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LOCAL Commentary :: Alternative Media

Grassroots and Buccaneer Broadcasters

Especially because of its low cost, easy availability, and widespread accessibility to listeners, the pirate radio movement has been growing, and in effect, has been democratisizing and localizing radio for the masses.

A pervasive, engaging, and impartial mass media is important to the functionality of any democracy. For any well-performing democracy to function, it must first have a thorough press core and objective/multiple media outlets, which in effect creates an educated populace. This educated citizenry, in turn, makes informed decisions about the maintenance and future of their nation. In this contemporary period, media conglomerates (such as Time Warner, Disney, General Electric, News Corp., Clearchannel) control the majority of media outlets. According to Herman and Chomsky, mass media does not serve its democratic function in this contemporary period but serves to benefit the powerful stratus of society due to media outlets’ concentrated ownership by the dominant elite and maintenance by the government. A response to this thoroughly imbalanced and destructive standard has been the development of ‘pirate radio’. Pirate radio, a term which “implies the unlicensed broadcasting use of any part of the radio spectrum that is reserved for use by governmental, public, or commercial licenses? (, was created “in the efforts to reinvent radio as a vehicle of participatory democracy and a resource for community development? and a means for which local populations could reconnect with the cultural and civic life of their communities (Howley, 2005). Especially because of its low cost, easy availability, and widespread accessibility to listeners, the pirate radio movement has been growing, and in effect, has been illegally democratisizing and localizing radio for the masses.

During the initial development of radio, it was popularly imagined that this unique medium could be used “as a mechanism for alleviating the ill-effects of urbanization and industrialization that plagued modern society; the wireless would unite an increasingly diverse and geographically distant public in communication and communion? (Howley, 258). Radio can be an extremely useful and effective tool in the creation of kinship by relating the united concerns of community and implicitly expressing the notion that there is an overarching listening community. But, because commercial radio principally longs to serve corporate and national interests, many believe that radio’s local potential, for the most part, has been untapped. Torsten Hagerstrand explains that “local radio decentralizes social, political and cultural power, thereby returning a measure of self-determination to localities and reestablishing a sense of local community. In short, radio is the ideal medium for local community communication? (Howley, 259). Hence, microradio (pirate radio), a medium which takes little resources operate, could be seen as an ideal medium of local community communication because it isn’t and cannot be censored by the Federal Communications Commission; that is of course until the FCC finds the perpetrators.

In defending his position after being subpoenaed by the FCC, radical activist Stephen Dunifer boldly stated that “The FCC is standing in the way of the American people having access to a true democratic, grassroots form of broadcast media… what we’re doing reflects the early days of radio. It wasn’t commercial enterprise to begin with. Hobbyists, labor unions, community people and schools put transmitters in the air originally? (New Haven Advocate). Dunifer, electrical engineer and founder/public face of Free Radio Berkeley was involved in a legal case with the FCC during the mid-1990s for his violations of radio laws, but eventually acquitted of charges. Dunifer created his Free Radio Berkeley in aggressive response to mainstream commercial media’s seemingly exceedingly blanket pro-war coverage of the Gulf conflict in the early 1990s. His small, low wattage FM station was “inspired by the example of Mbanna Kankato, a black activist in Springfield, Ill., who started a station in defiance of the FCC in 1989? (Ibid) in response to institutionalized racism in his community. Kantako was frustrated by the lack of media attention of community organizing activities and political protests; hence, he decided to promote them himself. Like Kankato, Dunifer’s broadcasts “were a direct challenge to the broadcast media monopoly and the in protectorate of the FCC? in suggesting that commercial radio doesn’t serve his local community and that the “distribution of [media] power and resources [was] neither in the public interest nor in response to the statutory mandate… and when he wants to set up a microradio transmitter in his community to talk to local people, he’s got a perfect right to do it? (Ibid). With the defense of the First Amendment, the case against the FCC was resulted both in negatives in positives, for while all low-power broadcasting stations before 2000 were instructed to disband, it was now legal to broadcast low-power radio stations with special expressed permission by the United States government. Therefore, Free Radio Berkeley stopped broadcasting, but instead invested all their resources in developing new micro-technology and training future DJs/activists in the use of pirate radio ( As a result, Kantako is seen almost as a folk hero and Dunifer is seen as a Johnny Appleseed of sorts as “more and more stations have been springing up around the country, challenging the ban on low-power broadcasting? (New Haven Advocate). Dunifer writes, “’As more citizens realized they could provide a outlet for the many voices in their communities, micro power stations sprouted up like mushrooms after a night’s rain? (Howley, 261).

Kantako and Dunifer’s ideological followers are from differing backgrounds and localities, but for the most part, they generally have one thing in common: the broadcasts are locally/community based looking to serve a market that is generally ignored or unrepresented by mainstream media. Some choose to disassociate with the ‘pirate’ image believing that piracy implies illegitimacy or breaking the law and the true pirates are the “big corporations that stole the people’s airwaves? (Ibid.). A microbroadcaster in New Haven, CT believes he is doing nothing wrong. “’If there was a Spanish radio station in New Haven, we wouldn’t have to come up with this’? (Ibid), he says. Other collectives readily adopt the rough-and-tumble rebel/pirate mystique with names like “Black Liberation Radio?, “Steal This Radio?, or “Radio Mutiny?. In some sense, with the act of owning and operating these cheap low-power radio stations, they are all rebels, since the “most common estimate of the minimum cost to get on the ‘legitimate’ airwaves today is $100,000. This renders radio broadcasting a somewhat non-accessible enterprise with ownership in an elite concentrated group; whereas microradio can belong to anybody.

Because it is likely for media groups to own more than one station in numerous locations across the country, it is likely that the varying play lists of distant radio stations are similar if not identical to one another creating a national generic standardization of what is being heard. Also, because these radio networks created to serve many people in differing locales and communities, journalistic concerns are for overarching national news which could affect the community at large. Microradio, on the other hand, “helps local communities preserve a measure of local autonomy and self-determination in an increasingly interdependent world? (Howley, 258) because it is and can only operate as a locally community oriented medium. One member of the New York based “Steal This Radio? claims “I don’t think you can justify micro-power philosophy on any other basis than community need? (Spaguolo); a need for what is not being properly offered. Frustration led one man to create a voice for his community where institutionalized racism was present, while another created a Spanish-speaking radio station where there wasn’t one previous. People who believed that the concerns of their communities weren’t being addressed created powerful messages through their weak signals by fulfilling needs and defying laws. And this is happening all around the country.

In "The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication" Bertolt Brecht notes:
"Radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers." (

The process of micro or “pirate? radio does this. Within this media form, all can have a say and all can be participants. Commercial radio, while entertaining and informing the masses will also likely represent commercial interests because that is its function and purpose for existing. Micro-radio’s purpose, on the other hand, is to be locally operated to address local concerns by regular people. Free radio advocates believe that “voices of the poor, of minorities and cultural and political outsiders…are effectively banned by the prohibitive costs of licensing stations? (New Haven Advocate). The mission of New York’s “Steal This Radio? of the Lower East side is to “make a vehicle for organizing and forging com-mmunity among the people of the Lower East side? (Spagnuolo), and because most likely STR could only reach the Lower East side, it is that much more effective. This is pretty much the classic archetypal function of pirate radio. This form of electronic civil disobedience galvanizes communities, inspires action and solidarity, and fortifies democracy. Therefore, although supposedly contends with American law, it is one of the most ‘American’ cultural practices one could do.
I would love to hear feedback, especially from free-radio santa cruz people.



Chomsky, Noam and Edward S. Herman. “A Propoganda Model? excerpted from “Manufacturing Consent?. Third World Traveler. 6 March 2005

Dunifer, Stephen. “Micropower Broadcasting- A Technical Primer?. Radio4All. 28 February 2005.

Harrison, Rick. “Beginner’s Guide to Low Power Broadcasting: What is it??. Freespeech.Org. 6 March 2005

Harrison Rick. “Beginner’s Guide to Low Power Broadcasting: Required Equipment?. Freespeech.Org. 6 March 2005.

Hoffman, Hank. “Rebels of the Airwaves?. New Haven Advocate. 6 March 2005

Howley, Kevin. “Radiocracy Rulz! Microradio as Electronic Activism?. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 2000, 3, 2, Aug 256-267

Mark. “Midwestern Anarchist Speak Out!?. AlternativePressReview. Ed. Jason McQuinn. 6 March 2005

Matelski, Marilyn and Nancy Lynch Steet. “Radio Liberty during the Cold War… and After the Thaw: An Interview With Kevin Klose?.

Messages from the Underground: Transnational Radio in Resistance and Solidarity Ed. Marilyn J. Matelski and Nancy Lynch Street. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997. 117-123.

Postnuke. “Introduction?. ClearchannelSucks.Org. 6 March 2005.

Spagnuolo, Peter. “Steal This Radio!? from the Shadow Issue #38. Free Radio Berkeley. 28 February 2005.

Wikipedia. “Pirate Radio in North America?. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 6 March 2005

Wikipedia. “Radio Free Europe?. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 6 March 2005.

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