[FoRK] Stealing Back The Airwaves

Contempt for Meatheads jbone at place.org
Sat May 8 10:38:32 PDT 2004

Noticed via Boingsters:

Stealing Back the Airwaves
By Jason Silverman

Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/digiwood/0,1412,63343,00.html

02:00 AM May. 07, 2004 PT

Please don't call Stephen Dunifer a pirate. He's a microbroadcaster, 
or, at least, a former one.

As Dunifer tells it, the term "pirate radio," though once a badge of 
honor, is misleading. Pirates are criminals, he might tell you, while 
microbroadcasters are Tom Paine-like patriots.

Dunifer dreams of reclaiming the airwaves, neighborhood by 
neighborhood, from the corporate powers that be. To that end, he's 
spent the past several years training would-be do-it-yourself 
broadcasters. His four-day Radio Summer Camps, sponsored by Free Radio 
Berkeley, offer how-tos for building transmitters and antennas, along 
with advice on handling any FCC agents that might come knocking. The 
camps begin in June.

With a few hundred bucks and a bit of know-how, potential pirates, er, 
microbroadcasters, could hop the airwaves right away.

Katie Jacoby, a junior at Bard College in New York, spent her winter 
break in one of Dunifer's training sessions, and earlier this month 
launched Free Radio Annandale, an unlicensed station at 92.5 FM. After 
overcoming some logistical problems -- Jacoby had to put her antenna up 
a tree -- she began broadcasting hip-hop and punk music and politically 
oriented programming including Democracy Now.

"It's been extremely empowering to follow the DIY ethic," she said. 
"What's even more exciting is that I am continually inspired to learn 
more about radio technology ... and I've really started to think about 
the facets of society that constrict our ability to communicate. When 
others hear of the crazy projects I do, they get inspired too. It's 

Building your own station is also illegal. Dunifer advises his students 
to enlist the help of an attorney before hopping the airwaves. But he 
describes microbroadcasting as "electronic civil disobedience" rather 
than a typical criminal act.

"As far as I'm concerned, the real pirates are the NAB (National 
Association of Broadcasters) and their member stations," Dunifer said, 
referring to the powerful lobbying group. "They've stolen the airwaves 
with the full complicity of the FCC and Congress."

Can microbroadcasters grab them back? Dunifer thinks so. Put enough 
Katie Jacobys on the air at once, Dunifer suggests, and you could 
create a 21st-century equivalent to the Boston Tea Party.

Imagine this: A thousand little stations send radio programming across 
cities and towns from senior centers, dorm rooms and attics. The 
understaffed FCC would be powerless to shut them down. Audiences would 
have substantive content choices. No one would tune into Top-40 radio. 
And the media moguls would slink back into their caves.

OK, so the scenario is a bit far-fetched. But the FCC and Big Radio are 
obviously paying attention to the microbroadcasters -- it was pressure 
from independent broadcasters that forced the FCC to grant a limited 
number of low-power, or LPFM, radio licenses to community 
organizations, a decision that the NAB resisted.

Still, Pete Tridish, a recovering pirate and head of the low-power 
radio advocacy group Prometheus Radio Project, thinks pirate stations 
on their own won't cause enough of a ripple in Washington. He is 
lobbying to have the FCC cough up more LPFM licenses, including in 
urban areas.

"Having tried it, I don't think a strategy just of civil disobedience 
will work," Tridish said. "The pirates' ability to be civilly 
disobedient is out of proportion to the problem they are trying to 

That problem is media concentration. Critics say that the 1996 
Telecommunications Act turned radio into a preprogrammed monolith as 
independent, local radio stations were gobbled up by conglomerates, 
including Clear Channel, which now owns 1,200 stations in 230 markets. 
(Click here for the case against Clear Channel.)

For some media activists, working with the FCC to solve perceived 
problems with the mass media is counterintuitive. Dunifer spent four 
years banging heads with the feds while fighting an injunction against 
his station, Free Radio Berkeley. His defense: The FCC was stepping on 
his Bill of Rights.

"This was a First Amendment issue," Dunifer said. "When you have a 
system that allocates access depending on money, that's not free 

"Our core argument was that the FCC's rules and regulations constitute 
an artificially high barrier to free speech. If the government is going 
to regulate First Amendment rights, they have to do it in the 
least-restrictive means possible. But, at this point, unless you have 
tons of money you can't even enter the (broadcasting) game."

Dunifer's success in court was shocking -- it undermined, to an extent, 
the FCC's entire existence -- but temporary. The injunction against 
Free Radio Berkeley stands.

But those who can't broadcast, teach. Dunifer's summer camps are an 
attempt to seed an army of microbroadcasters to reclaim what he calls 
"stolen property: the airwaves, a public resource."

"We need an alternative media to bring alternative viewpoints and to 
give us access to music and art and poetry and other forms of 
expression," Dunifer said. "It's fundamental to the democratic process. 
If you don't have an open media that's freewheeling and chaotic and a 
wonderful mess, you don't have democracy."

End of story

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