microradio: pretrial hearing prevents FCC crackdown FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 14 Apr 1998 08:12:58 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  1998/03/07  The A-Infos News Service http://www.ainfos.ca/
Subject:      Pirate Broadcasters Hail Court Decision
Newsgroups:   misc.activism.progressive
Joan Sekler
LA Alternative Media Network
Phone / Fax: (310) 458-6566
Email: sekler@labridge.com

This article appeared in the LA Times, Thursday, March 5, 1998



BERKELEY--The nerve center of a nationwide and rapidly growing renegade
radio broadcasting movement lies here, in the cluttered and dimly lit home
of a frail, soft-spoken radio technician.

Stephen Dunifer, founder of Free Radio Berkeley, is regarded by many
micro-broadcasters as the primary technical and inspirational force behind
a movement that is defying the federal government's regulation of the

But FCC officials say that Dunifer is a pirate, leading a movement that
poses a threat to public safety.

For 3 years, the FCC has been trying to silence Dunifer in a legal battle
that micro-broadcasters are watching closely. The agency also has cracked
down on other micro-broadcasters, raiding the homes and stations of some,
pressing criminal and civil charges against others.

At stake, says FCC Chairman William Kennard, is the smooth functioning of a
decades-old broadcast system that permits the orderly functioning of
commercial stations, air traffic control and emergency services.

"We can't have a situation where people are creating confusion and
cacophony over the airwaves, we just can't have it," Kennard says.

A federal judge in Oakland, however, refused the agency's request for an
injunction against Dunifer's station in November, and ruled that the court
has jurisdiction to decide the constitutional issues he raised. A trial is
expected later this year.

Dunifer says that he cannot wait for a trial on the free speech issues he
and other broadcasters say are inherent in their battle with the FCC.

"People have come to the conclusion that they don't have a voice," says
Dunifer, 46, whose radical roots date to the antiwar movement of the
1960"s. "They know that corporations have a strangehold on the free flow of
information. There is an incredible contextual framework for this movement.
I put it in the historical context of various struggles for liberation and

Micro-broadcasters generally use 1 watt to 95 watts of power to air their
FM signals. The FCC will not license any station below 100 watts, and it
can cost more than $100,000 for a broadcast license for a 100-watt station.
Broadcasting without an FCC license is a violation of federal law. Still,
the FCC estimates that there are 300-1,000 unlicensed stations broadcasting
everything from Christian sermons to rock 'n' roll in towns and cities

Kennard concedes that microbroadcasters have a point when they complain
that it is hard for community broadcasters to get on the air.
"Someone like Stephen Dunifer is doing an unlawful thing," he said. "But I
am sympathetic for the need to have more expression on the airwaves. That
is a compelling point that some of these pirates make. We just want them to
work in a lawful way to change the system."

THe FCC, Kennard says, is considering changing its rules to allow the
licensing of 1-watt broadcasting stations. But micro-broadcasters say that
they should be allowed to have stations more powerful than a single watt.
Besides, they complain, the FCC's process to revise its rules could drag on
for years. They want to broadcast now.

Many micro-broadcasters also seem to relish their outlaw posture. Dunifer
never applied for an FCC license, arguing that it would be futile because
his 45-watt station falls below the FCC's 100-watt minimum. He and many
other micro-broadcasters remain on the air even after they are hit with
fines or warnings.

Dunifer's Free Radio Berkeley appeared on the FM band in this most radical
of American towns in April 1993. He started broadcasting from his home,
then put his equipment in a backpack and headed for the Berkeley Hills when
FCC enforcement officers moved in on the signal. Every night, his small
band of volunteers broadcast from a different spot, trying to elude the
FCC. Eventually, he was tracked down and slapped with a $20,000 fine that
remains unpaid.

Today, Dunifer and 95 volunteers broadcast a mix of far-left commentary,
interviews and alternative music 24 hours a day on 104.1 FM. Their
station--protected, for the moment,by his court fight--is located in a
Berkeley radio studio. Dunifer also operates a radio transmitter
factory--in his home. He has built and sold hundreds of low-cost
broadcasting kits and trained dozens of other micro-broadcasters.

Dunifer says micro-broadcasters pose no public safety threat because they
broadcast below the range that air traffic control towers use to talk to
airplanes. And he says equipment used by most micro-broadcasters is good
enough to avoid interference with big stations. Kennard says that stations
interfere with the signals of licensed broadcasters, confuse listeners and
sometimes pose a threat to air traffic control and other emergency
broadcast services. The FCC recently closed a pirate station in Puerto
Rico, the agency says, because the station's signal nearly forced an
airport to stop operating. Kennard says he thinks micro-broadcasting has
exploded in popularity in the last 5 years as a backlash against the
consolidation of station ownership spurred by the 1996 federal
communications law. The movement, he says, has been fed by the Internet.

"The Internet has created a way for them to communicate with one another in
ways that are pretty powerful," he says. "They are able...to learn how to
become a pirate."

At the same time, the cost of transmission equipment keeps falling, and the
equipment is getting easier to operate. Many micro-broadcasters credit
Dunifer with these last 2 developments. A technical whiz, Dunifer has
trained apprentices to build his easy-to-operate, mail order kits, which
sell for $500 to $2,000. He also puts on an annual micro-broadcasting
national conference and hosts a weekly talk show and co-edited a book
called "Seize The Airwaves."

"Without Stephen Dunifer's help, we would never have gotten on the air,
says Richard Edmondson, who runs San Francisco Liberation Radio from his
cramped apartment in San Francisco's Richmond neighborhood. "We worked day
and night under Stephen's tutelage." Edmondson first broadcast from a
rusting camper truck, reading Zapatista communiques over the air by
candlelight. In 1993, an FCC enforcement official tracked him down during a
broadcast from San Francisco's Potrero Hill. Edmondson has not paid a
$10,000 FCC fine for illegal broadcasting and the FCC has not yet taken him
to court. Instead, he moved his 40-watt station into his living room. From
there, he broadcasts a nightly mix of blues and jazz, leftist political
commentary and interviews with the homeless. "If every community in America
had its own micro-radio station, we could have a fundamental impact on
political life in America," he says.

But Dunifer's attorney, Alan Hopper, says he worries that his client might
not be around to see that fundamental shift occur, or even to see the
outcome of his legal struggle. The activist suffers from a debilitating,
degenerative form of arthritis that makes even the simplest movements
difficult. The joints of his fingers are painfuly swollen, making it nearly
impossible for Dunifer to put together his kits. Even tying his shoes is an
effort, and friends sometimes have to carry him to his second-floor
apartment. A vegetarian who spurns tradional medicine, Dunifer refuses to
take immunosuppressant drugs that would control his disease.

"We are worried about him," says Hopper, one of a team of National Lawyers
Guild attorneys who are representing Dunifer pro bono against the FCC.
"Without Stephen, the micro-broadcasting movement would be in trouble. He
is tireless, and he has done so much organizing, so much speaking." The
lawyers guild is determined to press Dunifer's case to the U.S. Supreme
Court, if necessary. "This is the kind of case that I went to law school to
do," says Hopper, a San Francisco criminal defense attorney. Control of the
radio airwaves "is one of the most serious issues that we face in terms of
trying to live in a democracy. To have a functioning, vital democracy,
you've got to have people informed about their communities and the world."

But Dunifer's court victory in November--when the federal judge refused to
grant the FCC an injunction--has been a rare bright spot for

That same month the FCC raided the Florida home of Doug Brewer, one of the
movement's best-known broadcasters. Brewer says that he and his wife were
awakened by gun-toting U.S. marshals who handcuffed him and held them both
for hours as officers removed thousands of dollars of broadcasting
equipment. Brewer had been on the air for several years as the "Party
Pirate." His station specialized in sexual banter and rock 'n' roll. "I
have absolutely no political agenda--at least I didn't until they came in
here with guns," Brewer says. "I just thought that Tampa radio sucked and
we had to do something to improve it."

Last week, the FCC won its criminal case against Arthur Kobres, another
Florida microbroadcaster. A jury found Kobres guilty on 14 counts of
illegal broadcasting. He faces up to 28 years in prison and a $3.8 million
fine. It is the first time in years that the government has brought
criminal charges against an illegal broadcaster. Pamera Hairston, head of
compliance for the FCC, says that the agency resorts to criminal charges or
seizing equipment only when all else fails.

"Ninety illegal boradcasters have [been] shut down in the past year with no
more action than sending letters or visiting them and delivering warnings,"
Hairston says. "Still, we do want to get across to the public that this is
a serious matter, and what the consequences are to the public safety and to
the boradcasters themselves."

Joan Sekler
LA Alternative Media Network
Phone / Fax: (310) 458-6566
Email: sekler@labridge.com

                The A-Infos News Service
                WWW: http://www.ainfos.ca/


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