HISPANICS FIGHT TO RETURN TO AIRWAVES PIRATE RADIO STATIONS HAD LOYAL LISTENERS

The Plain Dealer
Cleveland, OH
Aug 30, 1998

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Authors: MICHAEL O'MALLEY PLAIN DEALER REPORTER
Pagination: 1B

Abstract:

Around-the-clock listener-request lines kept disc jockeys at three of the stations busy cueing Latin Top 10 cuts by Elvis Crespo, Groupo Mambo, Manikomio and Joe King, filling the barrio with merengue, salsa and bolero rhythms. At the other two stations, DJs played religious music, and ministers preached and prayed in Spanish to Christian listeners.

All five stations aired public service announcements, raising money for charitable causes, soliciting donors for blood and bone marrow drives, informing listeners about community events and connecting Cleveland Hispanics with Latino news and events worldwide.

But the low-powered stations - each about 20 watts, reaching about a two-mile radius - were broadcasting without licenses. Last week, the music, sermons and news were silenced when the Federal Communications Commission raided four stations and seized their equipment. The first of the five stations had been shut down by the FCC in March.

(Copyright (c) The Plain Dealer 1998)

Full Text:

The first 24-hour-a-day Spanish radio station in Cleveland went on the air 15 months ago, followed by four more this year, each one becoming instantly popular in the growing Hispanic community on the city's near West Side.

Around-the-clock listener-request lines kept disc jockeys at three of the stations busy cueing Latin Top 10 cuts by Elvis Crespo, Groupo Mambo, Manikomio and Joe King, filling the barrio with merengue, salsa and bolero rhythms. At the other two stations, DJs played religious music, and ministers preached and prayed in Spanish to Christian listeners.

All five stations aired public service announcements, raising money for charitable causes, soliciting donors for blood and bone marrow drives, informing listeners about community events and connecting Cleveland Hispanics with Latino news and events worldwide.

But the low-powered stations - each about 20 watts, reaching about a two-mile radius - were broadcasting without licenses. Last week, the music, sermons and news were silenced when the Federal Communications Commission raided four stations and seized their equipment. The first of the five stations had been shut down by the FCC in March.

The agency said the illegal stations had the potential to interfere not only with the licensed programming of other stations, but with air traffic control and emergency police and fire frequencies.

Now Cleveland's Hispanic community is preparing to fight to regain a share of the airwaves. And the FCC, while insisting it will continue to stamp out the so-called pirate stations, also says it will look for ways to accommodate low-powered minority broadcasts.

"It's a shame, what happened," said regular listener Elisa Feliciano of W. 119th St. "These stations were helping the community."

Feliciano earlier this month asked the stations to put the word out that her 17-year-old son, Felix, diagnosed with leukemia, needed a bone marrow donor. She got about 350 responses, which the American Red Cross described as overwhelming, considering that finding minority donors has been difficult.

"It worked wonderfully well," said Linda Eckenbrecht, manager of the Red Cross marrow donor program. "And I was disappointed to hear that they were off the air."

The five low-watt FM stations, known as "pirates" because they were stealing air space, were operated by about 100 volunteer disc jockeys with names such as "Pirata Boricua" (The Puerto Rican Pirate), "El Cano" (Blond Man), "Bronco Gil" and "Latin Wolfman."

They understood they were operating illegally, but they believed their stations provided vital links to a growing community that is struggling with language and cultural barriers. And they hoped the FCC would recognize their public service and look the other way.

But the FCC has been cracking down on pirate stations, leading to the closings - some voluntary - of 250 unlicensed stations in the last year. The latest were the four here last week and 15 in Miami earlier this month.

Many pirate stations are operated by Hispanics, and when government agents storm stations, it is common to hear cries of racism, according to news accounts.

"This really appears like an act of discrimination," Leo Serrano, director of Cleveland's Spanish American Committee, charged last week.

But that argument is tough to get past the FCC's top boss, William Kennard, the first black chairman of the federal agency.

"No one believes more fervently in the value of broadcasting to serve communities than me," Kennard said in a telephone interview from Washington last week. "But there's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way to do it is to violate the law by cranking up a transmitter and becoming a pirate.

"What we have in this country is the finest telecommunications system in the world. It only works because we have a licensing system. If we depart from that fundamental rule of law, we have chaos and cacophony on the air waves."

But Cleveland Hispanics argue that it is impossible for the low- watt stations to comply with the law because the FCC does not license stations below 100 watts. They say it is too costly to buy an existing high-powered station or start one because large corporations monopolize the air waves.

"The big stations don't want the little stations here," said lawyer Richard Herman, who represents one of the former Spanish Christian stations. "They don't want to divvy up the market. They're consolidating more and more, becoming more and more monopolistic."

Kennard does not disagree with that, saying he is concerned about corporate consolidation of radio.

"I understand the hardship," Kennard said. "But radio stations have to operate consistently with the law. I'm committed to finding lawful ways for people to use the airwaves. We're looking hard at proposals to create a low-power FM service."

He said it might be possible, with new technologies, to broadcast at low power without interfering with other stations.

He said he did not know how soon his agency would make a decision on low-power stations.

But members of the Hispanic community here believe enough public pressure will move the agency.

"We're the fastest-growing minority population," Leslie Estremera said at a community meeting the day after the shutdowns last week. "That, to the government, means something."

After the raids, about 50 Hispanics gathered at the offices of the Spanish American Committee at W. 44th St. and Lorain Ave.

They organized two committees - one of station owners and one of citizens. The owners are bringing together their attorneys to coordinate a legal battle, possibly trying to force the FCC to allow the shut-down stations back on the air, at least temporarily, pending a policy change on the low-power issue.

The owners also are considering petitioning the FCC to hold public hearings on whether to license micro-stations.

Hispanic residents are organizing a fund-raiser to pay for legal fees and possibly to help buy a station or start a legal one.

Whatever the remedy, some residents think it will be a long time before Elvis Crespo's voice flows again from that old radio over the kitchen sink.

"The community lost a voice," Serrano said. "This has galvanized the community like no other issue in town. People are turning on their radios and they don't hear their music. I'm surprised how quickly these stations became community institutions. And getting them back has become a grassroots movement."

PHOTO BY DAVID I. ANDERSEN / PLAIN DEALER PHOTOGRAPHER Andy Andino, manager of radio station FM/90.7, La Super Potencia Latina En Espanol, on W. 25th St., stands in an empty broadcast booth last week after federal agents raided the unlicensed station and confiscated the equipment.

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