Low-power surge

Michael G. is going legit — if the Federal Communications Commission will have him. He may have been a “renegade” radio broadcaster before, he says, but if he’d known the FCC was going allow low-power FM radio licenses in the year 2000, he would have waited.

The former Leavenworth disc jockey, who is also known as Michael Gonzalo Calderon, broadcast his 60-watt Hispanic radio station without a license from a 30-foot tower perched atop an apartment building at Linwood and Tracy for six months in 1997 before the FCC confiscated his tower.

Now he’s hoping that’s all behind him.

Late last month the FCC adopted rules that essentially open radio airwaves to low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations, creating a class of radio stations designed to serve local communities or groups that are underrepresented on the air. Two classes of stations will comprise the service, with maximum power levels of 10 watts and 100 watts. The smallest FM stations now allowed are 6,000 watts.

“Every day, it seems, we read about a bigger merger and more consolidation, all of which leads to the perception that interests of small groups and individuals are being lost and that important voices and viewpoints are being shut out,” FCC chairman William Kennard said in a statement following the commission’s decision.

To G. and other LPFM radio broadcasters, often described as “pirate” radio broadcasters, Kennard voices an argument they have made for years by defying FCC rules to gain access to radio airwaves.

“I can afford to make a radio station,” G. said in a recent interview, “but I cannot afford to go out and buy an FM radio station for $15 million, because I know the revenue that I bring in is just going to pay for the interest and nothing else.”

The National Association of Broadcasters has fought the FCC decision on behalf of major broadcasters, who argue that permitting low-power stations would create a traffic jam of interference on the FM band. But the FCC conducted a test in which it used 21 average radios (all valued at under $120) to find out whether the new rules would cause interference. The conclusion: Only three markets — New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles — are crowded enough to disallow 100-watt stations.

A complaint of interference from an Independence, Mo., radio station is what prompted the FCC to force G. off the air, but he argues that the complaint was false: “There is no way that my Bic lighter is going to interfere with their stadium flood light. There’s no way — 60 watts versus 100,000. No way.”

G. hasn’t always been a renegade broadcaster. He’s been in radio off and on since 1968 and currently does a radio show for KCXL 107.9 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays. And in the mid-1980s, he spent thousands of dollars to apply for a license to start his own Hispanic radio station under FCC rules that reserved a certain number of licenses for minority broadcasters. But the license went to someone else who, according to G., then sold it to a non-minority broadcaster.

His interest in starting his own station rekindled a decade later when G’s mother died of cancer. After hitting rock-bottom, he said, he was brought out of his depression by radio. He had started tinkering with his radio equipment and listening to music. What began as a distraction became a mission to broadcast traditional Spanish music 24 hours a day to Kansas City’s Hispanic community.

“My interest in radio was growing, growing, growing,” he said, “and I could just picture myself reaching the west side, Argentine district, east side — where most of the Hispanic community lives. I could just see myself reaching those people.”

After adjusting his equipment and perfecting his signal, G. began broadcasting his one-man station all over the city. From May 11, 1997, to Nov. 6 of the same year, G. ran the station using a 25-disc CD player to broadcast out of his home even while he was at work as a bondsman. G. said he also provided a service to the community by reading local announcements and raising money for various causes, as was the case with a fund for sending the body of young man who died in a car accident back to his parents in Mexico.

The station, known as KCMG, began receiving widespread attention from the local media as well as the FCC, which began sending cease and desist orders after a complaint of interference was lodged against him. When the agency finally shut him down, G. was concerned he would be imprisoned or fined $100,000.

G. stayed off the air and wasn’t penalized. Now he plans to apply for a license under the FCC’s new rules. His brightest hope for a license is a short clause in the new rules that states, “Unauthorized broadcasters will be disqualified (from eligibility for a license) unless they certify that they ceased operations when notified of their violation of FCC rules or by February 26, 1999.” Because KCMG was off the air long before Feb. 26, 1999, it seems as though G. is eligible to apply.

Calling Kennard his “hero,” G. said, “I appreciate his efforts. I know that he faced a lot of challenges, a lot of contradictions, a lot of everything. Had I known that this man was going to come up with low-power radio station licensing, believe me, I wouldn’t have gone on the air. I would have waited.”

Although Kansas City now has two Hispanic radio stations, KUPN 1480 and KCTE 1510, G. is filing for his license on the grounds that they are not Hispanic-owned. “They are great; I love them…. Today we might have two radio stations, but they can change format the minute that those dollars disappear. Even in English-speaking broadcasting, they drop format because of their incomes.

“As large as Kansas City is, you could once find nothing other than English…. And the Hispanic community like myself, we went out of our way to either work for free to do something for (a licensed) station, like selling the time or buying time out of their own pockets in order to be on the air. Is this what they call free enterprise? I don’t think so.”

G. says that if he gets a license, he won’t operate the station from his house and will open it to the public to get other people involved.

“Do I really expect to get a license? I hope so,” he said with a weary sigh. He then seemed to brighten after remembering his favorite clause in the new rules. “Remember: It says ‘or.'”

Contact Michelle Rubin at 816-218-6784 or michelle.rubin@pitch.com.

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