No. 133 / May 1996:

RADIO WARS...
Five years ago, you could have held the statewide convention of California pirate radio broadcasters in a phone booth. On April 6 in San Jose, such a convention was held, and a crowd of more than 150 overflowed a local community center. The representatives of 15 unlicensed stations and other underground media got to meet each other, ask technical questions, and begin planning programming networks.

The San Jose gathering is one more sign that unlicensed radio has evolved from a handful of lone wolves into a true social movement. Napolean Williams of Black Liberation Radio in Decatur, Illinois, told RRC: "Before I was sent to prison on trumped-up charges, only a small number of people listened to me when I explained what was really going on in America. While I was in prison, the people here faced bitter strikes, like the one at Caterpillar, and a lot of middle-class white people got beat up by the cops and the corporations. Now I'm out of prison and back on the air and these people are listening to me, calling in, and becoming a part of the station. Maybe we should change our name to 'People's Liberation Radio.'"

Williams is not alone in seeing the possibility of building broader ties to a larger community. Radio Free Indianapolis broadcast live via a solar-powered transmitter during this year's Earth Day festivities. A number of bands recently played a benefit for Jam FM in Syracuse, and several rappers, including the Coup and Conscious Daughters, did the same for Free Radio Berkeley. Pirate stations have even received support from licensed broadcasters. "I think they should start as many of them as possible," said Randy Wynne, program director of Tampa's WMNF, after the FCC harassed nearby Radio Free Ybor City.

Along with ambitions and connections, the number and type of pirate stations are growing. In California, several Spanish-language and bilingual stations have started. In central New York state, a group of women in their 70s are broadcasting. In West Palm Beach, Florida, there are now three unlicensed stations, two metal-oriented, one R&B-based. Veteran hip-hop DJ Billy Jam assembles excellent compilations of Bay Area hip-hop and political commentary and distributes them nationwide as Pirate Fuckin' Radio (Box 5124, Berkeley CA 94705).

The entire micro-radio community awaits San Francisco judge Claudia Wilken's ruling in a case in which the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters seek to overturn an injunction that protects Free Radio Berkeley. (FRB and its legal victory inspired a good part of the current boom.)

The government isn't waiting. It's already on the attack to protect the interests of the big corporations who own almost all the most lucrative radio licenses (and under the new Telecommunications Act, are encouraged to gobble the rest). The landlord of Bay Area's bilingual Radio Illegal evicted the station after it was visited by the FCC (it's now back on the air as Radio Califa, broadcasting from a different location). In Seattle, Monkey Wrench Radio, co-founded by Pearl Jam, has been "monitored" by the FCC, which now threatens it with fines totaling tens of thousands of dollars. Excellent Radio in Grover Beach, California, was also visited by the FCC; although program director Charley Goodman described the visiting engineer as "friendly," he was there to threaten, not encourage. The FCC has already pulled the plug on two pirates: Richmond, Virginia's Black Liberation Radio, and a nameless underground station broadcasting from just north of Tampa.

Most ominously, in late April, only a few weeks before he was to help launch Los Angeles Liberation Radio, KPFK/Los Angeles reporter Michael Taylor was murdered execution-style. Taylor was well-known as an on-air advocate for prisoners and the homeless (which does not fit well with the recent corporate gentrification of the Pacifica network of which KPFK is a part), and he would surely have used L.A. Liberation Radio to promote the community / musician / radio station alliance in commercial broadcasting's richest market.

Maybe somebody didn't want him to.


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