DUUUDE! Surf's up on the West Coast Airwaves

Today we see most people’s creative urge and imagination go into forums like Indymedia and blogs, but radio still provides a vital spark in creating change. A brief look at the West Coast of the United States reveals the on going work put into unlicensed radio.

The Bay Area: In Berkeley pirates have started a torch from the smoldering ashes of Free Radio Berkeley and it has been burning since 1999 on 104.1 FM. Berkeley Liberation Radio (BLR) hasn’t had an easy road with multiple studio relocations over the years, and the loss of good shows that comes with that. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has paid numerous visits over the years including, on one occasion, breaking into the studio with sheriffs who held a DJ at gunpoint before confiscating equipment. Currently the station is working 150 Watts adjacent to the Revolution Café in West Oakland and is in need of more shows to fill out its 24 hours/ 7 days a week broadcasting. The station is also streaming online. Incidentally BLR has had so many locations in Oakland that they are seriously considering changing their name to Free Radio Oakland (FRO). What to check out: One of the oldest running shows is Liberation of the Wretched on Sundays at Noon. There you get DJ Adversary’s street-smart perspective on global crisis and the resistance, set to hard rock-punk-soul-funk records.

Also in Oakland a Jazz-focused pirate station has been broadcasting for close to 40 years on 103.3 FM. They have had some visits from the FCC, but they have not been shut down. (Stations can operate for years and years if nobody bothers to complain to the FCC. Stations with political content often get more scrutiny and are repressed immediately.) They may have broadcasted for so long because nobody has heard about this station.

San Francisco holds not just the West Coast office for the FCC, but a bold pirate movement too. For years San Francisco Liberation Radio ran a strong grassroots operation and even challenged the FCC laws in court. They lost an appeal in the 9th Circuit Court, yet people did not give up. Radio heads went on to build Pirate Cat Radio, which broadcasts 1200 watts at 87.9 FM. The signal boasts getting out over the city of San Francisco and at times as far south as Gilroy. Pirate Cat is streamed on the web and the signal is rebroadcast in Los Angeles and Berlin. But what is most impressive is that the studio is housed in a café in the bustling Mission district (21st and Mission St.). People are welcome to buy a drink and sit and listen to live radio as it is being made in an adjacent room separated by a window. Often events scheduled to fill out the cafe are broadcast — live music, films, public forums, plus the rare personalities that inhabit the city pass by throughout the day. The FCC has made numerous visits, sometimes once a week, but Pirate Cat has claimed an emergency exemption. Pirate Cat has also sent a $10 check to apply for a license, which the FCC has cashed. A rare show to check out: Diamond Dave does Common Threads from 4-6PM on Fridays. Dave was partying with Bob Dylan back when he was a teenager known as Robert Zimmerman — and has since kept abreast with the counter culture.

Santa Cruz: Another long running station under the name of Freak Radio has been broadcasting 24/7 on 101.1 FM. The FCC raided them but they have overwhelming community support. Currently they are need of money to help with rent, a reality of the awful high cost of living in California.

Arcata/Eureka: In far Northern California there is Humboldt Free Radio Alliance at 99.9 FM. They broadcast 24 hours a day from Thursday to Sunday nights. The range is about eight square miles with their 40-Watt signal. They have had a few visits from the FCC and have had to move locations because of it. People have been broadcasting since 1995 in the Arcata area but this current operation has been at it for close to ten years now. Shows to look out for: Friday from 3-5pm The Reggae Revival with DJ Down Beat plays old school music with a lot of it on vinyl. Also a rock n’ roll lifestyle show that was formerly known as the Mustache Ride is now called “Inappropriate Displays of Swaggering Machismo”. It is hosted by DJ Skull Shrinker on Sundays at 8PM.

Olympia: Free Radio Olympia (the real FRO) broadcasts on 98.5 FM with 100 Watts. They are on the air 24 hours 7 days a week. Since 2001 three hundred and fifty people have gone through this collective-run station in either programming or fundraising, and the station has gone through four different call numbers. They have been at 98.5 FM for two years now. The FCC sent a letter a little over a year ago but that hasn’t scared the pirates. Shows of note: Lucky Charms is an epic public affairs program on Saturday mornings from 9AM to noon. The show updates developments with the State Capitol that shares Olympia with the pirate station. Raccoon Radio is a long running public affairs show that reports on local activism using engaging interviews mixed with music.

Seattle: Letters to the long running Studio X were returned citing that they were no longer at that location. Activists who were involved have made a really impressive documentary movie called Pirate Radio USA, which makes a great effort to go into the heartland of the country and interviews the stations there. The movie is low budget in the best possible way — using creative props to help the narrative, and is full of humor, struggle and intelligence.

The story of pirate radio is one that shows people constantly seeing their project receive government harassment, fall apart organizationally, and lose momentum — yet still managing to not give up. The pirates collectively strive to grow against the consolidation of mass media has made a couple of hands hold 99% of the resources.

The unlicensed (pirate) radio movement is a long way away from the early 1990’s when Free Radio Berkeley would broadcast once a week from the side of a hill. An impressive movement grew once the technical knowledge to put a low-wattage FM station on the air cheaply became widely available. Some licensed broadcasters preferred the term “low powered community radio” to the term “pirate radio” because they didn’t feel like they were stealing anything — the airwaves belong to the people, not corporations who license bandwidth from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) through an expensive, legal process designed to keep the public from communicating in a grassroots fashion.

The 1990s movement of unlicensed, micro-powered stations gained such momentum that the FCC was forced to create a new category of Low Power FM (LPFM) to try to co-opt the movement. The corporate radio lobby got congress to pass a special law eviscerating LPFM by raising artificial technical constraints to prevent new community stations in major markets, and although a handful of LPFM stations made it to the air, the situation is much as it was prior to LPFM. There are unused spaces on the radio spectrum all across the country that can be used for low-powered community radio signals, but the FCC won’t issue licenses for these spaces.

Radio is a dynamic tool; on one hand it is simple to learn and it literally amplifies what is brought to it. It can be fun and at the same time it can be deadly serious. The quality of people that is attracted to radio is just as dynamic. A big boon is how the medium naturally draws in people who have little interest in politics. Stations like the real FRO often have to explain the need for politically tinged programming, and explain it’s collective process to people who would otherwise have little contact with such ideas. Pirate radio, then, both from the inside and from the outside, is a great way to get out of the activist bubble.