PORTLAND (AP) – In the first half of 1998, sounds of the ’80s – hits like “Der Kommissar” and tunes by A Flock of Seagulls – flowed from a roof antenna atop a three-story apartment building to radios in Portland’s West End.

“We called ourselves I97.3 – Irreverent Radio,” said James Ganley, who ran the noncommercial FM station out of his first-floor living room as a vehicle to showcase the potential of low-power radio.

The pirate station went on the air that February with a quarter of a watt of power, enough to carry the signal beyond the neighborhood and into parts of South Portland, including the Maine Mall.

The automated station broadcast around the clock and never pretended to offer quality programming. Ganley’s “microcast” experiment reflected his concern that 1996 legislation lifting radio ownership restrictions was spurring consolidation within the industry, making it harder for local voices to get on the air.

“It was just to prove a point, that it could be done cheaply, without causing interference and that it could garner listenership, and boy, did it ever,” Ganley recalled. “I don’t think we spent $1,000 on everything: transmitter, computer and everything else.”

A few weeks ago, Ganley paid the final bill for his grand experiment when U.S. Magistrate Judge David Cohen hit him with a $5,000 fine for operating a station without a license.

Ganley’s run-in with the Federal Communications Commission began in March 1998 when an agent, accompanied by a Portland police officer, showed up at his door to inform him of the violation.

Ganley suspects that he drew the ire of the FCC because of the station’s Web site that touted the virtues of low-power radio in bringing new and diverse programming to the community.

The agent did not order him off the air, Ganley said. But hoping to mollify the FCC, he reduced the station’s power tenfold, to 25 milliwatts, or what he says is the equivalent of a baby monitor.

In any event, he shut down the station in August and thought that part of his life was behind him.

“Low-power FM became a reality, it got passed. I was working on other projects. I proved my point. I was done.”

The FCC, however, was not. In 2001 it referred the case to the Justice Department, which last year sued Ganley for the $5,000.

Ganley hired a lawyer, who suggested that he negotiate for a lower fine. But Ganley chose to fight, arguing that the FCC lacked authority to regulate his broadcasts because they did not cross state borders or interfere with other stations in a way that affects interstate commerce.

“Of course we lost, as I knew we would,” he said.

Ganley, 38, is no longer in radio, the career he staked out as a teenager. He worked in all facets of the industry – disc jockey, ad sales and engineering – and at one point was owner-operator of WDME in Dover Foxcroft. Now he has interests in a range of businesses, including a corporation that provides technology education programs.

But he is still rankled by the effects of the 1996 deregulation law, saying it stilled local voices while fueling the growth of giant chains like Clear Channel.

To keep small operators on the air, the FCC decided in 2000 to license as many as 1,000 low-power stations that would operate at between 10 and 100 watts. The stations would occupy shards of the FM spectrum that were too small to accommodate a full-power station.

But after commercial broadcasters and public radio stations complained of potential interference, Congress responded by setting strict buffers on the radio dial that severely limited the number of tiny stations.

But advocates of low-power radio got cause for hope just last month when the FCC, in a report ordered by Congress in 2000, concluded that the stations do not pose a significant threat of interference.

There are about 300 low-power stations on the air, many of them licensed to churches. The only one in Maine is WRFR-LP, Radio Free Rockland, which went on the air two years ago with a staff of volunteers that serve up a variety of music and talk programs.

Construction permits have been granted for two other Maine stations, in Portland and Standish.

Ganley says a low-power station in Portland could serve the city’s large foreign language population or be used as a training ground for high school students considering careers in broadcasting.

“It could just be a voice that’s local, that’s not a homogenized distant corporate voice,” he said.

Although Ganley dismisses his station’s programming as “just all the corny stuff from the ’80s,” a lot of people apparently were sad to see it go off the air.

Ganley, who still has some of the I97.3 jingles stored on his computer’s hard drive, said he got “tons of e-mails” from listeners who missed the programming.

Surprisingly, some were from far beyond the local area. Fans of his ’80s kitsch included hordes of listeners in Belgium who caught the signal as it was streamed over the Internet.

AP-ES-03-07-04 1230EST



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