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February 17, 1999
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Return of the radio rebels
S.F. Liberation Radio is back on the air

By A. Clay Thompson

RISKING prison time and tens of thousands of dollars in fines, local micropower radio broadcasters broke a year of silence and took to the airwaves illegally Feb. 12. From a cramped Richmond District apartment equipped with a handmade 40-watt transmitter and a 20-foot antenna, staffers of San Francisco Liberation Radio began what they have dubbed "a campaign of electronic civil disobedience."

"We're willing to go to jail as many times as it takes to restore democracy to the airwaves," station co-owner Richard Edmondson told the Bay Guardian.

On the brink of major changes in communications law, Edmondson and partner Kiilu Nyasha are protesting federal regulations by violating them. The Federal Communications Commission bars radio broadcasts below 100 watts, spawning a national movement of unlicensed, or "pirate," broadcasters. These broadcasters say that the current communications law consolidates power among a few megacorporations -- and worry the proposed regulations won't do enough to ensure that dissenting perspectives and noncommercial culture find a place on the airwaves.

On Jan. 28 the FCC announced a groundbreaking plan to license stations under 100 watts. Although radio pirates celebrated the chance to run their stations legally, they say the proposed access is too precarious. The rules would award low-watt stations "secondary" status that could be preempted by big-time radio outfits looking to expand. The microradio outlets could also be pushed off the air by the establishment of digital radio service, which will likely hit the airwaves in the next couple years, further crowding the dial.

The proposed regulations also bar broadcasters busted by the agency -- such as Edmondson, who was nabbed in 1993 and slapped with a $10,000 fine, which was later dropped -- from getting a license.

Liberation Radio staffers criticized the agency's proposal as seriously flawed. They said they'd keep broadcasting until small broadcasters have legal -- and secure -- spots on the dial.

"Instead of protecting the rights of microbroadcasters, the FCC's proposals place the survival of the entire microradio movement in jeopardy," Edmondson said. He demanded that the commission grant amnesty to busted radio rebels.

Liberation Radio began transmitting illegally at 93.7 FM in 1993 after federal judge Claudia Wilken gave fellow microradio station Free Radio Berkeley an injunction from federal raids. But when Wilken reversed that ruling in June 1997, Edmondson pulled the plug.

FCC spokesperson David Fiske told the Bay Guardian he couldn't comment on the specifics of the Liberation Radio case but said, "Our enforcement position is quite clear. If they're serious about low-power, they should put their concerns in writing." Fiske said that agency head William Kennard "is pushing [the regulations] very strongly in the face of considerable opposition."

The FCC is also drawing heat from the Washington establishment. On Feb. 11, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) accused the FCC of overstepping its authority and said he'd convene congressional hearings on the low-power issue.

Some backers of low-watt broadcasting are less pessimistic than Edmondson. Although most have concerns about the FCC's plan, they call the proposal a watershed.

The New York Times ran a celebratory story by music critic Jon Pareles Feb. 9. Pareles cheered the possibility of microradio oases in the commercial-radio wasteland, lifting the microbroadcasting slogan "Let a thousand transmitters bloom."

The first broadcast of the returned Liberation Radio might have surprised a few listeners looking for light rock and less talk. "Greetings and welcome back to S.F. Liberation Radio," Nyasha said. "I promise we will be doing some very fine programming as long as we can remain on the air and keep the police from raiding us and confiscating our equipment. We will be advocating for the oppressed, those on death rows across the country, those being tortured in gulags like Pelican Bay."

Public debate on the proposed new regulations continues through April 12. For more information, go to www.fcc.gov/mmb/prd/lpfm.

S.F. Liberation Radio is broadcasting at 93.7 FM.

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