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one wild mother of a micropower radio blasting away

Micropower radio refers to low power broadcasts over a small area, usually under 100 watts and reaching from 1 to 5 miles from the signal, depending on the height of the antenna and the terrain. Micropower broadcasting is as old as radio, which is a very young medium.

In 1979 the Federal Communications Commission banned micropower broadcasting altogether. The airwaves, which by law belong to the public, were even at that point a playground for the rich, with a few small stations trying to stay afloat as alternative voices.

In 1993, in response to the shallow, pro-military coverage of the Persian Gulf War, Stephen Dunifer and a small group of activists in Berkeley decided to challenge the rules criminalizing micropower radio by simply going on the air. Hundreds of others across the nation and around the world did the same, and a micropower movement which had existed for decades, caught fire.

Federal District Court Judge Claudia Wilken denied the FCC an injunction to stop Free Radio Berkeley's broadcasts on January 20th, 1995, despite the FCC's claim that they would suffer "irreparable harm." FRB went from three hours of broadcasting on Sunday nights to a 24/7 indoor project open to anyone who wished to join. Hundreds more people, inspired by the court decision, went on the air to the dismay of the FCC, which was also told by the courts that its fine structure was untenable. By the year 2000, the FCC had given up the idea of criminalization, instead supporting a carefully regulated decriminalization of micropower which would keep the "pirates" under their thumb.

The matter might have rolled to a stop right there, but the National Association of Broadcasters, a group representing the wealthy owners of commercial radio stations, was outraged at the idea of micropower enjoying even a small sliver of the broadcast spectrum, and this small, tightly regulated "opportunity" was shut down.

The matter is currently stalled in the sense that dozens of court battles rage; Berkeley Liberation Radio's equipment was confiscated in December, 2002, by feds who appeared to have arrest warrents for the equipment itself, rather than any actual people, which in some ways puts those of us who can generate inexpensive equipment for every neighborhood in the lead since it costs a lot to conduct these raids. In the meantime, hundreds of micropower broadcasters go on bringing truly neighborhood radio to their neighborhoods. As we said at Free Radio Berkeley, "tune in, turn on, and take over"; the best thing to do about crappy media is make some of your own.

Laura Drawbridge's original Free Radio Berkeley transcripts.

Set Your Radio Free (Click to hear the song - Spring 1995 by Carol Denney, with lines from Stephen Dunifer and Eli Yates*)
my radio was trying to be free
trying to find its own identity
it said why should I make profits
for some fat-assed CEO?
screw the FCC set your radio free
my radio was trying to stay in line
but it got tired of OJ all the time
it said why can't I tell people things
they really need to know
screw the FCC set your radio free
set your radio free, yeah
screw the FCC, yeah
get your radio set your radio free
my radio was feeling so confused
about the shit that's on the evening news
it said why are all these people telling
me what's going on? screw the FCC
set your radio free my radio was trying to get along
but it just could not take the same old song
it said we could have our own top ten
of songs we like to do- screw the FCC
set your radio free
(bridge) my mama said don't play around with electricity
but now my voice is heard across the hills of Tennessee...
my radio was driving me insane
and then it said goodby to Phillip Cane**
and we all hope his retirement is
as pleasant as can be - screw the FCC
set your radio free
(bridge) Judge Wilkin told the FCC to give free speech its due
now Silberman is singing out the micropower blues
free speech's price gets higher all the time
in Tampa it's a quarter million fine
they took it all including Jesus' picture off the wall
screw the FCC set your radio free

* Stephen and Eli both contributed some lines, but I wrote most of it. This song is available on "Failure to Disperse", but the extra verses aren't on there. The CD called "The Cruel Lullaby" has the entire, updated song.
** Our local FCC field officer, who retired mid-struggle.

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