Pirates Take to Airwaves Again in Berkeley, Calif. - January 5th, 2000
Knight-RidderRogue community radio has returned to the airwaves.
Berkeley Liberation Radio is broadcasting from a dingy office in industrial West Berkeley. It is colonizing the bandwidth of a pop-radio station and signaling a new stage in a five-year war between local free-speech advocates and the Federal Communications Commission.
The station, which started in August, is the new incarnation of Free Radio Berkeley, which went off the air in mid-1998 under federal threats of seizure and arrest.
"We're sort of rising from the ashes of Free Radio Berkeley," said Paul Griffin, who has been involved with both stations. "We're making a stand for free speech."
Berkeley Liberation Radio occupies the same place on the dial, 104.1 FM, as its predecessor. Its 38-watt signal emanates from an antenna 50 feet high and can be heard from north Oakland to the Berkeley hills to El Cerrito.
The 24-hour programming is about as grassroots as it gets -- 40 or 50 area residents, from teens to protest veterans of the 1960s, pay $10 in monthly membership dues.
They all had a quick lesson on how to operate the equipment. On-air coughs and dead air aren't uncommon. Programs -- with titles such as "The Slaves Revolt," "Jazz n' Justice," "Gospel Hour," and "Goofy Gurlz" -- include a universe of music as well as shows expounding on local and international politics, labor issues and the environment.
Activists created Berkeley Liberation Radio to fill the vacuum created when KPFA, Berkeley's established left-leaning station, closed this summer during massive protests against KPFA's parent organization, the Pacifica Foundation.
Free Radio Berkeley and Berkeley Liberation Radio have both proclaimed they are a rare community alternative to the commercial stations that dominate the airwaves.
They have balked at rules that require broadcasters to have a license.
Since 1978, the FCC has forbidden licenses for microbroadcasters -- stations with transmitters less than 100 watts -- arguing that a proliferation of such outfits would create chaos on the airwaves.
But that all may change if the FCC follows through this year on proposals to create a new class of licenses for microbroadcasters.
FCC agents have visited Berkeley's new station twice since its opening, deejays said. The agents gave the station an order to cease operations.
But Berkeley Liberation Radio deejays aren't too worried -- they've proudly hung the FCC's order on the wall.
"They can come in and arrest the equipment. They can't arrest us. We haven't done anything wrong," said John Quintero, a Hayward resident who hosts a morning show.
Also upset by the clandestine broadcast are the operators of Mix 104.1 in Rohnert Park. It is the closest commercial station using that frequency.
"Hopefully the FCC will put these guys in jail," said Ron Castro, the station's general manager. "People who live or work in Sonoma County and want to hear us where they live or work down there have no way of picking us up."
The penalties can be serious for radio pirates, said John Winston, the FCC's assistant bureau chief in charge of enforcement. Several people have been assessed the maximum penalty of $11,000 in fines or a year in jail.
The FCC has shut down about 500 similar radio stations since 1997, he said.
Berkeley radio activists know, however, that the wheels of justice turn slowly. Stephen Dunifer led Free Radio Berkeley for five years before the FCC finally marshaled an injunction against him to close. Dunifer is appealing the ruling in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The station's public-relations campaign so far has consisted of posting hand-stenciled signs, which have been quickly torn down. But that will change in the next few days as volunteers distribute as many as 10,000 flyers, said a deejay named Thunder.