Media Maverick: Stephen Dunifer and Free Radio Berkeley

The man behind the '90s microbroadcasting explosion
by Will Hermes
May-June 1998
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Stephen Dunifer operates a bomb factory. You'd hardly notice it. It's located in a nondescript rowhouse in West Berkeley, tucked behind an unmarked door facing Dunifer's living room, across from the kitchen, where, at the moment, he reclines against the counter, quietly sipping soy milk.

His brand of bombs are more generally known as radio transmitters. Their intended payload is information and ideas absent from mainstream media; their targets are disinformation, community ignorance, and the mind-numbing monolith of modern corporate broadcasting. They're cheap, usually under $2,000, and their dispersal pattern is small but significant—anywhere from a few miles to a dozen or more. By his own estimate, Dunifer has built and distributed between 300 and 400 low-power transmitters, most of which are now determinedly exploding in communities from Chiapas, Mexico, to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to the Mission district in San Francisco.

Dunifer is at the center of the microbroadcasting movement, a microphone-clutching groundswell that's challenging radio's status quo on a global scale. Its main tenet is that the airwaves are not the sole province of those who can afford high-powered, multi-million-dollar broadcast operations. Microbroadcasting advocates assert that, in most communities, there is ample room on the FM bandwidth to permit numerous low-power stations to operate without interfering with the signals of established stations. But because of the way the broadcast spectrum traditionally has been controlled, that potential has been ignored. "The problem here," Dunifer explains in a radio-ready baritone, "is that the Federal Communications Commission doesn't license anything under 100 watts, so there is currently no way to do what we do legally." Microbroadcasters generally range from .5 to around 70 watts.

Thus, U.S. microbroadcasters, like most of their international peers, are outlaws, subject to fines, asset forfeiture, and arrest. But that may be changing. In November, federal judge Claudia Wilken refused to grant the FCC an injunction to shut down Free Radio Berkeley, a 24-7 microbroadcasting station operated by Dunifer and about 30 colleagues, pending briefs addressing Dunifer's claim that current FCC regulations violate his right to free speech. And though the FCC in February called for public comment on licensing stations under one watt, the agency hasn't let up.

In March, it pressured the bilingual Radio X in San Francisco's Mission district off the air by threatening to prosecute its landlord, who in turn moved to evict them.

A lifelong activist and alternative community builder, Dunifer came to the Bay Area from Lexington, Kentucky, in 1982 to study naturopathic medicine. But his background as a self-taught engineer led him in other directions. Inspired by Mbanna Kantako, a blind activist based in Springfield, Illinois, who created Black Liberation Radio (now Human Rights Radio) in 1986, Dunifer started Free Radio Berkeley and teamed up with attorneys from the progressive National Lawyers Guild to take the microbroadcasting debate to the next level. "The whole idea was to put a free speech statement, a truly alternative voice, on the air and then move the discussion to a venue where we could challenge the FCC's entire regulatory structure," Dunifer recalls.

The station, which was operated out of Dunifer's home, signed on the air in April 1993, but after the FCC got wind of it, Dunifer took it on the road, broadcasting from the hills of Berkeley via a backpack-mounted transmitter. After some legal back-and-forth between the FCC and Free Radio Berkeley's attorneys (which included an unprecedented $20,000 fine against Dunifer), the current stalemate was reached, and Dunifer moved the station more or less above ground, to a commercial office building near the Berkeley-Oakland border. Its broadcasters (who each contribute $10 a month to help cover rent and operating costs) deliver programming like Street Spirit, a show for and by local homeless people, and Capitalism: The Suicidal Octopus.

The legal issues won't be resolved for a while ("I'm guessing around 2005," Dunifer chuckles), but that hasn't stopped him from getting the word out. Dunifer's transmitter sales and manufacturing operation, part of a Free Radio Berkeley outreach project called IRATE (International Radio Action Training Education), help support both him and the station. He and his comrades will soon be sending a team to Haiti to train and supply equipment to community broadcasters there, and they are about to launch the Adopt-a-Transmitter program, designed to help raise the $1,000 to $2,500 it takes to equip a community with a 20- to 75-watt station.

Dunifer looks forward to the day when a simple registration process supervised by a voluntary, locally based microbroadcasting board will permit numerous community-oriented radio stations in every major city. But until then, he maintains, "it is our intent and purpose to see thousands of transmitters taking to the air in an all-out, no-holds-barred movement of electronic civil disobedience."

You can contact Free Radio Berkeley at 1442A Walnut, Suite #406, Berkeley, CA 94709; 510/464-3041; and frbspd@crl.com. Their Web site is at www.freeradio.org 


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