By, Billy Jam
Reprinted from Sessions, Vol.1 (page A24)
On any given weekend day, within a radius of a few miles of the Berkeley
Flea Market, if you fine tune your radio into 87.9 FM, you'll hear the
totally free-form and eclectic sounds of Flea Radio Berkeley, a micro
powered pirate radio station that costs a mere few hundred dollars to
set up and put on the air.
Run and operated by the folks from the nearby 24 hours/seven days a week
micro-powered Free Radio Berkeley, the weekend-only community radio
station is just one of approximately 300 illegal, unlicensed,
micro-powered radio stations currently operating across the US.
Although American pirate radio dates back several decades, it's only
been in the past three years that the FCC has allowed them to flourish.
The “rebel radio movement” was officially born in the Bay Area with
the intermittent broadcasts of Free Radio Berkeley by Steven Dunifer in
the Berkeley Hills in 1993.
Since then Dunifer, who has been dubbed “the poster boy of pirate
radio” and featured in dozens of articles from the San Francisco
Examiner to the New York Times and Spin, has engaged the FCC head-on in
a much-publicized legal battle.
The Commission has fined Dunifer $20.000 and took him to court to stop
his broadcasting, but twice this year, U.S. District Judge Claudia
Wilkens refused to issue injunctions that would force Dunifer's station
off the air.
The resulting stalemate has opened the door for a flood of other pirate
stations across the country, including FUCC, Free Radio Seattle, Ghetto
Radio in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and Steal This Radio, located in a squat in
New York City's East Village.
Dunifer doesn't consider any of these stations “pirates” but rather
“micro-powered stations” that are not outlaws but rather civil
rights advocates. He and his fellow micro-casters see the FCC as having
alienated and disenfranchised community radio by placing the airwaves in
the hands of the rich.
“The FCC tries to portray us as 'pirates'--people sneaking around.
What we're really participating in is what we consider to be a protected
First Amendment activity; free speech,” Dunifer says.
Political activist and former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, who
participated in a benefit for Dunifer's Cause earlier this year, agrees.
“I think it goes way beyond pirate radio and the FCC,” he says.
“It's more of a fight going on for how much access the average
American has to relevant information that affects their lives.”
Dunifer also sees a direct correlation between the skyrocketing prices
of commercial stations and the unprecedented rise of these unlicensed
stations. He points to the Bay Area radio market, the nation's fourth
largest, where in the past six months 21 commercial stations have
changed hands at ever-escalating costs.
“The current trend of buying up stations has grossly inflated prices.
Realistically, the maximum price of a station should be three to four
times the advertising billing per annum. However, we now have a
situation where the ratio has gone up to 20 times that of the
advertising/revenue stream. It's an investment scam on the pan of the
corporations,” he says. The ultimate result, he adds, is “less
That's one commodity that the micro-powered stations don't lack. On
stations such as Free Radio Berkeley, San Francisco Liberation Radio, or
Free Radio Santa Cruz, along with diverse musical programming including
punk rock and hip-hop, listeners can hear shows on compost gardening,
traffic reports from a cyclists' perspective, and programs from such
community activist organizations as Cop Watch and Food Not Bombs.
What is the future of rebel radio? While the court ruling is in limbo,
Dunifer hopes to continue to encourage and help as many new
micro-powered stations as possible to get on the air. A radio engineer
by profession, he gives classes in building inexpensive transmitters.
One of Dunifer’s associates at Free Radio Berkeley, who goes by the
handle Captain Fred, says he foresees the FCC “backing down”' and
the “micro-stations merging into the scheme of things. I think the
distinction between the legal and illegal stations will blur. I predict
that there'll soon be micro-powered stations that will sound like
commercial stations and, alternately, commercial stations who'll emulate
Meanwhile, critics say that the proliferation of unregulated stations
will merely cause chaos on the dial. Whatever the case, it'll be an
interesting scenario to watch unfold.