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Photograph by Curtis Cartier

Pirate Radio Walks The Plank

FCC forces Free Radio Santa Cruz to find new home for transmitter

By Curtis Cartier

IN A SECRET broadcasting studio somewhere in Santa Cruz, a ponytailed 62-year-old DJ is speaking crisply into a large, spongy microphone. "That was 'Heart Full of Soul' by the Yardbirds, 1965, and before that 'Indifference' by Moby Grape," he says. "I'm Uncle Dennis right here at Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.1 FM and triple-w dot freak radio dot org."

Around him, the walls are covered in faded layers of posters and scribbled graffiti featuring images of the Brown Berets and Mumia Abu-Jamal and phrases like "Is this freedom?" and "Who laughs last?" Above an old Dell computer is a printed, single-sided piece of white paper with a banner reading "FRSC Transmitter Evicted!"

It's not the first time the anonymous DJs and staff of Free Radio Santa Cruz have been told they'll need to find a new home for the station's transmission antenna. As an unlicensed (and therefore illegal) "pirate radio" station, FRSC all but expects that, every few years, pressure from the Federal Communications Commission will spook either the tenants or the landlord of whatever property the big four-pronged transmitter is resident at for the moment, and the station will have to find a new set of hosts willing to defy the federal government.

"Basically, we got a call saying the landlord had received a notice from the FCC saying a illegal transmitter was found and that he would be fined if he didn't get rid of it," explains Uncle Dennis, a veteran FRSC DJ and the current host of From the Cream to the Dregs. "This is a typical tactic they use to deal with unlicensed broadcasters."

It's not a particularly successful tactic from the FCC's perspective. In the 15 years since FRSC broadcast its first show from the bedroom of local activist Kim Argula, the transmitter, studio equipment or both have been forced to move seven times, according to station co-founder Skidmark Bob. The migrations usually follow several FCC letters similar to the one sent by San Francisco district director Thomas Van Stavern to the landlord of the midtown Victorian where the transmitter is now. And yet, except for a month-long hiatus following a 2004 raid in which U.S. Department of Justice agents confiscated all the equipment in the studio, the station has managed to keep broadcasting nearly uninterrupted. The staff has also learned to keep its studio gear in one location and its transmitter in another, so if DOJ agents show up again at the signal source, they'll find only an antenna, not a costly soundboard and microphone system.

Rrrr Is for Renegade

At the FCC, pirate radio stations are dealt with regularly, although full-scale raids like the 2004 incident are rare. An FCC spokesman says the agency's process for investigating illegal stations is clearly defined and includes several steps of letters and waiting periods before any fines or forfeitures can be enforced.

"The general way this plays out is that if we receive a tip from any source, we will look into it," he says, "We have equipment that inspects how the spectrum is used. The equipment we have will lead us pretty clearly to the spot where the frequencies are emanating from. At that point we begin sending letters."

One man who knows the routine of fighting the FCC better than perhaps any is Stephen Dunifer. The founder of Free Radio Berkeley and the man sometimes described as the "Godfather of Pirate Radio," Dunifer was part of two landmark court cases in 1995 and 1997 in which U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken found that fines levied by the FCC against him for broadcasting without a license were unconstitutional. Since then, Dunifer has sold DIY radio kits and continued to broadcast at FRB. Besides vehemently denouncing the FCC's action against FRSC he offers some advice to the unlicensed broadcasters in Santa Cruz and anyone who might be willing to mount an illegal transmitter in the backyard.

"You need to understand that the FCC is full of shit," he says. "They will target the landlords with letters, but a landlord is not criminally or civilly responsible for their tenants. They just need to find a landlord who is willing to tell the FCC to kiss their Bill of Rights."

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