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 infectious.”
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 change.”
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 speech.
“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.”