By DJ Rubble
I am saddened and shocked to have heard a few weeks ago – word of mouth from Berkeley Liberation Radio (BLR) collective members – that DJ Captain Fred (aka Paul Griffin) died suddenly on February 21 from a heart attack. I’d just exchanged E-mails with him a couple of weeks earlier about donating cheap used equipment to the station to help keep it operating, and had collaborated with him over the past half year to get audio from several Save People’s Park rally/concerts onto the BLR playlists, which still broadcast over the internet. None of us I spoke with had any knowledge that he was dealing with any type of life-threatening health issues.
Media activist insiders knew Captain Fred to have a unique set of skills and abilities vital to this type of ultra-low-budget, anti-corporate, DIY broadcasting. Some station background is important in understanding his unique contributions. Free Radio Berkeley was started in the early 90’s by founder Steven Dunifer, as a voice for the rapidly growing homeless population which had no “voice” in the corporate media. The station went on the airwaves at 104.1 FM without a broadcasting license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – the government agency which oversees the airwaves – as an act of civil disobedience. The station re-launched and continued on as Berkeley Liberation Radio sometime around the turn of the century.
As these types of smaller signal range stations proliferated, they came to be known as “Low Power FM” (LPFM), and “micro-radio” and were embroiled in legalistic battles over who really owns and who has the right to the airwaves. The FCC has considered this broadcasting illegal and has worked to force these stations off the air, including with armed raids and draconian personal “illegal broadcasting” fines to individuals involved. Industry lobbying arm the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has worked hand-in-hand with the FCC on this, to continue to limit airwaves access to multi-million dollar corporations with the express goal of maximizing profit with repetitive “cookie-cutter” content.
BLR runs under a broad set of anarchist-oriented values shared by many of us. The fiercely DIY approach resulted in a much longer on-again, off-again tenure on air than other unlicensed stations, many which tried and failed at more conventional radio strategies, such as reforming the FCC process and obtaining institutional funding. BLR’s all-volunteer collective has never had traditional hierarchies, such as station managers, security guards, or administrators on which to dump the continuing set of structural and interpersonal issues that always arise on.
BLR operates on a self-funded shoe-string budget, demonstrating that quality radio can be produced for as little as hundreds of dollars monthly, mostly for rent. Equipment is inexpensive, mostly used and donated. Virtually anyone who applied for a DJ slot was given a chance to broadcast, including those who never have broadcast before, with very little restriction on content beyond guidelines in the mission statement. Political and social content has always been grassroots and a welcome alternative to monolithic corporate-driven perspectives.
Captain Fred moved to the Bay Area from New York in 1979 after finishing college with a goal of being a rock musician. He spent the rest of his life in the East Bay. Along the way, he developed and combined skills as a musician with an array of technical abilities much needed for both music and radio. He played in various bands playing various types of music. His radio shows reflected the always increasing range of musical styles he enjoyed.
He has been active with the station virtually throughout its existence. He became a member in 1993, when he launched his well-regarded Saturday evening radio show, “Captain Fred’s World Cruise”, which he continued broadcasting right up to his untimely death. He was well known in the Bay Area micro-radio community as far back as the turn of the century for the syndicated version of “Captain Fred’s World Cruise”. Before the explosion of MP3’s and other computerized transmittals, he would produce and send out self-produced CD’s with playlists of the independent music played on the show to other local LPFM stations.. These were really valuable to stations not always able to have a live broadcaster or show producer in the studio or buy slickly produced materials.
In this context, Captain Fred’s skills and contributions were immense. He was extremely tech savvy, constantly able to obtain, connect, replace and repair cheap or donated equipment to help keep the broadcasts coming as consistently as possible. He also had a relatively high level of mechanical skills, useful for having to install and move transmitters and equipment in and out of new often temporary broadcast locations, as the station spent several decades evading repressive scrutiny of the FCC and NAB and unaffordable commercial rents.
He worked in Steven Dunifer’s workshop which served as catalyst for LPFM stations worldwide, creating and selling radio start-up kits that cost probably less than $1,000 to people who wanted to create their own small radio stations.
He was great at configuring the internet stream — also donated — and uploading a vast array of music and political talk so that the station could operate 24-hours daily, often without a live DJ.
He always seemed to be available to help people individually and share his knowledge. For years, he used his weekly show time as a training site for new DJs and for others – myself included – who needed updated skills and resources. Recently, he used the time to load free activist audio shows into the shuffler so that listeners can hear much about the political issues and perspectives that need to be heard.
He and several other long-term collective members often took on the thankless tasks of resolving personal/interpersonal problems among members, and working towards important due process-oriented decisions in often contentious staff meetings. He was heavily involved in political strategy-making. He had a lot of skill and patience with people, and could also be refreshingly direct. He had a lively sense of humor and laid back persona, with a seemingly endless stream of comical stories about the often bizarre situations collective members were embroiled in.
His skill and contributions will be sorely missed, and hopefully long remembered and valued by many.