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Radio Pirates Push to Have Their Voices Heard
By Jeannine Aversa  Associated Press
LAS VEGAS — 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 traffic.

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 operating illegally.

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 five-mile radius.

Meanwhile, the station — without his involvement, Dunifer says — has been on and off the air since, with the help of unidentified sympathizers.

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 militants."

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 detection.

"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 criminal record.

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.

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