Local pirate radio station shutdown, seeks new broadcasting site
Are you wondering why feedback noise and bits of a conservative talk show now crackle in your ears when you attempt to tune into Free Radio Santa Cruz (FRSC) at 101.1FM?
The popular pirate radio station has its own official “day” in Santa Cruz—declared on March 27 of last year by then mayor Mike Rotkin—but its radio transmitter has been homeless since Aug. 12.
“We’re looking for a [transmitter host] site,” says FRSC programmer “Uncle Dennis,” whose show has aired for 14 of the station’s 16 years on the air. “What we’d like to do is have a couple of sites in the barrel in case one doesn’t work out, but we’re still looking for a site so we can let folks know that we’re back on the air.”
The station left the airwaves when federal agents from the San Francisco branch of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hand-delivered cease and desist papers to the house from which FRSC has broadcasted for the last year.
According to the FRSC website, the FCC “notice of unlicensed radio operation” stated in part: “A valid FCC radio station license for your radio transmission on 101.1 mhz was not in evidence at the time of attempted inspection…”
The landlord of a house hosting FRSC’s transmitter decides whether or not to ask the station to move when an FCC letter arrives. FRSC’s policy is to respect the landlord’s decision.
In August, the owner of the host house chose to comply with the FCC notice and local broadcasting was put on hold.
“Unless the host site wants to actually engage with the FCC, all they do is tell us that the FCC has been around and that they’d like us to move,” says Uncle Dennis.
In the case of a serious fine or crackdown, FRSC, not the host house, would incur all costs.
Agusto Cesar Sandino Segundo has hosted an FRSC show on Monday evenings for eight years. “We would never leave our host locations high and dry,” he says. “As a collective we’re dependent on people helping us, so we need to be willing to help people right back if need be. It’s a two way street—if they’re going to help us broadcast, we can’t just be like ‘Oh, sorry you got a $10,000 fine, see ya’ later.’”
Aside from one military-style raid of the FRSC station headquarters seven years ago, the FCC has hit the station with little more than hollow threats every year or two.
Uncertified radio broadcasting is not a criminal offense, so the most likely punishment the station would encounter is a fine. Local authorities would have to cooperate with the FCC in order for the station to face legal trouble.
Community support buffers most potential threats to FRSC. For example, when the military-style raid occurred in 2004, more than 200 indignant residents arrived on the scene; the tires of the federal agents’ vehicles were slashed, and the agents’ illegal parking jobs were ticketed by local police.
People who work with FRSC do so on a volunteer basis, largely propelled by a dedication to freedom of access to information.
“Myself and all the other programmers are fully aware of the risks involved in running a pirate radio station,” says Uncle Dennis. “Every applicant [is] apprised of what we do and how we do it, and what the potential risks are. … If anyone at the station was personally prosecuted, the rest of the programmers would rally around them, and I’m sure Santa Cruz listeners of Free Radio would help them as much as they could. We are a collective, we will hang together.”
Segundo holds the FCC in violation of the first amendment, as it does not promote truly free access to information.
“There is this chain of command inside media ownership that I think doesn’t allow for alternative and minority and dissenting viewpoints to be heard,” he says. “I think stations like ours are essential, and, dare I say, patriotic. ... If they want to prosecute me for expressing my opinions and playing my music, then that shows how not free we really are. If I can help unveil that illusion of freedom, that would be fine.”
Since the most recent shutdown of the station’s transmitter, FRSC has sought a new broadcast location. Interested parties are encouraged to email the station, reminded that the station will pay for all electricity costs incurred due to hosting the transmitter.
According to Uncle Dennis, a viable transmitter location would be somewhere on the East or Westside of the city, as downtown is between bluffs in a bad position for broadcasting.
As one of longest running pirate radio stations in history, FRSC refuses to shut down, transmitter or not. FRSC continues to broadcast 24/7 online at freakradio.org.
“There are a lot of people even internationally that listen to us online, so we feel that even though we are not broadcasting to our immediate community, it’s important to continue,” says Segundo. “It’s encouraging that when we do go off the air I always hear about it from people asking where we are, or when we’ll be back.”
When FRSC gets back to broadcasting, they do not have any plans to change frequency, however they are always careful not to interfere with existing certified radio stations. Members of the station say they are eager to return to the airwaves.
“Radio has always been one of the most democratic and accessible forms of media,” says Segundo. “You don’t need to pay for a subscription fee, access through the Internet, expensive gear or anything else like that to use a radio. … We’re proud to be one of the stewards of pirate radio.”
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