FCC Turns Off Radio Pirates
by Jim Hanas
In These Times magazine, February 8, 1998
At first it crackles, pops and cuts out for seconds at a time.
As you near the University of Memphis, it comes in clearly. You
might hear a show devoted to animal rights, the straightedge movement,
anarchy, ecology, feminism, radical labor, queer culture, educational
reform or some music unlike anything else on the FM dial. It's
Free Radio Memphis, and, far from being commercial, it isn't even
It's against the law to broadcast without a license, and Free
Radio Memphis doesn't have one. Powered by a 20-watt transmitter
the size of a shoe box, it isn't even eligible for a license,
since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stopped issuing
them to stations under 100 watts nearly 20 years ago. The station,
which has been on the air since May, is part of a growing movement
of micro-power broadcasters that is challenging FCC authority
to regulate the airwaves as industry consolidation places ownership
of licensed stations in fewer, wealthier hands. At least several
hundred unlicensed stations have popped up nationwide in the past
Free Radio Memphis received a warning to stop broadcasting
from the FCC in October. Instructions are posted inside the studio
on what to do if the FCC ever comes around: Don't let anyone in
without a search warrant. Don't answer any questions.
Free Radio Memphis has good reason to be worried. The FCC
is cracking down on "pirate radio" with increased vigilance.
On November 19, U.S. Marshals and FCC agents raided Doug Brewer's
home in Tampa, Fla., seizing
the equipment he used to operate an unlicensed station. Brewer
says he was detained at gunpoint for more than 12 hours during
the raid, which was the culmination of a well-publicized, two
year conflict between Brewer and the FCC. The commission has also
shut down broadcasters in Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey.
Nonetheless, the micro-power boom continues, inspired by an
ongoing court battle between the FCC and Free Radio Berkeley,
an unlicensed Bay-area station founded by Stephen Dunifer in 1993.
During the station's first year on the air, Dunifer was fined
$20,000 by the FCC. He contested the fine with help from the National
Lawyers Guild, arguing that the FCC's regulations violate the
First Amendment and the commission's mandate to regulate the airwaves
in the "public interest." In 1995, District Court Judge
Claudia Wilken denied the FCC's motion for a preliminary injunction,
Radio Berkeley to remain on the air for nearly two years while
a motion for a permanent injunction was argued.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has shown a
special interest in the case. The NAB filed an amicus brief on
behalf of the FCC, and the association's board of directors passed
a resolution last June to urge the FCC to ensure that " 'pirate'
radio broadcast operations are terminated promptly," and
that violators "are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the
law." According to the NAB, low-watt broadcasters harm licensed
stations by interfering with their signals and courting their
On November 12, Wilken rejected the FCC's motion for a summary
judgment and asked for further briefing on whether or not Dunifer's
constitutional claims constitute a defense in the case. The FCC's
arguments have been largely procedural. The commission claims
that Dunifer's challenge is "unripe for judicial review"
since he never sought a license, and, furthermore, that the court
does not have the authority to excuse Dunifer for broadcasting
without a license. A decision in the case was expected as early
as late January.
"The FCC will do anything rather than have a hearing
on why they serve the needs of the NAB and not the American people,"
says Luke Hiken, an attorney for Dunifer. "If you look at
the overlapping control of the FCC and the NAB, it's like the
Pentagon and the defense industry."
Jim Hanas writes about media in Memphis, Tenn.
Control and Propaganda