Free Radio Santa Cruz returns after brief displacement
It’s not easy being free. There’s bound to be someone who will want you to pay for it. Or tell you how to express your freedom.
One local experiment in freedom has resounded on Santa Cruz airwaves 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past 15 years. But on Tuesday, Aug. 3, the experiment—known as Free Radio Santa Cruz (FRSC) 101.1 FM—went off the air and left a gap in independent local broadcasting. However, the silence didn’t last long: the underground station recently found a new transmitter location and is, as of this week, back on the air.
Earlier this year, celebrations were underway for the 15th anniversary of the commercial-free, community-run, unlicensed pirate radio station. And then the party was crashed. Agents from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) discovered Free Radio Santa Cruz’s transmitter site and found the station’s antennae located up a tree in the backyard of a Westside Santa Cruz home. FCC agents commonly use “electronic direction finding” devices to pinpoint a broadcast source.
According to a resident of the house that was hosting the transmitter and antennae, the FCC first contacted the landlord via a letter in June of this year, asking that the operation of the unlicensed station be immediately discontinued. A second letter was received about a month later with stronger threats of action. The landlord decided to have the transmitter turned off.
For the past three weeks locals who rely on FRSC for doses of local and international news, music and cultural programming have been baffled when they tune in to 101.1 FM and can’t find the station on the dial. “I’m getting a Christian rock station now!” exclaimed one surprised listener.
Since permits are not required for online radio stations, FRSC continued to broadcast on the Internet at freakradio.org. “I was disappointed to discover Free Radio Santa Cruz went off the air and that it was only online,” confided long-time listener David Silva-Espinoza. “The station provides a community service. I depend on it for information that isn’t from the dominant culture and that offers alternative perspectives.”
Since 1995, FCC agents have visited half a dozen locations that the station has called home. On more than one occasion they delivered lengthy documents that have stated, “Unlicensed broadcasting threatens the integrity of the regulatory structure established in the Communications Act to prevent chaos in the radio spectrum …” and that the FCC seeks to prevent “spurious radio signals.” The FCC normally took no further action than a letter-writing campaign.
However, on Sept. 29, 2004, their pressure for compliance became more forceful. The station was raided in the early morning hours and the studio’s equipment—everything from mixing boards to CD players and a transmitter—was loaded into trucks and taken away. (See GT’s March 18 cover story “Renegade Radio” for the full story.) Despite it all, the station was back on the air after a brief period.
After the raid, Congressman Sam Farr, representing California’s 17th District, which includes parts of Santa Cruz County, issued a statement that read, “I believe that the time and resources spent on this action could have been better focused on the FCC’s larger mission of ensuring that the nation’s airwaves serve the public interest.”
Support from public officials and the general public remains as strong today as it was during the 2004 raid.
“It’s great that you guys are doing it,” says Tom Lodge, referring to Free Radio Santa Cruz. A resident of the Santa Cruz area, Lodge was a DJ and program director in the 1960s for one of the original pirate radio stations, Radio Caroline. During FRSC’s birthday party at Kuumbwa Jazz Center earlier this year, Lodge made a lively presentation describing highlights from his time broadcasting from the pirate radio ship in international waters off the coast of England. Lodge, now a Zen teacher going by the name Umi, recently published a book about his pirate days titled “The Ship That Rocked The World: How Radio Caroline Defied the Establishment, Launched the British Invasion and Made the Planet Safe for Rock and Roll.” Radio Caroline is also the subject of the 2009 film Pirate Radio.
In March, 2010 Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin sponsored a proclamation honoring Free Radio Santa Cruz and the community service that it provides: “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.” March 27, 2010 was proclaimed as “Free Radio Santa Cruz Day” and the mayor’s proclamation invited, “all residents to join me in celebrating the many contributions of Free Radio Santa Cruz to our community and its residents.”
FRSC is one of the longest-running independent and commercial-free micro-broadcast stations in the country. It is operated by an anarchist-based collective of about 40 people who create local programming as well as re-broadcast national and international shows like “Workers Indy News,” “Palestine Today” and “Counter Spin.” FRSC was the first radio station to offer “Democracy Now!” locally.
Grant Wilson, a local activist and social worker, was happy to hear that FRSC had returned to the local airwaves. “FRSC is part of a larger network of free, self-designed projects in town,” he says. “I’m glad to know it’s back on the air.”
Santa Cruz may be Left of center by national standards, but unpermitted activities—like showing a movie under a bridge, having a parade downtown, or broadcasting music and news without permission from the government—have equal risk of consequence.
Free Radio Santa Cruz is currently looking for a secondary, backup location to host a transmitter and antennae on the north, east or west side of Santa Cruz. For optimal broadcasting, the team is looking for roof or tree access for the antenna, as well as electricity, Internet connectivity, and access to a locked space that’s protected from weather for the FRSC small transmitter. A resident of a former FRSC site, who asked to remain anonymous, remarked, “It’s a bit exciting knowing that it was a good location for the station and that we were contributing to FRSC.”
Although free to broadcast, the station does rely on donations from listeners to continue its operation. Now freshly back on the air, FRSC hopes to continue receiving donations and profits from T-shirt sales. But if one thing is certain about this renegade radio station, it’s that it plans to survive—no matter what comes its way. As the station prepared to return to local airwaves, FRSC DJ Louis LaFortune proclaimed happily, “We’ve got a mic and we’re not afraid to use it.”
For more information on FRSC, call 427-4523 or email [email protected] John Malkin is a local journalist and musician who hosts “The Great Leap Forward” on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.1 FM. He is author of “Sounds of Freedom” (Parallax Press, 2005) and has published writings and interviews in a variety of magazines including The Sun, Punk Planet, Z Magazine, Shambhala Sun, ascent and Adbusters.