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FCC Threatens Berkeley Liberation Radio By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday June 21, 2005

The next sound a Berkeley Liberation Radio (BLR) broadcaster may hear just might be the dreaded knock on the door from a federal SWAT team. 

A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) notice served on the station Friday charges that 104.1 FM was operating without a license and that the station’s signal was bleeding into other, licensed frequencies. 

The action followed two days after federal agents served a cease and desist order at the station, which broadcasts from a second floor studio at 5427 Telegraph Ave. in Oakland. 

For Screwy Lewie and Soul, the notice stirs up memories of the Dec. 11, 2002, raid when more than a dozen armed U.S. Marshals accompanied by an Oakland police officer raided the station and seized all the equipment and CDs, leaving behind only the station’s inventory of vinyl LP albums. 

“They shoved a gun into the face of a student who was visiting at the time,” said Soul, who hosts the Isabella Show Friday mornings at 7. 

“We were told not to go back on the air again, but we were collectively able to gather up new equipment and everything we needed to go back on the air again on Dec. 27. We’ve continued ever since.” 

Berkeley Liberation Radio is a classic example of microradio, the mostly unlicensed stations that broadcast at less than 100 watts of power—typically with a broadcasting radius of about five miles from the transmitter. 

When the FCC agreed to license microradio five years ago, the decision didn’t automatically legitimize the host of small stations, many distinctly leftist in character, that were broadcasting at the time. 

Instead, under the Bush administration, the lion’s share of licenses have been granted to churches. 

“They won’t license stations that had early actions against them,” said Screwy Lewie, who hosts “The Vinyl Time Machine.” 

A new raid would fit in with two other recent actions: an Oct. 15, 2003, raid on San Francisco Liberation Radio that shut down the station and a similar raid last Sept. 29 that shut down Radio Free Santa Cruz. 

Berkeley attorney Alan Korn, who has represented the San Francisco in challenging the action, said current federal legislation weighs heavily against microradio stations in urban areas. 

Under lobbying pressure from corporate broadcasters, Congress narrowed FCC regulations that defined the frequency distances between existing stations and microradio broadcasters, further limiting the opportunities for microradio in the heavily crowded urban airwaves. 

“The rules require huge gaps [between broadcast frequencies],” Korn said, “much more than necessary.” 

The FCC notice served Friday claims 104.1 is detectable above the allowable limits, and also charges that the station is also encroaching on frequencies used by air traffic controllers and aircraft at Oakland International Airport. 

Korn, who serves on the National Lawyers Guild’s Committee on Democratic Communication, said he is skeptical of the latter claim, “but it’s a good way to make certain that a judge will issue a warrant,” he said. 

While a federal trial-level judge rejected his appeal of the FFC seizure at the San Francisco, the case is now on appeal before the U.S. Courts of Appeals’ Ninth Circuit, traditionally the most liberal in the federal system. 

BLR staffers are quick to note that theirs isn’t a pirate radio station—an illegal broadcaster who usurps a frequency already assigned by the FCC.  

Soul noted that “the FCC is saying they won’t give a license to anyone they say has violated the law. Besides, that’s not our intent.” She doesn’t want the license herself.  

Unlike some of the all-volunteer staff, Screwy Lewie said he’d like to see the station get a license. 

Both broadcasters are long-term veterans of microradio. Soul’s been with BLR and its predecessor since 1998, and Screwy Lewie since 1996. 

After the closure of Radio Free Berkeley in June, 1998, BLR was born the following year outside the studios of KPFA when the station was forced briefly off the air. 

For Screwy Lewie, the station has helped him fulfill a lifelong dream. “I’m doing exactly what I want to do,” he said. 

And like others on the staff, he vows to keep the station running whatever happens with the pending FCC action. 

Asked about what was happening with BLR, an FCC official in Washington, speaking only on background, would allow only that no comment was possible because of the ongoing investigation. 


Second Crisis  

The current contretemps with the feds isn’t the station’s only crisis. Other tenants in the building they now use have complained that their transmitter is interfering with electronic equipment, leading to an eviction notice from their landlord. 

Even before the FCC notices, the station had planned a fundraiser for this Friday to help raise cash to find a new home for their operations. 

The $20 a head function will be held at the Oakland Metro near Jack London Square at 201 Broadway in Oakland starting at 7:30. n