Silence on the Dial

Two weeks ago the FCC shut down Montrose Radio. Can the pirate station survive the bust? Can the pirate station survive itself?

Johnston maintains that Skelter is a "con man" who somehow duped the membership into voting for his handpicked board. And while Johnston thinks of himself as "a true community leader," he says Martin, a computer programmer, and Skelter, an antique dealer, "aren't really members of any sort of community." Then he backpedals, saying, "They don't represent community organizing."

In his many letters, Johnston has not hesitated to name the real names of people involved with Montrose Radio. His taunts have angered many members, so much so that his accusations are becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. When Martin caught sight of him at the Montrose Radio/Houston Other stage Martin had rented at the Westheimer Art Festival two weeks ago, Martin told Johnston to leave immediately. Johnston refused, and Martin ejected him into the street. Afterward Martin admitted to having acted like "a macho asshole."

The most interesting thing about Johnston's one-man campaign against Montrose Radio is that even his accusations of censorship have virtually nothing to do with what the station broadcasts. When asked, Johnston was unable to point out anyone who had been denied access to the airwaves -- Johnston himself was not a regular programmer. The best he could come up with was a DJ whose show was given to someone else -- after she didn't show up twice in a row.

Edwin Johnston and the FCC notwithstanding, Montrose Radio is not yet dead.
At the first meeting after the bust, it took all of two seconds for everyone to agree to go ahead with a Dylan and Dead tribute concert scheduled for this Sunday afternoon at the Last Concert Cafe. It took a hell of a lot longer to decide whether to let Winston, a nonlocal evil tobacco company, pay for the ads. Over the protests of the nonpurists, who thought the rest of the members should "grow up," political correctness won out. No Winston.

After that, the decisions got harder. Should the station try to retrieve its equipment? Should they buy a new transmitter? Should they (chickpea's suggestion, of course) stage a protest? A letter-writing campaign? Appeal to politicians such as Sheila Jackson Lee, who've expressed support of microradio? Set up an Internet broadcast? And then, a more pressing worry: Who will take over this summer after Skelter's gone?

One reason to go on the Internet is that the FCC may rule as early as this summer on a proposal to begin licensing low-power FM -- the commission received 13,000 inquiries about it in the last year alone. Until then, pirate radio operators who hope to go legitimate are in a bind. On the one hand, they're gaining experience and stability, proving that microradio can work. On the other hand, if they're busted before licensing happens, they might not be granted any amnesty under the new rules. Anyone fingered by the FCC, as Kevin Jackson has been, could be forbidden to get a license.

Also, there are still major questions about what the FCC will do. The commissioners might license commercial as well as noncommercial microstations. They haven't figured out how to decide who gets a license -- a university or church with deep pockets could outbid an organization like Montrose Radio in a straight auction.

It's not at all certain that the FCC will approve low-powered transmitters. Although FCC Chairman William Kennard has defended the proposal, the National Association of Broadcasters, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, has been whining about signal interference and legitimizing scofflaws. NAB insists that "radio program diversity has never been greater" and that low-power stations are no more economically viable for small rural markets than commercial stations, an argument that seems clearly flawed. Joining forces with the big guys, NPR has protested the crowding of the FM bandwidth and argued that "it is neither self-evident nor established" that low-power FM will result in a "diversity of media voices."

Questions about Montrose Radio's future bring, once again, the issue of community to the fore. Although a few of Montrose Radio's members and critics have always been more interested in the organization's politics than its transmitter, the transmitter is the only thing, really, that joins the organization to the community. Without it, the idea that Montrose Radio can do more than beam another music option to its listeners remains just that: an idea. Before the community at large will rally around the potential of micropower, Montrose Radio has to.

And for all his gentle tyranny and nutty rhetoric, that's one idea that Kevin Jackson understands. The "community" may have plundered his transmitter, but at least part of him is glad they cared enough to fight him for it.

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