In September, the Bush administration was on the verge of allowing the nation’s largest media companies to further monopolize the public airwaves. New rules that were to be implemented by the Federal Communications Commission would have allowed media owners to go on a buying spree, enabling a single company to control all of a market’s airwaves.
Then a former radio pirate and his ragtag political group took on the government — and won. The Prometheus Radio Project sued the FCC, arguing that the new rules would make it harder for alternative voices to get on the air. In September a federal court agreed, temporarily blocking the changes.Pete Tridish, the leader of Prometheus, got his start as a media activist in 1998, when the FCC raided his pirate-broadcast studio in Philadelphia and confiscated his jerry-built transmitter. “As cool as it was to do pirate radio, I realized the broadcasts shouldn’t have to be an act of defiance,” says Tridish, now thirty-three. “They should be a basic right.”
Although Prometheus is run out of a church basement, it has become a potent proponent of grass-roots radio. “They combine a genuine, hands-on understanding of the issue with a remarkable sophistication in dealing with Washington policymakers,” says Andrew Schwartzman, CEO of the Media Access Project, who recruited Prometheus to challenge the media rules. “I was like, ‘Sue the FCC?'” Tridish recalls. “‘Of course!'”
The court ruling was actually the second victory for Prometheus. Facing pressure from the radio activists, the FCC in August promised to expedite applications from 1,200 nonprofits eager to start low-power radio stations. Thanks to Prometheus, a civil-rights group in Opelousas, Louisiana, now has a 100-watt station that features local zydeco bands, and an environmental group on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland broadcasts a mix of folk, bluegrass, electronica and punk.
The victory didn’t come without sacrifice, though. For his big day in court against the FCC, Tridish had to get dressed up. That meant supplementing his usual jeans with a button-down shirt and black sneakers “that can kind of fake it” as loafers. “I don’t have a moral thing about suits,” he says. “I just don’t own one.”