By Devin Dunlevy
City News Reporter
Free Radio Santa Cruz (FRSC) is no ordinary radio station.
The station headquarters is a cramped room with posters all over its walls. “Build a wall of resistance; don’t talk to the FBI,” reads one. “One percent of the U.S. owns 40 percent of the wealth — what’s your share?” reads another. Countless vinyl albums occupy the small number of shelves.
But the biggest eye-catcher is the prodigious “Jolly Roger” flag draped in the corner. This is fitting, as FRSC is one of a growing number of pirate radio stations popping up all over the country.
Broadcasting without a license, the station has been in open defiance of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) since it began airing in 1995.
Why? Because Free Radio holds that the FCC regulates not in the public’s interest, but in the interest of corporations that dominate the airwaves.
Radio activists are concerned about the media conglomerates, like Clear Channel Communications, that have the largest market share of the radio industry. Clear Channel owns 900 stations, the biggest owner of full-power commercial radio stations in the United States.
Free Radio’s goal? To make room for radical discourse often shunned by the mainstream media, and to air other diverse programming that commercialized radio simply ignores.
FRSC is part of the larger “micro-radio movement” seeking to change licensing laws to accommodate low-power broadcasting. Low-power outlets are typically community-driven, and have smaller budgets and weaker broadcast strengths than high-power stations.
According to “Uncle Dennis,” a programmer for FRSC, the station collaborates with other independent radio outlets like Pacific Radio, the oldest public radio network in the United States.
“We use a lot of Pacifica programs and those of other alternative producers,” Uncle Dennis said. “We attend the Grassroots Broadcasting Conference when we can.”
Free Radio DJ “Augusto Cesar Sandino Segundo” has been part of the project for five years. He currently hosts his own show, “The Global Local,” which airs Monday nights from 7 to 9 p.m.
Segundo gave a voice to Flavio Santi Vargas, an Ecuadorian indigenous leader trying to raise awareness about his community’s concerns, on Nov. 3.
Ecuador’s indigenous movement is currently waging protests against the government’s support for large-scale mining activities by multinational oil giants like Arco. Vargas feels that these activities are threatening the indigenous territories.
“Radio has an incredible history of being used in people’s movements,” Segundo said. “People have broadcasted revolutionary messages in Third World countries.”
Stuart Abel is a friend who accompanied Vargas during the interview. He said that Vargas’ community is seeking to bring in spiritual tourists as a source of income.
“His community wants to raise money to protect themselves from the oil companies that are polluting their rivers,” Abel said.
“We do live in a forest, and we work together,” Vargas said. “The jungle is our pharmacy, the jungle is our supermarket, the jungle is our life.”
Vargas will be in the United States for six more months before heading back to Ecuador.
Over 10 Years of Unlicensed Broadcasts
The affinity groups Earth First! and Food Not Bombs played a role in getting the station on its feet back in the 1990s. Food Not Bombs organizer Kim Argula was one of the founders of FRSC. The station’s transmitter was originally set up in her room.
“The airwaves really belong to us. It’s up to the people to take back that which U.S. corporate interests and government regulators monopolized,” Argula said in one of the station’s first broadcasts. “Stop for-profit brainwashing. Build revolt by networking nationally and internationally.”
Eventually, the noise of the 24-hour programming was too overwhelming for Argula. The collective tried moving the equipment elsewhere in the house, only to be caught by the landlord. After being kicked out of the house, organizers moved to a new location at 120 Campbell St.
The movement began to grow after Argula and others “bumper-stickered” the entire town.
“They were literally everywhere — in the bathrooms, on posts … and they were really well done,” Argula said in a 2005 interview with programmer “Skidmark Bob” about Free Radio’s history. “We got a lot of listeners that way.”
Things went smoothly until the FCC raided the station in 2004. Right after a broadcast of Democracy Now!, two dozen federal agents stormed FRSC and seized over $5,000 worth of broadcasting equipment. This was the first time the station had ever gone to static due to government intervention.
What followed was a community outcry, and nearly 150 people went to protest the raid as it was taking place. The strong showing of support made it possible to restore the online stream at freakradio.org within 48 hours, and the station was re-transmitting at 101.1 FM less than a month after the raid.
Although FRSC recovered from this fiasco, it still remains vulnerable to any future action taken by the FCC.
“There is nothing we can do to prevent a raid from the FCC and/or federal marshals,” Uncle Dennis said. “We rely on community support to keep going and to rise again if we are raided again.”
In the FRSC interview, Argula reflected that despite the struggles the station has faced, Free Radio’s programming has improved over the years.
“When we first started, it was not professional to any degree; it was very much amateur presentation,” Argula said. “But now I listen to the shows, and the quality and content is exceptional. It’s better than any of the radio stations in town.”
The Road Ahead for FRSC and Micro-Broadcasting
Free Radio currently broadcasts at an output power of 200 watts Effected Radiated Power (ERP). The signal reaches past Aptos and almost to Watsonville, but the listening area was severely disrupted after a Christian rock station recently starting transmitting on 101.1 FM from Mt. Toro.
“To counter this, we would have to increase our power to a thousand watts ERP, which would then start to interfere with the Carmel station and bring the FCC down on us for the interference,” Uncle Dennis said. “There are no current plans to increase our output power.”
Many local politicians have been strong supporters of the station. The Santa Cruz City Council has passed three resolutions embracing its presence in the community, including one issued immediately after the raid in 2004.
City Councilmember Tony Madrigal said the current system of regulations “puts the little person in an unfair position.”
“When it comes to Free Radio Santa Cruz, whether or not you disagree with their programming, it’s hard to disagree with the basic idea of local people having control over a local radio station,” Madrigal said.
FRSC is only one example of a number of unlicensed low-power FM (LPFM) stations across the country. Others include Berkeley Liberation Radio and Free Radio Olympia. Some have been shut down over the years, including San Francisco Liberation Radio, which was raided by the FCC and San Francisco Police Department in 2003.
Free Press, a media advocacy organization with over 500,000 members, is fighting to make it easier to acquire low-power licenses. It argues that low-power stations can strengthen community identity, provide opportunities for youth and empower minority groups.
But the low-power proponents face an uphill battle from the consolidated high-power stations that express concern over interference. According to National Public Radio, full-power broadcasters reach a broader audience, so they provide a greater service and should be rewarded with priority over the airwaves.
Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty said he supports the local station.
“Free Radio Santa Cruz constantly criticizes the City Council and me for our policies, but that doesn’t mean I won’t fight for its right to broadcast,” he said. “The media is being consolidated to such an extent that I think it is important to maintain as many independent media outlets as possible.”
On the issue of further FCC intervention, Coonerty recommends that supporters remind the FCC that the community values the station. He acknowledged the need for broadcast media reform in the United States.
“We need to level the playing field,” Coonerty said, “so that small radio stations can have access to the airwaves that are owned by the public.”