To the untrained eye the mess of snaking wires and blinking electronics hardly looks revolutionary.
But the television monitors, DVD players and amplifiers in Free Radio Berkeley’s West Oakland warehouse are more than just a jumble of hardware.
They’re the parts to a TV channel, and the newest wave in micropower media—low wattage, garage-style broadcasting, sometimes referred to as pirate radio, that usually operates without a license.
It’s a major part of an international movement to claim the airwaves for public use—and it may soon be coming to a television set near you.
Engineers at Free Radio Berkeley say they have for the first time developed a simple, affordable, low-power television transmitter and antenna which individuals can use to broadcast their own programming.
“Our goal is to basically empower communities to do their own broadcasting, regardless of what the government or the corporations have to say about it,” said Free Radio Berkeley founder Stephen Dunifer, who has been challenging government regulation and corporate ownership of the air waves through guerrilla broadcasting for a dozen years.
While Free Radio Berkeley has provided FM micropower broadcasting kits and how-to workshops since its inception, this is the first time it’s been able to make TV broadcasting cheap and easy enough for the masses, Dunifer said.
Starting next week, would-be TV producers can get from Free Radio Berkeley the parts they need for an estimated $500 to $1100, depending on the power level.
Once assembled—a process Dunifer claims is no harder than putting together a stereo—the transmitters are capable of reaching four to five miles. They can be hooked up to a DVD player to show prerecorded material or to a video camera for a live broadcast.
Dunifer started Free Radio Berkeley in 1992. The next year, the group began broadcasting its own FM radio station, often from a perch in the Berkeley Hills.
The collective made national headlines when Dunifer challenged in federal court the Federal Communication Commission’s attempt to shut it down for operating without a license.
Dunifer and his lawyers argued the FCC‘s regulations—which require that all broadcasters obtain a license—were unconstitutional. The agency’s regulations were overly burdensome, they said, because the expensive and complicated application process created too high a barrier of entry for average communities to have radio stations.
The FCC eventually won, saying in a June 17, 1998 statement: “The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California yesterday issued a permanent injunction against unlicensed broadcaster Stephen Dunifer (”Free Radio Berkeley”). The 18-page decision reaffirms the FCC's authority to require a license before any person can broadcast on the public airwaves.”
Free Radio Berkeley, which had a staff of nearly 100 producers, went off the air. Members later reorganized as Berkeley Liberation Radio, which is still broadcasting.
Although the licensing process for low power broadcasting has changed, Dunifer and other micropower advocates still argue that the FCC’s “regulatory inertia” makes getting licensed nearly impossible. The airwaves belong to the people, they say, but are being hoarded by corporate interests.
The FCC didn’t return calls for comment.
“In reality, (the airwaves) have been taken over,” said Maria Gilardin, a micropower advocate who has worked in the field for 13 years. “Micropower radio has shown that a response with a lot of integrity is to simply take the airwaves back by taking over a slice of the spectrum and using it as we see fit.”
“Now here comes “illegal” TV,” she added. “Same concept, same technology, same expression of the creative spirit of rebellion.”
People need a medium where they can experience what it’s like to be their own media, Gilardin said.
Micropower television could also give people access to a wider variety of perspectives, something lacking in the TV channels that dominate the airwaves, according to UC Berkeley mass communications lecturer Jonathan Gray.
Most stations are owned by a handful of media companies, which affects their content, intentionally or not, he said.
“There are viewpoints that we’re not being exposed to,” Gray said. “A thriving democracy should allow access to these viewpoints, and that’s what these independent media outlets allow us to do.”
There are problems with television. Accessing the majority of viewers who now get their TV from cable companies and therefore wouldn’t be likely to stumble across a micropower station could prove challenging. The medium also doesn’t offer the same anonymity as radio.
But the benefit is TV has the potential to reach many more people than FM radio.
“TV has certainly got to be probably the primary means of maintaining the propaganda environment,” Dunifer said. “For average people to be able to reclaim that medium for their own purposes is very important.”
Free Radio Berkeley is to begin selling the kits this week, and will provide an all day, introductory workshop to low power TV broadcasting on Saturday, Dec. 4.
For more information call Free Radio Berkeley at 625-0314 or check out its website: www.freeradio.org.