On a Friday morning in December, Al Knighten peered out the tinted window of his den to see four police cars, a blue sedan and an unmarked SUV pulling up to his humble Fort Myers home.
Rap. Rap. Rap.
The 44-year-old knew the hard knocking was for him.
"This is it," he thought. "It's been a nice run."
A team of four police officers, two federal regulators and a detective swarmed the home where he had been broadcasting the pirate station, Dunbar Community Radio Service 107.5 FM. He created it with help from others living in the largely black neighborhoods that have been pocked by poverty and crime for decades. Railroad tracks separate the historically segregated area of about 20,000 residents from the city's downtown.
The station's aim: Deliver gospel, jazz, R&B and a dialogue onto local airwaves where they believe black voices were being excluded and sometimes derided. It sought to highlight the positive people and things happening in Dunbar, which is more likely to make the mainstream news when violence sparks on its streets.
"There was a definite and desperate need to have something that gave a voice to the community and we gave the community that voice because nobody else was going to do it," said Ron Jenkins, 47, who hosted a Saturday talk show, "Counter Strike," on the station.
Police arrested Knighten Dec. 9 on a felony charge of unauthorized radio transmission, which carries up to five years in prison. Authorities confiscated the transmitter, flash drives, professional mikes and other equipment totaling about $4,000, Knighten said.
On Monday, he'll miss his arraignment to share Dunbar radio's story at a forum in Washington. Radio activists say it highlights the barricades faced by grass-roots stations across the nation for more than a decade. Federal rules to lift barriers are anticipated this year.
"Most of what you hear on the radio is not your neighbors' voices," said Brandy Doyle, policy director for Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based organization that advocates for community radio. "Local voices and the voices of people of color have been left out in particular."
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