Remembering Attorney at Law Michael Couzens: Dedicated to Community Radio

Michael Couzens, Attorney at Law who specialized in Federal Communications law and citizen of the community radio world, passed away on March 18, 2023. A professional colleague of his, Radio Frequency Engineer Michael Brown (BrownBroadcast Services in Portland Oregon) called him “a friend, a wonderful person, a karate black-belt, an excellent and creative communications attorney, and an indefatigable ally of Community Radio (whose) patient and friendly legal handiwork made hundreds of Full-Power and LPFM Community Stations possible, all across the country.”

A few weeks before his passing, Michael Couzens sat down with Pacifica Affiliates Network Manager Ursula Ruedenberg, to talk about community radio. Following is a look back at Michael’s life, based on that conversation.  

Couzens grew up in California. He studied Law at University of California Berkeley and economics at Stanford University. He entered the media world because of his passion for television: “I started as a TV guy before law school,” he said. In his life, he would “creatine a new broadcast service” in low power Television.

He discovered community radio upon coming out of law school in 1976, when he volunteered to help the fledgling National Federation of Broadcasters (NFCB) to find spectrum for community radio. He was attracted to community radio, because of “the vision of expanding service through community radio. (NFCB founders) Tom Thomas and Terry Clifford were dynamite with boundless enthusiasm for this and they had a charismatic buddy whom I met, Lorenzo W. Milam. I just thought they were a great group, very exciting, very good, and it turns out they were right.” Couzens remained involved with the NFCB for the rest of his life.

In 1976, Michael began working in Washington DC with a law firm representing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). He helped with the legal process for establishing TV dishes in major cities. According to him, it was “the first commercial satellite telecommunication system, and CPB built it with government money.” 

In this work, Couzens also stayed connected to radio. “The CPB dealt with TV first, and radio as a distant second. But radio did finally come along, they were part of our meetings, and I always was very interested in anything I could do to make sure that radio did not fall off the agenda for that system, since satellites were important for radio.”

However, when he moved on to work for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington DC from 1978 – 1982, Michael remained “90% a TV guy. I was interested in radio and understood community radio from the ground up. But it wasn’t my thing. My thing was promoting diversity in television with low power TV.” However, he still called radio “…pretty cool. Like TV without pictures. “ 

During this time, Michael got to know Pacifica’s lawyer, Terry Cole and began performing various legal services for the Pacifica Foundation until 2000. He further developed what he called a “strong connection” to Pacifica when, in 1979, he met and eventually married Adi Gevins, a Peabody Award winning producer of documentary programs for KPFA-Pacifica Radio, Berkeley California.

Michael’s professional relationship with community radio really came alive again in 2007, when the FCC announced a public filing window for frequencies for noncommercial full power stations. Prior to 2007, the FCC had imposed a lengthy freeze on such applications, normally made by nonprofit organizations.

At that time, Michael, who had returned to live in California, formed “Discount Legal” together with communications attorney Alan Korn, whom he described as a “terrific younger collaborator.”  They prepared the legal parts of many radio applications for an affordable, fixed price. As a result of their work, 140 applications were filed on behalf of local groups hoping to build community radio stations.  According to him, “We got a trove of licenses out of it. And many, many of those are now on the air.” For many community groups, navigating this new world of mass media was full of unknowns. Michael stayed on as their FCC consulting lawyer, giving legal guidance at a discount price.

Along with others in the media democracy movement, Michael’s aim, during the 2007 FCC filing process, was to make media accessible by helping community radio applicants compete against the larger, wealthier, or speculative entities, who would be applying for what was a limited number of remaining openings on the dial. When asked about this, Michael said, “firms in Washington were charging three, four or five thousand dollars hourly and we ran into so many regular people who said they couldn’t afford it, were too intimidated by the cost.  We were especially concerned about the window being overrun by large religious broadcast networks. We wondered: how can we get a significant number of community applicants in there, and that’s what we came up with. We worked hand in glove with the telecommunication consulting engineers (necessary for the applications). Perhaps above all, we worked with Michael Brown.”

Regarding the financial sacrifice of offering legal services at low fees, Michael explained, “For two decades, I had major television clients (so) I could go ahead…but yeah, for sure, if I’d been dependent on community radio for an income, I would have had to go into some other line of work.”

When asked if he was glad to have given so much to community radio, Michael replied, “I couldn’t be happier. On the micro level, these stations with good community values make a tremendous difference …some of them have been a political force and a community asset beyond what I could have imagined was even possible. “

An application that ended up showcasing Michael’s values and dedication was the one filed in Albany, Georgia in 2007. It was initiated by the historic civil rights leader Charles Sherrod, after consulting with a representative from Pacifica Network, excited about giving African Americans a voice in Albany. However, their application was overridden by a competing applicant that was represented by a major Washington DC law firm.

Michael rose to the occasion. “It looked very bad for them; it was such a crushing disappointment for the folks in Albany.  But we managed to prevail. It was a big legal battle; the document we filed was three inches thick – yeah, that was huge. But after that, they were okay.  (Today that station is WUTU Community Radio, Albany GA).

After helping full power stations get on their feet, Michael went on to help start low power community stations, as well, when FCC filing windows for these opened. Looking back on his career in community radio, Michael said he “enjoyed the hell” out of traveling to the many locations, the conferences, winning litigation, and most of all the “great, enduring friendships” with the outstanding professionals associated with community radio and people running the stations “barely surviving, starting to figure out how to stabilize and becoming stronger, working together, sharing information, sharing intelligence, and finding common ground.”

When asked what he thought community radio has meant to the American landscape, Michael responded, “It’s had people recognize, once again, that media and journalism work their best at the local level in a specific community. In that way it’s been very enriching.” As per the future, “the next thing is fighting for diverse outlets. I seek an expansion of the diversity of outlets and the number of outlets.”

His favorite community radio station was Radio Indigena in Oxnard, Ventura County, California, which represents different migrant communities from Mexican states and broadcasts in 20 different languages, addressing their unique challenges as well as cultural practices.” Yeah, that’s my favorite because they’re making a difference for the lives that they touch, day in and day out. Migrants can hear radio in their own language. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”

Photo of Michael Couzens used with permission of his family.