Media

Broadcasting Live From ... the Basement

For 12 years, pirate station San Francisco Liberation Radio has defied the FCC to broadcast radio by and for the people.
Geography was destiny for Karoline Hatch.

"My parents live on top of the hill in [San Francisco's] the Castro, and they have an amazing view," explains Hatch. "One time I was over at their house and I thought, this would be a great place for a radio station..."

Years of lawsuits, protests, busted doors, and one FCC raid later, San Francisco Liberation Radio is still coming out live from the Hatch family basement.

In an era where radio behemoths like Clear Channel and Infinity rule the airwaves, pirate station Liberation Radio has struggled since 1993 to broadcast news, music, community information, and more to its local listeners. The station was founded by a small group of people deeply unsatisfied with mainstream coverage of issues such as the Gulf War and the treatment of the homeless in San Francisco.

Twice denied the exceedingly difficult-to-obtain license the Federal Communications Commission deems necessary for low-power community radio stations to legally operate, Liberation Radio defiantly stayed on the airwaves and continued to broadcast. Like other microradio stations which operate illegally, the station has frequently incurred the wrath of the FCC, which tightly controls the public airwaves.

Karoline Hatch wasn't there during the inception of the station, when Liberation Radio was a short-range broadcast from the back of co-founder Richard Edmonson's van. But as a Liberation Radio DJ, she was instrumental in bringing the station to her parents' home -- and consequently a much wider audience.

It might not have happened if Hatch was a morning person.

"I went to college at UC Santa Cruz and I was... a bit of a night owl," Hatch remembers during a nighttime interview at her Mission district apartment. "One of the things that I really enjoyed was to listen to the college station and the pirate radio station in Santa Cruz late at night. Sometimes when there were live DJs I'd call them up late at night and say 'I'm out here, I'm listening,' just to remind people that there was an audience even late at night."

Hatch's midnight calls to the stations led to occasional volunteering sessions, where she learned the basics of Radio 101. When Hatch came home from college, she brought her interest in radio back to her parents house. She suddenly saw the panoramic view from their Castro home in a brand new way.

"FM transmission is basically line-of-sight. So wherever the antennae is, if you stand up there and look, then you could pretty much get to anywhere you could see," Hatch explains. The sweeping vista became more than just a pretty sight -- it looked like potential listeners. She told her parents, Charlotte and Jim Hatch, to think about hosting a radio station at their home. "And they were like ... 'Yeah, right. Ha. Crazy girl.'"

After a few turbulent years, however, her counter cultural parents had changed their minds about their daughter's wild idea.

"I graduated from college, George Bush got elected, September 11 happened, and then the war on Afghanistan was started," Hatch recalls. "They came back to me and said, 'We've been considering your radio station idea.' I fell over backwards."

She and her mother immediately started researching the logistics of broadcasting from a private residence. Along the way, they discovered a person on the other side of the city already doing something similar -- Liberation Radio, which by that time was run out of the home of Richard Edmonson. Hatch e-mailed him about possibly producing a show, and was invited down to the station.

"It was approaching the date that I'm supposed to go down to see the station," Hatch says. "And I realized that possibly what he means is that I'm supposed to start my show the next day. So I called him up and I say, 'Should I bring records, should I prepare my show?' And he said 'Yeah, you're going on between 5 and 6!'"

Rough starts aside, Hatch began doing her own show on the station, and the Hatch women quickly became regulars. Eventually, Edmonson decided he was "ready to have [his] living room back" and turned the station -- equipment, transmitter, name and all -- over to Hatch and her mother. The reach of the station immediately jumped with the repositioning of the transmitter at the Hatch house, with the broadcasts reaching parts of the East Bay.

After running ads in places like Craigslist, the station was inundated with ideas from would-be DJs; programming ranged from animal right programs to comedy morning shows, and more.

"We had this 20-something hip kid who wanted to do a show of oldies music in Asian languages ... like The Beatles in Cantonese, or Perry Como in Japanese," Hatch recalls with a laugh. "It was really amazing to see the breadth of programming we were able to achieve."

The tiny station also featured regular air time for news and popular events -- including the broadcast that might have brought increased FCC attention to the tiny station and sealed its fate.

"We took part with the Independent Media Center in a very dynamic, very amazing broadcast... Around the protests that happened when the Iraq War started, when roving groups of protesters would shut down different city blocks," Hatch says. "It was extremely challenging for the police to deal with...no protest like this had ever happened in San Francisco before."

Protesters on the street were able to call in and report the latest news, such as which intersections needed backup and where arrests were being made.

"Everybody on the street was calling in and was their own reporter," Hatch recalls. "Regardless of how biased it may be, or whatever, it was still a very dynamic broadcasting and a very effective organizing tool. And the fact that that happened, that we took part in it, that I think may have had something to do with [the FCC raid]."

Hatch was not at the station during the raid. "I got a phone call, so I jumped on my bicycle and rode there as fast as I could." Confined to the sidewalk by police lines, Hatch had to use her cell phone to communicate with those in the house. Inside, her mother was surrounded by US marshals, FCC agents, and police officers. The station's equipment -- CD players, transmitter, and more -- was confiscated by the FCC.

"Most warrants say, 'The United States Government versus Fred Smith,'" Hatch explains. "But in the case, it said 'The United States Government versus Any And All Radio Equipment Used To Broadcast At This Location On This Frequency.' Which was like, the people of the United States versus a CD player? The people of the United States versus a record player?"

Without their equipment, Liberation Radio was effectively knocked off the airwaves after ten years. Although the staff is still without their equipment, they've continued broadcasting -- this time online.

Though her mother has taken over many of the day-to-day operations, Hatch is still involved with Liberation Radio. The station is currently appealing to the court in an attempt to recover the equipment stolen in the raid, help establish due process for stations targeted by raids, and review the antiquated laws that allow FCC officials to forcibly seize broadcast equipment.

"What they use is a maritime law to take the equipment," Hatch explains. "They use a law that dates from way back, which allows US Marshals or federal agencies to get sort of a backdoor warrant to board a ship and seize its 'booty' if they think the 'booty' is contraband. We don't think the radio station is very much like a ship, and we think there should be a lot more due process involved."

Hatch is also now involved with Media Alliance, a nonprofit organization which provides job services and support to journalists, while advocating for free speech rights. The organization is currently busy publicizing the upcoming license renewal process of many commercial radio stations, and encouraging the public to write in regarding their dissatisfaction with mainstream radio and its failure to meet the needs of the community.

Throughout it all, Hatch has not let go of her old faith in radio.

"The grand dream in my mind is an incredible expansion of local radio," she says. "Imagine, just as a mental exercise, imagine what would happen if ... all the radio in this area, was created in this area. Imagine how different the radio spectrum would be."
Giselle Velazquez is a recent graduate of the journalism department at San Francisco State University. She lives in the shadow of Sign Hill in South San Francisco, the Industrial City.
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