One thing is clear: pirate radio is illegal. We take a look back at 15 years of nonviolent civil disobedience.
My first encounter with pirate radio was when I was 16. I was visiting a kibbutz in Israel, and while we picked potatoes or assembled irrigation piping, we’d listen to rock ’n’ roll coming from what turned out to be a pirate radio station. Between songs a deep voice would announce: “From somewhere in the Mediterranean this is The Voice of Peace.” Like Radio Caroline off the British coast in the ‘60s and ’70s, these were renegades that broadcast without government approval, outside of capitalist culture.
Pirate radio stations—on land or at sea— have long been a part of social justice movements worldwide by promoting positive change and artistic creativity through an independent media. In 1995 a group of activists in Santa Cruz continued the legacy by establishing Free Radio Santa Cruz at 89.3 on the FM dial. Like The Voice of Peace, FRSC also broadcasts from unknown locations, though reporters and government agents have periodically found their way to the DIY station. (Join FRSC in celebrating 15 years of unlicensed, commercial-free radio at 7 p.m. Saturday March 27 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center. A donation at the door is requested for an evening that will include speakers and live music.)
Voice For The Voiceless
In 1994 there were discussions among local activists about starting a local low-powered radio station. In late March of 1995, Skidmark Bob was among a small group who got the station up and running for “one thousand bucks,” which paid for a transmitter, antennae, tape and CD players and a mixing board. The 15-watt station went on the air from a house on Avalon Street.
“At first it was in my bedroom,” reminisces Kim Argula. “We realized soon that the station would have to move. Not only was I not getting any sleep but my landlord decided to evict us.”
The radio station was a “side project” that found a life of its own. Bob remembers the activist roots of the station, “Food Not Bombs and the local IWW (International Workers of the World) were basically the folks that started everything. Most of us were homeless.” Though Bob left the FRSC collective in 2009, his program Pop Defect Radio is still broadcast (2-2:30 p.m. Tuesdays).
Robert Norse has hosted Bathrobes Pierre’s Broadsides (9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays) for 13 years and also came to FRSC via activism: “I fancy that putting out first-hand accounts of people's experiences with discrimination and abuse as homeless individuals may provide incentive to address these concerns.”
George Cadman hosted Peace Talks and other shows on FRSC for 10 years. Her first experience on FRSC was as an activist being interviewed on Rockin’ The Boat with V-Man. She was part of the Santa Cruz Coalition to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal. “I loved being on the radio so much I decided to get my own show,” she remembers.
When asked about the first thing broadcast on the pirate station, Skidmark Bob doesn’t hesitate: “The Shades of Brown album by MDC.” Punk rock has long been a staple for the station, along with experimental music, live performance, political talk shows and local and international news, all with an independent edge. “We looped the CD so that we could drive around and see how it sounded. It was the only good CD we had!” Bob laughs at the memory. “The night we went on the air one person read the first amendment. We also played a tape that included Utah Phillips and Earth First! activist Darryl Cherney.”
Louis LaFortune has been hosting Resistance and Renewal (6:30-8 p.m. Fridays) since 2003. “FRSC is the voice of the voiceless,” he states unequivocally. “It’s a place where anyone can express her- or himself, without the threat of censorship, or, what is worse, the need for self-censorship.” Nayeli, a host of the Brown Berets Show (6-9 p.m. Saturdays) agrees, “We love to be ourselves and not pretend to be someone we’re not.” Rocio, another Brown Berets host adds, “FRSC is a radio station that lets us speak our minds. We love to play music that describes our culture.”
The number of Spanish language/culture shows on FRSC like Brown Berets has been growing. At FRSC meetings, discussions have sometimes been heated about how best to schedule English and Spanish programs and how to survey what listeners are enjoying. The recent departure of some FRSC programmers, including Skidmark Bob and another founding member, have come after frustrating talks around this issue.
Richard Snow, an avid FRSC listener comments, “I don't know that I completely understand the Spanish/ English mix of programs. When I turn the dial to Free Radio and hear Spanish, I'm not sure I have the right station.” Other listeners appreciate the increase in Spanish language programming. Dick and Marion Vittitow, both 73, have listened to the station since about 2002. “FRSC is a voice and statement of who Santa Cruz is,” explains Dick. Marion adds, “And significant Santa Cruz statements and voices are expressed in Spanish. We don't think it would be Free Radio without Spanish music, interviews, and reports.”
I Fought The Law
One thing is clear: pirate radio is illegal. It’s an act of nonviolent civil disobedience to go on the air without a license. Some radio pirates say that they are simply using a natural resource—the airwaves—without asking for permission.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is empowered to administer licenses and it punishes stations that don’t adhere to broadcast regulations. And often it shuts down stations that operate without a license. Mbanna Kantako could tell you of the times he’s been busted for broadcasting from a Springfield, Ill., housing project. And Free Radio Berkeley was silenced by a court injunction in 1998. But punishment for pirating the airwaves in the U.S. is not as harsh as in other lands, as can be witnessed in Jonathan Demme’s 2004 documentary The Agronomist, on the life of Haitian activist Jean Dominique and his assassination outside his Port au Prince radio station in 2000.
The first time Free Radio Santa Cruz was shut down it turned out to be, well, a false alarm. By late 1995, the station had relocated. “We had to share the room with a water heater,” remembers Skidmark. “We were warm when people were taking showers, even in the middle of summer.” He recalls the day that a raid seemed to unfold: “The KCBA news people got some sort of frequency reader at Radio Shack and they found our location. But they went to the Food Not Bombs house next door. They banged on that door and said, “Is Free Radio Santa Cruz here?” Someone downstairs heard and ran around the corner and told us the Feds were banging on the door. We got scared and shut the transmitter down.”
The renegade radio DJs later met with reporters, and today Bob thinks of the two-and-a-half minute news report they produced as, “Probably the best piece that was ever done on the station.” In the 1995 clip, reporter Les Batinas says with a dramatic flurry: “It’s an on-air rebellion! An unlicensed radio station operating out of a tiny closet in a secret location!”
Over the 15 years of the existence of FRSC, agents from the FCC have delivered paperwork to virtually every one of the dozen or so locations that have been home to the pirate station, demanding that the station discontinue operation. FRSC DJs have even broadcast recordings of encounters with FCC agents who had come to shut down the station.
In 1998 FCC agents “visited” the station and the 12-year-old daughter of an FRSC programmer answered the door. They were stopped in their tracks with one simple question from a well-informed girl: “Do you have a search warrant?” They didn’t, and she stood firm: “You can’t trespass!”
Guns vs. Microphones
On the morning of Sept. 29, 2004, a military-style raid took place at the radio station. Cadman was there. “I went in one morning to put on the news, before I went to work,” she says. “I never made it to work that day.” A lecture by Howard Zinn was being broadcast as the raid began. “I saw 10 vehicles pulling up at sharp angles. They parked and people jumped out,” Cadman adds. “They had plastic handcuffs on their belts, wearing black and carrying big guns.”
As 16 federal marshals with assault rifles and six FCC agents stormed the student collective house that was home to FRSC, Cadman made phone calls and it wasn’t long before other area radio stations —KPIG, KUSP and KZSC—were informing listeners of the raid. Two hundred people came to protest the FCC shutdown of the community radio station, some with handmade signs that said, “Save the public airwaves—Stop the FCC!” Local politicians also came to speak out, including the then- mayor, a past mayor and one aspiring mayor. By the end of the day, about $8,000 in equipment was stolen by the government. “It was a complete waste of tax payer’s dollars,” reflects Cadman. “I felt so angry.”
Congressman Sam Farr agreed and wrote a letter to the FCC the week after the raid, stating in part, “While I am fully aware that FRSC was not operating with a license from the FCC, I believe that the time and resources spent on this action could have been better focused on the FCC’s larger mission of ensuring that the nation’s airwaves serve the public interest.”
“The response by programmers to the raid was nonviolent, which was wise with such a heavily armed foe,” recalls DJ Matter Embryo, a former FRSC host. “It was stirring because Free Radio bounced right back. We had back-up equipment and had fundraising events and we did fine. They definitely did not knock us down.”
After loading their trucks with the radio station’s equipment, the FCC agents realized that their trucks weren’t operational. Their tires had been slashed, quite obviously by someone disgruntled with the raid. The agents called for tow trucks.
“I had mixed feelings about them getting their tires slashed,” admits Embryo. “I didn’t know what kind of message that was going to send. But it was a way of saying, “You can’t come in here and take whatever you want without suffering even the slightest consequence. You’re going to have to walk. Or take a cab.”
Take Back the Airwaves
The legendary Utah Phillips was a guest on my FRSC program The Great Leap Forward (7-9 p.m. Wednesday) in 2003 and was a big supporter of our little station. That interview ended up in my book of 15 interviews with musicians titled “Sounds of Freedom” (Parallax Press, 2005). The late Utah was also interviewed by Amy Goodman for Democracy Now! at FRSC’s studio in January, 2004. When our local pirate station was raided later that year, Phillips phoned up and asked how he could help.
A benefit concert was held just three months after the raid, with Phillips headlining an evening of music and celebration. Almost $8,000 was raised and has helped the station thrive and survive since. During the show, Phillips sang his tune, “Talkin NPR Blues:”
Airwaves stole from you and me
By a bunch of thieves called the FCC
They don't give a damn what we want and need
They've all caved in to corporate greed
And sold us out to the ruling class
Well the whole damn bunch can kiss my ...
Don’t Touch That Dial!
Free Radio Santa Cruz began broadcasting at 89.3 FM and has always been mindful not to interfere with other stations, twice moving up the dial to avoid conflict. The second move came in 2004, from 96.3 FM to 101.1 FM. “I tried to tune in to Free Radio one day and got Christian rock,” says Skidmark Bob. “I was pissed off that someone on Free Radio was playing this really crappy rock. But, whatever, it’s your show—you can do what you want.”
It was soon discovered that Air 1 Christian had been granted a license for a 10-watt repeater at 96.3 FM. “It’s a directional antennae pointed at central Santa Cruz,” explains Bob. “They’re trying to save all us hippies and anarchists that live in Sin City.”
Free Radio Santa Cruz is now 100 watts strong with a monthly operating cost of about $750 per month for rent, phones, DSL and electricity. FRSC host Uncle Dennis explains, “We get about $500 in dues from FRSC hosts and continuing donations. We really need more contributors who can make regular, monthly donations.” Uncle Dennis has hosted From the Cream to the Dregs (8-11 p.m. Thursdays) for more than 13 years and received his “Uncle” nickname “when the station was in a kitchen and one of our programmers gave birth in a bedroom while I was on the air.”
For members of the FRSC collective, the value of doing unlicensed, DIY radio manifests in different ways. Louis LaFortune conveys his sense of the station: “FRSC is an anarcho-syndicalist collective (look it up!). And Lee, host of the Hobo Music Show for six years adds, “What could be more DIY than a bunch of folks doing a community radio station?”
The host of R Duck Show, (8:30-11 p.m. Fridays ) Al, puts it like this, “I’ve met a dizzying array of programmers with styles ranging from foul-mouthed space rappers to hobos, money hungry intuitives to news junkies … and guests running the gamut of computer hackers to Ayurvedic healers, urban farmers to one-man bands.”
Skidmark Bob recalls, “Some people started out really clumsy and now some of them are doing radio at KUSP, the National Radio Project, KPFA, and Pacifica Radio.” One FRSC programmer, Reckless, went on to establish Free Radio Austin, shut down in 2000 by the FCC. Another FRSC alumni, Aeon, went to work with Free Radio Olympia.
DJ Matter Embryo sums it up, “The ramshackle nature of pirate radio is really wonderful in a lot of senses. It’s not polished … We don’t ask the state for permission to communicate. It’s sad that we would have to grovel on our knees to use a naturally occurring resource.” Stay tuned.
Come to Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Saturday, March 27 to celebrate FRSC’s 15th anniversary.
John S. Malkin is a local writer, musician and hosts The Great Leap Forward Wednesdays from 7-9p.m. on Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.1 FM and freakradio.org. He is releasing a CD to benefit the 15th anniversary of FRSC, with highlights from interviews with 14 people including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, Yolanda King, Riane Eisler, Tandy Beal and Kathy Kelly.
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