A CHANGE IN THE AIR
Imagine a radio station with a wide-open programming policy, well-informed DJs, no corporate or collegiate affiliations, and no annoying commercials or pledge drives.
Sounds enticing, doesn't it? Well, between Thanksgiving evening 1995 and October 30, 1998, L.A. actually had a station that fit the above description. It was called KBLT, it resided at 104.7 on your FM dial, and -- providing you lived or worked in the Silver Lake/Echo Park/Los Feliz/East Hollywood area -- it was a breath of fresh airwaves, with more than 40 volunteer DJs spinning everything from out-there indie stuff to old-time country music.
It was also unlicensed, and thus, in the eyes of the Federal Communications Com mission, completely illegal. The FCC has been cracking down hard recently on low-wattage "micro" stations, so when word came in July that the feds were looking for KBLT, Paige Jarrett put the station -- which broadcast 24 hours a day out of her Silver Lake home -- on temporary hiatus. "I kept it down while we worked on getting different equipment," she says, "so that the transmitter was no longer in my house, but in a more remote location."
KBLT resumed programming on Oc tober 13. With the transmitter stashed on top of a nondescript office building, the station was now reaching listeners as far away as Venice and Santa Monica. "Once we went back on the air," says Jarrett, "some of our DJs were getting a dozen calls a show from people saying, 'We've never heard of you before -- we love you!'"
Unfortunately, KBLT's resurgence was short-lived. On the morning of Octo ber 30, the station's signal went out. Jarrett went to check on the transmitter, only to be met in the building's stairwell by a gentleman flashing an FCC badge. "He said to me, 'You've got two options. We can confiscate the equipment and give you a receipt for it, or you can give us your name and we'll fine you $11,000.'"
Jarrett opted to let them keep the transmitter and antenna, which had cost around $500. "It wasn't a huge amount," she says. "It would have been worse if they'd come to the studio and confiscated the other half of the transmission equipment, and the entire studio and music library." All of which the feds are entitled to do, of course, in the name of serving the public interest.
Jarrett started KBLT in 1995, shortly after moving to Los Angeles from San Francisco, where she'd operated micro station KPBJ for six months. Her motivation was simple. "Corporate radio sucks," she says, "and college radio is plagued with other problems, such as young DJs who do not necessarily know music, and who play a lot of things for shock value. So I just felt there was room for quality music on the radio dial. The problem with Los Angeles is that there is no community radio; if KXLU and KCRW were open to [community participation], KBLT would have never existed."
KBLT first attracted volunteers from Silver Lake's music community, Jarrett says. "But more and more, people who've heard us on the radio have called up saying, 'I want to be involved.' The FCC are supposed to be regulating the airwaves within the public interest; if they really were, they would recognize that people are welcoming micro radio with open arms."
Officially, the FCC's major concern with micro radio is that unchecked activity on the airwaves will interfere with air-traffic-control signals, and thereby cause airplanes to crash. Jarrett doesn't buy the explanation.
"The FCC has shut down 20 micro radio stations in the Los Angeles area," she says, "and none of them brought down a single airplane." More likely, she says, is that the FCC is bowing to pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to clear the airwaves of independently run upstarts.
"I think that the FCC is really just the enforcement arm of the NAB. The NAB represents moneyed interests -- the corporations that have paid big money to have radio stations."
During her run-in with the feds, Jarrett learned that the FCC had, three months ago, received a complaint about KBLT. "The only thing that causes them to search out particular stations is when someone makes a complaint," she says. Jarrett has since filed the appropriate Freedom of Information Act paperwork to find out "who lodged it and what the parameters of the complaint were."
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like KBLT will be returning any time soon.
"Sure, I want to go back on the air," Jarrett says, "but I'm trying to figure out if it's an exercise in futility. If I wind up having another confrontation with the FCC, it's not going to be nearly as polite."
Meanwhile, L.A. radio still sucks.