By MARTHA MENDOZA, AP National Writer
To Stephen Dunifer, it was yet another revolutionary moment. But to the
untrained eye, it looked more like a geek fest. Over four days, a dozen
men and women shyly bumped shoulders as they studied schematics and
tinkered with romex connectors, resistors, microphone cords, meters,
sockets and capacitors -- the stuff of illegal radio stations.
In the corner of this cluttered electronics lab, hunched over a
computer, sat Dunifer, their teacher, "the patron saint of pirate
radio." Part rock star, part Johnny Appleseed and fully the bane of
the Federal Communications Commission, Dunifer has long, gray hair,
large, clear glasses and a deep commitment to what he calls "Free
"We're not stealing anything. We're claiming something that's
rightfully ours," he says.
His goal is to create FM radio stations faster than the FCC can shut
"It's always been our position that if enough people go on the air
with their stations, the FCC will be overwhelmed and unable to
respond," he says.
Pirate radio is radio without a license, radio without government
regulations. It's "america the criminal" at midnight on Human Rights
Radio in Springfield, Illinois and pre-dawn erotica on Freak Radio in
Santa Cruz, Calif. It's an inordinate amount of Frank Zappa at WFZR in
West End, Pa. (a station dedicated to playing his music) and the "Voice
of the American Patriot" ("no support for liberals disguised as wannabe
Conservatives") at NLNR in Butte, Mont.
The rapidly proliferating scofflaws -- and there are now hundreds of
them broadcasting at any given moment in this country -- are usually
only audible within a few miles of their "home-brewed"
transmitters. They find unused sections of the FM dial, fire up their
mini-transmitters, raise their antennas and set up their station.
Some opt to broadcast on the Internet as well, opening up their
audience to the entire globe. Costs typically range from about $250 to
Pirates, as they call themselves, draw loyal audiences in their
communities but complaints from the larger, licensed public and
private radio stations who say the microbroadcasters interrupt their
signals. And they are a thorn in the side of the FCC, which is tasked
with shutting them down.
Ten miles away from Dunifer's radio camp, at an undisclosed location
in San Francisco, an FCC enforcement team is part of a nationwide
campaign to thwart the pirates.
A record 185 unlicensed broadcasters received fines, cease and desist
letters or had been raided by the by early September, up from 151
enforcement actions in all of 2005 and 92 in 2004, according to John
Anderson, an expert on pirate radio who tracks FCC enforcement at
University of Illinois' Institute of Communications Research. His data
show a steady increase in pirate radio enforcement dating back 10
"There are a lot more stations out there these days, thus there are a
lot more stations for the FCC to find and bust," said Anderson.
Despite federal laws that ban unlicensed radio, efforts to shut down
the stations are rarely popular and appear to be ineffectual, at least
some of the time. For example:
_The neon sign says "ON AIR" at the storefront KNOZ station in
Sacramento, Calif., even though broadcaster William Major was fined
$10,000 by the FCC in June. Major says he's been wrongly painted as a
pirate station, and that the FCC just overlooked his license
application which he says is still pending. And the fine? "It's 10
G's," he said. "I don't have 10 G's. But they're being real gentleman
about it, you know what I mean? They gave us the fine and they're
letting us do our thing."
_Residents of Brattleboro, Vt., are also once again listening to free
radio. Last summer the FCC raided and shut down their 10-watt Radio
Free Brattleboro, prompting an ongoing federal court battle. This
summer a new community radio station received permits to open and
raised a 30-foot antenna.
_When federal agents raided Free Radio Santa Cruz in 2004, a crowd of
several hundred protesters soon gathered at the 10-year-old broadcast
center -- including the mayor, who was shouting through a bullhorn. The
tires on the FCC agents' cars were slashed before they could leave, and
then they received parking tickets before they could repair them. A few
days later a fundraiser brought in more than $25,000 and Freak Radio,
which is still on the air, was launched.
The FCC's beef, insisted spokesman David Fiske, is with neither the
public dissent nor the abundance of Frank Zappa music. The problem is
that pirate radio stations can make it impossible for the public to
listen to licensed broadcasting and can cut into air traffic control
communications, he said.
"We are completely complaint driven," he said. "If there are more
enforcement actions, that's because there have been more complaints."
The FCC's 2007 budget includes an additional $1,080,000 for Mobile
Digital Direction Finding Vehicles which can be used to sniff out
pirate radio stations. But that same budget includes no extra staffing
for the FCC's 333-person enforcement bureau, which is tasked with
policing everything from cable television to telephone
services. They're supposed to investigate obscene broadcasts, bust
unwanted faxers and regulate the airwaves.
Pirate radio in its current form dates back 21 years to Zoom Black
Magic Radio in Fresno, Calif., founded by Walter Dunn to bring
diversity to the FM dial. The FCC raided his station and fined him
$2,000 two years later, but like stations of today, he quickly popped
At Dunifer's Radio Camp, students are warned about the FCC and taught
how to evade the enforcement agents. At the end of four intense days,
they walked out holding their own, hand-built, ready-to-use FM radio
transmitter, a shiny box slightly larger than a brick.
Participants came from as far away as Namibia and as nearby as five
Their reasons for wanting their own station were equally diverse: a
neat, middle-aged woman from Mexico, accompanied by a translator, said
she wanted to bring news and political information to her community;
two young men from Tucson in flowered shirts and sandals said they
wanted to start a new pirate station to replace several that have been
shut down by the FCC; a self-described "boring insurance clerk" in a
lilac blazer was just "looking for something interesting to do"; a man
with red dreadlocks, green earrings and tattooed arms was slated to
take over the technology job at his local pirate station.
No one is sorrier to hear about these Radio Camp graduates than Dennis
Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, who
described Dunifer as "the patron saint of pirate radio." And he didn't
mean it as praise.
He said his members, frustrated by interference on their stations,
push the FCC to enforce the rules against pirate operators.
"You'd be hard pressed to find a pirate radio station that isn't
interfering with another licensed station," he said.
But Wharton conceded that the FCC's policing efforts can be futile.
"It's like whack a mole," he said. "You knock it out in one place and
it pops up somewhere else."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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