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Pirate Radio or Community Communications?

By Howard Rheingold

Steven Dunifer, pirate broadcaster, placed a small metal box on my desk. He told me that similar boxes were used by dissidents in Haiti and by indigenous guerrillas in Chiapas. The electronic device was the size of a small paperback book. All I had to do was plug in a battery and a microphone or a tape player and I could entertain the entire neighborhood -- at the risk of a five-figure fine if the FCC caught me. Steven Dunifer is currently contesting a $20,000 fine levied on him for his unlicensed broadcasts. He defies the FCC because he claims their regulations against micro-power radio broadcasting deny to citizens access to a resource we are supposed to own -- the airwaves.

Every Sunday night around nine o'clock, Dunifer backpacks a micro-power radio transmitter, a car battery, a small microphone, sound mixer, and a small tape deck into the hills of Berkeley, California to broadcast "Radio Free Berkeley." Across the bay, San Francisco Liberation Radio broadcasts at 93.7 FM 2-3 hours a night. Dunifer and other micro-power broadcasters around the world claim it's only "pirate radio" if you buy the notion that large corporations should be the only ones who have a right to the airwaves: "The FCC has allowed megastation operations to sit in a dense urban area with 100 kilowatts," Dunifer declared. "Those stations bleed three channels up and three channels down, making it impossible for any small operation to exist in close proximity. We don't need massive amounts of power to cover a community effectively. The band is crowded only in urban areas because of the mega power FCC has allowed big stations to use. If that power was brought down, community stations could coexist."

Dunifer, who would agree that the cliche phrase ""long-haired Berkeley radical'' is an accurate description of himself, is passionate about the issue: ""Our wonderful liberal friends at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had spent the last 10 years lobbying FCC to get rid of all the 10 watt community stations. They wanted to drive out the mom and pop operations and professionalize the ones that remained after the shakeout.'' In effect, FCC regulations raised the cost of a community radio station to $60,000.

Dunifer feels that it is precisely the alienated and disenfranchised who need a medium like community radio to spread the news and local announcements essential to community-building. He wants the FCC to allow stations under ten watts to broadcast without a license if they can demonstrate that their transmissions won't interfere with anyone else's.

FCC officials take a different view. Philip M. Kane, the engineer in the FCC's Hayward, California field office who is supervising Dunifer's case, cites what he believes to be "a very serious possibility of interference with the safety of aircraft flight." Dunifer disagrees, pointing out that there are many open frequencies where micro-power broadcasters wouldn't interfere with other stations, and that simple filters in the broadcasting devices can keep signals from drifting off course.

"All we want is the right to create community radio," Dunifer told me. "The FCC just expanded access to the upper end of the AM band to commercial interests. That could have been a perfect spot for microbroadcasting. Another possibility is UHF channels. We are willing to do this in a reasonable and legal manner. We can show that you don't need expensive equipment to meet reasonable technical levels of performance. We'd like to see a simplified process and relaxation of technical specs. A half watt could cover a mile, which is all you need for a housing project"

Since I interviewed Dunifer, he won a major court battle. One of Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon's columns on microradio is now FAIR's web site.

Changes in the technological base for the electronics industry often trigger social changes. Now that miniaturization of communication technologies is making micro-power radio and other communication tools affordable to citizens, we need to think sensibly about overhauling our antiquated regulatory structures.

For more information about micro-power broadcasting, send a self-addressed, stamped return envelope Free Radio Berkeley, 1442-A Walnut Street #406, Berkeley, CA 94709;, 510 464 3041

Copyright 1994, Howard Rheingold
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