The Bay Area hosts a plethora of unlicensed, low-power community broadcasters that challenge the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) control over the country’s airwaves, which these so-called radio “pirates” see as a public resource.
“Microradio” stations like Berkeley Liberation Radio (BLR) at 104.1 FM, the descendant of Free Radio Berkeley, Pirate Cat Radio, 87.9 FM, which broadcasts from a café in San Francisco, and Fruitvale’s East Oakland Radio at 102.5 FM, “The Truth of Hip Hop,” are mouthpieces for community activists and independent musicians that resonate with the people.
Stephen Dunifer of Berkeley Free Radio, whose mission has been to transmit to the people the art of inspiration and the “vital information required for an empowered struggle” against a corrupt capitalist system, wrote about the subject in his essay, Giving Voice to the Voiceless.
“Where else can one hear the voices and art of street poets, gang members, homeless persons, activists, punkers, immigrants and many more? Truly, micropower broadcasting is technology for the people.”
Unlicensed activist broadcasters feel they practice civil disobedience by refusing to meet the FCC’s requirements of 6,000 watts of effective radiated power (ERP) for the smallest class of FM stations, and upwards of $100,000 in legal, technical and regulatory fees, or the strict regulations for a low-power FM (LPFM) license.
According to Paul Riismandel, who has written extensively on the history of low-power radio, the FCC began licensing low-power broadcasters in the 1940s for community educational efforts.
The FCC discontinued LPFM licensing in 1978, and although low-power stations (with a power of 100 watts, which broadcasts over a 3.5 mile radius, according to the FCC’s website) became licensable again in 2001, Congress passed legislation deeply limiting where these stations can be built: mostly in rural areas where LPFM will not interfere with full-power radio signals. Riismandel’s articles on the subject are archived at mediageek.org.
DJ Slingshot of Berkeley’s Slingshot! newspaper wrote that an Oakland pirate station at 103.3 FM has been playing jazz for 40 years and, though the FCC has visited periodically, they have not been shut down because no one has complained.
He, like many other “pirate” activists, believe unlicensed stations that disseminate political news and consciousness critical of the government, corporations, and their collusive policies are rigorously repressed by the FCC, unlike the Oakland jazz station.
Free Radio Berkeley (FRB) and San Francisco Liberation Radio (SFLR) were both fined tens of thousands of dollars and eventually pushed off the airwaves. SFLR is now streaming online. Berkeley Liberation Radio rose from the ashes of FRB in 1999, and has experienced FCC raids, seizures of their equipment and multiple moves.
Now in West Oakland’s “Lower Bottom” neighborhood, some station volunteers are considering changing the name to Free Radio Oakland. DJ Ras Menelik Lone Wolf calls it Ohlone Liberation Radio, because the indigenous struggle is central to his life and his program, “Revolutionaries & Spies,” which airs Mondays from 8 to 10 p.m. He said unlicensed broadcasters can be punished with a year in federal prison.
Lone Wolf said the station can be heard in Berkeley and Oakland and sometimes in San Francisco and San Leandro.
He summarized the station’s mission statement to be “a vehicle for social change, to create an alternative, diverse society free from racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.”
Dunifer and his free radio collective, International Radio Action Training Education (IRATE), have brought equipment to Haiti, the Philippines, and Mexico, and taught people how to build their own micropower stations.
IRATE also sells affordable radio kits and offers workshops in West Berkeley to build radio and television broadcasting systems.
Lone Wolf said Berkeley Liberation Radio has DJ openings for anyone who wants to have a radio program, with $20 monthly dues, and those interested can come to the Long Haul Infoshop, across from La Peña in Berkeley, every first and third Thursday at 7 p.m.
Pirate Cat Radio’s café and studio are open every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., at 21st and Florida Streets in the Mission and streams online at piratecatradio.com.
East Oakland Radio, founded by Wilson Barriga Posada, a former FRB DJ, beams sonido, Chicano, and Mexican hip hop and cumbia from High Street and International Boulevard. See some of the artists he plays at myspace.com/eastoaklandradio.