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Pirate Radio Goes Legit

The FCC is poised to license community radio stations in the Bay Area for the first time, and the competition promises to be fierce.



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But then something completely unexpected happened, and it came from a surprising source: William Kennard, who had been the FCC's general counsel, took over the agency and embarked on an international tour to learn about radio in other countries. He was particularly interested in pirate radio stations in South Africa and their role in that country's move toward democracy. "It is important to note," Stockwell said, "Kennard is African American and, in particular, the ownership [of radio stations] by African Americans had dropped off a cliff" after the 1996 Telecommunication Act.

When Kennard returned from overseas, he floated the radical idea of inviting community groups to start their own radio stations. It would be like ordering all the media moguls at Rockefeller Center in New York City to invite Occupy Wall Street activists to host their own shows from ham radio kits. Kennard proposed to issue eight hundred licenses for LPFM stations to nonprofit groups.

Not surprisingly, corporate interests railed against the idea, including heavy lobbying from NPR, which complained that the new stations would clutter the airwaves, especially the lower frequencies on which most NPR stations exist.

Remarkably, the proposal survived largely intact and, during the first round of applications, the FCC was overwhelmed with reportedly more than 12,000 applicants. Ultimately, eight hundred new licenses were issued, a glut of new voices on the air.

Compared to reality TV shows that tend to profile Americans as middle-class suburban dwellers, micro-broadcasting stations around the country provide a platform for diverse demographics. A coastal town in New Hampshire, for example, broadcasts All Things Gay. And a station in Louisiana provides a mix of zydeco music and tips about starting small businesses.

Perhaps also as an accurate mirror of "real" American life, half of the LPFM licenses issued during the first round were given to religious organizations and churches — certainly a reflection of the current political and social dichotomies that tend to split Americans between liberal and conservative.

When asked if the FCC's allowance of the community radio stations is a David versus Goliath story, Dunifer waved the question away. "That's a bit hackneyed," he said. Dunifer's hands are knobby and bent. He has always been a righteous thinker: At age thirteen in rural Kentucky, he once spent an afternoon documenting decrepit county bridges and submitted the photographs to the local newspaper; the resulting two-page spread sent county officials scurrying. "It is a lot of Davids; it shows the power of grassroots organizing to affect change from below."

Dunifer does recognize the irony in the fact that the agency he fought for more than a decade, the agency that sent agents chasing him into the Berkeley Hills and dispatched lawyers from Washington DC for a full-court, years-long legal battle, is now the very agency championing — or, at least allowing — these stations to take to the air. "It is absolutely a big step forward," he said. "We basically forced the FCC to do something they said they would never do."

But Dunifer's enthusiasm is tempered. "We're reclaiming resources that belong to us, but when you go into licensure ... you compromise certain things," he said. "I don't care if it is a driver's license or fishing license, it is basically a contract. When that agency is the FCC, for example, you give up constitutionally protected rights." He listed a few examples, like, the seven dirty words you can't say on air, and the fact that the FCC can enter a radio station without a warrant.

Dunifer is hosting a series of four-day workshops starting May 25 to help individuals and nonprofits apply for a LPFM license, and to launch their own LPFM stations, teaching everything from legal aspects to the nuts and bolts of building a transmitter.

One local group is already jockeying to be one of the Bay Area's first LPFM station. Starting two years ago, Alameda Community Radio began gathering at the local library every other week to figure out how to convince the FCC to award one of its coveted LPFM licenses to the island city. "It was amazing the radio backgrounds that have been brought out," said Susan Galleymore, one of the primary organizers.

"Former radio hosts, engineers, people who had been involved with college radio — a bunch of radio experience already existed in the community," she continued. Galleymore's own background includes journalism and radio production. After her son served in Iraq and Afghanistan, she wrote a book, Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak About War and Terror.

Galleymore affectionately refers to Alameda as "this little town" and noted that, although situated near major cities, it has its own unique personality — along with its own politics and controversies. But those "little town" comings and goings are often overwhelmed by powerful personalities in nearby San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, and ignored by the area's TV, radio, and newspapers, which focus on the bigger cities.

To gather interest in local issues — and as a preface for the potential radio station there — Galleymore has been creating podcasts over the past year, called "Alameda Topics," on everything from golf courses to a recent controversy over an animal shelter. While her podcasts are only available online, Galleymore said she prefers real radio, especially as a means to build community. "The access is so immediate and the access is so easy," she said. "It is easier to turn on the dial in your car or in your house, and it is so much better than sitting down in front of a computer." Galleymore agreed that there is something "old-style" about radio, and believes that is also part of its resurgent appeal.

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