no chance of reaching mainstream radio. Andresen wants a low-power station to play that kind of independent music, while Grayson wants to broadcast from his cafe, home to local bands like the Eastern European folk rock group Immigrant Suns, who will never rise above the club circuit without radio air time.
The '90s were heady days for radio renegades, largely, they say, because commercial radio's blatant drive for profits made programming bland. As the number of pirate radio stations increased, so did the attention they received from the commercial industry and government regulators. The Federal Communications Commission began cracking down last year because microradio signals, however weak, can interfere with the much stronger signals of licensed stations. That overlap is precisely why the government began assigning frequencies and licensing stations in the 1930s.
Recently, however, the FCC also moved in an entirely new direction. In a step fiercely opposed by the National Assn. of Broadcasters and most of its 6,600 TV and radio broadcast members, the FCC has proposed a rule change that would grant licenses to microbroadcasters, making room even in crowded markets like Los Angeles. If the change is approved, hundreds of new microradio stations would be given spots on the dial legally.
What this all means for listeners and American popular culture is a bit unsettling. If the microradio movement is stamped out by government enforcement, many artists and political and community activists will lose places to nurture their talents and beliefs. Yet if the FCC legalizes microbroadcasters, the effect could be quite the opposite--but just as extreme. The swelling numbers of microbroadcasters would fragment the market and, just as cable TV changed the face of television, would segment the audience and erode the notion of a "popular culture" based on broadly shared tastes.
Either way, radio's enormous role in defining popular culture is about to change forever.