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Berkeley Radio Pirates Broadcast Despite FCC Intervention, Threats

By AL WINSLOW Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 15, 2003

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been trying to silence Berkeley’s pirate radio broadcasters for 10 years. The broadcasters continue to broadcast, but they say it’s getting harder. 

“[The FCC] is starting to pick on people who have property, who have something to lose,” said labor activist Michael Delacour, who quit Berkeley Liberation Radio (104.1 FM) last year after being threatened by the FCC with a fine of up to $100,000. 

“I was afraid they were threatening my retirement,” said Delacour, 65, who receives a pension from the Boilermakers’ Union. 

A current broadcaster—“Captain Fred”—said the ranks of Berkeley Liberation Radio have thinned and that some local pirate stations—such as Queer Kids Radio and Vulcan Radio, an anarchist music station—went off the air entirely after getting an FCC letter. 

“Typically, what happens is they get a letter called a notice of liability and a letter threatening dire consequences if they don’t go off the air,” Captain Fred said. Another broadcaster—“DJ Advocacy”—added: “Usually, for most people, that’s all the warning they need.” 

DJ Advocacy said broadcasters use pseudonyms because, “Basically, the FCC doesn’t know who we are. They didn’t know where to send the letter to, so they sent it to Delacour.” 

The May 6, 2002, letter to Delacour, five-time Peace and Freedom Party candidate for mayor and Berkeley’s best known usual suspect, reads: 

“[The FCC] has received complaints from residents ... concerning interference to reception of FM broadcast signals ... investigation revealed that you lease space at Skyline Studios ... and that that space is used by the illegal radio station known as Berkeley Liberation Radio ... You are hereby officially advised that operation of radio transmitting equipment without a valid license ... may subject the operator to penalties of a maximum criminal fine of $100,000 and/or one-year imprisonment, a civil forfeiture up to $11,000 or seizure of the equipment for the first offense.” 

When shown the letter, the Berkeley civil liberties lawyer David Beauvais said, “They’re intending to chill people out with it. That’s the point.” 

The radio station is breaking the law, he said, and the FCC is enforcing it. “It’s a civil disobedience kind of thing, and when you do civil disobedience, you’ve got to take your lumps,” Beauvais said. 

The FCC made good on its “seizure of the equipment” threat Dec. 11, storming the Berkeley Liberation Radio station at 2427 Telegraph Ave. at 55 Street. The pirate station now operates in another location. 

The station has no paid employees and costs $600 a month for rent and $20 for a phone, according to Captain Fred. 

What is broadcast is virtually anything. Berkeley pirate broadcasters have aired a Marxist interpretation of the news, regular readings of articles from the local newspapers, shows on animal rights, parenting, bicycle liberation and the experiences of gay Afro-Americans, articles by adult film actress Nina Hartley, programs by the Peace and Freedom Party and the Libertarian Party, and an on-air appearance by then-Mayor Shirley Dean. 

A lot of it is for enjoyment, Delacour said. “It’s a form of therapy. You can sit in a room and talk for a couple of hours without anyone interrupting. You can be the disc jockey you always dreamed of since you were a kid.” 

Tony McNair, a Berkeley homeless activist, was alone in the one-room station at 11 a.m., broadcasting the tape of a San Francisco anti-war rally. He said about a dozen men in blue jackets with FCC or U.S. Marshall written on them, came in carrying sledge hammers and a battering ram. 

“They yanked me out by the shirt and slammed me up against the wall and held guns pointed at my head,” McNair said. “They kept saying, ‘Who are the leaders? Who are the leaders?’” 

McNair said the raiding party turned off the station and removed all the equipment, including a computer and its records. He was let go an hour later, after an Oakland policeman ran a warrant check on him, he said. 

The station, though, was back on the air in four days and continues to broadcast. 

It now costs about $1,000 to fully equip a micropower station and the cost is about to plunge again, according to Free Radio Berkeley founder Stephen Dunifer. 

Barred by federal court order from broadcasting, Dunifer is collaborating with other transmitter engineers throughout the country to find ways to reduce equipment costs. 

“We’re ready to introduce a $100 kit that, with other equipment you can get at a hardware store, will let you broadcast four to six miles, which is really all you need, for $500,” he said. 

“As long as equipment costs can be kept low, these raids are really not that effective. They cost a lot and there is the indirect cost that storm troopers coming in and stealing a microphone is not the best image the FCC wants to project in terms of free speech issues,” Dunifer said. 

Dunifer advocates flooding the country with so many micropower stations the government will be powerless. “If it becomes popular enough, mainstream enough, the FCC could face having to go into a rest home to stop an 80-year-old woman from broadcasting Glenn Miller,” he said. 

Because they come and go so often, it’s hard to estimate how many unlicensed stations operate in the country. Dunifer estimates hundreds. One Web site lists 21 by name in California, including six in the Bay Area. The FCC regularly reports shutting down about 200 a year. 

Broadcaster Suzan Rodriguez, using her real name—“I don’t care who knows who I am”—said prior to her regular Friday morning show on Berkeley Liberation Radio, “We’re not going to just roll over.” 

“Micro-radio is the last platform for the people to have a voice in a country where the government is bent on gagging our voices. Dissent is the American way. Our country was founded on dissent,” she said. 

Meanwhile, it’s not certain the FCC has rid itself of Delacour. 

“Actually, I made a bad decision,” he said about quitting the station. “I had other things going on, like fighting an eviction, but I wish I’d stayed with it and not chickened out.”