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Book Review: Rebels on the Air

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Rebels on the Air — An Alternative History of Radio in America
by Jesse Walker (New York University Press, 2001); 326 pages; $24.95.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE harboring an escaped Cuban child to receive an unexpected, pre-dawn visit from a federal SWAT team.

Early in the morning of November 19, 1997, Leslie Brewer was awakened by a pounding on his door. On opening it, he discovered an armed SWAT team, backed up by dozens of federal officials and local police. The government agents burst in and ordered Brewer and his wife to the floor. They were handcuffed and guns were pointed at them while agents fanned out to search their Tampa house. The object of the search: radio equipment. Brewer had violated the law by broadcasting without a license — an occasional low-power program on an FM frequency. Several other similar raids were pulled off against other area “pirate” broadcasters that day. All were assessed substantial fines, suffered the confiscation of property, and now have criminal records.

That is but one of the many episodes of governmental hostility to unlicensed free speech on the airwaves that Reason magazine writer Jesse Walker includes in his new book Rebels on the Air. Right from the first page, Walker’s passion for his subject is evident. This is a book by a lover of radio who has amassed a storehouse of information about its history, particularly the history of governmental meddling in the medium. The book’s message comes through strong and clear: Radio would be far more than it now is if the government — usually a tool for entrenched interests that want to squash competition — would step aside and allow freedom to work.

Anyone who still clings to the notion that the United States was a laissez-faire paragon a century ago will have to abandon it on reading the opening chapters of Rebels on the Air, which deal with the early history of radio in the United States. Wireless communication was only nine years old when Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912. The key provision of that law was its prohibition against all unlicensed broadcasting. Most of the then-usable spectrum was reserved for government use and most of the rest assigned to commercial stations. Amateurs were “exiled to an ethereal reservation” consisting of “a piece of the spectrum considered almost useless,” and furthermore limited to one kilowatt of power.

Why the heavy-handed intervention? Walker notes, “Self-regulation was widespread and growing, a rich spontaneous order nurtured by the amateur associations, from small college clubs and Boy Scout groups to large metropolitan federations.” The force behind the Radio Act was the U.S. Navy, which was not interested in spontaneous order in radio. Occasionally, its radio communications had suffered from interference and amateur pranks, but Walker points out that the problem could have been solved by a far less draconian measure than the clumsy, authoritarian Radio Act. The Navy needed only to encrypt its transmissions, Walker observes. A minor problem was turned into the excuse for a massive increase in governmental control.

The Radio Act was the camel’s nose under the tent. As is the case with nearly everything the government begins to regulate, more and more statutes and regulations would issue forth from Washington over the next few decades, with uniformly bad results, Walker shows.

The next major assault on radio freedom was the Radio Act of 1927. Herbert Hoover, President Coolidge’s secretary of commerce, had become alarmed over stories about widespread radio interference and saw increased federal regulation as the answer. Walker, however, demonstrates that the problem stemmed from the government’s own policy of cramming so much radio into such a small slice of the spectrum. “For some impenetrable reason,” he writes, “the Commerce Department required all news, lectures, entertainment, etc. — in short, virtually all broadcasting — to take place at the same frequency: 360 meters, or 833.3 kHz.” Simply allowing more of the spectrum for the growing radio market would have ameliorated the interference problem. And there was another approach to the problem that held great promise but was never given a chance to work by Hoover and his eager regulators, namely the common law.

Citing Ronald Coase’s path-breaking work, Walker argues that it would have been far better to have allowed broadcasters to stake their claims to frequencies and then to have protected their frequencies against interference through tort law, much as a homesteader would sue to stop trespass on his land. During the 1920s, such a common-law-based order in radio was emerging, with spectrum rights being traded and some court decisions recognizing a right against interference. Unfortunately, the free-market, common-law regime that was beginning to break through the crust of federal regulation was strangled in its cradle by the 1927 Act, which eliminated all individual rights in the radio spectrum. Henceforth, the Federal Radio Commission (later renamed the Federal Communications Commission) would assign frequencies, and naturally politics would play a leading role.

Walker has sharp words for National Public Radio, as one would anticipate. Congress tacked on a provision for public radio as an afterthought in the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, one of those grandiose socialist forays so beloved by President Johnson. A few radio people had hopes that NPR would become an innovative, locally directed enterprise, but anyone familiar with the federal government would have seen the folly in that belief. “NPR became yet another centralized institution run by political appointees,” Walker writes. “Most public radio is upscale and middlebrow, offering hour after hour of candy-coated brie. It’s hard to see how one can call this arrangement ‘;public,’ unless one’s only criterion is an influx of public dollars.” The strings that NPR attaches to its money leads to a sterile sameness among public radio stations, including a bias against anything that has to do with laissez-faire capitalism.

Micro-radio tyranny

One of the author’s favorite causes is that of micro-radio, that is, tiny, low-power FM broadcasters that aim at only a miniscule audience. Walker tells the story, for example, of DeWayne Readus, a blind micro-broadcaster in a public-housing project. Readus used his half-watt operation to discuss local issues, especially police brutality. When he aired taped interviews with a local boxing coach who had been beaten by the police and invited others who had stories of brutality to tell them on the air, the local officials ran to the FCC. Readus was broadcasting without a license, which he couldn’t possibly have afforded to obtain. The FCC levied a $750 fine against him, but he never paid it. Eventually FCC agents confiscated his equipment.

Walker rounds out his book with a discussion of new broadcasting technologies. Innovators keep finding ways to transmit communications to people that bypass the FCC’s control of the artificially restricted airwaves. There is, for instance, satellite radio. That technology has been in existence for a decade, but the FCC did not award its first license until 1997 and permits only a very small portion of the band to be used by two satellite services. It appears that the FCC is once again the Maginot Line behind which conventional broadcasters who don’t want competition are hiding.

At times, Rebels on the Air dwells too much on the wild and wooly cast of characters in the story of the government’s suppression of the free market in radio, but that is a small cavil. The book is a great addition to the literature of the ways in which the state uses regulatory edicts and strong-arm tactics to stifle people’s freedom.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.