Rebels of the Air &
The Radio Resistance
Excerpt from Rebels on the Air
(an Alternative History of Radio in America)
by Jesse Walker (2001)
Far more common were projects like Excellent
Radio, operated from a storefront studio in downtown
Grover Beach, at the heart of California’s midstate
Five Cities Area. In many ways, the Grover Beach
station resembled San Marcos’s Kind Radio. It had
a lot of local supporters, including members of local
government. It covered local issues intensely,
including live broadcasts of city council meetings.
The rest of the schedule was as lively and diverse
as its talk shows, mixing musical genres with no
regard for commercial custom. It even shared
Kind’s roots in the marijuana subculture: the station’s
founder, Charley Goodman, owned a head
shop next door.
But just as every town is different, so is every
micro radio station. The Five Cities Area has a
long history of bohemian mysticism, dating back
to the days when the town of Halcyon was a
stronghold of Theosophy. For years, the dunes have drawn free spirits to the
region, and they’ve left a rich alternative culture behind, to lurk, sometimes invisibly, between
the strip malls and beach shops and expressways.
The avant-garde composer Henry Cowell lived there, not far from the Theosophists’Temple of The People.
So did Ella Young, a gun-running mystic from Ireland; and Gavin Arthur, astrologer and author and nephew of the twenty-firs president; and Meyer Baba, the guru; and John Cage, the composer. It was this other Grover Beach that conjured an illicit signal into the ether, a station where the region’s submerged voices could finally be heard, sometimes
speaking directly into the microphone, sometimes buzzing in the background. (When the broadcasters built their studio, they decided not to soundproof it, letting the ambiance of the street spill into the room and over the air.)
Over the years, Goodman had becomean amateur archivist, collecting and studying remnants of the bohemian lore. From this he developed a spiritual optimism that would suffuse his station.
Free Radio Berkeley served it fetal time as a PA system in People’s Park; Kind Radio grew from the “Hayes County Guardian”. Excellent Radio began as a art show and was inspired by two TV sets nestled in a Cambodian pagoda.
In 1995, some of Goodman’s friends performed an original opera, “The Father of Lies”. One of the props was the aforementioned pagoda; within it were two video screens, one displaying a moving mouth, the other a pair of eyes.
The contraption made Goodman think about television’s role in society. TV, he felt, kept people alienated from each other. We needed a different kind of media, he decided: media that would bring people together. Page 1 of 3
Goodman had already set aside part of his head shop as the Excellent Center for Art and Culture.
He had also heard stories about M’banna Kantako’s station in Springfield, Illinois. Low-power radio seemed the medium he’d been looking for, and it soon inspired a new exhibit for the Excellent Center’ “The Father of Lies vs. the Mother of Invention…humanity@risk”. The father of lies was TV; the mother of invention was microbroadcasting.
The more Goodman investigated the topic, the more convinced he became that Grover Beach needed a station like Kantako’s. “I’d thought I’d just do a pictorial show about this,” he recalls.
“Then I thought, Jesus Christ, if this guy with no money and no eyes can do this, what kind of pussy am I if I don’t do the same damn thing?” He already had some experience—he’d DJed for a decade at a nearby NPR outpost –and Stephen Dunifer lived only a few hours to the North.
The transmitter he ordered from Free Radio Berkeley didn’t work, but fortune soon intervened: while Goodman was waiting for Dunifer to repair his product, an engineer at the NPR station lent him on of its backup transmitters. Excellent Radio held its first broadcast almost immediately afterward.
The station matured quickly. Only two weeks after its debut, a storm knocked down all the regions radio towers---except Goodman’s. Charley monitored his scanner closely, passing along storm news and emergency announcements to his listeners. The NPR station soon asked for its backup transmitter back, quieting Excellent Radio until the repaired Dunifer kit arrived. But for a short time, it had been the only operation on the air. “It was a good example,” Goodman says, “of how quickly you could be important”.
Goodman asked the city council whether he could broadcast its meetings. After a few months, he got the go-ahead. The city attorney understood that the station had no license, but that, he felt,was a matter between it and the FCC. California’s open meetings act, on the other hand, guaranteed it the right to cover the council.
The station family continued to grow. Its volunteers ranged from skate punks to retirees, from. white hippies to Spanish-speaking cumbia DJs. There was an afternoon kids’ show Treasure Ivan, hosted by 60’s tunesmith Ivan Ulz, onetime composer for the Byrds, The Four Freshman and other ancient pop groups. There was a swing show, a ska show, and a weekly helping of “pure pop for now people.” One pair of programmers started interviewing the stars of the World Wrestling Federation.
And a sixtyish teacher-turned –Green named Annie Steele, already locally famous for fighting the pesticides she blamed for local illnesses, hosted an evening talk show called Pollutions---Solutions. Local officials used to revile Steele as a crank, and she’s the first to admit, they weren’t without good reason. I do my homework now,” she told the Santa Maria Times. “When I first started,
I didn’t know what the homework was.” Over the years, as she learned more and made moreallies, she graduated from crank to gadfly, and from gadfly to full fledged force. After she joined
Excellent Radio, her show became a local institution, the place where – for example – members of the Planning Department would come to talk with their constituents about the contamination of th nearby Nipomo Dunes.
Then there was Rudy, host of a tremendously popular Saturday-night reggae, rap, and R&B party, A Taste of Soul. Rudy was a former gangbanger who’d gone straight; his show had a big following among young people and, damn the stereotypes, among some of the local cops, who saw Rudy as a good influence. (Excellent Radio maintained cordial relations with the police, who faxed it the same press releases they sent to all the other local media. The station even had a retired highway patrolman on its staff.)
The federal cops, naturally, were a different matter. The station eventually received the inevitable letter from the FCC, based on a year -old complaint that it was interfering with the search-and-rescue radio service. The truth, Goodman later reported, turned out to be much more mundane:
We found it was about radio phones within this one block residential area where they are certainly not going to be doing much Search and Rescue. We might have broken into the communications of somebody’s mobile communicator or something. So, we sent back east for a particular filter that would take care of this and we went off the air after we did the last city council meeting to show that we were more than willing to comply like any other radio station. We put in the filter which cleaned up the problem and then we went back on the air….We’ve been broadcasting ever since.
The phrase “ever since” is unfortunately is out of date. One day after Judge Wilken issued her ruling against Dunifer, Excellent Radio closed it doors, announcing it would wait for a formal change in the law before returning to the air. Now dormant, the studio still seemed somehow alive, with the accumulated stock of a few years’ activity still decorating its walls: signs, fliers, placards, notes, a Ricky Skaggs bumper sticker, posters of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, a painting of a cat, and, in the hall outside, Homer Simpson rendered either as a small statue or a large doll.
In the meantime, echoes of Excellent Radio continued to reverberate through the beaches. Mark Kent, cohost of The Surfin’ Show, had already parlayed his program into a syndicated commercial-radio gig; when Goodman stopped, Kent kept going. The former highway cop moved his jazz show to NPR. And the Excellent crew helped launch three more micro stations – now also discontinued, alas – before the mother studio turned silent, all in nearby Santa Maria. Two were churches, and one was based in a halfway house for juvenile delinquents. The kids went on the air on Friday and Saturday nights, under the house’s supervision and with the judicial authorities’ unofficial support.
These weren’t simply traces of a dormant radio station. They were the signs of transformed lives. Before Kent joined the station, he was a surfer working in his dad’s auto body shop. Now he had a fledgling career as a broadcaster. And he could still surf. Hell, he had to. It was part of his job.
From Rebels on the Air (an Alternative History of Radio in America)
– by Jesse Walker (2001)
New York University Press
ISBN 081479381 (pages 230-234)
Available at Amazon Books: http://amzn.to/X3HYrr
Excellent Radio 88.9 FM Responds to FCC
with Positive, Community-Supported Approach
By David Ciaffardini
Excellent Radio 88.9 FM has been broadcasting throughout a five-city area every day for six months without a license from the Federal Communication Commission. But don’t refer to the station as “pirate radio.” Although romantic notions may be attached to the pirate term, Excellent Radio personnel consider it derogatory and counter to their broadcasting mission.
The volunteers who keep Excellent Radio on the air don’t consider themselves rebels of the airwaves, have never operated in a clandestine manner and have no interest in using the airwaves to rape, pillage or rob. They ask that their station be identified simply as a non-commercial micro-power radio station that offers a valuable, positive service to the community it operates in. Indeed, people living along California’s Central Coast welcome Excellent Radio broadcasts into their homes. Women and children smile and wave when they stroll by the station’s storefront broadcast studio or step inside to pick up free bookmarks and bumper stickers displaying the station’s splashy 88.9 FM logo. Station visitors would be disappointed if they expected to find station volunteers preaching anarchy on the airwaves and waving a black flag emblazoned with a skull and cross bones.
Although stiff-lipped federal authorities may consider the station’s operators to be scofflaws, the station’s happy, constructive approach to liberating the airwaves has earned it incredible support from local politicians, bureaucrats, business owners and a legion of listeners from all walks of life who are among the station’s more than 50,000 potential listeners. City government officials not only tolerate the unlicensed station, they applaud its efforts, going so far as buying city equipment which allows the station to broadcast city council meetings and other public hearings live from city hall on a regular basis. The homeless, poor and disenfranchised also celebrate the station’s efforts, realizing it offers them a public voice while they are ignored by other media outlets.
The high-visibility and community support achieved by Excellent Radio may be unique among micro-power broadcasters. Excellent Radio founders say they’ve developed the station to be a paradigm for people in other cities to emulate if they desire a pragmatic, inexpensive and entertaining device to piece together fragmented communities and prepare and inspire citizen participation to create solutions to individual and collective problems.
Since March 1995 Excellent Radio has been broadcasting at least nine hours a day every day for six months from a highly visible storefront along the main thoroughfare in Grover Beach, California. The station broadcasts from a small space in the building provided by Charley Goodman, a local retailer who, in 1992, set aside a portion of his store space to house the Excellent Center for Art and Culture, a not-for-profit cultural center and art gallery. According to Goodman, a pioneering micro-power radio station was a natural extension of the culturally enriching work begun earlier at the center. The station began as part of a community art project entitled “Father of Lies vs. Mother of Invention (necessity)—humanity@risk,” a multi-media exhibit that explored and commented on the tendency of mass media to distort truth thereby fostering a desperate need for grass roots efforts to provide accurate information and empower people to solve their own problems.
The Excellent Radio broadcasting studio takes up an 8 x 10 foot space, just enough room for a few tables and chairs, an audio mixing board, and various home audio components, plus a wall full of posters and bulletins. The transmitter, purchased in kit form from Free Radio Berkeley and the Radio Shack power pack that energizes it are easily overlooked, together being about the size of a loaf of bread and placed inconspicuously in a corner underneath a table. A black coaxial cable exits through a small hole in the wall, leading to a roof-top 20-foot mast that sports a small, second hand antenna scavenged from commercial radio discards.
It has not been necessary to sound proof the studio. The small amount of ambient noise that spills into the microphones is considered an asset rather than a problem as it increases the grass-root, street-level broadcasting atmosphere desired. A similar set up could be put in nearly any store without interfering with business activity in other parts of the building.
The station’s doors remain unlocked from noon to five p.m. every day and listeners are invited to visit the station to witness the inner-workings of the station. Visitors’ ideas, news, views and announcements are welcome and Excellent Radio provides several ways for them to be shared over the airwaves. Visitors may speak over the microphone during visits, they can call in by phone and talk over the air, or one of the on-air hosts can read aloud written announcements received by mail, or over the station’s fax line. The station has a Macintosh computer able to accept E-mail and other forms of on-line information that can be down-loaded by on-air hosts and shared with listeners. Every Saturday, listeners of any age are invited to stop by for free, impromptu broadcasting lessons with the opportunity to spin records and compact discs and talk live on the microphone—no experience necessary.
Excellent Radio currently broadcasts about 70 hours per week, with the broadcast day beginning at noon on weekdays and 9 a.m. on weekends. Most days broadcasting lasts until 10 PM, some shows go later. About three quarters of the programming is devoted to music, featuring a wide range of free-form and specialty music programs including shows devoted to rock, reggae,
blues, jazz, R&B, world musics, along with free-form music programs that are in theory open to any kind of music imaginable, but are always supposed to remain a distinct alternative from music programs offered by any of the 20 licensed commercial and non-commercial stations in the region.
The remaining portion of the broadcast days are devoted to community affairs programming. Weekdays from 6 to 8 p.m. the station broadcasts live in-studio community forums featuring local experts and concerned citizens discussing various local issues. Using a Gentner Microtel telephone interface (about $250) the station can take phone calls and patch them over the air, allowing listeners to take an active part in the discussions. Faxed input is also welcomed. Excellent Radio encourages a “salon” type equality in the studio, creating an atmosphere where everyone’s opinions are given equal respect despite differences in participant’s education, wealth, or ethnic background.
Topics of discussion featured on the community affairs shows have included veterans affairs, nutrition, local environmental problems, public education, voter registration, health care, juvenile delinquency, and the rights of skateboarders. Unlike syndicated talk shows, station personnel try to down-play or avoid partisanship, scapegoating, fear-mongering, and casting blame. Instead, they try to focus discussion toward establishing positive solutions to community problems by promoting compassion, understanding and consensus among people with opposing viewpoints and varying backgrounds.
To fill out the community affairs programming when there has not been time to set up a live program, the station broadcasts prerecorded programs from various sources including David Barsamian’s outstanding Alternative Radio series, the Making Contact series, and tapes from She Who Remembers. The station also draws programming from many sources that other stations over-look or ignore such as the public library where all kinds of spoken word audio cassettes are available to borrow and broadcast. A video cassette player patched into the mixing board facilitates broadcasting audio portions of video documentaries and lectures, many of which can be entertaining, informative and effective as radio broadcasts.
At least twice a month the station broadcasts city council meetings patched in live over the phone lines from city hall. Plans are being made to broadcast other local government public hearings. The station also provides live broadcasts of monthly poetry readings and acoustic music concerts that take place in the cultural center. Various nationally known musicians have also been interviewed live on the station.
Excellent Radio volunteers consider themselves freedom advocates, helping liberate the airwaves for everyone in America by planting seeds they hope will grow into legally sanctioned micro-power community broadcasting. They believe that a forthright, above-board, non-confrontational, positive, broadcasting approach is a healthy route to follow demonstrating micro-power radio’s community enhancing benefits. This way they hope to legitimatize micro-power broadcasting in the minds of government regulators and the pubic in general. They believe they’re helping pave the way for changes in government regulations that will allow the birth of thousands of non-commercial micro-power stations throughout the United States.
Goodman and other station volunteers say they have deep admiration and gratitude for the courageous efforts of Springfield, Illinois micro-power broadcaster M’Banna Kantako, whose unyielding efforts in the face of FCC threats they credit as vital inspiration for their own work. However, unlike M’Banna Kantako, the volunteers at Excellent Radio are not opposed, in theory, to licensing procedures for micro-power broadcasters, as long as licensing fees are inexpensive and the requirements don’t restrict program content and are designed to allow as many broadcasters access to the airwaves as technically possible. Goodman and others at the station believe that a simplified, streamlined licensing system, similar to registering motor vehicles and licensing drivers, is acceptable and preferable to advocating absolute anarchy on the airwaves.
Excellent Radio volunteers also credit their survival and success to the pioneering work of Stephen Dunifer’s Free Radio Berkeley and his legal defense provided by the National Lawyers Guild mounted in response to a civil suit brought by the FCC. When a Federal Court Judge ruling in the case in January 1995 refused to grant a preliminary injunction to the FCC, thereby preventing, at least temporarily, the government agency from shutting down Free Radio Berkeley, it signaled to Goodman and others that it was time to create Excellent Radio. Subsequently, in April, the FCC sent a letter to Goodman warning him that operating an unlicensed station could subject him to penalties of a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. On the station’s behalf, National Lawyers Guild attorney Alan Korn replied, officially requesting a waiver from current FCC regulations until a procedure allowing the licensing of micro-power (under 100 watts) stations is established.
The letter explains that operators of Excellent Radio do not wish to intentionally violate FCC regulations, but that current rules prevent them from legitimately communicating through micro-power broadcasting. Granting such a waiver, Korn states, would be in the public interest, particularly in light of the strong support the station’s broadcasts have received. The letter states that Excellent Radio operators have no objection to the FCC monitoring it’s broadcasts to ensure the station doesn’t interfere with other stations. The letter also states the station is willing to accept FCC rules providing for “some form of authorized, secondary non-interference basis for broadcasting with advance notice to the FCC.” The letter goes on to state that the station’s operators “like most citizens, simply cannot comply with the Commission’s present licensing scheme which requires a minimum of tens of thousands of dollars to purchase, license and operate a mega-watt commercial or ‘educational’ broadcast station.”
Excellent Radio bases its request for a waiver, in part, on the station’s strong community support. This support did not spring miraculously from a vacuum as soon as the radio station began broadcasting. It grew from many years of community involvement by key figures involved with the station’s launch. Goodman’s operating the not-for-profit Excellent Center for Art and Culture for three and a half years, providing a venue for dozens of non-profit art and cultural exhibitions and programs, created a substantial track record of community involvement and support, earning himself and others involved respect and praise from community members grateful for the cultural enrichment their work has provided their community.
In addition, Goodman and several of the station’s volunteer programmers and behind-the-scenes personnel have lengthy track records working on air and behind the scenes at various licensed commercial and non-commercial radio stations in the region.
As far as gaining community support and listenership, more important than any name recognition that Excellent Radio volunteers offer, is the positive, persistent, and unpretentious direction the station has followed. The station has been on the air every day and constant attention has been given to maintain the best possible signal from limited equipment. It has been vital for the station to have access to a trained and experienced radio engineer to help build and adjust the radio transmitter kit, maintain and adjust the mixing board and antenna, and in other ways tune the system to assure the station gets the best possible signal without interfering with other broadcasters in the area.
At this state of micro-power broadcasting history it is important to demonstrate to the public that micro-power stations can be run responsibly without interfering with other operations. In most cases it’s crucial that would-be broadcasters have the help of a trained broadcasting engineer, even if it means having to pay for the service, according to Goodman. Having a good engineer around to help maintain a clear, consistent and non-interfering signal pleases listeners and creates valuable peace of mind especially when there arises a need to justify a station’s beneficial and benign existence to government authorities.
Which brings up the matter of finances. Although a main point of promoting micro-power broadcasting is to allow people on the airwaves who otherwise could not afford it under current FCC regulations, Goodman said it is important to realize that any form of broadcasting will cost some money and that having a bit more money than one might originally plan for will make things go smoother and promote greater success. He recommends holding community garage sales and getting cash for re-cyclable as ways of rounding up extra micro-power broadcasting funds. Having extra money for promotional items such as bumper stickers and flyers helps establish a micro-power station as a viable, substantial part of the community with as much legitimacy as licensed radio stations. Having a little money to buy electronic processing devices to improve broadcasting quality, and to be able to buy extra microphones or a telephone interface (makes it easier to have talk shows) and be able to quickly repair or replace broken equipment without having to go off the air for extended periods of time, allows broadcasting consistency that will garner confidence and community support, making a station’s unlicensed status virtually irrelevant as far as listeners are concerned.
In the case of Excellent Radio, Grover Beach city officials, when questioned whether they should be working with a yet-to-be-licensed station, decided their involvement didn’t pose the city any liability. The licensing issue is a procedural matter between the FCC and the station and of no concern to the city, according to the Grover Beach city manager. When the matter was referred to the city attorney, he issued an opinion, stating that to deny Excellent Radio the opportunity to broadcast city council meetings and other public hearings might put the city in violation of the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law.
The bottom line is that the vast majority of citizens are naturally inclined to support micro-power broadcasting efforts, unless the broadcaster in question is completely antagonistic to the community without allowing divergent viewpoints to be aired. About the only opponents of micro-power broadcasting are the owners and managers of licensed radio stations who fear that proliferation of micro-power radio will depress the market value of their broadcasting franchises. Otherwise, virtually everyone in every community, including politicians, bureaucrats and law enforcement officers, prefer to have more radio stations available for them to tune into. And because micro-power radio allows people greater access to the microphone side of the broadcasting equation, it is an intriguingly attractive concept to local politicians eager to engage the ear of their constituencies.
Excellent Radio has found it easy to charm even the rare individual inclined to dislike the station’s music programming or viewpoints it airs. To win these critics over, according to Goodman, all one needs do is offer them a modicum of respect, and either offer them an opportunity to go on the air and share their viewpoint or offer them information and advice on how to set up their own micro-power station so they can pursue their own unique broadcasting vision. Any antagonism quickly evaporates as they realize that only a micro-power broadcaster would offer them such a benevolent and practical response.
Goodman and others at Excellent Radio 88.9 FM say they realize their approach to micro-power broadcasting may not be appropriate or desirable to everyone who intends to broadcast without an FCC license, but they believe their approach is a model worth considering for all those who want to establish a long-standing, community supported station that will win over people’s hearts and minds and pave the way for a new era of communication history—a future when micro-power broadcasting is not only-welcomed by the citizens of this country, but is unquestionably supported and protected by the laws of federal, state and local governments.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Article author David Ciaffardini is a free-lance writer and editor whose articles have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Penthouse, Whole Earth Review, Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, Wire and dozens of other periodicals.
He was the editor of Sound Choice Magazine and is a member of the Audio Evolution Network, an international organization dedicated to the positive evolution of music, radio and related matters. He may be contacted by mail at P.O. Box 989, Oceano, CA 93445, U.S.A.
For permission to republish this article or excerpts from it, please contact the author via the above address or in care of Excellent Radio.