OAKLAND, California -- When a federal judge denied a group of
broadcasting enthusiasts the right to an impromptu public forum on the
importance of pirate radio on Friday, a group of the rebuffed DJs
staged a small protest to air their concerns.
After arriving in front of the federal building to the trumpeting of
conch shell, California micro-radio activist Stephen Dunifer spelled
out his concerns before about 30 people.
"The National Association of Broadcasters and the [Federal
Communications Commission] are guilty of grand theft larceny --
stealing the public airwaves," declared Dunifer.
"They're making us ask for a diminishing slice of the pie -- that's
ridiculous," he said. "It's time we took the whole pie shop back --
and the rest of the bakery too."
Dunifer and his supporters were protesting an injunction against his
50-watt FM station, Radio Free Berkeley. Such a signal is powerful
enough to be heard by listeners about 10 to 15 miles away.
In June, Oakland US District Court Judge Claudia Wilken dismissed
Dunifer's challenge to the Federal Communications Commission's
restrictions against micro-broadcasters -- stations that operate with
fewer than 100 watts of power.
Friday was to be Dunifer's day in court to formally challenge Wilken's
decision. Both the FCC and Dunifer were scheduled to present oral
arguments supporting their respective positions.
But Wilken announced last week that she would issue a written response
based on the written briefs that had already been submitted by both
sides. Dunifer said that the judge had thus denied him and his
supporters the chance to make their protests known in an official
The FCC claims that unlicensed micro-broadcasters are a threat to
"There are only so many spots on the radio spectrum, and they have to
be monitored," said David Fisk, an FCC spokesman. "One major problem
is interference with air traffic controllers."
But Dunifer and his supporters said that the FCC has taken things too
Dunifer said that FCC agents, along with campus police from the
University of California at Berkeley, attempted a raid in the wee
hours of 2 August 1997 on a pirate radio operation known as the Covert
Broadcasting Services in the Berkeley hills.
Until the agents showed up on the raid that morning, broadcasters DJ
Lucy and DJ Peanuts had been broadcasting on the 104.1 FM frequency.
Dunifer said that the authorities chased the broadcasters through the
woods with spotlights for about an hour but failed to catch them. The
FCC then seized the pirate broadcaster's equipment, Dunifer said.
Neither the FCC nor campus police could be reached to confirm or
refute Dunifer's recounting of the events of that evening.
On a subsequent day, said Dunifer, campus police passed word that the
broadcasters could come by the police office to retrieve their seized
property. Fearing arrest, the DJs sent attorney Larry Hildes in their
place. Hildes said he was surprised by FCC agents at the arranged
"I was not told that they would be there," said Hildes. "They
obviously thought they were going to surprise the DJs and arrest
Hildes gave them a letter authorizing him as an agent on behalf of "Ed
Sullivan," of the Covert Broadcasting Service, or CBS. The alias was
named for the deceased TV show host.
But the FCC did not get the joke, said Hildes, and wrote back a very
serious letter to one Ed Sullivan of CBS, threatening him and his
colleagues with a potential two years in jail and US$250,000 fine if
they continued their broadcasting hobby.
Pirate radio operators do not have much support from either government
or industry. The National Association of Broadcasters said they are
against pirate broadcasters simply because they are illegal.
"We're against them because they have no license to operate -- it's
against the law. It's just an issue of illegality," said Anne Marie
Cumming of the broadcasters association.
But Hildes claims that the association and mainstream radio
broadcasters are threatened by the presence of pirate radio
"Mainstream, corporate-owned radio is afraid of losing their audience
-- and their advertising dollars -- to micro-broadcasters," Hildes