Pirates Without a Ship 

Hounded by the FCC, trumped by technology, stung by public apathy, the illegal micropower radio movement struggles for relevance.

Berkeley Liberation Radio, 104.1FM, ain't your mama's community station. Nor is it your cool older brother's pirate radio, as it was in the '80s and '90s when its predecessor, Steven Dunifer's Free Radio Berkeley, symbolized a then-growing outlaw-radio movement. Judging from a meeting the collective held late last month, three days after temporarily shutting itself down, BLR is more like your crazy uncle's station: still kinda cool, but chaotic and struggling for relevance in a fast-paced world.

The station is shoring up for its latest attempt at resurrection. In mid-June, a ten-day FCC cease-and-desist order was slipped under the door of the station's North Oakland hideout. On the appointed deadline, Berkeley Liberation Radio willingly desisted, although it has no plans to cease. The last time the agency ordered it to pull the plug, it defiantly continued to broadcast from the same location for three more years. This time, however, it also faced eviction.

The options for new digs discussed at the station meeting say volumes about the state of Berkeley Liberation Radio: an outdoor closet with zero ventilation, bare bulb, and single electrical outlet; or a garage with no bathroom access in a house neighbors have called a "nuisance property." Amid talk about what the FCC's monitoring truck looks like, one punk, who'd been farting loudly and often during the meeting, noted he'd seen a truck like that up the street from the old studio, prompting one DJ Adversary to reiterate how the FCC charter should be protecting the station, not thwarting it: "We are local community radio. I mean, look at us!" he said.

But this brand of local community radio -- an unlicensed urban-area station operating in defiance of the FCC, and despite the 1998 federal court ruling that shut down Dunifer's operation, will need to get its act together to survive in the current climate. The social, legal, and technological landscape has changed markedly since the Federal Communications Commission stopped granting licenses to new ten- to hundred-watt noncommercial stations in 1978, prompting thousands of amateur broadcasters to take up transmitters and fight for their free-speech rights. In 2000, just as Internet radio was taking root, the FCC preempted the cause of the unlicensed broadcasters by creating a new class of "Low-Power FM" licenses, even as Congress, at the behest of the powerful National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio, enacted provisions that made these new licenses exceedingly difficult to obtain.

For instance, the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, which took effect in early 2001, increased the minimum frequency separation between stations to three clicks on the radio dial. The change, which applied only to new stations, means that someone hoping to launch a micropower station at, say, 90.1FM had better hope nobody else within sixty kilometers is broadcasting between 89.3 and 90.9FM. To make matters worse, the FCC recently cleared the way for translators -- drone stations that extend the signal of an existing high-power station while gobbling up precious spectrum space. In already-crowded radio markets such as the East Bay, would-be microbroadcasters needn't apply, period.

But attracting and keeping listeners is challenging, even in Berkeley, where the press, and therefore the public have turned their attentions elsewhere. Some of the movement's leading lights, such as Dunifer and the Prometheus Radio Project's Pete Tri Dish, now devote themselves to consulting and building legal stations. Tri Dish doesn't necessarily think BLR is a dying breed. "There are a lot of microradio stations," he says. "Not all of them are politicized in the way that BLR is; many are dance stations." Still, here in the East Bay, you can tune to 104.1FM, as instructed by myriad cardboard signs festooning telephone poles along Shattuck and Telegraph avenues, and often hear nothing but static.

BLR's creed reads, in part: "Consistent with a vision of creating an alternative diverse hybrid society free of sexism, homophobia, racism, and all other forms of oppression, programming on Berkeley Liberation Radio will be reflective of these goals and ideals." Although the goal is admirable, it results in a consensual decision-making process that's tedious when it's not downright ugly. Ultimately, volunteers who are willing to sit through the station meetings feel they're doing the right thing. "We're making a station that's reflective of everyone, not dictated by one or two people," says DJ Emperor Nobody.

The latest meeting attracted twenty or so people, only two of them female, and perhaps that many under forty. They ran the gamut of progressive politics, from anarchists to socialists to libertarians. Although you'd never know it from this scene, one member, DJ Adversary, insisted the station is bringing in more young DJs: "They just want to play their music," he said. "Some of us OGs still have our political fire, but I find that as people do their radio show, they tend to get a little more politicized. They start asking, 'Why is the FCC going after us? Why is it illegal?'"

Ironically it was the youngest person present, DJ Rivermouth Fish in Skull, who shyly facilitated the meeting, starting with a discussion of money raised at a recent benefit. Things soon turned chaotic, and other issues came to the table: a new speakerphone; length of shifts; which CDs should be left on when no one shows up to relieve a DJ. This was the final straw for one latecomer. "Could y'all explain to me what is 'changing the CDs around?'" he asked, "because is it true that we have no place to do our business at this point?" Eventually the group scrapped its agenda to focus on the station's imminent homelessness, with only scant discussion of its online aspirations.

Even the latter makes some microbroadcasters wary, what with file-sharing services getting shut down and sued, and music licensing fees being imposed on Web stations by the Recording Industry Association of America. Microradio types also fret that perhaps not everyone can afford a computer with Web access, not to mention that Web radio is expensive to get up and running. The Prometheus Project does much of its work with groups like the farmworkers of Immokalee, Florida, who lack Internet access and sometimes phones. But thanks to the gift of a server, BLR is ready to enter the online fray just as the newest big thing, MP3 podcasting, hits its stride.

Since the station wouldn't be offering a stream for recording, it should be all right with the RIAA. And if it sticks to independent artists and political invectives, it should be pretty safe, although many low-power FM, Internet, and podcast stations get permission from indie artists just to be sure. As far as actual broadcasting, though, how many times can a station go off the air, change its coverage area by moving, and offer programming that's intermittent and inconsistent, before no one is listening at all? "The Chinese character for 'crisis' is half 'danger' and half 'opportunity,'" Emperor Nobody says. "We're trying to emphasize the opportunity of this."

Actually, Sinologists have come forth to debunk this oft-cited translation -- while the "we" of weiji does indeed mean "danger," the "ji" indeed means something far less optimistic, a crucial point of change or beginning. "Thus, a weiji is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry," writes Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. "A weiji indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary."

It may be time for Berkeley Liberation Radio to rethink its strategy.

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