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Pirates, Ahoy!

Looking for your own low-watt radio station? No way -- José's already got it.

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Back in the good old days -- that would be 1998 -- five Spanish-language pirate radio stations were broadcasting on the West Side alone. They didn't constitute much of a threat to commercial radio, for they had only a two-mile radius; one was transmitting from an antenna atop Belinda's Bar.

The feds, of course, are very serious people. They saw the stations not as innocent neighborhood radio, but as nefarious pirates that had to be stopped, lest they steal attention away from various shows called The Morning Zoo. The FCC conducted a series of raids. The menace was thwarted.

But then a strange thing happened. The FCC decided low-watt radio wasn't so bad after all -- as long as it was licensed and .4 MHz away from an existing station, so as not to interfere with another frequency. The decision was hailed as a triumph; it would place a portion of the dial in the hands of regular people, providing a small respite from the celebration of mediocrity that is commercial radio.

Unfortunately, Congress is a place where good ideas go to be bludgeoned. And that's what happened when the FCC's proposal reached Capitol Hill. The National Association of Broadcasters (motto: "Sucking: Our Role in the Ecosystem") lobbied to ensure that low-watt stations couldn't operate within .6 MHz of existing stations.

It might seem like a small change, but on crowded urban dials, it effectively precluded all but a handful of new stations. In December, the FCC granted 255 low-power licenses in 20 states -- out of more than 1,200 applicants. (Ohio's have yet to be decided.)

Now that pirate radio has given way to strictly regulated low-watt, Cleveland's once-emerging scene is down to exactly one guy: José Castro. With the help of some buddies from a veterans' center, he's applied to run a bilingual West Side station that would have a three-mile range. It wasn't easy to find an open spot on the spectrum. He had to hire consultants from Texas to locate a frequency, and the FCC must still rule on whether it interferes with a country station from Wooster.

His difficulties in just getting to this point mean few if any Clevelanders will follow his path. And even Castro admits he's likely screwed. "I have very little chance," he laments.

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