Questioning Technology: Micro Radio -- The Public's Airwaves

To tune into the micro radio movement, the first rule is never, never refer to it as "pirate" radio. The real pirates, say these radio rebels, are the large corporations who have stolen the airwaves from the public.It's this concept of the airwaves belonging to the public -- rather than a few major media companies -- that is at the heart of a movement that currently boasts of as many as 300 unlicensed low power radio stations now broadcasting in neighborhoods throughout the United States.Fueled by the enactment earlier this year of new telecommunications legislation and a favorable early ruling in a pivotal court case, the micro radio movement is gaining steam "as a campaign of civil disobedience," said Stephen Dunifer, a Berkeley, CA broadcast engineer who began Free Radio Berkeley, one of nation's premiere unlicensed radio stations.Disgruntled with the mainstream American media's failure to broadcast opposition to the Persian Gulf War, Dunifer built a small portable radio station and went up into the hills above Berkeley, which is located on San Francisco Bay north of Oakland. From there he started broadcasting alternative programming for a few hours every Sunday night. That was the birth of Free Radio Berkeley, which thrives today as a full time unlicensed station.The FCC fined Dunifer $20,000 and has taken him to court in an effort to stop his unlicensed broadcasts. However, Dunifer, represented by attorney Louis N. Hiken, was able to convince U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilkins that there are substantial constitutional arguments at stake in the FCC's attempt to ban micro radio stations. Twice this year, Judge Wilkins has refused to issue injunctions that would stop Dunifer and possibly force Free Radio Berkeley off the air. It's the first time a judge has turned down an FCC request to shut down an unlicensed radio station. While both sides wait on the next ruling from the judge, the movement is "kicking ass," said attorney Peter Franck, a micro radio expert at the National Lawyers Guild. He said there's an effort to sprout so many micro radio stations that the FCC will lose control of the regulatory process by the time the issue winds its way through the courts."Our vision is this will be like CB radio," said Franck. "The FCC tried to regulate CB in the 1960s and required everyone that had a radio to get a license. But it grew too fast. Radio Shack sold too many of them. So if this case ever gets to the Supreme Court -- where we may not do as well as we're doing in the District Court -- there will be so many stations on the air that they have to recognize them."The FCC claims the micro radio rebels are threatening public safety. "It's a terrible problem," said Don Winston, a spokesman for the FCC's Compliance and Information Bureau in an interview with the Associated Press. "Without court intervention, there could be chaos."Not so, said Dunifer, who contends good engineering practices and easily available frequency data make it unlikely that a micro station will interfere with licensed commercial stations. "We have to maintain clear signals," he said. "The FCC is saying that if we remain on the air 747s are going to do water landings in the bay and who knows what else might happen. Well, these are all very simple technology problems that can be easily solved."First of all, Dunifer said, it is easy to research available frequencies in areas where micro stations choose to broadcast. "On the Internet there's a searchable database by city or longitude/latitude coordinates," he said. "Another step is to do a manual search of potential frequencies that look good."Micro radio also maintains the same channel spacing requirements used for commercial stations, Dunifer said. "In certain urban areas where that is not possible, we look into use of space on the UHF TV band," he said.Dunifer builds and sells 15 to 20 watt transmitters for micro stations that "properly sited with a good location can easily cover a distance of a five to ten mile radius." Complete micro radio stations can be built at a cost of well under $2,000. "Our current transmitters are frequency stable," said Dunifer. "They don't drift. They meet basic FCC specs. With proper filtering there is not problem. If the audio processing is done properly to avoid overmodulating with a limiter then you can put out a signal as clean or cleaner than any commercial station on the air."The FCC's problem with micro radio, said Franck, is more about government control of ideas than technology. "Our research turned up the fact that for the first 400 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press one had to have a license to own a printing press. I don't think the issue here is about frequency interference."The current regulatory framework is that the government says you have to have a license to broadcast," Franck continued. "They will not consider a license application for less than 100 watts of power and without very expensive engineering studies. The filing fee at the initial stage is $2,500."This is no coincidence, said Hiken, Dunifer's attorney. "Because of the telecommunications bill there is a land rush going on now that is unparalleled in the history of radio. Within five years a very few corporations are going to own 95 percent of the AM and FM bands in this country."What we seek as a movement with micro radio -- the same thing that the Internet offers to the rich and literate -- is an ability to communicate with each other without filters," Hiken said. "The American people do not have access to radio. They cannot participate in it. They have no voice." Micro radio is a two-way participatory communications system, Hiken said. It moves communications from the model of the passive audience to a model of an expression of people's struggles. "It creates real spokespeople rather than the ones created by the industry," Hiken said.As to micro radio's future relationship with the FCC, Hiken said micro broadcasters are not against notification to the FCC of basic information to help prevent interference problems. "We think it's perfectly appropriate to let them know we are going on the air at this frequency, at this wattage, at this address and to ask them to let us know if there's any interference," he said. "There is plenty of space on the spectrum to set aside micro radio allocations just as there is for commercial broadcast allocations."In the end, the micro radio movement wants a court trial on their right to broadcast on public airwaves. This, in Hiken's opinion, will be hard to achieve since the government has said it will move directly to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals if Judge Wilkins does not grant their injunction. Appellate judges, he said, tend to favor government agencies in their rulings."The last thing the FCC will ever do is allow a trial of whether or not they are giving out licenses in the public interest," Hiken said. "By the time that trial takes place they have lost and they know that."For Dunifer and the crusade he launched, the wait for the court's ruling is precious time to get as many micro radio stations on the air as possible. "We come to bury the corporate media monopoly," he said. "Our vision is to use these tools to liberate people, not enslave them. We begin by seizing the means of communications -- by any means necessary -- and if the FCC doesn't like it...well that's just too bloody bad."

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