Air War on Radio Rebels Escalates
It's an air war. But the battles are being fought in courtrooms -- with occasional skirmishes at scattered sites around the country between rounds.At stake is low-power or micropower broadcasting, radio stations that transmit their signal with less than 100 watts of power. (Most major stations have 50,000 watts -- 500 times that much.)Such stations have only very limited range -- some half-watt stations now operating can only be heard for a few blocks around. This means they have little appeal to advertisers, and great attraction to highly individual broadcasters.One such broadcaster is Stephen Dunifer who runs the 40-watt "Free Radio Berkeley" from his home in Berkeley, California.In 1993, the Federal Communications Commission -- acting on its own 1978 regulations that applicants for a radio license must use a transmitter with at least 100 watts -- fined Dunifer $20,000 for broadcasting illegally and ordered him to go off the air.Dunifer fought back, arguing the FCC rule interfered with freedom of speech, especially as the cost of owning a conventional station is now hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. The FCC asked the court to issue an injunction, shutting Dunifer down.The court refused -- in what looked like a victory for Dunifer and his allies, Federal District Court Judge Claudia Wilken ruled against the FCC on November 12. In an appeal just filed, the FCC claims that Dunifer cannot say he has been denied the right to broadcast because he has never applied for a license. "The constitutional challenge to a licensing regulation, therefore, is not ripe for adjudication."But Dunifer points out that he did not apply for a license because the FCC rules, issued nearly 20 years ago, clearly deny low-power stations the right to operate.Radio rebels claim that the FCC retaliated with raids on stations in several states.Barely a week after the ruling was handed down, at 6:30 a.m. November 19, thunderous knocking brought Doug Brewer to the front door of his home in Tampa, Florida."I'm looking out and see maybe two faces and fourteen rifle muzzles," recounts Brewer. What he saw was a Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force comprised of agents from US Customs, local police, local sheriffs, a SWAT team, and the Federal Communications Commission, many of them pointing laser-guided assault rifles at his direction.Brewer, 43, runs "Tampa's Party Pirate" an unlicensed micropower FM station. He says the Task Force detained him and his wife for 12 hours while officials ransacked their house in search of micro-broadcasting equipment. Brewer says they seized everything they could, including a picture of one of his revolutionary inspirations: Jesus Christ.Brewer believes the FCC used him as an example after their field officer came out looking foolish in a recent front-page story in the Wall Street Journal. He claims the agency "broke freedom of speech by creating a heavy monetary seizure."The same week the FCC raided two other illegal Florida stations and WSKR-FM, a black-run pirate station in West Philadelphia.Dunifer, outraged by the raids, says the FCC "shows a basic contempt for due process, the Bill of Rights, and the US Constitution -- that's what it shows." Dunifer thinks the FCC is acting at the behest of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), an organization that represents licensed TV and radio stations. The FCC claims that micropower stations can interfere with important radio communications. Radio rebels say they operate on completely different frequencies, and that the issue is simply one of access.Meanwhile, back in the courtroom, the FCC has appealed Judge Wilken's ruling by claiming that Dunifer has no free speech claim because he did not apply for the license they will not issue -- an argument Dunifer claims is simply a diversion."They never respond in a substantive manner," he says, describing the FCC legal time as "hacks who were formerly lobbyists for the broadcast industry." He points out that the new chair of the FCC was formerly a lobbyist for the NAB, and will offer a transcript of an April NAB conference that details its opposition to microbroadcasting.The FCC reply also claims Wilken's court has no jurisdiction over FCC rules. But the agency itself recently brought a similar case to a district court in Arizona, and had no quarrel when it ruled in the FCC's favor.Lea is a producer at YO! Radio which airs on radio stations across the country; Thompson is a writer based in San Francisco.