The FCC Won't Let BRC Be
Last year, Black Rock City was home to over 40 radio stations.
This year, only a handful are left. Radio Free Burning Man? Or radio-free Burning Man?
by Rockstar, Radio Electra
For many years, Black Rock City played host to a veritable plethora of playa broadcasters, with over 40 different radio stations pounding the airwaves with an incredible mixture of music, commentary, and entertainment. Burning Man was home to some of the best and most diverse low-power FM and AM radio stations around, and few places on Earth could compete with its variety of radio programming.
Numerous theme camps and villages operated their own radio stations, ranging from simple mono transmitter systems to elaborate studios with professional broadcast equipment. All of this was done without commercial support of any kind - and perhaps more importantly, without the permission of the FCC.
Radio broadcasting at Burning Man was - and still is - considered a cultural gift to the community. It's a gift given to anyone with a radio. From the perspective of the broadcasters, there has never been any expectation of getting anything back in return.
Working at Radio Electra, one comment often heard was, "How do you know anyone is even listening?" Well, we knew. But it didn't really matter. The gift was sent out there into the airwaves.
And indeed, people were listening - except that some of them were not too happy about it.
Where are they now?
That was then. In fact, that was just last year. So what happened? How did 40-plus radio stations get whittled down to the less than twelve stations that exist on the playa today? Before going any further, some explanation is in order.
In the past, many of the transmitters here at Burning Man were very low power, "part 15 compliant," covering only a few blocks inside Black Rock City. Some were created simply to provide an easy way for everyone in a village to share the same music, by tuning in to their little camp radio station. Others however, had enough power to be heard throughout Black Rock City, and allegedly, by local residents of the surrounding area as well. These larger stations typically had a staff of DJ's and were often on the air for 24 hours a day. These high powered broadcasters provided music, travel advisories, event survival tips, weather reports, and emergency alerts for incoming dust and electrical storms. These stations were viewed, at least by the Black Rock Rangers and many law enforcement officials, as a big help in public service and safety during the event.
Last year, it was rumored that four formal complaints had been supposedly filed with the Federal Communications Commission regarding radio broadcasting in Black Rock City. Reportedly, event attendees were not the ones who filed these complaints. They were filed by what were assumed to be residents of the surrounding area. These complaints are formally known as "malicious interference" of licensed broadcasting stations.
For the record, no one at Burning Man has ever intentionally or "maliciously interfered" with any licensed broadcast. If there ever truly was a conflict of any kind, it was accidental, not intentional. Others, however, didn't see it that way. Enter the FCC.
The FCC won't let BRC be
For years, the FCC has known that Black Rock City was a hot bed of suspected illegal radio broadcasting. However, it was only last year, when the FCC supposedly received these complaints, that they turned up the heat.
Keep in mind, the FCC wasn't even at Burning Man last year. Because of this, due to time constraints and a lack of resources, the FCC was unable to perform any kind of formal investigation in Black Rock City. But rumors of government agents at the Gate flew hard and heavy after the event. It was said that the FCC wanted to do an enforcement action in Black Rock City and that they had asked the Washoe County Sheriff and the Bureau of Land Management to help.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and those agency's supervisors realized that not only did they not have the authority to enforce FCC regulations, but that there would be an incredible public uproar as well. No one wanted to deal with the negative fallout of raiding 40 or more camps of their radio equipment. Besides, officials also knew that shutting down all the radio stations in Black Rock City would create severe public safety issues inside the event, making it impossible to broadcast storm warning alerts, event emergencies, or issues regarding travel safety.
Of course, none of this was of any concern to anyone within the FCC, who could care less if a severe dust storm wipes out an entire village, such as what happened to Xara in 2001. It didn't matter, and after all, they had a mandate to enforce the law. The only thing the FCC saw was a bumper crop of unlicensed radio stations that had to be stopped from broadcasting, regardless of any unintended consequences.
Fortunately, the FCC was unable to do any sort of enforcement action last year. But as they packed their toys and went home, one can imagine the agency using a familiar quote from The Terminator: "I'll be back."
Not legit, must quit
Fast forward to San Francisco, January 2003. That was when playa broadcasters were first notified by people "in the know" of what has been transpiring with the FCC issue. These stations are informed that if they decide to stay on the air in Black Rock City, the FCC will likely hit them with a minimum fine of $10,000 per day, per station, for unauthorized broadcasting at the event. Not only that, but it is likely that the FCC will seize anything and everything used to run that station.
Much debate over this ensued between the various playa radio stations. But in the end, well over half of them decided that perhaps it would just be better to find another way to participate this year. Rather than risk confiscation of property and financial ruin at the hands of the FCC, these broadcasters are opting out instead.
Now many of you may be asking, "Well, why don't these playa broadcasters just get a license and go legit?" And that, my fellow Burners, is literally the $10,000 question. After all, the Burning Man organization runs BMIR 94.5 FM, Burning Man Information Radio, which is now a fully-licensed, FCC-approved radio station.
However, current FCC regulations do not allow a low power independent broadcaster - in other words, the rest of us - to get a license to operate at the event. Rules like this are written to ensure that multi-million dollar broadcasting corporations such as Clear Channel, who can afford heavy government lobbying, can compete for bandspace and listeners.
Rules are intentionally slanted to make sure that smaller, privately-owned stations, not to mention temporary radio stations that only operate during events such as Burning Man, can't be licensed. This prohibits broadcasters from offering their community what they really want to hear, rather than the spoon-fed garbage produced for public consumption in the default world.
I'm still standing ... yeah, yeah, yeah
Despite the threats and scare tactics of the FCC, there are still a few stalwart, stubborn broadcasters this year who feel that the service they provide to the Black Rock City community goes above and beyond the risks involved. Some feel that freedom of speech should transcend all social, cultural, and economic barriers. Suppressing that freedom - by shutting down the playa's radio stations and intimidating the broadcasters - not only runs contrary to the customs and courtesies of Black Rock City, but is a danger to the health and safety of the community as well.
This year, please show your support for Black Rock City radio. Stop in and let the remaining stations know that you support and appreciate what they are doing. It may not seem like much, but by simply serving and entertaining the Burning Man community, these radio stations risk losing it all to a bureaucratic government machine.