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FCC stomps on Free Radio Santa Cruz but the pirate radio station vows to return

By Bruce Willey

Most of us have probably kept something illegal in our basement. Everything from a mattress with its tag torn off to an anemic, over-fertilized pot plant—those of us lucky enough to have a basement, anyway—but very few people can say they keep a radio station under the house.

That´s what was in the basement at a house on Laurel Street directly across from the Santa Cruz High´s football field. And the reason a dozen or more federal marshals and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) agents descended on the house to pull the plug on Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.1 on your FM dial.

Dressed to the nines in riot gear, guns a bristling, the federal marshals had a search warrant and instructions to dismantle the radio station for operating without a FCC license. Like the weather that Wednesday morning just after 9 a.m., it was a dark, cloudy day for the pirate radio station that has been on the air for almost a decade.

Santa Cruz resident Grant Wilson was listening to the station when the bust happened. A recorded interview of Howard Zinn, a champion of alternative media, was being broadcast. And in what some free radio listeners may find ironic, Zinn was talking about the value of artists and poets during wartime. The DJ didn´t get a chance to sign off. Listeners suddenly heard white noise.

For those that live outside the Santa Cruz City limits, Radio Free Santa Cruz is nothing but a bunch of static because the tiny station, or micro radio stations as they´re called, doesn´t have the power to reach beyond a few miles—at best. Yet, like it or not, our radio dial is heavily regulated. The FCC is just as adamant about such things as Janet Jackson´s female anatomy as a pirate radio station that exposes its listeners to a commercial free hodgepodge of underground music, local and national politics and interviews. Last year, “Democracy Now!? host Amy Goodman recorded her show at the pirate radio station and supports the stations with donations.

Seven Gerdemann, one of 22 people that live in the co-op, looked out the window as she was preparing to go to school and saw a man creeping through the driveway. “I didn´t know who he was,? she says, visibly shaken from the event that took place less than an hour ago. “So I asked him if I could help him.?

The federal marshal told Gerdemann that they were securing the area. “At that point I insisted that I wanted to see a warrant,? she says. “But they said they didn´t need to show me one until the area was secure. I told them it didn´t seem right and told them there were no weapons and no one was dangerous. They had their guns drawn. I was late for school.?

Gerdemann says the marshals and agents came in the house and told everyone to leave immediately. After 20 minutes, she says the agents produced the warrant and they asked where the radio station was. Ryn Beeley, who also lives at the house, came home at 9:30 a.m. to find some of her housemates standing outside the house in their pajamas.

Before the bust, Free Radio Santa Cruz broadcast from the house using some of the same technology that fire and brimstone preachers used to get the “good word? to the masses in the South back in the ´40s and ´50s. If you can figure out how to build a radio out of wires, transistors and coil it´s not too much of a challenge to step over to the broadcast side of things. All the information can easily be found on the Internet and most pirate radio stations can be built for a few thousand dollars.

But to do it on the up and up is a totally different story. First you need a license. However, the FCC doesn´t grant licenses to low watt stations, nor will they grant one to station that has already been operating illegally. Knowing this, Free Radio Santa Cruz have never considered applying for a permit, says the station´s host of “The Great Leap Forward,? John Malkin. “Coming up with money for a license is not an issue. We don´t want a license because we don´t share the values of this government that grants licenses.?

They also operate on considerably less radio wave power than legal stations. A commercial radio station owned by Clear Channel Communications, for instance, may transmit at 40,000 to 100,000 watts. Free Radio Santa Cruz, on the other hand, was broadcasting at 40 watts.

Even with the station down, word spread fast of the radio raid. Soon enough, a crowd of more than 60 supporters rallied outside the house with hand painted signs that read “The Free Speech Movement of the ´90s? and “FCC Go Home, Free Speech Now?— the poster paint beginning to dry.

Most of the local print and television media were present as were free radio activists and supporters who recorded the raid on video and tape recorders. Council members Mark Primack, Scott Kennedy and council hopeful Tony Madrigal, whose election sign was in the flowerbed in front of the house, gave statements. Madrigal, borrowed megaphone in hand, chanted Si, se puede (“Yes we can?) and tried to organize a march around one of the marshal´s pick-ups, but when agents brought boxes and turntables onto the porch, the crowd´s attention turned to the matters at hand.

Congressional candidates Joe Williams of the Peace and Freedom Party and Ray Glock-Grueneich of the Green Party also gave statements. This, while federal agents stood stone-faced around the perimeter of the house, and another agent climbed onto the roof and took down the antennae that looked exactly like a 15-foot metal pole.

“I think this is a travesty of justice,? says Williams after putting down the megaphone. “You have a community-supported institution that takes outside intervention from a federal agency to shut down. You have to question the timing, right before the election. It just smacks of political opportunism. You have Clear Channel that went from 30 stations in 1996 to over 1,200 today. If anyone should be raided it´s them who have taken the public airwaves from the people.?

Green Glock-Grueneich added that FCC Chairman Michael Powell (who appears on Free Radio Santa Cruz´s Web site with a superimposed image of the station´s logo on a T-shirt) adheres to a plutocratic doctrine. “It´s very important that we have legislation that decreases the amount of market share that a single corporation is allowed to have of radio and television broadcasting. That would be a start in giving back to the people their ability to use the airwaves for expression of a broad spectrum of political opinion.?

Last Monday, five days after the raid, Congressman Sam Farr weighed in with a letter to the FCC chairman Powell. “While I am fully aware that Free Radio Santa Cruz was not operating with a license from the FCC,? he wrote, “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. I question whether the recent action directed at Free Radio Santa Cruz truly furthered that goal.?

A little over a year ago, the Santa Cruz City Council unanimously voted to support the station, at least in spirit, passing a resolution in praise of the station. Before this bust, the radio station has only had a few scuffles with the FCC who gave them numerous warnings and orders to cease broadcasting. It might be nice, but the City Council can´t proclaim a Santa Cruz a FCC-free zone (yet), for the simple reason that federal law trumps state and city laws. So despite being mayor of the town, all Scott Kennedy could do was watch the airwave carnage and say: “We consider this to be totally inappropriate, and a waste of federal resources, and a further threat to free speech.?

Thus, in an archetypal Santa Cruz moment, hot carrot soup was served in paper cups, the mayor made a statement that most everyone found impossible not to agree with and a garbage truck passing by the raid honked its approval.

All this while agents calmly hauled nearly $5,000 worth of equipment out of the house and loaded it into their truck while the testy crowd yelled angry taunts at the agents, a few of whom looked more like deer than panthers. After laying out the ground rules of engagement, supervising deputy Cheryl Koel, wearing wrap-around sunglasses, gave a statement while an array of microphones were shoved in her face. “Show us your eyes, robot,? someone jeered, at which point she threatened to call the press conference off.

“I´m not here to be badgered,? she began. “I´m here to make a statement and answer questions. If you question me I will leave in the middle of the statement. If you are rude or crude I will leave.?

In her brief statement, Deputy Koal said the deputies were there only to seize property, not arrest people. The agents served three people civil court notices.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney´s Office says the station received four or five warnings. “It´s just something that was finally acted on.? He can´t comment on whether or not there will be criminal charges filed in the future.

Uncle Dennis, host of the music show “From the Cream to the Dregs? and the station´s technical director, says Free Radio Santa Cruz is going to continue to exercise its freedom of speech despite what he calls “a sad day when the public has to endure these Gestapo tactics.?

“We´ll be back on the air,? he says. “We have back-ups for our back-ups.?

The agents eventually left, but not before someone in the crowd took revenge and slashed some of the agent´s tires. One of the vehicles had to be towed away. Almost right away the station was broadcasting on the Internet ( And somewhere, somehow, Radio Free Santa Cruz are planning to fire up the radio waves at another undisclosed location—underground and free as usual. Stay tuned.

To reach the station call 427-3772 or Write Radio Free Santa Cruz, P.O. Box 7507, Santa Cruz, CA 95061.

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