👽 Lee Tusman

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Micropower Radio 🗣️📢

12 Mar 2024

Six-minute read

What is it?

Micropower radio is a subset of pirate radio concerned with low-power radio broadcasting, usually less than about 100 watts radiated power and sometimes less than 0.1 watt. Micropower radio transmits to a number of recipients (“listeners” or “viewers”) that belong to a small local group. Beginning in the early 1990s, there has been an increase in micropower radio because of the desire for such a service in local communities. Micropower radio gives an avenue for small groups and individuals to provide local neighborhood or community broadcasts of information, diverse programming, and entertainment. Micropower radio is usually a non-commercial service. –from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, CC BY SA 4.0

In college after my roommate first got involved I became a radio DJ at a small college radio station in Massachussets. I DJed for four years with a Thursday night program broadcasting experimental electronic music. I loved the station and had other friends who were also DJs. I invited a variety of guests on the air, but also played all kinds of music. One day I went to the Twisted Village experimental music CD/record/tape shop and there was someone there browsing for music, and they said they were looking for albums they had heard on the radio. It had turned out to be my own program they had listened to. That was really cool.

About a decade ago I operated my own micropower radio station that played exclusively experimental music, consisting of slowed down music and sound art, as well as “chopped and screwed”, ambient, new age and experimental classical and electronic work. I DJed and invited other DJs and musicians and producers, who visited the studio and broadcast live. My station could be heard in a portion of my city. I operated with a fairly low wattage transmitter, from up in a church steeple. I had a borrowed radio, and also transmitted live over the internet. My station broadcasted for a while, until the FCC visited me and shut down the transmitter, though I continued to broadcast online.

My station brought in no money. It was a personal project. I had a community and audience, and a desire to share, and to spark joy.

I knew what I was doing was not quite legal. Despite making sure that I wasn’t transmitting on “top” of another station in my city, and even though I was operating at a low transmitter amount, I still knew it wasn’t legal to broadcast except with a national FCC license, which is pretty much impossible to achieve. I had read resources like websites and zines from Prometheus Radio, dedicated to supporting low power radio. I could have operated a transmitter below the legal limit, which would only have allowed me to transmit about as far as a couple blocks, but I decided to go above that limit. What would the worst thing be that could happen?

Well, I did find out. As soon as I got press for my work, I was visited by the FCC and they shut down my transmitter. They had determined I was over the legal limit. I received a warning, which while it did scare me, it did not come with a fine as long as I shut down and kept my transmitter off.

Afterwards, I was involved in at least two more micropower radio stations, but with both of those projects I kept within the legal broadcast limit! For one of these projects I was hired to set up a micro power radio station within an art gallery on a college campus. In this case, speakers in the area, and the broadcast booth I set up allowed viewers/attendees to see and hear the live broadcasts. The prominent location on the first floor of a glassed-walled gallery meant that the public walking by could see the broadcast, and could see the listing of the frequency, which could really only be listened to within that city block, or visit the website to listen, or visit in person. This micropower radio station stayed up the length of the exhibition. We used a low power transmitter that was within the legal limit, and we tested its strength! The gallery director did not want to get in trouble.

The second micropower radio station I was involved in was a long running microbroadcast radio station and online radio station called KCHUNG Radio that still operates to this day in Chinatown, Los Angeles. It also pops up on location to broadcast from museums as a form of artist “residency”. This station really can only be heard within a few blocks, though there were/are artist studios and art spaces within a couple blocks, so theoretically many folks could be listening through the radio. And because it’s in Los Angeles, even though much less folks own personal radios there could be people driving by listening to their car radio that are able to call in. But I and most listeners are likely listening primarily online.

For both my personal micro radio station as well as the KCHUNG station there were/are also online chat features, which let the DJ communicate with the listening public, which definitely encourages a community and the DJ.

The residency idea of KCHUNG broadcasting live from different live events and art museums definitely helped build an audience, and the freeform volunteer-run station also built community among its many DJs and organizers.

Why broadcast from a micropower station?

Broadcast is different from listening to a playlist on a streaming service. It’s also different from listening to a major radio station. The broadcasts are personal, non-commercial, and can be totally freeform. Invent your own approach. A radio station of field recordings. Of rebroadcasts of the atmosphere (this was a show on KCHUNG once). An interview show, a joke show, a personal narrative show. It can be any of these things or many more things. In the current streaming and social media era it’s something different. A one-to-many medium that can still be personal but different. Communicating with sound is its own thing. It can be inventive. Sound makes space. And broadcasting in the airwaves is a way of extending that space across the city or environment. It is a unique media.

Take note! It’s important to remember that despite the advantages of internet streaming, it also has some real disadvantages. One major disadvantage is that while streaming radio is generally cheaper to transmit than “on-air” radio, it’s a lot more expensive to receive. Buying a computer and paying for internet service costs a lot more than buying an AM/FM radio. Also, one of the beautiful things about radio (especially low power radio) is that it is inherently local and is a great tool for building local communities. It’s easy to lose your focus on local people and local issues when your stream is available to the entire world. For these reasons, we at Prometheus see internet streaming as a supplement to old-fashioned on-air radio, but not as a replacement for it. –from Prometheus Radio, on Internet Streaming