To some they are the swashbuckling heroes of
the airwaves who broadcast an untamed brand of radio from illegal
transmitters. To broadcasters, they are brigands who interfere with
legitimate commercial stations and sometimes even endanger air
They are radio pirates.
Until government regulators stopped him, Stephen Dunifer was a
radio pirate for five years, airing political documentaries,
programs by homeless people and music from his 50-watt FM station
in Berkeley, Calif.
"Free Radio Berkeley" was shut down because it didn't have a
license from the Federal Communications Commission and thus was
Dunifer and other pirates contend they offer listeners
viewpoints they don't get from commercial FM stations. "We wanted
to fill that void," Dunifer said. Consolidation in the commercial
radio industry, pirates say, is threatening diversity.
Commercial broadcasters disagree.
"Let me debunk the myth of bigness is badness," said National
Association of Broadcasters president Edward Firths. "We have been
able to provide more diversity than ever before." Economic and
financial efficiencies gained through radio mergers have "allowed
some formats to continue to exist or to be invented."
The issue of pirate radio and an FCC proposal to open the
airwaves to new voices are on the front burner as the National
Association of Broadcasters meets this week in Las Vegas.
Last June, the FCC obtained a federal court that forced
Dunifer's commercial-free, 24-hour station at 104.1 FM off the air.
He's appealing. On a good day, the station, which sometimes
operated from different locations, could reach listeners within a
Meanwhile, the station without his involvement, Dunifer says
has been on and off the air since, with the help of unidentified
Since 1997, the FCC has tracked down 430 radio pirate stations,
ranging in power from 1 watt to 800 watts.
"Many of them are just the average citizen wanting to serve
their community," said the FCC's top point person on pirates,
Richard Lee. "I was totally surprised. I expected I won't say
More than 75 percent of those 430 stations shut down voluntarily
after the commission requested it. But for the remaining 25
percent, the FCC had to obtain court orders that either prohibited
the station from broadcasting or allowed officials to confiscate
equipment, forcing it off the air.
Of that 25 percent, the FCC found about six stations operating
with equipment interfering with air traffic control communications
at nearby airports. Those stations were shut down within hours of
"If you are trying to land a plane at an airport and the radio
tower has interference from the pirated station, you are not going
to be real happy about it," said FCC Commissioner Susan Nests.
The FCC does not have historical data to conclude whether the
number of pirate stations is growing. But it's clear that new
technology has made building a radio transmitter the key
component very easy.
Those with little technical skill can even buy inexpensive radio
kits. "You're up within hours," Lee said.
In January, the FCC in part responding to the pirate radio
movement proposed starting a new, local radio service that
churches, students and community groups could use to get on the
air. It would create thousands of licensed low-tech FM radio
stations from 1 watt to 1,000 watts, after a roughly 20-year ban
against such licenses.
But the NAB and key congressional Republicans don't like the
proposal, fearing it will create interference to FM radio stations.
Others fear that white supremacists or other controversial groups
could get low-power licenses.
"We're very concerned that the FCC proposal may have the effect
of legitimizing pirates," said Firths. The FCC has not decided
whether pirates who have refused to shut down would be eligible for
the new licenses.
The agency, however, does want any new low-power stations to
meet the same standards as higher-power commercial FM broadcasters.
To get a license, such companies generally must show they want to
serve a particular area and provide information about any past
Dunifer believes that still would be too burdensome and
expensive for the average radio enthusiast.
"In a way, we are better off being illegal," he said.