At first glance, the tall, lanky and rather frail Stephen Dunifer hardly looks like the firebrand of radio-land. His baritone voice sounds significantly more calm than his fiery manifesto via the Internet. But after Dunifer delves into the heart of his speech, it becomes clear why he deserves such a description.
"The hell with the FCC [Federal Communications Commission], to hell with the NAB [National Association of Broadcasting], to hell with the whole corporate-media monopoly ... they can just kiss my bill of rights," declares Dunifer.
Dunifer is the founder and defender of Free Radio Berkeley and the Johnny Appleseed of the micro-power radio movement -- a political movement that supports the proliferation of low-wattage and non-licensed, or pirate, radio stations across the country.
"If we had a democratic media, Stephen Dunifer would be on the cover
of People magazine," said David Barsamian, talk show host and founder of
Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colo. "But in this carefully constructed
corporate-media world, heroes who are struggling like Stephen Dunifer are
Dunifer and Barsamian were speakers at the first Grassroots News and Media Conference held in Austin last weekend by the Grassroots News Network. The GNN is a fledgling coalition of 31 grassroots media groups that exchange news and programming via the Internet. The conference was created to develop an organized resistance against the dominance of corporate-controlled media, and to pull micro-broadcasting out from behind the curtains to the center stage of alternative media.
Austin's own KO.OP 91.7FM radio station, a part of GNN, helped sponsor the event. KO.OP, which broadcasts Barsamian's syndicated program on Monday afternoons at 5 p.m., is a community station that shares its FM frequency with KVRX, the student-run radio station at the University. The conference was organized mostly by KO.OP volunteers with minimal funds donated from local businesses. Most KO.OP members support the micro-broadcasting movement, said C. Paul Odekirk, one of the organizers of the GNN conference.
"KO.OP, being a licensed station, works with the FCC as much as possible, but you can't do a proper program exchange when the FCC is raiding your fellow stations," Odekirk said.
Among those attending the conference were members of community radio stations from across the nation, self-proclaimed cyber-activists, Chiapas activists, programmers of existing micro-radio stations and radio enthusiasts who want to start their own stations.
The GNN conference represents a flourishing media activist movement within the shell of the mainstream media. In addition to the community-based public stations like KO.OP and micro-power radio stations, there are Internet Web sites and e-mail networks, 'Zines and similar grassroots efforts. Dunifer described the GNN as just one part of a larger struggle against international corporate power and capitalism.
"There's a whole undercurrent of international activity taking place that's not visible to the mainstream and that's being greatly accelerated by the Internet," Dunifer said. "On a regional or local basis, it is being facilitated by alternative media and their networks."
Bob Jensen, UT journalism assistant professor, said there has been an
unprecedented international centralization of media conglomerates during
the last decade. And most of the mainstream media -- newspapers, radio,
television, film and book publishing -- is now owned by a handful of
Tom Mahnke, a volunteer DJ at KO.OP, plays cajun and zydeco music during his show at the radio station. KO.OP was one of the co-sponsors of last week's Grassroots News Network Media Conference.
"In a society like the one we live in, people who are doing alternative media are extremely important," Jensen said. "Commercial broadcast is a wasteland. Do we really need one more top 40 rock-n-roll station?"
Bridgette Ittrup is a sales assistant for Clear Channel Communications
Inc., a company that owns about 200 radio stations in the United States,
Europe and Australia, including Oldies 103, Z.102, KHFI, and KFON-AM in
Austin. Ittrup said most licensed holders are against the low-power radio
stations because they make obtaining a frequency more difficult for companies.
"They cut in line. They don't follow the procedures. It's not fair," Ittrup said. "It takes many years, a lot of fees, a lot of rules to follow. It's really hard to start up a frequency because there's no room for it."
Ittrup also believes radio stations should not be politically biased.
"They're too opinionated. The FCC regulates that there should be room for everybody's opinion," Ittrup added.
Micro-broadcasters, however, argue against such censorship and say that the airwaves should be a free space for political discussion.
Joe Ptak, director of San Marcos' unlicensed KIND 105.9 said they are the only station covering local politics there. The FCC can issue only one legal frequency to the city of San Marcos and it was bought by Clear Channels' Oldies 103.5, which primarily targets Austin markets.
"We cover the entire political spectrum, from anarchist to patriots," said Ptak, "We air election debates between mayoral candidates. We interview Sen. Paul Wellstone, Congressman Ron Paul. We call congressmen and city officials on-air. We do an ombudsman show for callers to tell about their concerns, to address local problems in an immediate manner."
Lorenzo Ervin is the director of Black Liberation Radio which serves
the black community in Chattanooga, Tenn. BLR gives a black, radical spin
to specific political and social issues. Ervin said the micro-radio is
a necessary political tool to serve "people who have been historically
disempowered, people who have been silenced, people who belong to racial minorities in America."
Ptak added that the biggest challenges KIND radio faces now are the FCC, Clear Channel and Capstar Broadcasting Corporation, which is headquartered in Austin and owns nearly 400 radio stations around the world. Capstar has just bought 105.9 FM Round Rock and threatens to take over KIND.
"One of the intentions of corporate-controlled media is to instill in people a sense of disenpowerment, of immobilization and paralysis. Its outcome is to turn you into good consumers," Barsamian said. "It is to keep people isolated, to feel that there is no possibility for social change."
Commercial radio stations broadcast at over 100,000 watts, covering hundreds of miles, while stations like KIND operate from 10 to 30 watts and cover a 10 mile radius. In 1978 the FCC banned any stations operating at less than 100 watts, citing interference and complaints as reasons.
"In the long run, it has the potential for real danger. These unauthorized servers will destroy the ability of people to get clear radio signals," said Jack Goodman, vice-president and policy counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington. The commission has already shut down Austin's KFAT and is threatening other guerrilla stations in Houston, Dallas, Leander, and Canyon Lake.
The legal battle for micro-radio is currently being highlighted by the case of FCC vs. Dunifer's Free Radio Berkeley.
In 1995, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland refused to issue a preliminary injunction to stop Dunifer's Free Radio Berkeley. Instead, she questioned the constitutionality of the FCC's regulations as they applied to micro-radio stations. Last month, Judge Wilken reversed her decision and granted the FCC a permanent injunction against Dunifer, banning him "from doing any act, whether direct or indirect, to cause unlicensed radio transmissions or to enable such radio transmissions to occur."
Dunifer, however, did not heed the injunction and has continued to promote
his cause. During the GNN conference he brought a whole box of backpack-sized
radio kits to a workshop on how to start a micro-station. He assembles
and ships these kits around the globe -- to Haiti, Mexico, the
Philippines. These kits enable people to broadcast for as little as $1,000 plus the monthly power bill, without a license.
An FCC license costs about $3,000. With legal and consulting fees, the price tag to get on the air can be $100,000 -- assuming there is a frequency available for use.
At the GNN conference, Dunifer and the many attendees vowed to take offensive actions against the FCC in the future in the form of demonstrations, rallies, and lawsuits. They also plan to stage an event in Washington, D.C., this fall. The GNN conference resolution read, "If any station is attacked by the FCC we will respond immediately with informational, legal and technical support and will do anything we can to get them back on the air."
"This much is clear, we're gonna have to hang together or they are gonna
hang us one by one. If there is free speech in this country, well, Goddamn
it, let's test it," Ervin said.