Born Dylan Wrynn in Brooklyn, N.Y., Tridish, 42, has a wild beard, a prankster's magnetism, and a radical's passion for social change. A 1991 graduate of Antioch College, he is a trained radio engineer who also has worked as a carpenter, solar-energy system installer, and a volunteer at a homeless shelter. He helped build stations across the United States, Guatemala, Colombia, Nepal, Tanzania, and Jordan. Mostly, he calls himself a "freelance troublemaker." In this edited conversation with staff writer Michael Matza, he talks about low-power FM and its future.
Question: What is LPFM? Who is eligible for a new license?
Tridish: A low-power station . . . can only be owned by a nonprofit organization. It has to be noncommercial, [100 watts, with a three-mile signal radius], and primarily devoted to a neighborhood or small town. [It has to broadcast at least 12 hours a day, with at least eight hours of locally produced programming.] Each nonprofit takes a different tack. We have built stations with farm workers, neighborhood organizations, environmental groups, small churches.
Q: When will the FCC open the application process? How many licenses will be available locally?
Tridish: Our best guess is the fall. It is hard to say how many will be allocated . . . because there are still some implementation decisions being made by the FCC. Some full-power stations have applied for translators, which are repeaters to boost their signals. There is a dispute between low-power applicants and full-power applicants over who has priority. There probably will be eight to 10 opportunities [for new LPFM] licenses in and near Philadelphia.
Q: Free Berkeley Radio in California was a prominent pirate in the 1990s. It fought for access when huge networks had as many as 1,200 affiliated stations. Did that inspire you?
Tridish: [At the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Berkeley's lawyer said a giant broadcaster] can own 1,200 stations, my client can't have one, and that is the best you can do for freedom of speech? For four years, the court [reserved] judgment on whether the FCC could actually shut down this guy. So he kept broadcasting and sending out [do-it-yourself transmitter] kits. I bought one [for] about $200. We put it together. It went up in smoke. [Bought another], and it took us nine months to figure out how to build our first working transmitter.
Q: You said you were prepared to bike-lock yourself to your modest in-house studio if FCC agents tried to oust you. To your surprise, the agency began holding hearings on LPFM, instead.
Tridish: That's when Prometheus [which today employs seven people as progressive radio activists] got started. We said, "We were planning for civil disobedience, but if they are ready, to change the laws." We made friends in Congress. The [Washington-based] Media Access Project, with which we still work, showed us how the federal rule-making process works.
Q: Why call it Prometheus?
Tridish: From Greek mythology. The gods had a monopoly on technology. Humanity was running around naked, totality primitive, and the gods liked it that way. They had all these powers that humans didn't. Prometheus felt this was unfair. He [stole fire] and showed humanity how to make fire. Some interpret it as like opening Pandora's box and giving us the power to burn ourselves. Our interpretation is that he democratized this power.
Q: Why did you take the name Pete Tridish? You use it even in Washington testimony.
Tridish: It was my [secret-identity] pirate name. Everyone at the station had a name like that. My girlfriend at the time was named Millie Watt. There was another woman whose name was Ann Tenna. We all took code names. I just kept mine. I was convinced it is better to be remembered than forgotten. Trying to fit in, in Washington, wouldn't have done me any good. I don't think we would have won that way.
Q: Was it hard to go from being a pirate to someone who participates in the drudgery of federal rule-making?
Tridish: It was fun being a radio pirate, and some people accused me of selling out when I made the transition. But to me, radicalism isn't a question of tactics. [It is about] fundamental change.
Some things look radical, like shaking your fist, but if they aren't effective . . . that is just posturing.
Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or firstname.lastname@example.org.