Federal marshals and the FCC raided Free Radio Santa Cruz in 2004
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Free Radio Santa Cruz Celebrates 21st Birthday

A look back at the pirate station’s brave history, including a federal raid that briefly took it off the air

Federal marshals and the FCC raided Free Radio Santa Cruz in 2004. PHOTO: JOHN MALKIN

After each work week draws to a close, sounds from around the globe play on the airwaves across Santa Cruz County. Singer-guitarist and DJ Kipli hosts “Music in the Mail” on Free Radio Santa Cruz (101.3 FM), the pirate station now celebrating 21 years on the air.

“I present music you won’t hear on mainstream radio—the most unpredictable and amazing music from all over the world—with mini-documentary interviews,” says Kipli, who gets much of her show material from what listeners mail in to her.

Free Radio Santa Cruz (FRSC), which can also be heard on freakradio.org, has broadcast in defiance of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations since the spring of 1995.

“FRSC represents the ideal of ‘living together as a community’ where each of us contributes by offering information, resources and dialogue,” says Kipli.

The commercial-free “pirate” station has given a voice to independent local and international news and views, and was the first station in the Santa Cruz area to offer “Democracy Now,” which currently airs at 8 a.m. and again at noon every weekday. Free Radio also airs programs like “World Socialist News,” “EcoNews,” and “Resistance Radio,” in addition to plenty of music.

“We do not need more ‘professionals’ who broadcast the same kind of programs in the same kind of format,” Kipli says of FRSC’s approach. “We need the tales and views of the neighbor, the farmer, the homeless, the student about how local politics are affecting us.  We need the avant-garde artist who exposes us to the experience of improvised electronic music. We need the interviews of our underground heroes.”

FRSC will celebrate its anniversary with a party and benefit concert at 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14 at the Crepe Place. Coffee Zombie Collective will headline the event with opening music from local band Disiac and also DJ Kipli. (Full disclosure: I also host a weekly show on FRSC, discussing politics and spirituality every Wednesday night.)

In its two-plus decades, FRSC has broadcast without an FCC license from a variety of Santa Cruz locations, changing its secret headquarters every so often. In 2004, six FCC agents and a dozen federal marshals with semi-automatic weapons raided the station’s downtown studio, confiscating the antennae, transmitter and other equipment.

GT reported at the time that the station was on air broadcasting an interview with historian Howard Zinn when the morning raid happened, and that activists taunted the agents as they walked out with nearly $5,000 worth of equipment. Before the agents left, someone slashed the agents’ tires, and their vehicles had to be towed away. Many politicians, including Congressman Sam Farr, either questioned or condemned the raid, and the station quickly went back on the air.

Over the years, the Santa Cruz City Council has repeatedly supported the underground station, including in 2010, when then-mayor Mike Rotkin declared, “Free Radio Santa Cruz offers alternatives to corporate-controlled media, encourages critical thinking and is dedicated to nonviolence, ending oppression and expanding respect through open speech media.”

FRSC team member Merlin began hosting the “Idle Hands” rock ’n’ roll radio show in the ’90s, and later hosted the same program on Community TV for 16 years before recently returning to the pirate radio airwaves. He calls Free Radio “one of the things that make this place special.”

“Free Radio is a political tool where your voice matters,” says Merlin in his distinct deep, raspy tone that sounds made for radio. “You don’t have to be a rich person to be a DJ. Your voice is so much louder.”

Free Radio Santa Cruz, which used to be at 101.1 FM, is currently seeking a small, permanent broadcasting studio, as well as a site for the transmitter and antennae. The station is also looking for new DJs to join the collective of about 20 dedicated programmers. The station has been located in about half a dozen studios over the past 21 years. “No one ever got arrested for hosting the transmitter,” says Merlin. “It’s civil disobedience and it’s not hurting anyone.”

Funding for rent and broadcasting equipment come from DJ dues, listener donations and benefit events which have included concerts over the last two decades by the likes of Sin in Space, Utah Phillips, Henry Kaiser, Devil Makes Three, and, as of next week, Coffee Zombie Collective.

“Free Radio Santa Cruz is special because it’s a labor of love for everyone that’s doing it,” says Nate Lieby, who plays ukulele and drums in the vivacious cover band. “It’s got that real DIY nature and a cool, underground, homespun vibe.”

FRSC, Kipli says, aims to expand people’s horizons.

“We need quality news and alternative programming for our Latino brothers and sisters,” Kipli muses. “We need media sources that enrich our minds, not flatten our brain waves.”


John Malkin has hosted “The Great Leap Forward” (Wednesdays from 7-9 p.m.) on FRSC since 1997. Listen from 7-9 p.m. on Wednesdays. CDs of new original music can be mailed to FRSC P.O. Box 7811, Santa Cruz, CA, 95061. The Free Radio Santa Cruz Benefit Show will be at 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14 at the Crepe Place. Tickets are $10 with larger donations also accepted.

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