Michael Couzens, a communications attorney who championed community broadcasting and helped bring about low-power television, died March 18. He was 76.
He died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, according to his wife, Adi Gevins.
During his career of more than four decades as an attorney with a solo law practice, Couzens aided startup and existing community broadcasters with navigating legal obstacles, helping them to get on air and stay there.
As “a champion of noncommercial radio and particularly of the community and low-power stations,” Couzens always rooted for the underdog, said attorney John Crigler.
He was also “very generous with his time,” Crigler said. “He could help stations that very few other lawyers who were with firms could afford to do” and did “lots of pro bono work” for stations, Crigler said.
“Everyone in the community radio community has just been really at a loss, because Michael was such a central part,” said Alan Korn, an attorney who partnered with Couzens. “He was a vast resource of information from his connections and his commitment to community radio. His loss is deeply felt.”
Couzens partnered with Korn on a practice, Discount Legal, which helped applicants at a low fixed rate during filing windows in 2007, 2010 and 2013 for noncommercial educational channels and low-power FM licenses. The partners worked with more than 100 applicants and got about 50 stations on the air.
“I think he was most proud of the fact that we got so many stations on the air,” Korn said.
Multiple applicants seeking frequencies in populated areas resulted in logjams. Couzens was diligent about reaching a resolution and achieving construction permits for community applicants, Crigler said.
“That was unheralded work, but really valuable work in terms of producing radio stations out of what had once been a morass,” he said.
Couzens was “very invested” in stations he worked with, Korn said. He would go “far beyond what is called for for an attorney in terms of clocking billable hours” and in recent years encouraged Korn to make sure stations he had worked with “dotted their Is, crossed their Ts and stayed on the air.”
Couzens was a fixture at conferences held by the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conferences and other industry groups. He was “charismatic” and a “principle-centered man,” said NFCB President Sally Kane.
When Kane shared news of Couzens’ death on an NFCB email forum, it prompted “an outpouring of people who expressed how much they valued him and how much they’ll miss him,” she said.
The “principle of a free press and of grassroots voices on the public airwaves was something that he cared deeply about and never wavered,” Kane said.
“If you read the blogs and trades, they say broadcast radio is stone cold dead, no radio audience whatsoever,” Couzens said in a 2020 interview with The Union, a Grass Valley, Calif., newspaper. “But everything I see shows community radio is loved and essential, that people want it and will go find it. It’s that important, no matter what they say.”
Gevins said Couzens enjoyed working with all kinds of community stations, including rural, urban and Native outlets, and “got along with all kinds of people.”
He was a “really lovable guy and really respectful of everybody who was trying to do good for the people,” she said.
‘Anything but a born-in-the-bone bureaucrat’
Couzens grew up in Southern California and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He completed his alternative service as a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Gevins said. While in D.C., he developed a love for bluegrass from listening to WAMU, she said.
He went on to graduate from law school at the University of California-Berkeley in 1975, where he said on his LinkedIn profile that he “skipped many classes” to do video production with the collectives Optic Nerve and TVTV. That work spurred Couzens to want to work at the FCC “to help find some legal avenue for what was guerilla television and radio,” Gevins said. “His client base had a lot of pirates in it.”
Couzens achieved that goal as an attorney advisor with the FCC in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He headed a task force that helped develop rules for low-power television.
It is “hard to imagine his having a lifelong career at the FCC,” Crigler said. “He had respect for the commission, but he was anything but a born-in-the-bone bureaucrat.”
Prior to working for the FCC, Couzens also worked at a law firm that represented CPB. He helped develop legal processes that led to the first commercial satellite telecommunication system, which CPB built with government money, Couzens told the Pacifica Network shortly before his death.
Couzens began his solo practice in 1982. He later moved to Oakland, Calif., where he housed his practice. It was a good move, he said on LinkedIn.
“Here I can continue with karate at Cal (Wado Kai black belt), continue to work in my chosen field, and not be stuck with the beltway blinders that can afflict some of my good friends still in DC,” he wrote. “Thankfully, we have a robust bluegrass scene out here also.”