Radio Free Brattleboro fights for space on the dial

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(Host) Last month field agents with the Federal Communications Commission shut down a small unlicensed radio station operating from a Brattleboro apartment. That action has raised questions about proper use of the airwaves, especially in light of the FCC’s recent decision to allow increased media consolidation.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) Radio Free Brattleboro’s 10-watt signal could only be heard in Brattleboro or close by. Programs included talk shows and every kind of music. Most of its support comes from dues – $15 a month from each volunteer DJ. There were about 70 when the station was shut down by the FCC.

Steven Twiss hosted a big band show and led the DJ training:

(Twiss) “We’ve had many young kids come in to DJ and watching them grow up over a couple of years and become more assertive – even some of the adults. It’s a very empowering thing for people. Plus people feel that they get their issues on the air.”

(Keese) But the station was operating without a license. And that’s against the law.

The station was brought to the FCC’s attention by WFCR, a public radio station in Amherst, Massachusetts. Martin Miller is WFCR’s general manager. He says some of his listeners in Brattleboro complained that Radio Free Brattleboro’s signal was interfering with WFCR’s.

Miller says he understands a station like RFB can provide a valuable service to its community.

(Miller) “Our only concern is that they do it legally. So that people who want to listen to WFCR or other radio stations are not blocked from doing so.”

(Keese) RFB went on the air in1997 without a license because it found the cost prohibitive. But by 2000, the FCC had a plan to license low-power, non-commercial stations to encourage diversity on the airwaves. Applications were accepted during a five-day window in 2001. RFB didn’t apply, and stations that have operated illegally are no longer eligible for a license.

David Longsmith is a co-founder of Radio Free Brattleboro. He says that so far no low-power licenses have been issued in southern Vermont. RFB is part of a national movement that considers access to radio a free speech issue. There’s currently an unlicensed station operating in Burlington and there was one in Rutland:

(Longsmith) “If you look at what the FCC was founded to do, they were founded to care take the airwaves for the use of the people. Now tell me why they’re making laws so that more corporations can buy more radio stations? That certainly isn’t making it any easier for you or I to have a radio program on our local radio station and speak to our community.”

(Keese) Miller, the Amherst station manager, says the FCC’s job is to keep order on the airwaves.

(Miller) “If you had total chaos on the airwaves there would be no free speech because no one would be heard. If you don’t set up some rules people are going to start crashing into each other. And that’s basically what happened. Their frequency crashed into ours where we’re legally allowed to operate.”

(Keese) Miller says WFCR has offered to help Radio Free Brattleboro if it wants to operate legally. Meanwhile, RFB is streaming on its Web site and it’s circulating petitions to show that it has the backing of the community.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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