Calif. activist gains ears despite FCC threats.
By Nita Lelyveld
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
BERKELEY, Calif. -- Stephen Dunifer's tiny, 30-watt radio station
doesn't offer the usual drive-time DJs, cash-prize contests, or Bay
Bridge traffic updates. Its signal fades about 10 miles from its source.
A battered old boom box makes do as a stereo system. And daily programs
such as Animal Liberation and Capitalism: The Suicidal Octopus aren't
likely to make millions rush to their FM dials in excitement.
But ever since 1993, when the self-proclaimed anarchist took to the
Berkeley Hills and started broadcasting "Free Radio Berkeley" from a
transmitter operated on a car battery and tucked into a pack on his
back, he has been the leading voice in a growing guerrilla radio
The longtime activist with the bushy beard and lanky,
well-below-shoulder-length brown hair brazenly operates his station
without a license. From a cluttered workshop in his home, he sells
inexpensive, do-it-yourself kits so that others can make their way onto
the airwaves. His Web site (www.freeradio.org) serves as a bulletin
board for so-called micropower broadcasters everywhere. (He believes
there are as many as 1,000 micropower stations in America.) And he has
just published a book, Seizing the Airwaves, which is partly a hands-on
In this famously free-thinking community, Dunifer couldn't be more
active in spreading his micropower gospel -- or more infuriating to the
Federal Communications Commission.
For years now, the FCC has been trying to shut down Free Radio Berkeley
on the grounds that it is not only illegal but dangerous. The FCC argues
that such low-watt stations not only interfere with licensed broadcasts,
but also with such crucial frequencies as those used for emergency
broadcasts and by pilots and air traffic controllers.
Recently, prompted by air traffic controllers' complaints, the FCC shut
down three Florida stations and a station in Puerto Rico, said
commission spokesman David Fiske.
"We know it happens. There's no arguing it," Fiske said.
Dunifer said air traffic channels operate from 118 to 135 megahertz,
from his signal at 104.1 megahertz. He called such FCC arguments
"They're trying to create the image that we're some sort of public
safety threat. But we've had quite a number of micropower radio stations
operating in the Bay Area and we have yet to see any 747s make water
landings in the bay as a result," he said.
The 46-year-old, self-trained broadcast engineer sees his cause as noble
- -- fighting, like a modern-day Robin Hood, to wrest the airwaves from
monied, corporate control and return them to the democratic voice of the
people. Most stations are full of commercial garbage, he said, and even
public radio stations do not present truly alternative viewpoints. His
fight is about nothing less than the constitutional guarantee of free
speech, he said.
"If you're wealthy and well endowed, you can have a voice, but if you're
not, how can you be heard?" Dunifer said. "Where are the voices of the
people going to be heard? How will we hear from the people on the
With filing fees and consultant and start-up costs, getting an FCC
license can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, an exorbitant price
for many would-be alternative, community broadcasters. Under current FCC
rules, which require a 100-watt minimum, such licenses aren't available
to low-watt stations.
That may change, said the FCC's Fiske. A request to license 1/2-watt
stations is out for public comment, he said, and added that the FCC also
has no problem with radio stations broadcasting on the Internet, rather
than over the airwaves.
"The bottom line is people like Dunifer are breaking the law. There
processes you can go through to try to change the law, and that's what
other people are doing," Fiske said.
In general, pirate stations tend to pack up shop fairly promptly when
the FCC comes knocking, scared by such threats as year-long prison terms
and fines reaching $100,000. If forced to challenge the stations in
court, the agency usually wins. In November, for instance, the FCC shut
down the low-watt WSKR-FM in West Philadelphia.
But Dunifer's station is proving the exception to the rule.
In January 1995, a federal judge in California refused to grant the
a temporary injunction against the station. Last November, the same
judge also turned down the agency's request for a permanent injunction.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilkin has yet to decide on Dunifer's
broader, constitutional argument. Her decision could force the FCC to
face Dunifer in a trial.
Meanwhile, Free Radio Berkeley, which started out broadcasting for just
a couple of hours each Saturday night, now is on the air nonstop from a
rented one-room studio, where posters supporting everything from Mumia
Abu-Jamal to United Farm Workers plaster the numerous bulletin boards.
On a recent afternoon, a deep voice cracked and popped a little as it
wafted its way into dorm rooms and coffeehouses here, bringing the
latest updates on Bay Area sit-ins and boycotts.
There was a plug for a forum against the death penalty on the
UC-Berkeley campus and another for a human blockade to protest a
proposed nuclear waste dump. Someone had sent in news about a petition.
Someone else was organizing buses for a rally.
"This is Free Radio Berkeley," the voice boomed. "And this is the
Radical News Hour."
Dunifer still hosts a regular Sunday night show, called Acting Globally
and Revolting Locally. Other regulars, who range in age from 3 (a
toddler who sits on her DJ mother's lap) to their mid-70s, offer
everything from the Laotian Community Radio Hour to Black Man's Gay
Radio show to Community Space, which regularly promotes hemp use and the
legalization of pot. They're all volunteers, who donate $10 a month to
help make ends meet at the station.
The Buddhist Peace Fellowship down the hall complains from time to time
about boom-box spillover. Otherwise, Free Radio Berkeley fits in just
Except for his Sunday show, Dunifer spends much of his time thinking
about his legal case and assembling radio transmitters in his workshop.
He's sold 300 kits in the last three years and can put anyone on the air
for about $1,500, he said. His kits power radio stations in Haiti and
Chiapas, as well as many an American town, he said.
Each time Dunifer hears of a new radio station sprouting -- whether
be in Iowa City or in Port-au-Prince -- he feels he's getting somewhere.
"Really, in the final analysis, what's going to win this is literally
thousands of communities across the country embarking on the same sort
of adventure we've had here," he said. "It'll be mass numbers moving in
the same direction, realizing together that we've got to have a voice."
©1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
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