Radio's rebels vow to keep making waves
The topic of discussion wasn't finding lost booty but discovering an unused frequency for the six-watt radio station they plan to leave behind after the National Association of Broadcasters and the FCC leave town. That station will join hundreds of illegal radio stations that have sprung up across the country.
While more than 100,000 people swarmed the Las Vegas Convention Center to look at millions of dollars of gleaming broadcast equipment, about 50 microradio advocates were huddled around a makeshift radio control board in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Las Vegas. This is the world of pirate radio.
Stephen Dunifer, the soft-spoken denizen of a 50-watt station called Free Radio Berkeley, explained to The Hollywood Reporter what his movement is all about.
"Most of us reject that term," he said when asked about pirate radio. "The real pirates are the major corporations that have stolen the airwaves from the American people."
Dunifer, a 46-year-old who looks like an aging hippie and suffers from chronic arthritis, staged the microconvention as a way to highlight the demands of the growing micropower broadcasting movement. The stations give a voice to people who have no other way to reach an audience, Dunifer said.
"The major reason we're here is that the NAB has targeted microradio operators for eradication," he said. "We're here to say to the NAB that we're not going to let them step on our rights. We have a right to exist and flourish. We have inalienable rights, and by damn no one is going to step on them."
While the overriding theme of the NAB convention has been the multibillion-dollar switch to digital TV, there has been an undercurrent of concern over microradio. Mainstream broadcasters peppered FCC officials during their sessions here with complaints about micros. They said they cause interference with legitimate operators and are a threat to public safety.
In response, the micros staged a protest Wednesday. About two-dozen people carrying banners and wearing gags with FCC written across them tried to make people pay attention to their plight. The NAB hired extra security as a precaution, but the protesters, if a bit unkempt, were peaceful.
The FCC, which took Dunifer to court over his station, has sided with broadcasters. So far, federal Judge Claudia Wilken has sided with Dunifer, allowing him to continue to operate. During his address to the NAB, FCC chairman Bill Kennard promised to continue the agency's efforts to shut down illegal broadcasters, but he has also told them that the government needs to look at accommodating the micros.
"Let's not confuse pirate radio with microbroadcasting," Kennard said. "The FCC will continue to do everything it can to get pirates off the air, but let's be realistic: There's fewer and fewer ways for people to get on the air."
Recent petitions filed at the FCC have asked the commission to develop licensing for thousands of one-watt stations across the country, and Kennard has indicated that something like that may be a way to increase minority broadcast station ownership. Kennard, the commission's first black chairman, has made that one of the FCC's goals. Dunifer's group, which sometimes goes by the Association of Micropower Broadcasters moniker, plans its own petition.
While Kennard pleaded with broadcasters to "work with him on this," that doesn't seem likely. NAB chief Edward Fritts called the one-watt proposal "troubling," and Dunifer questioned Kennard's commitment to helping microbroadcasters.
"We'll have to see," said Dunifer, who after years of fighting the FCC views the agency as a willing accomplice with the companies that have homogenized the radio medium and cut out alternative voices.
While Dunifer sometimes sounds like a political radical, he said his main goal is to educate micropower broadcasters so they can get their stations operating safely and without interfering with other radio frequency users.
"We're forced to do what we're doing because there is not another process," he said.
Dunifer hopes to eventually convince the FCC to set up a process so people without a lot of money can get a station license and bring back true community broadcasting.
"The microradio movement is a threat to them because we promote civil discourse. The whole thing is about promoting a grass-roots philosophy," he said. "Whether they want to broadcast cookie recipes or high-school football games, I really don't care."
No matter what happens at the FCC, Dunifer said the micros aren't going to go away.
"I think we have a good future," Dunifer said. "We're going to continue to grow. The FCC does not have the ability to shut down the hundreds of microradio stations across the country."