Jack Welch oversees a project that fills America’s airwaves with millions of watts. His outfit has committed felonies that include bribery and large-scale fraud.
Stephen Dunifer oversees a project with 15 watts of radio power. He and his organization have never been found guilty of a crime.
Guess which man is in trouble with the Federal Communications Commission.
It isn’t Welch, the chair of NBC’s parent company, General Electric. In spite of a criminal rap sheet as long as a transmitting tower — with massive swindles involving sales of military equipment — GE continues to run NBC’s broadcasting operations.
In theory, the FCC evaluates the "character" of would-be broadcast licensees. A few years ago the agency declared it would "consider all felony convictions" and sometimes even misdemeanors. But GE, a corporate felon, has gotten no grief from the FCC about its criminal record.
On the other hand, Stephen Dunifer is one of the FCC’s prime targets. He has developed a low-cost, low-watt way that neighbors can use radio to communicate with each other. For $600, he discovered, people can build a mini-station and go on the air.
Dunifer takes seriously the idea that the airwaves belong to the public, not just those with big bucks. Worst of all, from the FCC’s vantage point, Dunifer has spread the idea around.
His nonprofit newsletter recently touted gizmos like "a phase lock loop controlled half-watt transmitter kit," designed to meet "all the technical objections of the FCC regarding drift and harmonic interference."
But Dunifer’s emphasis is hardly technical; it’s community oriented. His newsletter hails micropower broadcasting as a tool that communities can use to break down the barriers of "suspicion, mistrust, anger and violence" bred by a lack of communication.
The micropower concept got a boost four years ago, when Mabana Kantako — living in a housing project in Springfield, Ill. — founded Black Liberation Radio, a low-watt station. Despite harassment from local police and the FCC, Kantako and the station are still on the air, serving needs of nearby residents unmet by mass media.
Dunifer, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., learned from Kantako’s example, and set to work refining the micro-technology. Now, he says, "We are riding the wave of a movement that will not be stopped." He may be right.
Across the bay, in San Francisco, two independent microbroadcasters are on the radio every night.
In the Mexican state of Chiapas, microradio programs aligned with the rebel Zapatistas can be heard, courtesy of equipment supplied by Dunifer. In downtown Mexico City this fall, a central traffic island became the base of Radio TeleVerdad ("Radio Tell- the-Truth"), providing five-watt FM transmission while hundreds of thousands of vehicles passed by each day.
When we spoke with founders of Radio TeleVerdad a couple of weeks ago, they seemed determined to continue their independent broadcasts — despite an Oct. 19 raid by 150 Mexican police, who swarmed over the traffic island and confiscated the transmitter along with studio equipment.
In Taiwan a few months ago, several thousand government troops raided 14 unauthorized makeshift radio stations on the same day. Protests and riots ensued.
Here at home, the FCC has slapped Stephen Dunifer with all kinds of legal documents, threatening to fine him $20,000. The goal: to prevent him from going into hills near his home and airing a mix of music and political commentary. But Dunifer keeps transmitting "Free Radio Berkeley."
A guiding principle of microbroadcasting is that small- scale decentralized communication can nurture democracy. In contrast to media behemoths, requiring huge financial resources and dominating wide geographic areas, microbroadcasters don’t need a lot of money — and if a listener wants to talk with the broadcasters directly, they’re no more than a bicycle-ride away.
The FCC contends that such unauthorized broadcasts interfere with big-power licensed stations. But Dunifer points out that in neighborhoods there are many openings on the dial. After about 100 of his broadcasts, Dunifer says he has yet to receive a complaint of radio frequency interference — except for objections from FCC officials, who went out of their way to intercept and monitor his signal with their radio gear.
San Francisco attorney Luke Hiken asserts that the FCC actions against his client are "content oriented," motivated by government hostility toward Dunifer’s anti-establishment activism. Hiken cites unlicensed radio broadcasters operating with FCC knowledge but without FCC opposition — such as an unauthorized Southern Oregon station airing Tommy Dorsey music.
Even if the FCC is able to stop Dunifer — who has invited federal enforcers to "kiss my Bill of Rights" — it’s probably too late for the feds to short circuit microradio. Says Dunifer: "It is our intent and purpose to see thousands of transmitters taking to the air in an all-out, no-holds-barred movement of electronic civil disobedience." (He can be reached by phone at 510-464-3041, or via e-mail: email@example.com.)
While Dunifer does battle with the FCC, the General Electric moguls in charge of NBC are engaged in a very different turf battle — with a competing media giant, the Fox TV network.
In early December, Fox went to the FCC with a petition challenging General Electric’s control of broadcast licenses in view of GE’s "pattern of illegal activity." The Fox petition was a counterattack against GE, which a week earlier had told the FCC that Fox’s foreign ownership violates federal rules.
The chances are tiny that the FCC will banish GE from the broadcasting business. But if lightning strikes and GE loses its status as a mega-broadcaster, Jack Welch might want to consider trying his hand at a more humble role.
For a few hundred dollars, Welch can set up his own 15-watt radio station. Stephen Dunifer would be glad to show him how.