By Peter Spagnuolo
(from the Shadow Issue #38)
Lower East Side squatters, activists and radio enthusiasts, inspired by the success of the growing, nation-wide micro-power radio movement, have added their community to the growing list of radical centers with "pirate" (non-licensed), low-power stations on the air. Following the examples already set by established stations such as Black Liberation Radio, broadcasting in a Springfield Ohio housing project, and the Bay Area's Free Radio Berkeley, the Lower Side's Steal This Radio collective formed in September of 1995 to begin acquiring equipment and technical expertise with an eye towards launching a micro-power station that would serve their community.
By early November of last year, STR had purchased components to assemble a five-watt transmitter, some of which came via Fret Radio Berkeley's Stephen Dunifer, whose activism in spreading the gospel of grass-roots communication from Central America to Alaska has made him a kind of Johnny Appleseed figure to the micro-power movement. Showing that old squatter know-how, the collective built a radio frequency antenna entirely out of plumbing supplies, tested its equipment from rooftops, and by Thanksgiving was on the air at 88.7 FM, using borrowed turntables, donated tape decks and mix-ers, and various equipment of dubious origin. The first few months of the station saw only Friday broadcasts, from dusk un-til the early morning hours, with hopeful plans to expand.
Moving to a different location every week, the collective quickly became known for the best floating party in town, presenting live music, poetry, fiction and drama every week, in addition to record-ed music by an ever expanding crew of djs. The station's mobility allowed it to present live events too, such as the ABC No Rio Zapatita Art Show benefit - though producing a broadcast or live bands presented challenget Indeed, while most so called "pirate" stations can be started for $200 with a working low-power transmitter, a cassette player, and a microphone, from the very bcginning Steal This Radio had its sights on something more ambitious. Fast Forward, the station's technical chief, describes STR's mission: "To do the kind of programming that we do -- live drama, covering live events, talk radio with open discussions, dialogue, and the kind of free-form, sound collage our in-house Audio Damage Laboratories features several nights a week -- really requires more than a walkman and a mixer -- say $500 as a good starting point, and it goes up from there. Still, STR members point out, this is a far cry from the minimum $60,000 in startup costs the broadcast industry esti-mates is required for the smallest FCC--licenced station.
Upgrading first to twelve watts in January and again in April to twenty watts, the station has expanded its pro-gramming as well. While the radio parties are now a thing of the past, the station has grown rapidly, gaining more diversity in the process. Now broadcasting five days per week, STR presents anarchist news and events, a nightly community cal-endar, a weekly interview, and talk shows, as well as several hours of Spanish-lang-uage programming. "It was always our in-tention to make our programming as wide-ranging as possible -- not to have people just playing their favorite music, but to have things that spoke to the whole gamut of Loisaida residents --squatters, low-income tenants, activists and non-activists," says Queecueg a col-lective member. "I don't think you can justify micro-power philosophy on any other basis than community need."
It is the realization among activists in general that the concentration of media sources in a few corporate hands -- such as Time-Warner, Turner, Capital Cities and other conglomerates -- each owning vast holdings in radio, broadcast and cable television, movie production, and publishing -- has created the a need for communities to take back the airwaves for their own constructive uses. The means for this are within reach. "The air-waves are public, yet the government in-sists on its strict and exclusive right to regulate this public property, and then deeds away their use to the corporate sector, which is interested only in profits," says Queequeg This reality, and micropower broadcasting's answer to it is at the heart of the on-going Federal prosecution of Stephen Dunifer and Free Radio Ber-keley. Duniferís efforts to fight the $20,000 fine levied against him, with the help of the National Lawyer's Guild's Committee on Democratic Communica-tion, has been nothing short or heroic. (See Shadow #37).
Says collective member DJ Chrome, "Giving a voice to the people in this neighborhood is our mission -- to make a vehicle for organizing and forging com-munity among the people of the Lower East Side." To this end, Chrome presents a weekly show, Neighborhood News and Views, with interviews and talk on issues that are community centered. A recent show broadcast an original interview with Democratic District Leader Margarita Lopez, a long-time Loisaida activist and outspoken opponent of Councilman An-tonio Pagin. D.J. Chrome adds, "In a predominantly working class neigh-borhood like ours, many people don't have the time or energy to be fully in-formed on the things going on here that affect them -- real estate development, city policies--or, the information they do get comes entirely from one side. With this show, they can get takes on issues from the people who live in their own neighborhood, and they can also bring their issues to the show, create dialogue."
Ideally, Steal this Radio's organizers envision the micro-power station as a sort of giant community drum that people can tune in to. For this to work, says collec-tive member Grace O'Malley, "the station must develop the greatest degree of ac-cess for community members to program-ming -- anyone with an idea about a show they think the community needs, or announcements, or events for the calendar, should feel free to bring their ideas to us -- we're committed to finding a way to fit it all in." The only rules in place about programming, she adds, are "no hate speech," and a willingness to accept the station's legitimate security concerns.
Fast Forward points out the station's enorrnous potential when he contrasts its listening area with that of other micro-power stations. "We get approximate coverage from the western edge of Williamsburg to about the Bowery, and from Delancey Street to Stuyvesant Town. A station like Free Radio Berkeley may be better situated in a flat, low-rise area for sending a signal very far, while our signal has to contend with a dense grid or large concrete and steel obstruclions -- but the up side of this is that with all the density of multiple dwelling units, tenements and such, we have some 75,000 people living in a tight area -- we don't need to send a signal very far to have a large potential listenership." But how many people are listening? "We get complaints from people trying to tune us in," says Fast Forward. "Some of them are on the fringes of our range, so they need to put a better antenna on their stereo receivers, or try moving the boom box to a different location in their rooms. As we upgrade our signal, we hope people keep trying."