Pirate Radio Goes Legit 

The FCC is poised to license community radio stations in the Bay Area for the first time, and the competition promises to be fierce.

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During the past year, the FCC has been busy negotiating new rules for LPFM stations, deciding what allowances and restrictions would be in place for this next round of licenses — and, not surprisingly, the most heated debates flared up over the third adjacent rule. NPR was steadfast in its support to keep the buffers — a position that made few friends in the LPFM circles but has helped it add 150 more stations to its 635 affiliates over the past decade, stations that would have had a decidedly more difficult time finding adequate space on the airwaves if not given priority over LPFM stations.

Yet in spite of the heavy lobbying, the FCC released in March a tongue-tying report entitled, "The Fifth Report and Order, Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Fourth Order on Reconsideration." It was a shocker; it sided with LPFM stations and tossed out the third adjacent rule. It was a remarkable decision, and will allow more LPFM stations to squeeze in on radio bands around the country, especially in urban areas.


Not surprisingly, micro-broadcasting has its roots in the ideals, movements, and personalities of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. "It is electronic civil disobedience," said Stephen Dunifer.

Sitting in a windowless warehouse in Emeryville, wearing faded blue jeans and an unbuttoned flannel shirt, his long gray hair pulled back tightly, Dunifer looks like he came directly from central casting for "aging hippie." Cluttered with motherboards and boxes of circuits, the bunker-like space is as unassuming as the back room of a Radio Shack store. Two college-age interns scurry in the background, assembling radio transmitters and antennas. "People should occupy FM radio," he added in a slow, careful cadence. "If we're going to do anything meaningful and long-term, we need to build alternative institutions."

Dunifer is so legendary among pirate radio enthusiasts that more than one radio manager interviewed for this story claimed that Dunifer inspired the movie Pump Up the Volume, the 1990 film starring Christian Slater as a ham radio operator who hijacks local radio frequencies to titillate his fellow high school students with brooding and horny soliloquies, and the only teenage romance ever to feature the FCC as the villain. In fact, Dunifer did not, but he has gone toe-to-toe with more FCC agents than any living radio operator. And his pirate radio station helped inspire a nationwide — if not global — movement toward micro-broadcasting, a trend that in recent years has matured into a steely alternative to the increasingly cookie-cutter — and corporately owned — stations that populate the airwaves.

Almost twenty years ago, Dunifer started broadcasting a Sunday-evening pirate-radio show from his house in the Berkeley Hills, talking about everything from the Gulf War to Earth First. After agents came knocking — somewhat ironically, Dunifer explained, because they arrived just as he was talking on the radio about how free speech allows public nudity — he took the show mobile, hiking into the hills with a transmitter, a battery pack, and an antenna.

Unable to track down his pirate radio broadcasts, FCC agents took legal action and tried to stop him with an injunction in federal court. But when that injunction failed, Dunifer took advantage of the resulting legal ambiguity to set up a round-the-clock station in a flophouse that made WKRP seem like a monastery: "The point was to make a free-speech statement," Dunifer said.

Part performance art, part anarchy, the Free Radio Berkeley station aired shows from some four or five dozen people, including a steady stream of punks and what Dunifer calls "various shades of black and piercings," and shows by homeless men and women.

Like many pioneering movements, Dunifer's local efforts were part of an uncoordinated golden era: Throughout the Nineties, several other pirate radio broadcasters also used radio as a means for community organizing; most notably, a small-scale station, Black Liberation Radio, broadcasted — and continues to do so — news to housing projects in Springfield, Illinois. The station ran stories not being covered in the mainstream media, including how the AIDS epidemic was disproportionately affecting the black population. (Perhaps not coincidentally, a young, recent Harvard law school graduate, Barack Obama, started his career as a community organizer in those housing projects.)

A smattering of other pioneering micro-broadcasting stations also popped up across the country, including a Black Liberation Radio spin-off station in nearby Decatur that paid particular attention to a contentious union struggle against the machinery behemoth Caterpillar, and a station in southern Florida that championed the rights of local tomato pickers.

At the same time, pirate radio was taking on even more dramatic conflicts internationally. B-92 in the former Yugoslavia operated from unknown studios to chronicle the military conflict there (and continued to play music throughout the Bosnian War). A quasi-station known as Bush Radio organized anti-Apartheid forces by recording shows in Cape Town and distributing them on cassette tapes around South Africa.

But then, in 1996 (cue needle screeching across a record), President Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunication Act of 1996, effectively overwhelming the trend toward more locally grown radio stations. Most notably, the law reversed decades of ownership restrictions that prohibited a single corporation from holding multiple media stations in one market.

Norm Stockwell, a radio manager for community radio station WORT in Madison, Wisconsin and a longtime advocate for LPFM, calls the Telecommunication Act a "massive giveaway" that set up a "land grab" by corporate interests. Clear Channel, in particular, was busy, increasing the stations it owned from 43 in 1996 to more than 1,000 five years later. "In terms of what we should be doing with media in this country," Stockwell said, "this was the exact opposite."

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