Pirate Battles to Keep the Airwaves Open

Special to The New York Times

October 24 Sunday

photo by Terrence McCarthy for the NY Times

Stephen Dunifer broadcasting the underground Free Radio Berkeley from Califonia's Berkeley Hills.

BERKELEY, Calif. - On a chilly Sunday evening, high in the hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay area, Stephen Dunifer sets down his backpack and prepares to put Radio Free Berkeley on the air. He pushes a 10-foot antenna into the earth, then wires together a car battery, a sound mixer and microphone, a portable compact-disc player and a home-brew, five-watt radio transmitter.

"The people's technology is ready to strike back," he mumbles, turning his transmitter to 88.1 FM. With a flick of the microphone switch, he begins three hours of eclectic and illegal broadcasting.

The program will include a long Jimi Hendrix tune, a speech against drug testing by a political comic named Jello Biafra and a recorded interview with a disaffected worker for s Pacifica Radio station, who attacked the nominally left-liberal broadcasting network for disenfranchising community groups.

Mr. Dunifer is emblematic of what he claims is a growing guerrilla movement of underground radio broadcasters around the nation who are using inexpensive, off-the-shelf electronic components to build radio transmitters.

Though he is breaking the law, he justifies what he is doing by contending that the rules enacted by the Federal Communications Commission during the late 1970's have raised the cost of operating a radio station and have denied many community groups access to the public airwaves.

Acting as a kind of high-tech Johnny Appleseed, he has been conducting workshops around the country to teach people to build their own radio transmitters for several hundred dollars, spreading an idea he calls "micro power broadcasting." Mr. Dunifer said he had sold 50 radio transmitter kits this year, and there were several hundred part-time stations such as his on the air in the United States.

One of those is operated intermittently by unidentified broadcasters from the various squatters' dwellings in Manhattan's Lower East Side, Mr. Dunifer said, and a group that calls itself Ragged Mountain Liberation Radio has been popping up at various spots on the FM dial around Connecticut.

The F.C.C., however, said it viewed him as nothing more than a pirate, operating one of what it said were several dozen unlicensed transmitters around the country that interfered with legitimate broadcasters and posed a threat to aircraft navigation and law enforcement communications.

"A good number of these people believe they have a noble cause," said Richard M. Smith, the head of the enforcement division of the F.C.C. "But there is a reason for these regulations. It's the same reason we have a white line down the center of the highway."

Mr. Dunifer disputes that he is a threat and continues to defy the F.C.C., which this summer fined him $20,000 for illegal broadcasting. To deter detection, he transmits from a hidden location each Sunday night.

"I'm taking a different approach in opposing the F.C.C.," he said. "For me this is a free-speech and constitutional rights issue, and I've turned it into a movement of sorts." Mr. Dunifer contested the fine, arguing that the F.C.C. failed to comply with its own procedures in prosecuting his case and that his fine should have been $1,000.

'Long Overdue'

Mr. Smith of the F.C.C., who is considering Mr. Dunifer's appeal, declined to comment on how the continued operation of Radio Free Berkeley might affect his decision.

The informal nature of Radio Free Berkeley makes it virtually impossible to gauge how many listeners Mr. Dunifer has attracted since he took to the airwaves early this year, although he estimated that his audience was in the hundreds. One loyal listener is Harold Carlstad, a retired teacher who lives in Kensington, Calif., and tunes in to Radio Free Berkeley every Sunday night.

"This kind of radio is long overdue," Mr. Carlstad said. "Since the time radio was invented, it has been owned by the big corporations."

Mr. Carlstad, who belongs to a Unitarian church, said he had been trying unsuccessfully for weeks to get local radio stations to broadcast a public service announcement publicizing a benefit program at his church. Only Mr. Dunifer had agreed to carry his message. "Our biggest outreach is Radio Free Berkeley," Mr. Carlstad said.

Licenses Out of Reach

Mr. Dunifer said that in the 1970's and 1980's the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had lobbied for increasing stringent technical standards that had the effect of making community radio more professional, which he said had placed radio broadcasting beyond the reach of many community groups that could not afford the $50,000 to $70,000 for a licensed station.

Mr. Dunifer said he believed that stations with less than 10 watts of power should be able to broadcast without a license if they did not interfere with other stations. And he insisted that his equipment and the transmitters used by his disciples caused no interference.

Mr. Dunifer's lawyer, Louis Hiken, said radio was becoming an even more important media for community communications because of the emerging information data highway for computers, which he said was increasingly available only to the elite.

"Radio is the 1eaflet of the 90's," Mr. Hiken said. "In a lot of areas, kids don't read and write, and radio provides the ability to communicate orally."

m the Government's perspective, the problem is that the radio-frequency spectrum is a finite resource, which must be carefully parceled out. "This is a situation where no matter how much spectrum you can allocate, there will be not enough," said Eli Noam, a professor at Columbia University who specializes in communications law.

Mr. Noam said he saw hope in the trend toward high-capacity networks being created by the cable television and telephone companies.

Pirate radio has long had a place in American broadcasting, since the Commerce Department began licensing radio broadcasters in 1910. In October 1988, for example, the Coast Guard shut down an unlicensed rock radio station operating from a ship called Sarah south of Long Island.

F.C.C.'s technology has improved dramatically in recent years, making it virtually impossible for even mobile broadcasters to escape detection. "With our technology in monitoring and direction finding, if any station comes on for a few microseconds, they're going to be detected and located," he said.