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Pirate radio to moor at Republican convention

Times Staff Writer

Over the last few years, many political protesters have felt increasingly squeezed by law enforcement authorities, who frequently seek to restrict them to predetermined “free speech zones” and sometimes threaten them with tear gas, rubber bullets or arrest if they stray. Such tactics can lead to innovation, however, and the technologically savvy have found it in the combined use of cellphones, the Internet and low-power radio.

Such know-how will be on display outside the Republican National Convention in New York. Beginning today, RNC protesters plan to use wireless phones to call in live, in-the-trenches reports that will be streamed over the Internet and picked up for rebroadcast nationwide on community-based micro radio stations -- some licensed, most illegal.

“It has become sort of a thing that whenever there’s a big protest like this, someone sets up a pirate radio station the same as someone setting up the food truck or the sound system,” said Pete Tridish, a longtime activist and founder of the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, an advocacy group for legal, noncommercial micro-radio broadcasters. “Someone knows how to start a radio station, and so someone does it.”

The use of illegal -- that is, unlicensed -- “pirate” radio stations has a long history of giving voice to the disenfranchised, usually on a very local level because of such outlets’ relatively low power (10 to 100 watts) and reach (one to five miles). Only recently has the technology become an integral protest tool, used to organize impromptu events and to provide news, interviews, even music from event sites.

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At the “Battle of Seattle,” the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting that resulted in riots, curfews, mass arrests and millions of dollars in property damage, radio pirates trekked in from around the country, seeing the WTO gathering as the perfect setting and illegal, low-power FM radio as the ideal medium to protest corporate power and massive media consolidation.

Calling themselves the Voice of Occupied Seattle and operating from a headquarters known as Studio X, the network of seven micro stations held workshops and set up transmitters that were used to coordinate protest activities and broadcast news and views they felt would not get out through traditional media. Some stations disguised their transmitters and antennas in briefcases and umbrellas. Others broadcast from trees. To tune in on the street, activists were urged to BYOB -- bring your own boombox.

Protests at next week’s Republican convention are expected to dwarf the 40,000 who showed up in Seattle, drawing perhaps six times as many activists and thousands of police for the four-day event. Between the planned and spontaneous protests and marches and the potential confrontations with police and delegates, there should be plenty of content for micro and Internet radio stations to report -- live, while it’s happening.

“We’re the closest to the action on the street. We’re the first line of information. When people call in and let us know what’s going on, then we can either send reporters out or log their calls and put them on our website or patch their calls in to the Web stream,” said Tarikh Korula, one of the coordinators of New York City’s A-Noise NoRNC Sound Coalition, which has been holding workshops to train street correspondents, or “streetcasters.”

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The group will also webcast a live audio stream (radio.socialtechnology.net) beginning today and lasting throughout the convention.

While A-Noise has “shied away from coordinating too closely with the [unlicensed FM] broadcasters for legal reasons,” Korula said he anticipates its stream being picked up and broadcast illegally on multiple transmitters in New York City and elsewhere in the country.

Like most of the independent Internet and micro-radio broadcasters who will be operating during the convention, Korula is dissatisfied with activist coverage in the major media.

In lowballing protest attendance numbers and focusing on the protesters themselves instead of the issues, he said, “the mainstream media has done a really poor job of covering these events over the years. We just want to make sure that it’s covered well.”

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There’s no way to know how many people -- or who -- such broadcasts reach. Micro radio, by its very nature, tends to draw a micro audience. But sometimes it has a larger effect

“In Seattle, these kind of independent operations were scooping CNN. CNN was reporting on things that they had heard on micro radio,” said media critic and syndicated radio host David Barsamian. “Is it reaching a large audience? The answer is self-evident, but I think it’s a significant audience, and it can grow as more electronic umbilical cords crisscross the country and really create a movement for a genuine alternative to mainstream electronic media.”

Free Radio Santa Cruz, a politically oriented unlicensed radio station that also streams live over the Internet (www.freak radio.org), anticipates numerous call-ins from protesters during the Republican convention. The station, which has been on the air illegally for nearly 10 years, has broadcast live, from-the-streets reports at many of the major protests in recent years -- including the latest WTO meeting in Mexico and last month’s Democratic National Convention in Boston.

“People from Santa Cruz that go out there make a point of calling in to us,” said a longtime DJ at the station who goes by the name “Skidmark Bob.”

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At last November’s Free Trade Association meeting in Florida, he said, a fellow DJ was calling in a live report from the protests when he was shot by a rubber bullet.

“It’s pretty wild sometimes,” Skidmark Bob said. “It’s scary to hear that stuff, but no regular FM station’s going to [air] that.”

Free Radio Santa Cruz is one of about seven West Coast and New York City stations -- Internet, pirate or both -- that are involved with the Critical Mass Radio Network (www.criticalmass radio.net), an Internet audio stream that allows stations to contribute programming and also pick up the stream for rebroadcast. Today the L.A.-based group is debuting an RNC-themed broadcast that will be synchronized NPR style, with all of its contributing “member stations” broadcasting the Critical Mass Radio Network’s live audio stream at the same time.

Micro radio stations have typically operated independent of one another, but the Web has become a potentially powerful tool to bring them together.

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“It’s just a natural evolution of new innovative technologies we have access to. Computers, the Internet, play a central role,” said Chris Burnett, cofounder of the Critical Mass Radio Network and the L.A.-based Internet station Kill Radio (www.killradio.org), which is contributing content and also webcasting the CMRN audio stream.

Burnett came up with the idea of a synchronized micro-radio broadcast with a former roommate. He began building the coalition late last year when he took his band, the hard rock act Saber Tooth Tiger, on a West Coast tour to network with Internet and micro radio stations in Portland, Ore., Humboldt County, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and San Diego -- all of which are participating in today’s broadcast and what Burnett hopes will become a monthly themed event.

Burnett is in New York, helping coordinate RNC webcasts with A-Noise and a dozen or so other groups from around the country, all of which are committed to bringing more voices to the ever-consolidating FM dial.

“It’s definitely not going to sound like commercial radio, and that’s a good thing,” Burnett said. “You’re going to hear real people’s voices -- people who are learning and teaching themselves how to use this voice instead of going through this machine called broadcast journalism that puts you into thinking about the way people expect to hear things.

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“That’s the whole point of what we’re doing -- to give people who don’t normally think they have a voice a voice.”


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