Guerrillas of the US airwaves fight for their survival

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The Independent Online
FIVE YEARS ago Stephen Dunifer set off into the hills above Berkeley, California, with a transmitter strapped to his backpack, broadcasting his Sunday night show with the help of a portable CD player and a car battery. Thus was born a tiny guerrilla radio station, operating without a licence from the spiritual home of 1960s radicalism.

It is hard to imagine him doing it now, painfully thin from arthritis. He has moved his operation to a office building in run-down South Berkeley, where Free Radio Berkeley broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from a rented one-room studio. US Government lawyers, acting for the Federal Communications Commission, have made repeated attempts to silence him. So far it has only made Free Radio Berkeley a cause celebre for the hundreds of low-watt "micro-power" stations reported to operate across the US, often using DIY equipment supplied by Mr Dunifer.

The average FM radio station costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to license and operate, he said. His own basic broadcast starter kit is the size of a shoe box, sells for just $595 (pounds 360), with a half-watt signal that covers about half a mile. He has co-authored a book, Seizing the Airwaves. "Essentially what we have in America is a broadcasting system for the wealthy," he said. "We represent the voice of the people in the street. We are trying to empower people"

The "People's Republic of Berkeley" is no longer the hotbed of revolt it was during the late 1960s. But the city, home to the flagship campus of the University of California, still boasts its own political micro- climate, along with Buddhist businesses and recycled rubber fashions. Already, local councillors have denounced military action against Iraq.

It is still too conservative for Mr Dunifer, who at 46 is a confirmed anarchist. He was once visited by the FBI on a tip that he was the Unabomber. He fits the description - with lanky hair and beard, a hat button for the International Workers of the World, and affiliations to every anti- capitalist cause from Earth First! to the Zapatistas.

Commercial radio stations in the US range from quick-news and traffic stations to Christian, country-and-rock stations, along with a heavy dose of right-wing talk. They make the idea of community pirate radio seem unusually attractive - though Free Radio Berkeley's programming, on a shoe-string budget, is not exactly stellar. The shows on a typical Monday line-up: Revolution Hour followed by Animal Liberation, Capitalism - The Suicidal Octopus, Laotian Community Radio Hour, and Dead Head Radio. Mr Dunifer's own contribution is the three-hour Sunday night special, Acting Globally and Revolting Locally. Favoured subjects are US aggression in the Gulf, a proposed nuclear waste dump in the California desert, the death penalty, and legalising marijuana. DJs include a two-year-old girl, aided by her mother.

There are estimated to be up to 1,000 unlicensed broadcasters in the US. In the last three years, Dunifer says, he has sold about 300 "micro- power" broadcast kits, whose maximum range usually runs to only a few miles. The radio pirates include a blind man who launched a solo operation in Illinois, and an irate father who took to the FM dial to denounce the court that gave away custody of his daughters.

Mainstream broadcasters have urged the FCC to shut them down, and stations are raided. Officials first fined Mr Dunifer $20,000, then accused him of fomenting "anarchy of the airwaves", a charge he probably welcomes. The FCC claims Free Radio Berkeley's low-watt transmissions could interrupt air traffic control. "They're trying to create an image that we're some sort of public safety threat," he responded. "We've yet to see 747's doing water landings in the Bay."