Microradio Steals the Show
Mbanna Kantako was not looking to found a movement when he began WTRA, a one-watt FM station out of his apartment in a housing project in Springfield, Illinois in 1987. He and his comrades turned to the airwaves as a means to spread the word about the rampant police brutality taking place in their neighborhood.
Legally blind and lacking money, it seemed that Kantako was asking for trouble. While the Springfield police did try to get him taken off the air, Kantako's unusual situation - and the fact that he was airing complete, unedited stories of the brutality (sometimes as they happened, live) put the FCC in an unsual position.
Busting Mbanna Kantako was not only politically stupid, but the man had made a point. The people were heard; police loosened their grip on the collective neck of Springfield's African community.
Kantako's been fined but refuses to pay. He remains on the air today as Human Rights Radio, and has expanded his outreach to his community's youth, setting up numerous after-school programs to instill a sense of identity and pride in a community shunned by the rest of Springfield.
The biggest explosion of LPFM activity was still a few years off when Stephen Dunifer made national headlines in his battle with the FCC.
In 1993, moved by Kantako's drive and message, Dunifer founded Free Radio Berkeley, a 40-watt FM station on a shoestring budget from an apartment. In a way, Dunifer, resurrected the Class D station concept.
He wasn't out to specifically do that - after 11 years of intense pro-business deregulation by the Reagan and Bush administrations, and incensed by the corporate media's cheerleading for Gulf War I, Dunifer had simply had enough. As an experienced electronics technician, Stephen designed his own transmitter and began mass-producing kits that spread across the nation.
Access to cheap transmitter kits - and the spread of Free Radio Berkeley's ideas via the fledgling 'net - helped fuel the first insurgence of unlicensed LPFM broadcasters.
It didn't take long before Dunifer's public displays of unlicensed broadcasting brought the FCC into the picture. Stephen stepped up the pressure, challenging the agency's rules in court.
Dunifer believed, in short, that if the airwaves were truly for the people, than as a member of "the people," he had a First Amendment right to broadcast. Free Radio Berkeley also helped prove that microradio stations didn't harm megawatt station signals, so long as their transmitters were well-tuned and maintained responsibly. At the least, Dunifer's briefs argued, the FCC should bring back something akin to the Class D license.
Free Radio Berkeley is now off the air after losing the last round in court, but it did win some of the legal skirmishes on its trip through the justice system. These temporary victories helped to give the fledgling microradio movement a little room to breathe and grow.
As the '90s wore on, Stephen Dunifer's argument began hitting closer to home as an even larger scheme radio regulatory "reform" was unleashed.