January 24, 1996

Pirate Radio Guru: Champion of Democracy or Public Menace?


BERKELEY, Calif. -- If she bought the parts for a transmitter, the mysterious caller wanted to know, could she use them to build a mobile radio station in the heart of Mexico City? It was an intriguing question for Steven Dunifer, who operates a pirate station here called Radio Free Berkeley.

What the caller and several of her friends planned to do was set up an illegal broadcasting studio, defying the Mexican government's control of the airways. The broadcasts, she added, would be overtly political and the authorities would surely regard the scheme as seditious.

It did not take long for Dunifer, a longtime political activist with anti-authoritarian views, to agree to send the caller the parts to build a 30-watt transmitter hidden inside a suitcase stuffed with clothing. Within weeks, Radio TeleVerdad, or Radio Tell the Truth, was on the air, broadcasting a stream of pro-democracy commentary, along with news and music, over the transmitter's range of about six miles. The station is sponsored by the National Assembly, a dissident left-wing political organization based in Mexico City's poor neighborhoods.

Since that first request two years ago, Dunifer said in an interview last week, he has sent at least 50 low-watt transmitter units to remote villages in Guatemala and El Salvador, to insurgents in the Mexican state of Chiapas and to Indian tribes in British Columbia. And next month, at the invitation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, he will help open an FM radio station that will carry music and news aimed at the large population of street children in Port-au-Prince.

While Dunifer says that it is legal for him to export broadcast technology, Radio Free Berkeley's broadcasts over the same equipment in the United States are illegal. So are many of the radio stations using the equipment abroad.

The Federal Communications Commission has fined Dunifer $20,000 for broadcasting without a license, a sanction he has vigorously fighting in U.S. District Court on the grounds that that the commission's regulations violate the First Amendment's protection of free speech. The agency is also seeking a preliminary injunction to shut down the radio station. Dunifer will not say where his transmitter is. The next court hearing is in March.

"Our view is that Dunifer is violating the communications act by operating a radio station without a license," said David Silberman, the counsel for the FCC in Washington, "and courts have uniformly held that no one may operate a radio station without a license."

Dunifer's station here has been broadcasting since April 1993, operating at 25 watts, with a range of eight to 20 miles, 24 hours a day, with the help of about 40 volunteers. Dunifer, 44, started in radio in 1969, while still in high school in Lexington, Ky. He worked for commercial stations in Kentucky until 1982, when he moved to Berkeley to set up an electrical consulting and repair shop. Through the years, he has been active in left-leaning causes.

For about a year and a half, Dunifer and a group of electronics experts and music enthusiasts have been using a cluttered workshop here to teach foreigners, as well as some Americans, how to use standard, inexpensive electronic components to build radio transmitters. The parts for a transmitter can cost as little as $500 and a complete broadcast unit about $2,500, Dunifer said. Because he regards his efforts as something akin to a crusade, Dunifer said, he makes no money off the operation

For his income, he said, he designs electronic and computer systems.

"Because of our expertise," said Dunifer, a rumpled, slightly stooped man who wears his graying hair shoulder-length, "we're kind of forced into a position of building units around the world. But our real goal is to train people to be self-sufficient in their own right."

Through satellite dishes, computer networks and internet connections, many business people, intellectuals and government officials in developing countries have access to a range of information and entertainment unthinkable a decade or so ago. But for many of the world's poorest people, the transistor radio is the only reliable lifeline to news and commentary, and it is often under tight single-party government control.

Dunifer, a soft-spoken man whose demeanor belies his fierce antipathy toward what he regards as 1990s materialism, has been somewhat of a guiding light to the small but growing guerrilla movement of underground radio broadcasters around the country.

"We're demonstrating that every community in this country can have a voice for a thousand dollars, maybe two thousand dollars tops, and the only thing that's standing in the way of this is the FCC itself," said Dunifer. "I don't think trying to shut me up with an injunction is going to stop this movement."

Silverman, the FCC lawyer, said, "One of the results of his illegal operation in California has been to encourage others to begin illegal radio operations," the proliferation of which "can cause chaos and confusion."

The FCC also asserts that Dunifer's radio station interferes with the signals of legitimate broadcasters and poses a threat to aircraft navigation, VHF emergency frequencies and law-enforcement communications.

Berkeley's commercial competitors complain that unlicensed broadcasters often steal news bulletins and never pay music fees.

Dunifer's lawyers assert that the FCC's complaints that low-wattage broadcasts interfere with aircraft and civil defense are nonsense. Outside urban areas, they say, much of the radio spectrum is vacant, and will be even more so as newer technologies make finding space on the airwaves even easier.

Until recently, micro-power broadcasting -- a term used to describe stations transmitting under 30 watts or so -- has seldom operated in the developing world. But as costs have declined and technology improved to the point where transmitters are small enough to fit inside a bread box, its use has expanded, Dunifer said.

Still, guerrilla broadcasting is not without its risks. A few months after Radio TeleVerdad began broadcasting, army soldiers seized the transmitter and closed the station down. After protests by residents and local politicians, the station was reopened.

"You really can't have true democracy until there's equal access to all means of communication," Dunifer said, "and that's what we're trying to do."

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