The Battle for the Airwaves:
Free Radio vs. The Feds
by Lawrence Soley
Covert Action Quarterly Fall 1997
When police beat Dewayne Readus during a 1983 scuffle at the
John Hay Homes housing project in Springfield, Illinois, they
were no more aware that their actions would lead to a large-scale
revolt than were the L.A. cops who beat Rodney King. Unlike the
Los Angeles uprising, the one that started in Springfield was
nonviolent, invisible, and international. It triggered the micro-radio
revolt of unlicensed, low-power, low-tech, noncommercial stations
that originate in, and broadcast to, local neighborhoods. Participants
in the movement-unlike consumers of the "information revolution"
marketed by Microsoft, IBM and other corporations-don't need expensive
computers or access to America On-Line. They don't even need to
be literate or have electricity in their homes. All they need
is a $10 transistor radio to receive the messages or a $150 transmitter
to send them.
Roots of the Revolt
In 1983, Dewayne Readus, partially blinded as a child by glaucoma,
was, like many young African-American men, unable to find a full-time
or even a part-time job. To earn money, he worked as a disc jockey
at parties in the project, spinning R&B. One of these events
turned into a brawl and the police who arrived swinging, beat
Readus so badly he was completely blinded.
After a bout of depression and heavy drinking, Readus turned
from parties and booze to social activism. He helped organize
the Tenants Rights Association (TRA), which demanded that Hay
Homes authorities and local police be accountable to project residents,
rather than the other way around. To improve TRA's out reach,
Mike Townsend, a family friend and professor at Sangamon State
University, suggested that Readus start a neighborhood newspaper.
Readus, who has since changed his name to Mbanna Kanako (or "resisting
warrior", replied, "I'm blind, let's do radio. I don't
get off on print that much." At the next TRA meeting, members
agreed. "We recognized that [since] a large percentage of
our people can't read," said Kantako, radio was "the
most effective way of getting our message to the people.
It was also illegal. The Federal Communications Commission
(FCC), the government agency that regulates telecommunications,
prohibits not only the operation of an FM station without a license,
but also the purchase of a fully assembled FM transmitter. As
Napoleon Williams, who runs an unlicensed FM station in nearby
Decatur, puts it, "It's amazing. You can buy an Uzi fully
assembled, but it's illegal to buy one of these [transmitters]
While FCC policies have purposefully kept community groups
from getting licenses, they have handed them over to large corporations.
"The FCC and its predecessor, the Federal Radio Commission,
have turned over the [broadcasting] spectrum to commercial interests
at no charge whatsoever," says Robert McChesney, a professor
of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author
of Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy, a history of
the FCC's corporate complicity. The FCC serves the commercial
broadcasting industry," he says. "It's a conspiracy
of power politics, undiluted."
And like many conspiracies, it operates in the open through
a bureaucratic structure which, in this case, makes it easy for
corporations, but difficult for community groups, to get licenses.
For example, the FCC-developed rules require that broadcast applicants
have the "financial qualifications" to operate the station
in the red for an extended period of time. When well heeled corporations
and community groups are compared under this criterion, it is
not surprising that for-profit corporations end up with 85 percent
of US radio stations. Most of the others are owned by universities
and state-wide broadcasting companies such as Minnesota Public
Radio, Inc., not community groups.
The reasons behind the FCC's pro-corporate bias are similarly
unastounding. First, FCC commissioners usually come from the telecommunications
industries- the very industries they are supposed to police. A
House subcommittee study of FCC appointees noted that ten of the
19 commissioners appointed during a 16-year period had come from
the industry or from law firms representing the industry The next
largest group of commissioners were political appointees who had
been runners up for more prestigious government posts, such as
Second, commissioners who prove to be loyal supporters of
corporate interests are often rewarded with high-paying industry
jobs after leaving the FCC. A study of the 33 FCC commissioners
who served between 1945 and 1970 found that 21 went on to become
employees of, lobbyists for, or lawyers representing the telecommunications
industries; the other 12 were elderly and retired after their
FCC posts. Consumer activists like Ralph Nader refer to this problem,
which remains endemic, as "deferred bribery."
Third, commercial broadcasters, through trade associations
such as the National Association of Broadcasters, maintain a constant
presence in Washington, testifying at hearings and grooming personal
contacts with politicians, commissioners, and other power brokers.
As the book Reluctant Regulators observed, "Meetings with
industry are nothing new to the FCC. Over the years, the full
commission has held periodic, closed meetings with various industry
groups.... An FCC meeting with a citizens group, on the other
hand, was a rare occurrence prior to 1970." Since then, the
public has had limited input on such issues as violence on television,
children's programming, and minority employment in the broadcast
industry, but never on whether corporate-controlled broadcasting
is in the public interest. The FCC openly admitted its pro-business
agenda: "[T]o a major extent, ours is a commercially-based
broadcast system and that this system renders a vital service
to the Nation. Any policies adopted by [us] ...should be consistent
with the maintenance and growth of this system.''
Lastly, corporate broadcasters, through their political action
committees and CEOs, influence policy through campaign contributions.
In 1995-96, broadcasting interests were among the largest campaign
contributors, handing out more than $3.5 million to politicians.
General Electric/NBC, Walt Disney/ABC, News Corp./Fox and the
National Association of Broadcasters each contributed over a half-million
dollars to the national Democratic and Republican parties.
WTRA Signs On
With its chances for getting a broadcast license remote to
none, the Springfield Tenants Rights Association decided to go
on the air unlicensed. Using a grant from a Catholic Church Campaign
for Human Development, TRA ordered $600 worth of equipment out
of a catalog and set up the WRTA studio in Kantako's living room.
"We're not even concerned about the FCC regulations,"
says Kantako about the decision. "Clearly the [laws] were
designed before blacks were allowed to hold their heads up. And,
obviously, being designed at that period of time, there was no
consideration of what we as people might want to do."
At its inception, about a dozen people worked on the FM station,
producing programs that aired two, then three, nights a week.
Although many in the local black community listened, Springfield
authorities and the FCC largely ignored the illegal broadcasts.
Until 1989, that is, when Kantako interviewed Johnny Howell in
the hospital where the middle-aged father was recuperating from
a police beating. After Kantako invited listeners to call in and
describe their experiences with police, many came forward to report
abuse; some called police "pigs" and the "occupying
army" Soon after these broadcasts, police began harassing
people associated with the station. Even visitors and journalists
were detained and questioned. "As soon as we left Kantako's
apartment [and makeshift studio]," reported Nation writer
Luis Rodriguez, "two police officers yelled at us to stop
and then ordered us to spread our legs and place our hands on
the wall. They had been standing near the apartment next to marked-car
units, apparently listening to our on-the-air comments on police
Springfield police chief Mike Walton contacted the FCC, claiming
that he had received complaints about the station. FCC agents
obligingly visited the station on April 6, 1989, and ordered Kantako
to stop broadcasting, and slapped him with a $750 fine. A week
and a half later, Kantako defiantly began broadcasting 24 hours-a-day,
7 days-a-week. A year later a federal court ordered Kantako to
shut down his transmitter. Instead, he contacted the San Francisco
based National Lawyers Guild Committee on Democratic Communications,
formed in 1987 to explore "the applicability of traditional
First Amendment concepts in the face of the world-wide monopolization
of communication resources by commercial interests.'' The Committee
drafted a brief arguing that the FCC's complete ban on micro-radio
stations was unconstitutional.
The brief was never filed on Kantako's behalf because the
FCC backed away from the confrontation. But the ban on micro-radios
continued. It had been adopted in 1978 at the urging of National
Public Radio, to force low-power FM stations off the air so that
NPR could form a national network of a few, high-powered stations.
This new professionalized system, which relied on federal, corporate,
and community funding for support, was the antithesis of community
Public input and community involvement were kept to a minimum
while corporations and beltway power brokers exerted influence
over programming by earmarking grants for coverage of specific
issues. For example, Waste Management, Inc., which NPR describes
as "providing comprehensive waste services worldwide"
but which Greenpeace calls "one of the worst corporate criminals
in the country," has given NPR money specifically for environmental
coverage. Beltway power brokers exert influence by supporting
or opposing federal funding for NPR and by appearing regularly
on NPR news programs
The influence extends not only to what is said, but to who
says it. A study by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy
in Reporting (FAIR) found that NPR news reports frequently quote
government officials, members of Congress, and analysts from Washington,
DC-based think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute.
However, less than one percent of the sources quoted by NPR are
from labor unions, women's groups, or the environmental movement,
and only 1.5 percent are from racial and ethnic minority groups.
Muzzling Black Radio
The micro-radio revolution that Kantako sparked was in large
part a response to the exclusion of diverse voices from either
"public" or commercial radio. From his living room studio,
Kantako became the Tom Paine of the micro-radio revolution, producing
and distributing videotapes showing how easy it is to start a
radio station. "The biggest lie that has ever been told is
that it costs a lot of money to run a radio station," he
said about the FCC's requirement that broadcast licensees be "financially
qualified." Napoleon Williams and Mildred Jones of Decatur,
Illinois, took his message to heart and started Black Liberation
Radio on August 20, 1990, using a less-than-one watt transmitter.
In their view, radio should operate like public access channels
on cable television, where interested groups and individuals can
produce programs. "We want total community involvement, so
anybody can be on the air," says Williams.
Like Kantako's station, Decatur's Black Liberation Radio was
overtly political. It exposed how African-Americans in Macon County
were being herded through the judicial system like slaves through
a plantation-era auction. The broadcasts quickly grabbed the attention
of Macon County prosecutor Lawrence Fichter and the police, who
targeted Williams and Jones for arrest.
Just two weeks after Black Liberation Radio signed on, Williams
was charged with fondling a young relative. A few weeks later,
the police raided the couple's house, searching for a videotape
allegedly showing a gang contract being issued for the killing
of two narcotics officers. Next, police arrested Williams during
a domestic dispute, even though Jones had not called the police
and said she didn't need them. Fichter decided to indict Williams
anyway and convened a grand jury When she refused to testify,
Jones was sentenced to jail for contempt of court. Citing these
arrests, authorities claimed that Williams and Jones were unfit
parents and seized their daughters.
Most recently, police, armed with a search warrant and drawn
guns, invaded the couple's home to seize electronics equipment
used for "eavesdropping," alleging that Williams taped
and broadcast his conversations with public officials without
their consent-a practice which, while legal in many states, is
a felony in Illinois. When the police confiscated every bit of
broadcasting equipment except the tapes and tape recorders, it
fueled suspicions that the goal of the raid had been to force
Black Liberation Radio off the air.
The Case of "Free Radio Berkeley"
As the micro-radio phenomenon spread, the FCC pursued individual
prosecutions but managed to avoid litigation that would raise
constitutional issues. Then in April 1993, in "an absolute
attempt to challenge directly the FCC's regulatory structure and
policies," Stephen Dunifer started broadcasting Free Radio
Berkeley from a home made transmitter on Sunday nights from his
workshop-home. Two years after it was first drawn to defend Kantako,
the National Lawyers Guild brief found new relevance. Armed with
a revised version of the brief, Dunifer, "felt sure we had
a solid legal basis to proceed on if we could find a proper venue."
San Francisco-based FCC agents seemed happy to oblige. On
April 23 and April 30 they monitored broadcasts of "Free
Radio Berkeley" and used direction finding equipment to determine
the source. Dunifer, however, was one step ahead. "The first
broadcasts were made from a fixed location to get the attention
of the FCC," Dunifer says, but as soon as the feds pinpointed
the source, "the station went mobile. The transmitters were
put into backpacks along with other portable studio equipment
and were all hiked into the hills of Berkeley," Dunifer explains.
The strategy was designed to keep the FCC from locating the source
of the broadcast, getting a search warrant, entering his residence,
and seizing all of his electronic equipment.
The plan worked, but it angered the FCC, which ordered Dunifer
to stop broadcasting and fined him a whopping $20,000. In the
Committee on Democratic Communications' response, attorney Luke
Hiken raised constitutional issues and pointed out that the fine
was "grossly disproportionate to the alleged violations ...and
exceeds the [$1,000] maximum set by statute."
A petulant FCC countered that the high fine was warranted
because Dunifer was "a recalcitrant individual who decide[d]
to willfully operate a radio transmitter with out the required
authorization, as a protest against the regulatory power of the
Commission." The FCC was going to make an example of Dunifer.
But besides getting the National Lawyers Guild to represent
him, Dunifer did several things that the FCC did not expect: He
remained on the air and he began manufacturing inexpensive transmitters,
which he made available to other political dissidents. A month
later, San Francisco Liberation Radio (SFLR) signed on It was
followed by "Radio Libre" in San Francisco's Mission
District which broadcasting with a Dunifer-built transmitter,
"Arizona Free Radio" in Phoenix, "Black Liberation
2" in Richmond, Virginia, and "Free Radio Santa Cruz."
Commenting on the growth of free radio stations, Luke Hiken said,
"I think this is going to get beyond the ability of the FCC
to control, judging from the snowballing of people interested
in setting up stations."
He was right. Micro-radio stations soon appeared in New York,
Tampa, Miami, Indianapolis and numerous other cities, sporting
names like "Temple Terrace Community Radio," "Steal
This Radio," and "Free Radio Pittsburgh"-far too
many stations for the FCC to easily eliminate.
Sensing it was being outmaneuvered and drawn into a constitutional
fight it might not win, the FCC drew back. Rather than quickly
denying Dunifer's appeal-which would have allowed Hiken to move
the case to federal court- the FCC filed in U.S. District Court
in California for an in junction ordering Dunifer to stop broadcasting.
The FCC reasoned that if it could charge Dunifer with violating
this court in junction rather than FCC rules, an in-court discussion
of the constitutionality of the rules could be avoided.
The strategy backfired. The FCC's biggest mistake was requesting
an immediate preliminary injunction, claiming that Free Radio
Berkeley broadcasts caused "immediate and irreparable harm"
by interfering with licensed signals. Hiken responded that the
FCC had monitored the station for 18 months without finding significant
interference. If there were imminent danger, "Why did they
wait for over 18 months to bring this to the court's attention,"
he , asked. Hiken pointed out that Black Liberation Radio and
other low-power stations were also on the air, but that the FCC
had not sought in junctions to shut them down. "If there
is an emergency, why is it they haven't done anything about that?"
Federal District Court Judge Claudia Wilken accepted Hiken's
arguments, and refused to issue a temporary injunction against
Dunifer. The FCC hadn't even acted on Dunifer's appeal, she said,
so coming to court for an injunction was premature. As a result
of the decision, Free Radio Berkeley emerged from the underground,
broadcasting 24 hours-a-day from a house in North Oakland.
Nine months later, though, the FCC formally rejected Dunifer's
appeal. Its reasoning was as predictable as it was ironically
accurate. Dunifer's broadcasting directly challenged the 60-plus
year statutory approach to licensing broadcast transmissions"-an
approach which had ceded the publicly owned airwaves to commercial
interests. The FCC was not above twisting facts to maintain its
current policies. For example, by claiming that Dunifer should
have "asked for a license, along with a request for a waiver
of the relevant rules limiting low power FM service," the
FCC suggested that it might have issued Dunifer a license had
he applied. Not so, says John Reed of the FCC's engineering and
technology department in Washington, DC. "I've never heard
of [the FCC] giving permission like that," he said. "There's
never been a case of our approving this."
After issuing its decision, and still hoping to avoid a court
discussion of the constitutionality of its rules, the FCC filed
in federal district court for a "summary judgment" and
permanent injunction against Dunifer and Free Radio Berkeley.
To win a summary judgment, all the FCC needed to show was that
the facts were undisputed (i.e., Free Radio Berkeley was on the
air) and that the law was on its side (i.e., Free Radio Berkeley
didn't have a license to broadcast).
The FCC also filed a brief asking the court for permanent
injunctions against Free Radio Santa Cruz and other stations,
falsely claiming they were operated by Dunifer. The commissio
requested the broad injunction so that it could avoid having to
take individual micro-radio stations to court, where the constitutionality
of its rules could be challenged.
Although the FCC was hoping to throw the switch on micro-radio
with a quick in junction, as of this summer, none had been issued.
And even if the court decides against community radio, Hiken and
the Committee on Democratic Communications expect to challenge
the FCC's rules in a different venue, where the FCC will be forced
to justify its policy of licensing corporate, but not neighborhood,
Global Radio Rebellion
The battle for broadcast access is being fought not only in
the courts and living room studios in the US, but in jungles,
community centers, and war rooms around the world. For liberation
struggles and community activists, for intelligence agencies and
petty warlords, the power of radio to cheaply and effectively
put out the word makes the airways a prize worth claiming. Unlicensed
stations have been operated on and off for many years by well-organized
political movements such as the Nicaraguan Sandinista National
Liberation Front during its struggle against the US backed regime
of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Sandinistas' powerful shortwave
station "La Voz la Liberacion de Nicaragua"-later called
"Radio Sandino" -was hidden first in Costa Rica and
then moved to guerrilla-controlled zones of Nicaragua, as the
Sandinistas began holding their own, and then beating back Somozas
National Guard. It took a well-trained guerrilla force to obtain,
operate and protect the transmitter from the enemy.
For its part, the CIA has for decades sponsored clandestine
radio stations for information and disinformation including "Radio
Quince de Septiembre" and "Radio Liberacion" which
broadcast against the Sandinista government from Honduras during
the Nicaraguan Contra war of the 1980s. The Contra broadcasts
needed expensive, high-power transmitters to transmit a clear
signal from Honduras to Nicaragua. Secret radio transmissions
were a key element in the ClA-backed coups against Guatemalan
President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, and broadcasts of the clandestine
Radio Swan were part of the massive US propaganda campaign directed
against Fidel Castro in the 1960s. As part of US involvement in
Southeast Asia, the CIA also sponsored a host of clandestine stations
directed to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, including Khmer Serei,
Radio Destiny of the Motherland, and Radio Liberation of the Southern
What is new about the micro-radio revolution is that transmitters
are now available to almost everyone-from hip-hop youth in Harlem
to disenfranchised peasants in Guatemala-not just to well-organized
guerrilla groups or intelligence agencies. The movement is fueled
in part by the low cost of the equipment. E. D. Brewer, founder
of Temple Terrace Community Radio in Florida, Stephen Dunifer,
and Ernest Wilson, who operates Pan-Com International, produce
and sell micro-radio transmitters for under $150. The three operate
Internet sites describing the equipment that can be accessed from
anywhere in the world.
Dunifer's Internet site (www.frb.org) has received over 600
inquiries, many from outside the US, and has shipped transmitters
to Guatemala, Mexico, and Haiti. One of the Dunifer-built transmitters
was used to start "Radio TeleVerdad," which defied the
Mexican government's control of the airwaves by broadcasting pro-democracy
commentaries in Mexico City The station was raided by soldiers,
but after protests by listeners and opposition politicians, was
allowed to resume broadcasting. Dunifer has also built transmitters
for activists in Chiapas, Mexico, where the Zapatistas have spearheaded
widespread opposition o government corruption and brutality. In
contrast to Mexico, the populist governments of Jean Bertrand
Aristide and his successor have supported the establishment of
micro-radio stations which are seen as tools for empowering Haiti's
Brewer (www.ldbrewer.com) has built and sent transmitters
to Israel, Chile and the Philippines, where dozens of stations
have gone on the air in the past few years. Wilson (www.panaxis.
com) has also shipped transmitters abroad, including to Argentina,
where hundreds of micro-radio stations are now on the air. The
several thousand Argentine stations broadcast from shantytowns
and poor rural areas-to populations neglected by that country's
commercial media-and, unlike those in the US, are tolerated because
there are too many free stations for the FCC to silence.
Around the world, these stations are providing broadcast voices
to people who were previously voiceless. It is going to be difficult
for governments which previously controlled access to the airwaves,
including Washington, to put these transmitters back in their
Control and Propaganda