'Pirate' Radio In the Barrio

Walking unsteadily across a city rooftop, 26-year-old Wilson Barriga Posada holds an eight-foot radio tower in his arms.

He wields it like a clunky, high-tech javelin, planting it near the edge of the roof so that he can dangle wires to his sound system on the sidewalk. Posada's plan for the day: a do-it-yourself FM radio music broadcast, in Spanish. His target audience: the heavily Latino Fruitvale section of Oakland, California.

His musical format is the underground, DJ-driven "sonido" style, which adds dashes of techno and hip-hop to a foundation based on tropical rhythms like cumbia and salsa. Posada says sonido is "authentic" and popular with Latinos, but virtually non-existent on commercial Spanish-language radio.

"Pirate" radio, or microradio, as its advocates prefer, has strong roots in Northern California. Free Radio Berkeley, the region's most well-known microradio venture, was founded in 1993 by radio activist Stephen Dunifer and ceased operating in 1998 after a legal battle with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Other micro-power broadcasters, such as San Francisco Liberation Radio, have battled to stay on-air.

Posada, a former Free Radio Berkeley DJ, says that in the 1990s he saw a need for Spanish-language microradio to bring the movement's ethos to a more diverse audience.

"The fact is that the so-called minority, now majority, communities that are here in California, the people that really need these (microradio) projects to be working for them ... we weren't connecting with them," he says.

In April 2003, Posada launched Radio Sonidera 102.5 FM in Fruitvale, with help from Dunifer and other microradio activists.

For now, he broadcasts on weekends only. Posada sets up behind a mobile taquería in a parking lot, or sometimes from the bed of a battered pickup that his off-and-on technical adviser, Ruben Tomar, uses to wheel around the equipment.

On a recent Saturday, Posada broadcast in Fruitvale's shopping district in front of a café. Sympathetic owners let him plant the antenna on the roof. Posada says he doesn't mind the risk such visibility entails.

Latino families gathered around to watch. Microphone in hand, Posada intermittently shouted out his station's frequency, handed out flyers to passersby and took requests via cell phone. Meanwhile, he shuffled CDs in and out of a boom box on a wobbly table.

"Bueno, bueno, bueno," he'd say between songs. "Seguimos aquí en la 102.5 FM, en Fruitvale."

Posada grew up in a working class family in Mexico City. His parents were migrants from two poor interior states, Guanajuato and Michoacan. Posada immigrated to the United States by himself at the age of 20 -- searching, he says, for the latest in music, radio and media knowledge. He drifted through various infatuations -- salsa, punk, hip-hop, until he found sonido, which allowed him to combine it all.

Like the spontaneous music of the original Jamaican reggae DJs of the 1970s, the process of making la música sonidera is an intrinsic part of its identity. It is created by charismatic DJs, the sonideros, such as Posada's mentor, famed veteran DJ Ramón Rojo-- Sonido La Changa. The sonideros perform in Mexican cities, especially in Mexico City's teeming colonias, as peripheral neighborhoods are known, and increasingly in U.S. cities.

Posada says much of his playlist is recordings of sonideros' concerts. The DJs interact with the audience as they speak over tunes, rhyming, cracking jokes or intoning fans' names. A danceable cumbia or salsa track is mixed with other sounds, everything from electronica to rap. On-air, Posada himself plays the role of sonidero.

The concerts are often burned onto CDs as they are performed. After the show, the CDs are sold "like tortillas, except more expensive," Posada says. In turn, the recordings are copied and re-copied by fans.

The quick digital dissemination of the music, in a musical subculture that has little use for copyrights, means sonideros can even facilitate transnational communication. A DJ in Mexico will often give a "shout out" to an audience member's relative living in Los Angeles or another U.S. city. As he lays down the tracks, the DJ will sometimes say, appropriating an expression often used in a derogatory way: "This one's going out mojado-style (wetback-style), across the border."

"This music is not depending on commercial conduits to spread itself," says Posada, though some FM stations in Mexico City and Los Angeles are beginning to produce a slicker version of the sonido style. Both sonido music and microradio, he says, "are on the margins of commercial music culture."

Tomar, Posada's occasional adviser, estimates that with 20-watt capacity and no-frills equipment, Radio Sonidera potentially reaches 60,000 people.

That's no threat to Spanish-language media conglomerates like Univision, which has three FM frequencies in the area, but it's definitely an alternative -- at least during the limited times when it is on-air.

The FCC has cracked down on microradio stations this year, especially in the San Francisco area. Meanwhile, this summer's FCC-approved rule changes in media ownership, activists say, will make it harder for community-based radio stations to secure a slice of the FM dial.

Posada wants to expand to include daily morning and evening broadcasts. "If I succeed in what I am trying to do, then that's a political statement of a kind -- that people like me won't be smothered and disappear in anonymity."

Marcelo Ballve (mballve@pacificnews.org) is a writer and editor for PNS.

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