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Pirates on the Open Airwaves

DJ icecreamlopez of Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco. Photo by Scott Beale, laughingsquid.com. (CC)
DJ icecreamlopez of Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco.
Photo by Scott Beale, laughingsquid.com. (CC)

“It's like radio used to be during World War II, when the airwaves were used to get messages out to families and friends … to get important information out to the community.”

Renessa Lopez may sound more like Franklin Roosevelt than Blackbeard, but technically she is a pirate. As DJ icecreamlopez for Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco, Lopez is part of a growing movement of people fed up with radio dominated by corporate giants like Clear Channel and fighting to take back the airwaves any way they can.

But grassroots voices are increasingly being denied legal access to radio space. In 2000, the FCC responded to activists' pressure for more democratic media by licensing non-commercial stations that transmit only a few miles. Recently, though, complaints lodged by established broadcasters from corporations to NPR have slowed the number of licenses to a trickle. And even for those who can get them, licenses and approved transmitters can cost thousands of dollars.

For those without the money or the desire to be officially sanctioned by the FCC, cheap and accessible technologies are making pirate radio an increasingly popular option. Websites, books, and seminars teach people to build their own low-power transmitters. You can do it for under 50 bucks, according to Lee Montgomery of Oakland's Neighborhood Public Radio, who runs free start-up seminars. Another option is to buy a transmitter kit online—the kind used by realtors, drive-in theaters, and the like—for $100-$300.

It may not be legal, but it gets alternative voices on the air. Some, considering corporations to be the real thieves of public airwaves, call it microbroadcasting, Micro Radio, or simply unlicensed. Others, like Lopez, prefer to be pirates.

While those behind Pirate Cat Radio do consider their actions revolutionary, they also point out that they're just doing what they can to fill a basic civic need. On their show, Lopez and her co-host John Hell spin independent music and interview people from the community. The station is also supporting a local Get Out The Vote campaign, running announcements and programming about the upcoming election.

And in their eyes, it's not really illegal. The producers at Pirate Cat cite title 47 section 73.3542 of the Code of Federal Regulations, updated as part of the Bush administration's “War on Terror.” The Code grants authority to operate an unauthorized radio transmitter “in extraordinary circumstances requiring emergency operation to serve the public interest.” That, say proponents, is what pirate radio is all about.


Brooke Jarvis wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Brooke is a YES! editorial intern. Photo of Brooke Jarvis
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