Community Radio Enthusiasts
By Emilie Raguso, September 5, 2004 10:26 AM
Gain New Skills in Berkeley
BERKELEY -- One man came from as far away as Canada's Manitoba province to spend Labor Day weekend in West Oakland. Another flew in from a small town in West Virginia. They joined nine Bay Area residents for a four-day workshop in a form of media for which a small East Bay organization has acquired an international reputation: Community radio.
Since 1992, Berkeley Free Radio has been active in developing community broadcasting to combat diminishing public access to radio brought about by media consolidation. The organization, run by Stephen Dunifer, 52, offers training to help people build and operate low-power community radio stations. These low-power, or "micro radio," stations broadcast with a signal of less than 100 watts. Compare this to Berkeley station KPFA's 59,000 watt signal, which reaches one-third of California.
It can cost up to $100,000 to set up a complete radio station under Federal Communication Commission guidelines. In the late 1990s, though, the FCC created rules to allow non-profit groups, schools and community organization, among others, to operate low-power FM stations. It remains illegal, however, for individuals to operate their own stations. Yet that is exactly what these workshop participants came here to do.
Joel Herrod, 25, is a licensed heavy-duty technician from Winnipeg, Canada. He works in a bush camp 130 miles north of Ontario for a family-owned logging company. At the Herrod Trucking camp, inhabitants are completely self-sufficient. Herrod learned about Berkeley Free Radio online while looking for mail-order transmitter kits and decided to learn firsthand about running a station. He believes radio will help break up the monotony of bush-camp life.
"It's mostly old men up there. They all want to hear country music. That's all they want to listen to," says Herrod, who admits he would rather play Suicidal Tendencies or Snoop. He plans to collect donations to get the station going. "If they want to hear it, they’ll have to pay!"
Another workshop participant was George David Exoo (pronounced "ex-oh"). Three years ago this 62-year-old Unitarian minister, who received his theological training at the Harvard Divinity School, was surfing the Web when he saw Berkeley Free Radio's site. It was only recently that he started considering what community radio could bring to his small town of Beckley, W Va.
"Low-power radio could give a political viewpoint that's not all Rush Limbaugh," says Exoo with a laugh—though he is not entirely joking. "There's talk radio in Beckley but it mostly consists of people calling in wondering, "What would Jesus think?" Exoo said he also has plans for an interfaith radio project that could, among other programs, broadcast the Muslim call to prayer throughout the day.
Berkeley Free Radio has helped set up stations in Haiti with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's approval and provided equipment for the Zapatistas in Mexico. For Dunifer, teaching people about low-power radio is a straightforward way to make a difference.
"Here we can actually get something done at the end of the day. At least when you walk away at the end of the day, you take a working transmitter into the community."