Anarchist posters and stickers cover every inch of the room. CDs pour off the shelves of the wall, and a giant pirate flag is raised high, draping across the room. This is the secret broadcasting center of Free Radio Santa Cruz.
For over a decade and a half, Free Radio Santa Cruz — 101.1 FM — has been operating without a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and it doesn’t want one. Back in 1995, a handful of activists set up the low-powered pirate radio broadcast station, using their meager $1,000 to pay for a transmitter, antennae, tape and CD players, and a mixing board. The station was 15-watts and broadcasted from a bedroom on Avalon Street.
“We at the FRSC generally agree that it’s very important to control communication without asking for permission from the government,” said John Malkin, host of the Great Leap Forward Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. on FRSC. “We want to self-control what we say without government regulation. People at FRSC have different ideas of what free speech really means.”
While other forms of media do not require a license from the government in order to operate — newspapers, magazines, Internet websites all publish without certification — radio and television are more closely monitored.
“For some reason the government has decided that the first amendment doesn’t apply to radio and television,” said Louis LaFortune, FRSC host of Resistance and Renewal. “They have all these rules about what we can say, and what we can’t.”
Many other licensed radio stations are limited to what they are allowed to air, not only through federal regulations, but also through corporate influence. LaFortune feels that those sponsored by mega-corporations may be forced to compromise their content for fear of having their funding revoked.
“Whenever you take money from anybody, you’re compromised. That’s why I support free radio because we’re allowed to do anything we want,” LaFortune said.
For example, Ford, Walmart, Chevron and the U.S. State Department are some of the corporations that fund National Public Radio, or NPR. Ten percent of their money comes from the government.
For the folks at FRSC, that 10 percent gives the government too much leverage. In many ways, FRSC’s unlicensed broadcasting is a reaction to this kind of control over the media.
“Mainstream media is not really ‘mainstream,’” LaFortune said. “Corporations are outside of the mainstream. They do not represent the mainstream and I’d like to get ‘mainstream media’ out of everybody’s vocabulary.”
While the corporate media was beating the drums for war, LaFortune said that in terms of airing voices from both sides on the radio regarding the growing conflict in the Middle East, NPR was one of the worst. It had, at most, one antiwar activist caller broadcasted on the air. There were essentially no left-leaning voices represented on their airwaves, which really skewed the censuses’ view.
“This is the amount of control that the federal government has on NPR,” LaFortune said. “They self-censor. That’s the problem with so called ‘public radio.’ Some people censor themselves because they don’t want to stick their neck out. They could lose their jobs, their careers. I’m not going to lose anything here.”
Most members at FRSC prefer to operate independently as a pirate radio station. And under current US media policies, FRSC doesn’t actually have much of a choice.
“Even if we wanted to go legal, we couldn’t do it. There are just not enough frequencies available,” LaFortune said.
In 1996, when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, he turned the communications business into an open market with free competition. As a result, mega-corporations were able to capitalize on communication businesses. Air One Radio Network and Clearchannel now have over 1000 stations.
“That’s wrong,” said LaFortune. “Everybody should get one.”
It’s more than just conglomerate takeover that the FRSC is fighting off. A registered radio station can be closely monitored for language and content, and can be immediately tracked down if they are not complying with FCC standards.
Pirate radio stations serve as a threat to the FCC because their content cannot be tracked and monitored. In addition, broadcast airwaves transmitted from a pirate radio station can interfere with certain licensed stations that operate at a neighboring frequency.
But FRSC has always been attentive to such occurrences of interference, yielding stations whenever conflicts arise. They are currently operating on their third frequency.
In 2004, when Air 1 Christian was granted a license to the frequency FRSC had been operating on, FRSC forfeited the frequency and relocated up the dial from 96.3 FM to 101.1 FM. Listeners unaware of the change were in for a surprise when they tuned in to their favorite radio station and were greeted instead with Christian rock music.
In spite of efforts made by FRSC to remain a peaceful radio station, the FCC has continued to tail the station.
On September 29, 2004, a swarm of FCC agents and a dozen heavily armed federal marshals launched a full raid on the low-powered local radio station. The agents shut down FRSC and forcefully seized all of the station’s operating equipment, worth about $8000.
“Philosophically we do not agree with the FCC’s right to regulate us. We think we are within the law and we’re not true pirates. The way I see it, the FCC stole all our equipment during that raid,” LaFortune said.
However, with the perseverance of the team of radio broadcasters and with strong support from their listeners in the community, FRSC was able to continue broadcasting as a pirate radio station less than a month after the raid. A benefit concert was thrown to help raise money for replacing the lost equipment.
After the raid, FRSC relocated to a new broadcasting venue. Now it keeps the transmitter and equipment separate.
FRSC still receives threatening letters from the FCC. But it avoids raids by dutifully unplugging its antenna and replanting it in a new secret location every few months.
Notwithstanding the burden of having the FCC constantly on their tail, members of the radio station continue to opt for a license-free existence. The members generally agree that although this constant game of cat-and-mouse with the FCC certainly imposes grueling limitations, the consequences attached to FCC regulation are far worse.
Under FCC regulations, you have to identify your radio station in a certain way, members of FRSC said, explaining that there are permit fees and only certain frequencies on which you can operate. FRSC defies federal control of the radio airwaves because they say that local control of community media produces more credibility. Programs hosts voluntarily invest their time in producing their shows. So earning a paycheck does not influence their content.
“We have a certain mission we strive to achieve. We are based on nonviolence and we want to be noncommercial. We want to be free from that realm of capitalism and commercialism,” said John Malkin, host of “The Great Leap Forward.” “In the broadest sense, we can use whatever language we want and we are unlimited on what we talk about,” he said. “We choose to self-regulate.”
Free Radio Santa Cruz Host of “Soup’s Kitchen” Scott Erickson acknowledges some of the benefits attached to unlicensed broadcasting.
“Believe it or not, I had that KZSC show, and I could put two people in the studio. If I had one other person there, I would be violating the radio standards, and I could get kicked off. Matter of fact, I did get kicked off for such a thing,” Erickson said. “The idea that I could just have anyone come and go, and they could say whatever they want. That is the biggest advantage in the world.”
“Being able to swear on the air is a beautiful thing,” he added.
UCSC student Bryan May also reaps the benefits of Free Radio Santa Cruz’s informal pirate policy. Through FRSC’s open screening process, May was able to host his own show, Fun in the Oven.
“By allowing creative individuals in the Santa Cruz community to submit applications to host their own original program on the station, this gives anyone in the community an opportunity to have their voice be heard,” May said. “It’s very accessible. I always try to convince my friends to do shows.”
May said the screening process is simple: “Anyone can pretty much do their own show as long as they’re not being an asshole. It’s free speech, but it’s also hate-free speech.”
Free Radio isn’t just resigned to local listeners. FRSC also streams all its content online at freakradio.org for Internet users. Katherine Lee, an online listener, expressed her reasons for listening to Free Radio Santa Cruz.
“I always tune in to Free Radio to listen to my friends’ show,” Lee said. “I recognize some of the voices on the air. It’s exciting to be so closely connected to the media.”
For the most part, U.S. policy does not come down too hard on pirate radio broadcasting, which enables any station with enough perseverance to continue operating for years on end.
“None of the members at Free Radio are in danger of going to prison. No one’s ever been fined or had to pay any money. The liability we have is very little,” LaFortune said. “In other countries, pirate radio is a serious business.”
FRSC currently operates with a monthly cost of about $750. Radio hosts are thus able to pay an affordable $25 to $30 a month to do their own show.
It costs thousands of dollars more to operate under a licensed antenna. Licenses have to be renewed and repaid each year.
Some assert that due to the nature of radio, there should be no charge at all.
“A lot of people don’t feel that it should cost money because we’re using airwaves, which is a natural resource,” said Malkin,host of “The Great Leap Forward.”
Although the United States doesn’t prosecute violation of media regulations as severely as some other countries do, members of Free Radio Santa Cruz still said that there is still a lot of room for improvement in U.S. media policy.
“We have all this fabulous wealth in this country, but the media is so poor in the amount of issues it covers,” LaFortune said. “The whole point of having pirate radio is to assert that the airwaves belong to the public.”
Free Radio listener and UCSC student David Dines celebrates FRSC’s defiance of federal regulations.
“Under these open parameters you have more freedom of content,” Dines said. “By allowing anyone to have a show, it appeals to a wider range of people instead of just one demographic. Different kinds of people are able to produce what they want to produce instead of what they’re allowed to produce. There’s a kind of authenticity to that which you don’t get from other stations.”
FRSC continues to broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — all while hiding its whereabouts from the FCC.
Despite a 15-year struggle of battling it out with FCC, FRSC continues to survive and thrive. In its broadcasting studio, the signature pirate flag proudly waves. Free Radio Santa Cruz still stands.