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] fully assembled."

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 ambassadorships.

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 terror."

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 radio.

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.


FCC Inaction

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?" he asked.

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, stations.


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 Part..

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 ( 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 poor.

Brewer ( 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 boxes.

Media Control and Propaganda