09 July 2014

Microbroadcasting vs. the Media Monopoly

People around the world are becoming disgusted with the state of the airwaves. Despite threats of fines and violence, pirate radio activists are turning out and turning on their own stations in defiance of government broadcast regulators. Thousands of Taiwanese police blitzed 14 unauthorized radio outlets, many of which returned to the air following the raid. Twelve people were killed in a raid on a pro-democratic pirate station in Haiti, but the soldiers failed to seize the transmitter. A pirate station broadcasting from a traffic island in Mexico City was also shut down by a phalanx of police. Microbroadcasters in Canada and the U.S. haven't yet been subject to such brutality, but the battle to exercise their claimed right to the public airwaves is no less fierce. The movement's North American epicenter is the San Francisco Bay area where unlicensed FM stations offer a non-commercial alternative. It is also home to the movement's unofficial spokesperson, Stephen Dunifer.

Dunifer is a founder of the People's Free Communications Coalition (People's FCC) and operates Free Radio Berkeley, a 20-watt station that broadcasts on 104.1 FM from the hills overlooking Oakland. He's also engaged is a struggle with the Federal Communications Commission which has fined him $20,000 and wants to shut down FRB. A federal judge refused the U.S. Federal Communications Commission an injunction to close the station and enforce the fine, putting U.S. microbroadcasters in a legal gray area while the FCC explores other avenues to achieve its goal. Dunifer, a lifelong activist who also happens to be a trained broadcast engineer, had an epiphany during the Gulf War. He says he realized that "essentially much of the media moved into a vacant office in the Pentagon" to cheer the American war on Iraq. "I decided enough was enough," he says,
I was very familiar with the issues of media monopolies and propaganda--information is really useless unless you act on it. With my total disgust of the media's performance during the war and the propaganda machine turning the slaughter of several hundred thousand people into some arcade game fantasy, I just decided it was time to take action.

Dunifer was inspired by Mbanna Kantako, whose Black Liberation Radio in Springfield, Ill., broadcast for several years from a housing project near Chicago in defiance of the FCC. Before going on air with FRB in the spring of 1993, Dunifer consulted with the National Lawyers Guild to prepare for the inevitable hassles from the authorities. His ultimate goal is to wrestle the airwaves from the clutches of corporate control. Dunifer refers to the FCC as "Fostering Corporate Control." He believes in the ability of a governing body to impose basic technical ground rules, but questions "why the airwaves, which are a common resource to everyone, have to especially remain a profit center for corporate and business interests?"

Even if he received financing, Dunifer says he would refuse to purchase a license:
At very best case what we would accept would be some simple, two-page blank form that would have a certain power saying you're broadcasting at a certain frequency that meets the following technical specifications, time, location. Fill it in and send $25 for filing and then the burden of proof is on the FCC to prove interference. That would be acceptable.
Otherwise, he says, "I don't believe in the system--the whole system is corrupt."

Dunifer wants to appear before the supreme court to plead his case, since he argues the FCC's ban on microbroadcasting violates free speech provisions of the American constitution and the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. In the meantime, he hopes to dodge the FCC and expand FRB's programming and content. Already, he's developing an audio alternative to Saturday morning children's cartoons. Much of FRB's programming consists of discussion of social issues, spoken word and music (both live and recorded) as well as news from the Internet and remote broadcasts from demonstrations in the Bay Area. So far, the only complaint against FRB has been from the FCC. Dunifer claims to have been careful not to interfere with any licensed frequency.


While Free Radio Berkeley's approach is information-centered, the Western Front art gallery and performance center in Vancouver employs pirate radio for purely artistic uses. Western Front has had a long association with non-commercial radio in Vancouver; it's been a contributor to Vancouver's CFRO Co-op Radio since the early '70s. Inspired by Japanese microbroadcasting pioneer Tetsuo Kogawa, the Front has held workshops and began scheduled 2-watt broadcasts of music and art exhibitions. The short-lived experiment was curtailed soon after the federal Department of Communications issued a warning on the heels of local media coverage. Western Front hasn't abandoned the airwaves altogether, as it continues to air some of its work sporadically on 89.3 FM in the Mount Pleasant district of Vancouver.

Western Front micobroadcasting coordinator Robert Kozinuk, a former engineering/physics student of the University of British Columbia, worked at college station CITR. Because of other duties at Western Front, he's unable to devote all of his time to the liberation of the airwaves, although he is seeking legal advice. Unlike Dunifer, Kozinuk tolerates a federal regulatory body--in his case, the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission. However, he'd like to see the CRTC set aside vacant frequencies for low-power, neighborhood-based broadcasts. "You've got to have a governing body--I'm not against that," Kozinuk says,
It's just that I feel that there are new uses coming up and new possibilities and they should be able to deal with them and do it, and as long as people are using them in these new ways responsibly, they should do it.
Kozinuk says microbroadcasting is even more vital in this age of global media saturation:
You can get TV from anywhere and phone anywhere. The borders are breaking down between us and it's breaking down, so are the ideas of community. Everybody in the city is the same. I think people need to feel like they're a part of a community, and people are starting to miss that.
At Kozinuk's workshops, he shows how simple it is to build a 1-watt transmitter for about $75 that fits inside an empty plastic videocassette container. Dunifer, likewise, does workshops and sells equipment worldwide. A fully stocked station coasts less than $1,000 according to Dunifer. Both Kozinuk and Dunifer await the fate of the AM and FM bands as the exodus by commercial broadcasters to digital radio continues. They hope regulators will allow wide-open, non-commercial access to the vacant bands. But they aren't holding their breath; the unused UHF-TV band remains off-limits to microbroadcasters.


Pirate TV, Dunifer says, is in its infancy. Groups around the world have dabbled with it, but it has yet to become as inexpensive and technically simple to do as pirate radio. Anyone can experiment with transmitting low power TV signals by running the output of a videocassette recorder into an antenna distribution amplifier, but operating a station requires more technical expertise and funds. Western Front did some pirate TV programming in early 1994. On one program, a Chinese New Year meal for 15 people was broadcast live to anyone within a 2 km radius who unhooked their cable connection and tuned to channel four. Dunifer is developing designs for UHF transmitters of up to 50 watts. While sparring with the FCC on the radio front has been taxing, Dunifer is eager to battle for the right to broadcast TV without a license. "I imagine that's going to really play a trip when we do that." he says, "Radio, they're not as concerned about going after. TV is the major medium of control in society. The response will be interesting."

For more information on microbroadcasting or directions on how to build a transmitter, contact the World Association of Community Broadcasters.

[The foregoing report was written by Bob Macklin and originally published under the title "Pirate Radio/TV" in Adbusters Quarterly: Journal of the Mental Environment, Summer 1995, Vol. 3, No. 4, pp. 49-51. Web links were added and it was slightly edited for reprinting on TV Multiversity.]

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