More than three years after he started one of Pittsburgh's tiniest radio stations, artist Bob Bingham was told it was illegal to run it anymore. As part of the city-funded PublicArtPittsburgh program, in 2001 Bingham launched South Side Radio, a low-wattage station carrying oral-history style interviews with neighborhood residents ranging from old-timers and coffeehouse patrons to tattoo artists and poets. On a good day, 102.9 FM could be heard as far away as Oakland, and Bingham believed its power level was too low to require a license.
But now South Side Radio is silent altogether: On Sept. 17, Bingham took a call from a Federal Communications Commission engineer who told him that his station did need a license. Later that day, Amy Camp of the South Side Local Development Company, Bingham's partner in the project, pulled the plug on the transmitter housed on the second floor of the South Side's Carnegie Library.
"I asked him three times if he listened to the content," said Bingham of the FCC rep. "He said, 'I don't listen to the content. It's the principle. It's illegal.'"
Bingham, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a founder of the Brew House artists' collective, created South Side Radio to preserve and disseminate voices from the community. Its slate of interviews, many conducted by artist and performer Alexi Morrissey, had grown to four hours, was played 24 hours a day, and got some publicity locally; Bingham planned to add to the archive. The station ran off a 1-milliwatt transmitter, and Bingham said he finds it hard to believe the FCC's assertion that it exceeded the limits for an unlicensed station by a factor of "50 to 100." Bingham also said he was told unlicensed stations are forbidden to be heard at distances exceeding 300 feet, whereas South Side Radio could be heard up to a mile away.
Reached by phone in Washington, D.C., FCC spokesperson Janice Wise was unable to illuminate the rules governing unlicensed stations, and wouldn't comment on South Side Radio other than to say the case is closed. Bingham, meanwhile, hopes South Side Radio is just sleeping. He plans to apply for a license, and if that doesn't work, he'll revisit whether he's broadcasting over the power threshold.