Fort Myers loses community radio station until new law takes effect
Fort Myers police arrested Albert Knighten last month. Charged with a felony, the 20-year military veteran now faces five years in prison, for operating an illegal radio station.
For two years Knighten’s low power FM radio station, 107.5 FM, broadcast classic soul, gospel and news six hours a day during the week and 12 hours on weekends for and about the Dunbar community, a mostly black South Florida neighborhood that is often ignored by local media. “Unless that is, the news is crime-related,” said Knighten who grew up in Dunbar public housing.
The Federal Communications Commission created low power FM radio service more than a decade ago for non-commercial, educational broadcasting purposes only. The stations operate with 100 watts and thus only broadcast within a 3.5 mile range. After overwhelming demand for access to the stations, the U.S. Congress soon limited the service and the FCC’s authority to issue licenses. But in 2011 President Barack Obama signed into law the Local Community Radio Act, which directs the FCC to allow more low power stations access to the FM radio dial.
The law is supposed to result in an increase in the number of community stations, which would lead to more coverage of local issues such as school board meetings, high school football games, health, education, local music, and literacy campaigns. It is also touted as a path to more in-depth discussions rather than the sound bites on most commercial radio.
Churches, schools, governments, public safety organizations and community groups – individuals are not eligible to own the stations – operate about 800 low power stations currently broadcasting in the country, said Brandy Doyle, Policy Director of the Prometheus Radio Project, an organization of radio activists who successfully worked to repeal Congress’s decision to limit access to low power FM radio. Once the new law takes effect, the number of low power FM stations is expected to double, Doyle said.
“Most low power community stations air public affairs programming that isn’t being done elsewhere on the dial,” Doyle added. “They cover school board meetings, elections, host candidate debates and report on nonprofits in ways that don’t get more than a sound bite in other local media.”
In other words, the stations air exactly the type of programming Knighten broadcast to the Dunbar community. But because the FCC hasn’t started taking applications yet (that is expected to begin in the fall), his station was shut down. The Ft. Myers News-Press reported that the station is the apparent victim of a political foe who did not like that the station opposed a local ballot initiative to make the police chief an elected office.
Knighten said he researched getting an FCC license shortly after he retired from the Navy and returned home to Dunbar, but that red tape and cost prevented him from doing so. “I quickly learned that FCC licenses go to the highest bidder,” he said.
Knighten’s station was a source that local police used to help solve crimes, while other residents turned to it to find out who would cook church dinner after Sunday services. 107.5 FM even featured a show called “Counter Strike.”
Hosted by an African American conservative Muslim, the show discussed public affairs topics including politics, elections, crime, and teen pregnancy. (Knighten ran a disclaimer that the host’s views, which he described as sometimes ‘extreme,’ were his own, not necessarily that of the station). Even if they disagreed with the “Counter Strike” host, Dunbar residents still tuned in. They listened not only for opinion, but also to hear news developments that impacted their community, Knighten said.
“We keyed in on local news and issues and discussed how it affected Dunbar. The local newspaper never really talks about what people were voting for,” said Knighten, known as ‘Fat Albert’ on the airwaves. One way his station made a difference, he explained, is when it came to enlightening Dunbar residents about the way city officials used federal grants.
“When the (federal) government gave money to the local government, local officials would always explain how the money would help the Dunbar community, but then turn around and use the money to refurbish something in more affluent parts of town,” he said. “In other words, they used us to get the federal money, but we never received the benefit of any of it.”
107.5 FM began reporting on these discrepancies. “We started holding city and county officials more accountable to the needs of the community,” he said. “We had nothing to do with the Obama stimulus package, but we raised enough awareness about it that roads in Dunbar that had been messed up for years were suddenly fixed.”
Knighten said the station was about to embark on another public service project when police, federal regulators and a detective paid him a visit before Christmas. They confiscated the transmitter, flash drives, and professional microphones, as well as other equipment totaling about $4,000 purchased with donations, he said.
When low power FM radio stations resume populating airwaves across the country next year, Knighten will be ineligible to apply because there is a provision in the law against granting licenses to unlicensed broadcasters, formerly or otherwise. “Dunbar still needs a voice,” said Prometheus’ Doyle, “and we certainly hope the community finds a way to build a community radio station.
“These stations are small but they meet the needs of communities and nonprofits. Groups that have been historically disenfranchised from media ownership because of barriers to entry such as cost and red tape,” she continued.
Dunbar Community Radio is missed, according to the local newspaper report. One elderly woman, used to listening to the channel all day, cried when the station went off the air. It had been her connection to the rest of the community, Knighten said.
Since his arrest, Knighten said he’s been receiving phone calls from people wanting to help Dunbar start another radio station. “People understand that there is a need for what we do,” he said. “The station became a source of pride for Dunbar.”
Right now though, Knighten is worried about his future.
“My goal was to create something positive for the community,” he said.“The last thing I need is a felony against me, for not hurting anyone.”