Free Radio Santa Cruz celebrates 18 years of subversive programming
Though the term “free radio” comes to us from the Summer of Love—a time when some folks splashed the word “free” on their nouns like an all-purpose verbal condiment—you can rest assured that the name Free Radio Santa Cruz (FRSC) is no mere tip of the hat to the psychedelic era. For the past 18 years, the colorful characters at the helm of our community’s own pirate radio station have been enjoying the freedom to broadcast whatever they damn well please, be it up-to-the-minute, uncensored local and worldwide news, programs in the Spanish language, shows produced by children, teens and homeless people, or all manner of music, from death metal to free jazz.
In a town with a long history of free expression and a refreshing lack of billboards, the commercial-free, DIY-style FRSC is regarded by many as an emblem of local culture. Illegality notwithstanding, the station has received two commendations from the City of Santa Cruz, not to mention an award from Santa Cruz Action Network. Not too shabby for an organization that began with a humble 20-watt transmitter in someone’s bedroom.
When Coral Reef, a DJ for FRSC since its inception in 1995, reflects on the station’s evolution, the first thing that comes to her mind is the current studio’s relatively high ceiling. “I haven’t hit my head on it in years,” she states lightheartedly, also noting that when she started at Free Radio, “there were no computers used there. We used cassette and video tapes, got there as early as 5:30 a.m. and stayed as late as 3 a.m.”
John Malkin, who has been hosting FRSC’s weekly show “The Great Leap Forward” since 1998, says he’s seen the station’s format become more structured over time. In contrast to the anything-goes ethos of the early years, nowadays you can look up the station’s schedule at freakradio.org, and “95 percent of the time, you will hear my show at the time it’s scheduled.”
Malkin, who has interviewed the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh, Amy Goodman, Tandy Beal, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Franti and the Hindu guru Ammachi for FRSC, is the organizer of FRSC’s benefit concert at the Resource Center of Nonviolence on Saturday, June 15. Performing at the event are Grammy-winning guitarist Henry Kaiser, who has appeared on more than 250 albums and played with musicians like David Lindley, Fred Frith, John Medeski and Zakir Hussain (Kaiser also does underwater camerawork in Antarctica, and he handled the sound engineering for the Werner Herzog film Grizzly Man), and local musician brothers Rick and Bill Walker, whose combined credits include performances and collaborations with Babatunde Olatunji, Ali Farka Touré, Hamza El Din and the late Bob Brozman.
Saturday’s event isn’t FRSC’s first benefit: A 2004 concert featuring performers like Utah Phillips, The Devil Makes Three and Bob Brozman helped raise funds to rebuild the station after a Federal Communications Commision (FCC) raid. “It wasn’t a fair fight,” Malkin laughingly says of the raid. “They had these semi-automatic rifles, and we had CDs.”
The station’s staff currently faces a slightly less daunting challenge: It needs a new site for its transmitter and antenna. “Unless we find a new location, we won’t be able to broadcast locally,” Malkin says. “We’ll just be on the Internet until we find a place.” With a chuckle, he adds, “It just requires someone who finds it agreeable to host an illegal radio transmitter.”
It’s likely that Malkin and co. will find a taker, what with all the locals who consider Free Radio Santa Cruz an institution worth preserving. In the words of R Duck, whose “live improvised electronic sculptures” have been a Friday night FRSC fixture since 2002, “Some things should be for public use and not to be turned into another commercial wasteland—in the case of radio, overplayed top 40 hits and two-sided news reporting.”
Many an advocate will argue that the absence of bosses, stockholders and sponsors makes FRSC’s content not just more substantive, but also more in-depth than your standard radio fare. Malkin’s interviews, for example, generally run for a full hour. By contrast, he notes, “I’ve been on some other stations where five minutes is kind of a big deal. And other people [on FRSC] might have two- or three-hour shows where they’re talking in detail about local issues, political issues.”
And, of course, there’s the diversity of the station’s material. As FRSC programmer Uncle Dennis states, “You might not like what you hear all the time, but it is totally unique, and perhaps in an hour or three, a different show will have you turning up the volume.”
The Free Radio Santa Cruz Benefit Concert takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 15 at the Resource Center for Nonviolence, 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10/adv, $15-$101.3/door, by charitable contribution. No one turned away for lack of funds. To listen to Free Radio Santa Cruz, tune into 101.3 FM or visit freakradio.org.