Corporate radio drops the bomb on a local micro-broadcaster
The last time we checked, the Doing It Big show was still on the air.
“This is your boy JP. We’re fixin’ to slide into Seagram’s ‘If the World Was Mine,’” disc jockey JP, also known as Jason Anthony, growled into the microphone.
“That’s right. If the world was mine,” replied co-host DJ Money Mike, a.k.a. Mike Williams, “we wouldn’t be going through everything that we’re going through.”
With the click of a mouse, the track by Seagram, the late Oakland rapper who was shot to death in 1996, began to play. Off the microphone, the two DJs conferred about what to queue up next, deciding on a track called “Why Hate,” by Sacramento artist D-Dubb.
“'Why hate?’ I dedicated that one to the FCC yesterday,” JP said, laughing.
Earlier that week, on Wednesday, January 12, two agents from the Federal Communications Commission office in Pleasanton had arrived to try to shut down KNOZ, an 83-watt Midtown radio station with a coverage area of about three miles.
“They just started banging on the door, flashing their badges,” explained Khyree the Barber, who hosts a Saturday-morning program called The Wake and Bake Show. It was the FCC’s second visit. This time, he said, “we told them they couldn’t come in.” The agents eventually left, but only after declaring KNOZ an illegal operation and threatening thousands of dollars in fines, confiscation of the station’s broadcasting equipment and up to a year in jail.
For nine months now, KNOZ 96.5 has been broadcasting a format of only Northern California hip-hop, R&B and rap artists, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s the only station of its kind in Northern California. The station’s heavy rotation draws exclusively from Northern California musicians like San Francisco’s Ridic or Oakland rappers Triple Ave.
There’s also a special emphasis on local acts. “Skulli, J.G, they’re both Meadowview. Mafiyo’s from Oak Park,” JP explained. When one caller—and there seem to be lots of callers—requested a big name like Naughty by Nature, she was politely, but firmly, refused.
“It’s not all the Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg that they brainwash you with,” explained JP later. “This is your friend around the corner. We’re taking care of the homegrown, the community. And the community is embracing us for that.”
In a way, KNOZ is a throwback to the days before the 1980s and the ensuing decades of media consolidation: regional stations playing regional artists and helping them build a fan base before they go national.
“We’re dealing with poor artists. They don’t have $100,000 to get played on the radio,” said Khyree the Barber. “These are people working at your Jimboy’s or Safeway, who put away their little money for studio time and are trying to make a name for themselves.”
As of this writing, the agents had not come back. But it is likely only a matter of time before the FCC moves in to shut the unique station down for good.
KNOZ doesn’t have a broadcast license or an FCC construction permit for the station. But station owner Will Major said the station was “sanctioned” by the FCC.
Describing a sort of no-harm-no-foul agreement, Major said he was led to believe by FCC officials that the station could operate as long as nobody complained. Meanwhile, KNOZ was in the process of applying for the next available low-power FM license, which he believes could be up for grabs as soon as 2006.
Getting a low-power (100 watts or less) FM radio license is a difficult and time-consuming process. Community groups can spend years applying for the license and construction permit (see “Low-power blues”; SN&R News; July 22, 2004). There are very few open channels, and competition for these licenses can be intense, involving nonprofit and community organizations as well as large religious broadcasters and radio networks trying to snap up the low-power stations as translators for their national broadcasts.
KNOZ appears to have taken a shortcut, finding a quiet spot on the dial, building a station and signing on—essentially claiming squatter’s rights on the tiny parcel of open spectrum.
But Major and the DJs here reject the term “pirate,” as the FCC and some local broadcasters have dubbed them.
“This is not a pirate radio station. As you can see, we aren’t trying to hide anything,” Major said.
Indeed, the on-air sign is plainly visible from the street. There’s also a large blue and yellow banner out front proclaiming the station’s “NONSTOP LOCAL HIPHOP.”
And, for a so-called pirate station, KNOZ has pursued a pretty high profile in the community. On the day SN&R visited, there were two student interns helping staff the station—one from American Legion High School and another from The Met charter high school in Oak Park.
KNOZ held a children’s toy drive in front of the station just before last Christmas. And last fall, a “Hoops for the Hood” charity basketball tournament was put on by KNOZ in the California State University, Sacramento, gym. That also included a voter-registration drive and had representatives of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Sacramento Fire Chief Julius Cherry in attendance, according to Khyree the Barber.
All in all, KNOZ has operated much like any radio station would. It scrupulously edits songs to be free of foul language, and the broadcast guidelines given to DJs make it clear that anybody breaking the rules will lose his or her station privileges. “We’re following all the FCC regulations; we’re not bleeding onto anybody else’s signal or hurting anybody,” Major explained.
But, after nine months of broadcasting without trouble, somebody did complain to the FCC.
Major has pointed the finger at a broadcast engineer named Dave Fortenberry, who goes by the handle Jammer Dave.
Fortenberry recently posted information complaining about what he called the pirate radio station on the Web site Radio-Info.com.
It wasn’t long after Fortenberry’s posting that the FCC paid a visit to KNOZ.
Fortenberry works for Salem Communications Corp., a national broadcasting group that owns more than 90 radio stations around the country. The broadcasting group specializes in Christian music and conservative talk-show formats. Locally, Salem owns 105.5 The Fish, talk station KCEE (103.3) and AM stations KFIA (710) and KTKZ (1380). Salem also boasts syndication of its programming on 1,500 stations across the United States
Fortenberry said that his investigation—Major calls it stalking—had nothing to do with his employers and that he has made a hobby of sniffing out unauthorized broadcasters and exposing them, hardly a challenge in the case of KNOZ.
But Fortenberry said he had nothing to do with the FCC complaint against KNOZ, and he said he resents the station pointing fingers at him, including circulating fliers that include Fortenberry’s name and his direct phone line at work.
“All I did was to take some pictures and post them on the Internet. It wasn’t me that turned them in,” Fortenberry protested. “I wish they would take it out on whoever turned them in.” Fortenberry also complained that low-power FM stations are reserved for noncommercial operations.
KNOZ claims to be a nonprofit organization. The staff is all volunteers. But until last month, KNOZ aired commercials (or underwriting announcements, as public radio stations like to call them) from local businesses like the Casillas Cigars shop next-door to them on 16th and V streets, a local dry-cleaner and a soul-food restaurant on Broadway.
“I wonder if their advertisers know they are illegal,” Fortenberry reflected.
The KNOZ playlist now reminds DJs in bold letters, “Do not to play any commercials until further notice!”
Officials at the FCC refused to answer questions about its investigation into KNOZ. Nor would they reveal the source or the nature of the complaint or complaints against KNOZ, though these records are deemed to be public documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A FOIA request from SN&R is pending.
The FM channels immediately adjacent to 96.5 (96.7 and 96.3) on the FM dial are vacant. The closest neighbors are 96.9 the Eagle and 96.1 KYMX (Mix 96).
Representatives for each of those stations said they were not aware of any interference problems or listener complaints related to KNOZ, and each said they had nothing to do with the FCC action.
But at 103.3 KBMB (The Bomb), station manager Larry Lemanski said his station did file an FCC complaint. The Bomb is a hip-hop and R&B station owned by Entravision Communications Corp., a national broadcasting group that has become one of the nation’s largest Spanish-language radio networks. Locally, Entravision also owns Radio Tri-Color (99.9); Super Estrella (104.3); and Kool 101.9, an oldies station.
“My engineer came to me and said they were a pirate station, and he turned them in to the FCC,” Lemanski explained. “So, hopefully he’ll be shut down.”
Lemanski said he didn’t know if KNOZ was causing interference with Entravision stations or any other broadcasters, but he said the unauthorized broadcast was reason enough to turn KNOZ in.
“If these laws aren’t enforced,” Lemanski noted, “you, me, anybody could just go on the air with their own station.”
Asked if that would be a bad thing, Lemanski replied, “From a business standpoint, that’s not a good thing at all.”
So, does Entravision fear the upstart rap station will cut into its market share?
“Oh, God no!” Lemanski said.
At press time, KNOZ had no plans to go off the air. The station was circulating petitions locally and asking listeners to contact the FCC. “What we’re doing here is so small compared to these big companies,” said Major. “We’re being bullied.”