FORT MYERS, Fla. — Mild-mannered community activist Albert Knighten found himself in handcuffs last month when police and federal agents raided his home and shut down a pirate radio station he operated out of a spare bedroom. Supporters say his bare-bones operation filled an important niche in a predominantly black section of Fort Myers, a community whose residents often feel overlooked and underserved by commercial radio.
The retired Navy air traffic controller, now facing a felony charge of operating the station without a license, is front and center in the efforts of a national community radio advocacy group to highlight a law that clears more space on crowded radio dials and gives low-power operators the first opportunity in more than a decade to get licensed.
The Federal Communications Commission is expected to start taking applications for the new stations sometime this fall. Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, which advocates for community stations, is raising awareness of the opportunity and what it believes is the need for more low-power stations that serve narrow audiences, often just neighborhoods.
Operating out of his small house in the hard-scrabble Dunbar neighborhood with a 40-foot antenna affixed to the roof, Knighten, 44, programmed his station with an eclectic mix of public-affairs shows, neighborhood announcements, old-school R&B tunes and even church services, geared toward the elderly and others who can’t afford or don’t use the Internet.
“The station made people feel like they had a chance to express their opinion and have a voice in their tomorrow,” said Willie Green, who heads a three-county southwest Florida chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
No one disputes the station was on the air illegally, but Knighten said it was worth the risk. He started in 2009 with the hope he could eventually apply for a license. He wanted to get it up and running legally. Now, because of the arrest, he won’t be allowed to apply for the license or operate the station, although he still hopes to be involved.
If someone does resurrect Dunbar Radio 107.5 as a licensed station, it will likely be because of the Local Community Radio Act – a law passed in 2010 that repealed certain restrictions on the FM spectrum put in place at the urging of commercial channels worried about interference with their broadcasts. Simply put, the government opened up more slots on the crowded dial in urban areas for low-powered stations after studies showed it could be done without stepping on established channels.
Prometheus Radio Project fought for the law for a decade. The group’s policy director, Brandy Doyle, said it could more than double the current number of around 800 low-powered stations in the country and help diversify radio markets in an era when corporate-owned stations dominate the airwaves. New stations are expected to debut in 2013 and 2014.
“This is the first and probably the last opportunity for community groups to get on the air in a generation,” Doyle said. “People are no longer going to have to be arrested to have the opportunity to serve people in their communities.”
An FM signal from a 100-watt transmitter can reach 3 to 10 miles, depending on the terrain and there are success stories. About 30 miles southeast of Fort Myers, the nationally recognized Coalition of Immokalee Workers runs a legally licensed low-power station that helps migrant farmworkers organize for better wages and report human rights abuses. In Opelousas, La., low-power KOCZ plays the region’s heritage zydeco music on the first station licensed to a civil rights organization.
Among the nonprofit groups applying for a license this year is a coalition of Somali immigrants, Native-Americans and other groups in underserved neighborhoods in the Minneapolis area.
“I’ve been organizing for over 10 years, and I have never had such an easy time filling up a room on a Saturday morning for an issue,” said Danielle Mkali, who works for the social justice group Main Street Project in Minneapolis, which is helping with applications for two new low-power stations. “People are really excited about making radio happen.”
In 2000 and 2001, the last time the window was open for low-power license applications, around 3,600 were submitted, but less than a quarter of that number are on the air today, according to an FCC official who discussed the issue with the AP but declined to be identified because that’s agency policy.
Doyle said it takes around $10,000 and a good deal of wherewithal to start a small station, keep it on the air and build an audience.
Knighten put around $4,000 into basic equipment and was operating under the radar for more than two years, funded by donations. Then came a dustup with an on-air guest over a political issue that ended with county code enforcement ordering him to shut down. Police and FCC agents arrested him and seized his equipment Dec. 9. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, but hardly anyone expects Knighten to end up behind bars.
“I didn’t think this would expand into the trouble it would cause,” he acknowledged. “I thought that when we showed them we could create something in this community, we could present it and show (the FCC) that there was a need for it.”
Local elected officials and other municipal leaders often appeared on the station’s programs, including Ron Jenkins, chairman of the city’s Citizens Police Review Board. Jenkins, who had a regular show on Dunbar Radio, is resisting calls from some quarters to resign from the advisory board because of his association with the illegal operation.
“Our intention was never to be criminals,” Jenkins insisted. “We weren’t trying to thumb our nose at anyone.”