Battle of the Bandwidth in Berkeley 25-Watt Guerrilla Takes

Washington Post

(c) 1996 Washington Post. All rts. reserv.

Battle of the Bandwidth in Berkeley 25-Watt Guerrilla Takes On Established Order, Which Wants to Unplug `Free Radio'. The Washington Post, March 15, 1996, FINAL Edition By: John Boudreau, Special to The Washington Post Section: A SECTION, p. A03 Story Type: News National Line Count: 103 Word Count: 1139

BERKELEY, Calif. - "This is Free Radio Berkeley, 104.1 on your FM dial," the baritone voice announced. Stephen Dunifer, self-described anarchist and founder of the 24-hour-a-day, illegal station, was on the air again. "This is Acting Globally, Revolting Locally."

He may lack the polished delivery of a commercial radio jockey, but the U.S. government hears him clearly all the same. The Federal Communications Commission wants to silence Dunifer and scores of other guerrilla radio stations operating around the country without licenses.

Airwave squatters have been sounding off in places such as Iowa, Miami, New York City and Richmond. None of the stations is particularly powerful, but the impulse they represent -- people wanting to communicate without the filter of corporate mass media -- seems to be growing. In many ways it represents a low-tech version of the free-spirited computer communication of the Internet.

"The FCC's regulatory structure only allows people with money to have a voice," Dunifer said. "Why do the airwaves have to be a concession stand for corporate America?"

Media expert Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the University of California's journalism school, calls such radio stations a grass-roots rebellion against the increased domination of the airwaves by media conglomerates. "We have just about lost community- oriented broadcasting," Bagdikian said. "We're going to see ever more unlicensed stations, Free Radio Berkeleys, all over the country. I've been told we have hundreds of them."

Dunifer, who will fight the FCC's attempt to boot him off the air at an April 12 hearing in U.S. District Court in Oakland, said home-grown radio stations are the leaflets of the electronic age. He said the government should provide room for low-watt community radio stations such as Free Radio Berkeley, which has only an eight-mile range.

The government, however, views Dunifer as a threat to the established broadcasting order. The FCC fined Dunifer $10,000 (no, he hasn't paid) and hauled him into court for operating his tiny 25-watt FM station without a license, interfering with the signals of legitimate stations and, in general, risking chaos on the airwaves.

The case of Free Radio Berkeley would normally be nothing more than light static for the FCC, which has had no trouble booting renegade radio stations off the air in the past. The commission banned new micro stations, which operate at less than 100 watts, in 1978. Ten years later, the government won a case against Radio New York International, a pirate station broadcasting from a boat off Long Island. A year later, officials shut down an unlicensed station operated by a Cuban American group in Miami. Likewise, a Venice, Calif., micro radio station was forced off the air in the early 1990s. And last summer, the FCC confiscated homemade equipment of Black Liberation Radio in Richmond.

But last year U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland refused to issue a preliminary injunction to stop Free Radio Berkeley. Instead, she questioned the constitutionality of the FCC's regulations as they applied to micro radio stations. The FCC, hoping to bypass a trial, is now seeking a permanent injunction against Dunifer.

"We're very concerned," said David Doon, an investigator in the FCC's Bay Area office. "The more stations that come on, the more problems we'll have. There's a finite spectrum. A lot of people complain of interference."

In the past three years, Doon asserted, there has been a tenfold increase in unlicensed broadcasters in the Bay Area, though that figure is impossible to prove, given the small-scale, unregulated nature of the micro radio stations. (Other local micro stations include Radio Libre and San Francisco Liberation Radio.) Officials worry that stray signals from micro radio stations could interfere with aviation, police or fire radio bands.

"In the long run, it has the potential for real danger. These unauthorized servers will destroy the ability of people to get clear radio signals," said Jack Goodman, vice president and policy counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, which filed a legal brief in support of the FCC's case against Dunifer.

"No one has a constitutional right to broadcast," he said. "The Supreme Court has rejected that (argument) over and over again."

The airwaves in countries that sanction micro radio stations, such as Canada, aren't jam-packed like they are in the United States, which has 11,000 AM and FM stations, Goodman said.

What appear to be open slots on the spectrum actually accommodate the shortcomings of inexpensive receiver designs, said Fred Krock, radio engineering supervisor at KQED-FM, the Bay Area's main public radio station. Wedging more stations onto the broadcast band would require sophisticated, and expensive, new receivers that most consumers wouldn't want to buy.

"There's a place in this world for Mr. Dunifer," said Krock, whose powerful station broadcasts at 110,000 watts. "They just haven't sentenced him to it yet. We're not looking at a situation of free speech. What we're looking at is anarchy."

Dunifer calls airwave rebels like himself the vanguard of a 1990s free speech movement and maintains that regulating the airwaves is unconstitutional. Unlike publishing a newspaper, or creating a World Wide Web site on the Internet, operating a legal radio station requires a government license.

Dunifer supports himself by assembling and shipping backpack-sized radio kits around the globe -- to Haiti, Mexico, the Philippines. The kits enable people to broadcast for as little as $1,000 plus the monthly power bill -- without a license, of course. An FCC license costs about $3,000. With legal and consulting fees, the price tag to get on the air legally can be $100,000 -- assuming there is a frequency available for use.

Like other underground micro radio stations, three- year-old Free Radio Berkeley began as a clandestine operation. Dunifer and his friends would climb into the Berkeley hills at night, unpack their equipment and begin beaming their signal out.

He's gone slightly more establishment now, broadcasting from a "collective" of anarchistic- minded people in Oakland. His station airs a variety of programs from a communist talk show to "The Radical News Hour" -- with hosts broadcasting in the nude on Saturdays. Music ranges from African chants to industrial thrash.

Easy listening it is not.

But for Dunifer, a lanky, 44-year-old self-educated engineer who looks like Rip Van Winkle with his long mane and beard, that is not the point.

"It threatens the status quo," Dunifer said of his station. "It threatens the relationships of power in this country. What we call democracy in this country is a consensus among the elite. They want people disempowered, alienated from each other. If people can't communicate, they can't organize. And if they can't organize, they can't fight back."

CAPTIONS: Free Radio Berkeley founder Stephen Dunifer, already fined $10,000 by the Federal Communications Commission for operating an unlicensed station, has a court date in April.


DESCRIPTORS: Radio; Communication regulation and law; Fines; Free speech; Lawsuits