Low Power, High Intensity

Q&A with Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project 

Laurie Kelliher
Assistant Editor
Columbia Journalism Review
September/October 2003

Pete Tridish first became involved in radio as a pirate broadcaster in 1996. He is now the technical director of the Prometheus Radio Project, a nonprofit organization providing legal, technical, and organizational support to low-power FM stations (see "Low Power, High Intensity" in the September/October 2003 issue). Prometheus has played a significant role in the struggle by community groups to establish low-power radio stations - a struggle that has involved the FCC, the National Association of Broadcasters, and National Public Radio. Prometheus operates with a staff of three out of a church basement in Philadelphia. Their work has been recognized by the Ford Foundation, the List Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the MacArthur Foundation. Tridish spoke with Laurie Kelliher, a CJR assistant editor.


Laurie Kelliher: You got your start in radio as a pirate broadcaster.

Pete Tridish: That was in 1996. I was working with activists in various movements and we all thought that our voices had been marginalized in the campaigns we were working on. I had been involved ever since high school in campaigns, from the nuclear freeze to the anti-apartheid movement, and had always found that the stumbling block to getting exposure for our issues had to do with corporate control of the media. We felt that to make a difference in the way people thought about these issues we'd have to try to change the way the airwaves are regulated.

We started by getting a transmitter kit. None of us had been on the radio and none of us knew much about radio. For about seven or eight months, we tried to build a transmitter and finally, after blowing it up a couple times, got it going early in 1997. Within a few months we had about sixty programmers coming from all different sorts of movements and all different walks of life. We were really excited about those programs because they were like nothing we had ever heard before on the radio.

Is that when you took the name Pete Tridish [pronounced "petri dish"]?

We all took fake names because we were trying to hide our identities - we didn't want to make it so easy to get hit with a $10,000 fine. My girlfriend at the time was Millie Watt. There was Anne Tennah, and Noah Vale. The one I really liked was Bertha Venus. These sorts of names were common among pirates and I've kept the name ever since.

You called your station Radio Mutiny. How long was it on the air?

It operated for about nine months before the FCC served us a warning to shut down. Then we came up with a great plan, which was to go on the air and challenge the FCC to arrest us in public in front of Benjamin Franklin's printing press in downtown Philadelphia. We made a giant banner that said "1763, Benjamin Franklin challenges the Stamp Act and refuses to pay taxes to King George. 1996, Radio Mutiny defies the FCC for Freedom of Speech."

(The FCC made no public arrests that day, but nine months later it confiscated Radio Mutiny's transmitter and the station went off the air for good. At the same time, the FCC began to reconsider its position on community radio.)

What made you decide to start the Prometheus Radio Project?

I thought it would be best for me to form a nonprofit organization that would take the FCC at its word - that they really did care about community radio - and try to get them to pass a proposal that would actually be good for community broadcasters around the country.

What kind of reaction did you get from other pirate broadcasters?

There was a long period of time when many of them called me a sell-out for working closely with the FCC. I'm sure a lot of them still do.

Were you surprised when the FCC began issuing low-power FM licenses?

I was very suspicious at first and I think many pirates have remained suspicious - and they have been right because really low-power FM has done nothing for the big cities. To this day Philadelphia, where I come from, doesn't have a low-power radio station. It's kind of ironic that I haven't been able to bring to Philadelphia the dreams and successes we had as pirates back in 1998.

Why do you think the FCC initiated low-power FM?

I really do feel to this day that we had the FCC on the run in terms of the legality of the rules. The FCC has the authority to regulate the airwaves. That's clear. However, it is supposed to regulate the airwaves to prevent signal interference in a manner that's least restrictive to freedom of speech. I think it's absolutely clear to anyone who looks at a world where Clear Channel owns 1,200 radio stations nationwide - and where community broadcasters don't have access to the airwaves with even a single station in most places - that the FCC is not using the least restrictive means available to them. I think the FCC put together low-power FM as a patch to its rules so it could maintain authority over the airwaves because, frankly, it had badly misallocated the airwaves in the past.

Have low-power FM licenses had a significant effect on community radio?

We have gained a lot in the places where it works, and the stations that exist are a testament to how good the idea is. But in the places where it hasn't worked - which is really most places - it continues to have failed in remission.

One of the interesting things about low-power FM is that it got support from grass roots organizations on both the political right and the left.

I think we managed to show the FCC that support for this came from all different sides of society. This was not just a campaign from a single special interest group. And while I have my own political beliefs and opinions, I have always felt that one of the big problems in American society is control of the media by corporate owners. I think there are many more things we can do with media as long as it's truly an expression of the things the people in a given community care about. Ultimately a society where citizens are better informed and more in touch with each other will promote the social values I hold important - more so than a society where the media is mostly just a plug-in drug that dis-empowers and takes the impetus out of local communities.

What can a low-power FM station achieve that an NPR station can't?

It's important to understand that NPR is a content provider. They don't actually own any radio stations. Affiliates are local stations that choose to take NPR's programming because it's very successful financially. I think that NPR does a great, great service to the American dialogue in general. They have the capacity to do all sorts of things that community radio can't do. Community radio doesn't have a person in Baghdad - well, actually we do, but NPR can do things that we just can't do. But I also think there are a lot of things that NPR can't do because there is a certain logic to an organization of that size. NPR needs to consider if a program is drawing enough pledges to support itself. That kind of logic is the opposite of why people started community radio in the first place.

What can a low-power FM station accomplish in a community that commercial radio isn't accomplishing?

Community radio believes that part of its mission is to broaden and deepen the listening experience of its audience. If you ask teenagers on the street what kind of music they want they will probably say Britney Spears. But they want to hear Britney Spears because that's what they've heard. That doesn't mean they wouldn't appreciate music from Kenya. It's really a question of what people are exposed to and what their options are. It really is very important for there to be place on the dial that in some ways is less successful, that presents programs that are not going to be as popular - but is a place where you can go when your ear grows past the bubble-pop of our culture. I think those are sort of the green spaces - the common public spaces - that we need to be thinking about as a culture. They have an effect that goes beyond the audience numbers.

How did you feel when the FCC released the results of the Mitre Study in July?

The Mitre study really vindicated our position. It made it clear that the interference concerns that were being raised were really very minimal. One of our greatest problems in this whole campaign has been that the NAB and NPR tried to set it up so that there would be a different standard for us than for them. Their stations all cause some interference. Every time you pick up a cordless phone you are causing interference. Every time you start your car ignition it causes interference to the radio band - so it's a very confusing technical issue. But they were claiming that low-power FM would cause an "ocean of interference." Now, an independent source has found that this didn't happen. They had an 800-number near the test sites. Nobody ever called to complain about interference from an LP-FM. Nobody ever identified a case of LP-FM induced interference at more than 333 meters from the site of the test transmitter. LP-FM advocates had always agreed to solve any interference problems around their transmitter at their own expense - and that's the same standard there is for full-power stations. When it comes down to it, they just set up this straw man about interference and they did it to hide their real concerns about competition.

Do you think the Mitre Study will pave the way for more LP-FM stations?

The results of the study were great for us. In terms of whether it can help us win, we have to see what's going to happen in Congress. I really hope that NPR comes to its senses on this issue. I think they really ought to know better. They have a strong product. People are going to continue to love NPR even if there is a low-power FM station in their community. We think that more and more people are leaving the medium of radio because there is nothing they respect on the dial and that's not good for NPR either.

Are you confident that Congress will rule favorably for more LP-FMs?

What politicians do is definitely outside of my area of understanding or expertise. A few very powerful people can influence how the whole Congress goes. Considering that Congress has recently come to understand these issues in ways they haven't before is very exciting. But will the political system churn out a good outcome for community radio? I have no idea. I'm certainly hopeful. It' s my job to be hopeful and to convince people that it's worth their taking the time and effort to participate in the political process.




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