On January 20, 1995, for the first time in the history of the Federal Communications Commis sion, a federal judge refused to grant the agency an injunction to shut down an unlicensed radio station. The station is Free Radio Berkeley, a low-power FM operation started by broadcast engineer Stephen Dunifer in April 1993. Citing constitutional concerns, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilkin has allowed Dunifer to continue broadcasting until she hears his administrative appeal in late September.
For 43-year-old Dunifer and his attorney, Louis Hiken, the heart of the matter is freedom of speech and democratic access to the airwaves. In a country dominated by media conglomerates, they argue, low-cost, low-power 'micro radio' offers the little guy an opportunity to be heardor would, if the FCC would legalize it. 'America is made up of individuals, and they should have a right to speak,' says Hiken. 'And not just in their living rooms.'
For the FCC, the case represents nothing less than a choice between order and chaos. The agency claims that Dunifer's pirate broadcasts have interfered with other stations' signals, and that a less-regulated system would only be an invitation to a complete breakdown of radio order. What Dunifer and other micro broadcasters are doing, says FCC attorney David Silberman, amounts to 'anarchy of the airwaves.'
The case reverberates far beyond the Bay area and the government's attempt to shut down a lone radio pirate. United States v. Stephen Paul Dunifer marks the crossroads where participatory technologies meet governmental controls that stifle the free expression they purport to facilitate. Rogue broadcasters such as Dunifer do more than challenge the FCC's current regulatory powers: They raise serious doubts about a state-sanctioned interpretation of history that views government control as the necessary response to all emergent forms of technology. Far from vindicating govern ment involvement in broadcast licensing, the origins of commercial radio in the 1920s suggest that the state created the very chaos it seeks to enjoin.
In the two years since it was launched, Free Radio Berkeley has increased its airtime from three hours a week to 24 hours a day, attracting about 40 volunteers and a growing listenership in the process. Its music programming isn't all that different from that of a free-form college station, but its spoken-word broadcasts are close to unique. Besides community-oriented news and left-oriented commentary (including programs too controversial for KPFA, the local Pacifica outlet), Free Radio Berkeley offers its listeners frontline reports on other free-radio experiments around the world from Chiapas to Tokyo to Springfield, Illinois.
Dunifer considers his station part of a worldwide movement. He scorns not only corporate radio but also mainstream non-commercial broadcasting, dismissing it for its increasing political correctness and its reliance on government subsidy and corporate underwriting. 'If grassroots radio is doing its job, it should be able to support itself,' he declares.
Much of what Dunifer calls 'grassroots radio' others would call 'pirate radio.' Pirate radio, of course, has existed for as long as there have been radio regulations to defy. The most famous ether pirates are the Jolly-Roger entrepreneurs behind Radio Caroline, Radio London, and the other offshore stations that challenged the BBC's staid programming in the 1960s with the latest rock sounds. Although the British government eventually drove them off the air, the BBC adopted its own pop programs in response to the competition. Today, within the subculture of shortwave hobbyists, there is a sub-subculture of illegal clandestine broadcasters whose programming ranges from coun terculture comedy to neo-Nazi rants.
Micro radioa blanket label for stations under 30 or so watts of poweris officially sanc tioned in some nations, including Italy and Japan, where Sony and other companies sell relatively inexpensive 'Community FM Sets' that include all the equipment necessary to start broadcasting. In other countries, such as Argentina, regulatory loopholes allow for a wide range of radio activity. Low-power micro radio, almost by definition, offers listeners material unavailable through other channels. As Radio World magazine characterized the Japanese micro broadcasters, 'Unlike established radio stations that try to please all tastes, the low-wattage FM stations are doing all sorts of things the large stations would never dream of.'
Whether fully legal, semi-legal, or explicitly forbidden, micro radio is often overtly political. In France, for instance, guerilla stations began broadcasting in 1977; future French President François Mitterand was involved in the Socialist Party's clandestine Radio Riposte. In the former East Bloc, samizdat radio and TV outlets such as East Germany's Kanal X evaded state censorship to present alternative news programming. In Argentina, over 2,000 small FM stations have sprung up in the country's shantytowns and poor rural areas over the last decade, offering community-oriented pro gramming from almost every conceivable political point of view.
In the United States, micro radio remains strictly verboten, even though the technical cost of going on the airnow a couple hundred dollars plus the monthly power billhas been within most Americans' reach since the mid-1980s. Because of the current regulatory framework, however, the legal cost outstrips the technical one: almost $3,000 for a license, plus $100,000 or more in startup costs. And except in Alaska, the FCC doesn't issue licenses to stations below 100 watts, which raises startup and power expenses still further.
The 100-watt rule went into effect in 1980. Although there were several reasons for the change, the most significant was pressure from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB persuaded the FCC that eliminating 10-watt Class D non-commercial stations would clear the way for larger, more 'professional' National Public Radiostyle outfits.
The effect was not only to artificially restrict access to the airwaves, but to ensure that those who did get onto the air, having risked more money in the enterprise, were less likely to experiment or try anything new. The latter problem was compounded by FCC indecency regulations: Program ming that raises few eyebrows in a bohemian college town might attract listener complaints in more conservative environs that previously couldn't receive the offending signal.
Antimicro radio sentiments still run strong among public broadcasters. 'I'd like to see some of these pirates get roasted,' says Fred Krock, engineering supervisor at KQED, San Francisco's outlet for NPR. 'Listeners to this station should have a right to interference-free listening.'
Krock neatly summarizes the most powerful argument the FCC and other critics have raised against micro stations: that they interfere with other stations' signals.
But although KQED is one of the stations that the FCC claims has received interference from Free Radio Berkeley, the KQED legal department says the station itself made no complaint; it must have originated with a listener or, more likely, the FCC itself.