A Tale of Two Broadcasters
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Jack Welch oversees a project that fills America's airwaves
with millions of watts. His outfit has committed felonies that
include bribery and large-scale fraud.
Stephen Dunifer oversees a project with 15 watts of radio
power. He and his organization have never been found guilty of
Guess which man is in trouble with the Federal Communications
It isn't Welch, the chair of NBC's parent company, General
Electric. In spite of a criminal rap sheet as long as a transmitting
tower -- with massive swindles involving sales of military equipment
-- GE continues to run NBC's broadcasting operations.
In theory, the FCC evaluates the "character" of
would-be broadcast licensees. A few years ago the agency declared
it would "consider all felony convictions" and sometimes
even misdemeanors. But GE, a corporate felon, has gotten no grief
from the FCC about its criminal record.
On the other hand, Stephen Dunifer is one of the FCC's prime
targets. He has developed a low-cost, low-watt way that neighbors
can use radio to communicate with each other. For $600, he discovered,
people can build a mini-station and go on the air.
Dunifer takes seriously the idea that the airwaves belong
to the public, not just those with big bucks. Worst of all, from
the FCC's vantage point, Dunifer has spread the idea around.
His nonprofit newsletter recently touted gizmos like "a
phase lock loop controlled half-watt transmitter kit," designed
to meet "all the technical objections of the FCC regarding
drift and harmonic interference."
But Dunifer's emphasis is hardly technical; it's community
oriented. His newsletter hails micropower broadcasting as a tool
that communities can use to break down the barriers of "suspicion,
mistrust, anger and violence" bred by a lack of communication.
The micropower concept got a boost four years ago, when Mabana
Kantako -- living in a housing project in Springfield, Ill. --
founded Black Liberation Radio, a low-watt station. Despite harassment
from local police and the FCC, Kantako and the station are still
on the air, serving needs of nearby residents unmet by mass media.
Dunifer, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., learned from Kantako's
example, and set to work refining the micro-technology. Now, he
says, "We are riding the wave of a movement that will not
be stopped." He may be right.
Across the bay, in San Francisco, two independent microbroadcasters
are on the radio every night.
In the Mexican state of Chiapas, microradio programs aligned
with the rebel Zapatistas can be heard, courtesy of equipment
supplied by Dunifer. In downtown Mexico City this fall, a central
traffic island became the base of Radio TeleVerdad ("Radio
Tell- the-Truth"), providing five-watt FM transmission while
hundreds of thousands of vehicles passed by each day.
When we spoke with founders of Radio TeleVerdad a couple of
weeks ago, they seemed determined to continue their independent
broadcasts -- despite an Oct. 19 raid by 150 Mexican police, who
swarmed over the traffic island and confiscated the transmitter
along with studio equipment.
In Taiwan a few months ago, several thousand government troops
raided 14 unauthorized makeshift radio stations on the same day.
Protests and riots ensued.
Here at home, the FCC has slapped Stephen Dunifer with all
kinds of legal documents, threatening to fine him $20,000. The
goal: to prevent him from going into hills near his home and airing
a mix of music and political commentary. But Dunifer keeps transmitting
"Free Radio Berkeley."
A guiding principle of microbroadcasting is that small- scale
decentralized communication can nurture democracy. In contrast
to media behemoths, requiring huge financial resources and dominating
wide geographic areas, microbroadcasters don't need a lot of money
-- and if a listener wants to talk with the broadcasters directly,
they're no more than a bicycle-ride away.
The FCC contends that such unauthorized broadcasts interfere
with big-power licensed stations. But Dunifer points out that
in neighborhoods there are many openings on the dial. After about
100 of his broadcasts, Dunifer says he has yet to receive a complaint
of radio frequency interference -- except for objections from
FCC officials, who went out of their way to intercept and monitor
his signal with their radio gear.
San Francisco attorney Luke Hiken asserts that the FCC actions
against his client are "content oriented," motivated
by government hostility toward Dunifer's anti-establishment activism.
Hiken cites unlicensed radio broadcasters operating with FCC knowledge
but without FCC opposition -- such as an unauthorized Southern
Oregon station airing Tommy Dorsey music.
Even if the FCC is able to stop Dunifer -- who has invited
federal enforcers to "kiss my Bill of Rights" -- it's
probably too late for the feds to short circuit microradio. Says
Dunifer: "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." (He can be reached
by phone at 510-464-3041, or via e-mail: email@example.com.)
While Dunifer does battle with the FCC, the General Electric
moguls in charge of NBC are engaged in a very different turf battle
-- with a competing media giant, the Fox TV network.
In early December, Fox went to the FCC with a petition challenging
General Electric's control of broadcast licenses in view of GE's
"pattern of illegal activity." The Fox petition was
a counterattack against GE, which a week earlier had told the
FCC that Fox's foreign ownership violates federal rules.
The chances are tiny that the FCC will banish GE from the
broadcasting business. But if lightning strikes and GE loses its
status as a mega-broadcaster, Jack Welch might want to consider
trying his hand at a more humble role.
For a few hundred dollars, Welch can set up his own 15-watt
radio station. Stephen Dunifer would be glad to show him how.
Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon are syndicated columnists and
the authors of "Adventures in Medialand: Behind the News,
Beyond the Pundits" (Common Courage Press).
Control and Propaganda