Microradio: FCC May Legalize USA's 430+ "Pirate" Stations FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Thu, 22 Apr 1999 19:46:55 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  AP Headlines - Monday April 19, 1999


     By Jannine Aversa - Associated Press Writer

LAS VEGAS (AP) - For five years Stephen Dunifer was a radio
pirate, pounding the airwaves in Berkeley, Calif., with garage rock
music, political documentaries and programs by homeless people.
Then the government's airwaves police nabbed him, and Dunifer's
50-watt FM station went silent.

Dunifer, 47, was operating ``Radio Free Berkeley'' without a
license from the Federal Communications Commission. He knew it was
illegal but felt the community needed an alternative voice. ``It
was a form of electronic civil disobedience,'' he said.

At a time when hundreds of radio stations nationwide try to
operate without licenses - and as technology makes it easier to set
up a station - the government is looking at ways to open the
airwaves to more new voices. The FCC proposed in January issuing
very low-power licenses to help churches, schools and other
community groups get legally on the air.

Many Republicans and the National Association of Broadcasters,
meeting this week in Las Vegas, actively oppose the idea.

``We're very concerned that the FCC proposal may have the effect
of legitimizing pirates,'' the NAB's president, Edward Fritts, said
Monday. The FCC has not decided whether pirates who have refused to
shut down would be eligible for the new licenses.

In addition, the NAB believes the stations' signals could
interfere with FM stations. Others fear that white-supremacists or
other controversial groups could get low-power licenses.

Since 1997, the FCC has tracked down 430 pirate radio stations,
ranging in power from 1 watt to 800 watts.

`Many of them are just the average citizen wanting to serve
their community,'' said the FCC's top point man on the issue,
Richard Lee. ``I was totally surprised. I expected - I won't say

More than 75 percent of those 430 stations shut down
voluntarily. But for the remaining 25 percent, the FCC had to
obtain court orders that either prohibited the stations from
broadcasting or allowed officials to confiscate equipment and force
them off air.

Of the 25 percent, the FCC found about six stations operating
with equipment interfering with air traffic control communications
at nearby airports. Those stations were shut down within hours of

``If you are trying to land a plane at an airport and the radio
tower has interference from the pirated station, you are not going
to be real happy about it,'' said FCC Commissioner Susan Ness.

Dunifer wouldn't voluntarily shut down after the FCC found his
illegal station in 1993, which touched off a five-year legal battle
that became a rallying point for the movement. Last June, the FCC
obtained a federal court order that forced off the air his
commercial-free, 24-hour station at 104.1 FM. Dunifer's appealing.

Meanwhile, the station - without his involvement, Dunifer says -
has been on and off the air since, with help from sympathizers.

A 50-watt station like Dunifer's typically can reach listeners
within a radius of about 21/2 miles, depending on the antenna's
height and the terrain. Dunifer's station sometimes operated from
different locations. On a good day its signal could reach a
five-mile radius, he said.

But Dunifer shuns the word ``pirate,'' preferring the term
micropower broadcasters. ``The whole point is that the corporations
that dominate the airwaves are the real pirates,'' he says.

The broadcasters' group disagrees. They note that in return for
using the public airwaves for free, licensed stations must abide by
government rules including providing cheap air time to political
candidates and not airing indecent material.

``The pirates have no rules,'' Fritts said.

The FCC does not have historical data to determine whether the
number of pirate stations is growing. But it's clear that new
technology has made it very easy to build a radio transmitter, the
key component.

Those with little technical skill can even buy inexpensive radio
kits. ``You're up within hours,'' Lee said. Dunifer has a Web site
where he sells kits that enable people to build low-power stations
for $285 to $595.

The FCC proposal would create thousands of licensed, low-tech FM
radio stations from 1 watt to 1,000 watts, after a roughly 20-year
ban on such licenses.

The agency wants any new low-power stations to meet the same
standards as higher-power commercial FM broadcasters: To be
licensed, such companies generally must show a desire to serve a
particular area and must provide information about past criminal

Dunifer believes that would still be too burdensome and
expensive for the average radio enthusiast.

``In a way, we are better off being illegal,'' he said.


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