Stephen Dunifer has been called the “Johnny Appleseed” of free radio for his work with Free Radio Berkeley which has been making and distributing FM transmitter kits for more than 17 years. FRB inspired many unlicensed broadcasters to take to the airwaves in the mid to late 90s, in part due to the publicity the station received when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stopped the FCC from shutting the station down (the Court would eventually decide to reject FRB’s defense on a technicality).
As a vocal proponent of free, unlicensed radio as a counter to the consolidated and corporate commercial airwaves, Dunifer also has been an outspoken critic of low-power FM, which he views as co-option of free radio ideals with a fundamentally compromised service. In response to the FCC’s 6th Report and Order establishing the rules for the next LPFM licensing window, Dunifer just published an essay explaining how he believes that LPFM is too little, too late, and at too high a cost. He argues that the free radio challenge to the FCC prompted then-Chairman William Kennard to create LPFM in order to neutralize the free radio movement.
“Combining co-option with an another trusty tool, divide and conquer, the FCC announced that it would establish a Low Power FM (LPFM) broadcast service, but anyone who had been engaged in unsanctioned acts of broadcasting would not be eligible for a possible future LPFM license. In other words, go off the air now if you ever have any hope obtaining a license at some indeterminate point in the future. To be expected, quite a number of Free Radio folks responded with a resounding ‘F’ you. Other stations went dark.”
While he laments that “the established, progressive left never accepted the Free Radio Movement,” he details how the movement nevertheless “made a number of significant contributions to the media landscape.” He rightly credits free radio’s influence on the creation of the first online audio content sharing site, Radio4All.net, as well as noting free radio’s participation with the Independent Media Center movement birthed with the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.
Dunifer titles his essay “The LPFM Deception,” because he believes that the move to a DC policy fight without also continuing the “threat of street heat” presented by unlicensed broadcasters contributed to the “protracted, decade long legislative struggle to expand the LPFM service.” He’s particularly hard on the Prometheus Radio Project for what he sees as building a “firewall between itself and the notion of civil disobedience.”
On this point I disagree with Dunifer. While the creation of LPFM does serve to discourage many would-be broadcasters from embracing free radio, it also brings many more people and voices to the airwaves who never would have considered unlicensed broadcasting. As well, I believe it has been very important to pressure the FCC and Congress into recognizing the value of non-commercial community broadcasting and localism. And while the NAB and NPR have fought LPFM the whole way, it is significant that their specious claims of an interference threat have been debunked and rejected. Broadcasting is still governed by law and policy in the US, and so these victories do matter, even if LPFM does not threaten to reverse the deregulation and consolidation of the commercial airwaves.
I also don’t agree that Prometheus engaged in deception (or self-deception), nor erected a firewall as Dunifer claims. Having observed and reported on the free radio movement and LPFM since the mid–90s, I simply never observed Prometheus staff disparaging free radio or firewalling itself from civil disobedience. Rather, I think it is obvious that Prometheus could not directly support nor engage in unlicensed broadcasting if it were going to be taken seriously by the FCC and Congress. At the same time, Prometheus co-founder Pete Tridish never has tried to hide his active participation in Radio Mutiny, which broadcast without a license in Philadelphia in the late 90s. I think the many volunteers and staff who have worked at Prometheus have done a remarkable job of staying focused on the goal of true community radio for social justice while working within the halls of power.
I understand Dunifer’s suspicions of the FCC’s intent, and agree that the Commission was definitely trying to co-opt the free radio movement with the creation of LPFM. Yet, the explicit raison d’être of many unlicensed broadcasters was that they were taking to the airwaves because the FCC refused to license low power stations in a manner that made them accessible to truly local community groups.
I also agree that the promise of LPFM licenses took the wind out of the free radio sails at the turn of the century. But I also wonder how much the free radio movement would have grown had LPFM not come to fruition. The cat and mouse game between unlicensed broadcasters and the FCC would have only continued, with the FCC possibly becoming more aggressive and the broadcast lobby pushing for stronger penalties at both the state and federal levels. Moreover, the rise of the internet and the potential to broadcast online without risking an FCC visit was as much a challenge to free radio as it was to commercial broadcasting.
Fundamentally, Dunifer disagrees with the US system of broadcast licensing, observing that, “possession of a broadcast license allows the FCC to regulate speech (the 7 dirty words), issue fines without any proof other than their say so and enter the station premises at any time without notice or search warrant.” Of course, Dunifer’s observation is correct; a broadcast license is not a civil right in the US, and carries obligations not borne by other media. Dunifer’s unwillingness to accept this compromise is a defensible position, and therefore it’s clear why he rejects LPFM. However, having also worked in licensed broadcasting for the last 23 years, I have found that these constraints do not rob community and non-commercial stations of their power. The promise of hundreds of new LPFM community stations will be powerful in ways that we cannot yet predict.
It is important that the role of unlicensed free radio is not forgotten in the LPFM story. I share the view that it is likely low-power FM would not have come to pass had it not been for the sustained resistance unlicensed broadcasters against the FCC, straining the Commission’s enforcement capability. Therefore I’m glad that Dunifer took an opportunity to remind us of free radio’s influence.
He ends his essay urging that, “one must avoid self-deception by not seeing LPFM as a final victory.” Instead Dunifer says that the fight for LPFM has been just “one battle of a continuing war for not only the broadcast airwaves but the entire Commons.” This is a conclusion that I doubt few media justice activists would disagree with.