SQUATTING THE AIRWAVES
Pirate Radio as Anarchy in Action
A society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties religious differences and their superstitious separatism. Far from being a speculative vision of a future society, it is a description of a mode of human organization, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society.i
When Colin Ward first wrote Anarchy in Action back in 1973, he included many examples of anarchist social organization in the areas of work, play, education and social welfare. Missing in action was pirate radio. Little is said in the Ward book about communications. One might assume that one of the reasons for this omission is because of the conflation of communications with mass communications. The assumption being that because of its massive scale, corporate hierarchy, and/or government bureaucracy, radio was not a suitable topic for tracing embryonic anarchist forms or ruminating on anarchist possibilities. Since the birth of the free radio movement, this assumption has been increasingly called into question, especially in relation to the latest developments in micropower broadcasting technology where the transmitter can be as small in size as a loaf of bread.
While Ward’s book favorably references the British squatters campaign that originated in the Sixties, he could not have predicted that by 1979, just across the English Channel, Vrij (Free) Keizer Radio, named after the huge squatted housing complex in Amsterdam’s Keizersgracht, would take to the air, broadcasting mainly squatters’ movement and resistance news and music, and going live during the big political demonstrations and street riots of the day. Aside from playing this kind of tactical role in defending housing squats as occupied space, outside of capital or government control, pirate radio itself can be understood as a form of “squatting.” By using direct action, radio pirates can communally seize the airwaves and liberate them from institutional control.
In fact, from the mid-Seventies well into the Eighties, an explosion of pirate radio stations could be found plying the European airwaves from the studios of Autonomia’s Radio Alice in Italy, Radio Libertaire in France, Radio Dreyeckland in Germany, Radio Skokkeland in Denmark, and Radio Air Libre in Belgium. In Spain, where an anarchist revolution had been suppressed by General Franco with the assistance of both Hitler and Stalin, within a year of the hated dictator’s death, the first free radio stations would surface, including the decidedly anarchist Radio Libertaria in Valencia. Even from the vantage point of Colin Ward’s writing outpost in the UK, Radio Arthur would soon make its appearance. Named after union leader Arthur Scargill, its origins can be traced to the galvanizing radical politics of the British coal miners’ strike of 1984. The micropower radio movement in the States was born in the late Eighties in Springfield, Illinois with Black Liberation Radio, and then consolidated with the impetus of Free Radio Berkeley in the Nineties. Though not all of the pirate stations mentioned above were explicitly anarchist, they typically operated on a daily basis in ways that resonate with the nascent anarchist organizational forms profiled by Colin Ward in his book.
Once the free radio movement began to gather steam in North America, would-be Canadian pirates could get a front row seat on the action and, with the ever wider availability of inexpensive micropower equipment, it was only a matter of time before they too would want to participate directly. A contemporary case in point is Tree Frog Radio in British Columbia. This island-based station, with which I have been involved from its inception, has now been squatting the airwaves for over five years. From the start, it was to be an anarchist-initiated project that would be open to the community as a whole. Not everyone on the station is an anarchist, and not all anarchist programmers are always doing programming with specifically or exclusively anarchist content, but its origins and current organizational context are deeply informed by anarchy.
Tree Frog Radio
What then are Tree Frog Radio’s affinities with anarchism in Ward’s “everyday” terms? In essence, it is the human scale of the relationships within Tree Frog Radio and with its community that has won it broad-based support and widespread participation. As one programmer has explained the appeal of the station, “Big radio always felt so cold and distant, Tree Frog Radio, like our community hall, recycling centre, free store and farmers market, feels involving.” Though illegal, because it has been the embodiment of autonomous island culture, it has engendered community involvement. It has motivated community members to nurture and protect it over the course of its history, which began with an on-island showing of Rebel Radio, a film about the US pirate radio movement of the Nineties, after which around 20 community people began to envision starting our own station. Collectively, we combined the programming, technical, fundraising and organizational skills needed to launch Tree Frog Radio.
Most of the folks involved did not bat an eyelash in defense of the concept of legality. Though some concern was expressed about the possibility of a government clampdown, legality was not intrinsically linked to possibility. What was illegal, though riskier, was not necessarily dismissed as impossible. Of course, it helped that the island had long been conducive to libertarian living arrangements that were appreciated even by those islanders who would not necessarily identify as squatters or anarchists. In regard to the anti-authoritarian nature of island culture, many of the bohemian residents who came to live here in the Seventies were artists, poets, hippies, and Vietnam-era draft dodgers. While island demographics have changed over the years, the steady stream of free spirits has never really dried up. Most emblematic of an anarchist trace that is still very much in evidence on island is the fact that we have no cops. Because something so seemingly impossible as living in a place with no cops is indeed possible here, islanders are often more receptive than most people to imagining the creation of other autonomous zones. It is precisely this everyday sense of demanding the impossible that animates Tree Frog Radio. With this open attitude in mind, I will now explore the anarchist implications of the station’s libertarian organizational structures, such as community participation, volunteer labor, commercial-free programming, grassroots fundraising, consensus decision-making and community self-defense.
As to community participation, the station was started and continues to flourish as a result of the “sweat equity” of the community members who built and sustain it. Without ever resorting to such bureaucratic policies as “outreach,” “recruitment” or “affirmative action;” from the start, the station has quite naturally been a magnet for political, economic and cultural diversity. Not only the “usual suspects “ among anarchists and punks, but a grassroots assortment of marginalized islanders, drawn over the years from renters (a minority on island but a majority on the station), first generation immigrants, Québecoise and those culturally disenfranchised because of their youth, have readily taken to the airwaves over the years. Though the station welcomes the participation of all islanders as programmers, it has, from the start, been largely the “voice of the voiceless.” As one programmer has put it, “Tree Frog Radio provides the realization of the voice many of us have to share but cannot express otherwise.”
While many of our programmers do not own land, even those that do tend to be unusual—radical libertarians, back-to-the-landers, co-housing land partners, permaculture activists, unruly wage slaves, gender rebels, counter-culture mavens, habitues of the underground economy, and eccentrics of all stripes. Up until recently, the local Residents Association had been called the Ratepayers Association, reflecting in its previous incarnation, the assumption that it was the more established property owners on island who were the rightful community decision-makers. Of course, the fact is that renters indirectly pay property taxes as is evidenced by the soaring island rents that are in part a result of the local property owners’ ability to pass on their land taxes to their tenants. Yet, even though the name Ratepayers has now been changed to Residents, the fully-enfranchised islander is still unofficially conceived of as an adult property owner. Consequently, it is the voice of the more affluent property owner that is the one that is heard most often in public debate at Residents Association meetings, and those with little or no legally taxable income from employment or retirement pensions are rarely part of the public debate. Though the latter are not officially excluded, the alienating culture of formal meetings can often seem unappetizing or unwelcoming to those on the fringes, who choose instead, intentionally or in effect, to withhold their consent.
At Tree Frog Radio, there is no such aura of propertied legitimacy or elitist atmosphere of entitlement. Instead, the station’s free-wheeling lack of formalities attracts a different type of participant than the Residents Association. On the airwaves, the voice of the propertyless or atypical property owner holds center stage. Though the latter might own land, they do not claim a privileged status or act the part of landed gentry. Consequently, the political opinions expressed on our shows offer the listener access to a much broader spectrum of island politics than one can be exposed to by attending a Residents Association meeting, where, even with the best of intentions, the participatory spirit is stifled by the straitjacket of Roberts Rules of Order.
Another group that is represented on the station in ways that they are not elsewhere in the general cultural and political life of the community are recent immigrants. For example, in the entire region, there is no place on the radio dial other than Tree Frog where you can regularly hear local political commentary on island issues, listen to a scathing critique of Canadian domestic repression of indigenous peoples or get no-holds-barred commentary on the government’s dirty little war in Afghanistan; all from the “outsider” perspective of a programmer who is a first generation immigrant of Middle Eastern descent? Moreover, it is not unusual to hear a wide variety of music programming by our deejays, with some vocals in Farsi, Czech, Yiddish, Yoruba or Kwakwaka’wakw, just to name a few languages that would never otherwise be heard in the public sphere on island.
Beyond recent immigrants, Québecois culture quickly found a voice on Tree Frog Radio as well. While in Eastern Canada, the politics of the French language is often hotly contested, in British Columbia, far from Québec, there is little in the way of a public voice for Francophone culture. Yet for the first several years, until she returned to Quebec City in 2008, Tree Frog broadcast a weekly program hosted by a woman of Québecois heritage, featuring French music and culture, which was presented entirely in that language. In a country that pays lip service to bilingualism, not even the nearest licensed community radio station within listening range provided such a service until much later.
As to island youth, at present, we have had two shows by deejays who are under 18 years of age, one of whom started at 14 during the early days of the station and another who began his show at the end of our fourth year on air at age 15 and is still on air. There is simply no public forum on island where a young person would regularly be given similar responsibility, along with an opportunity to learn radio skills while freely designing his/her own show just as the adult programmers do, or be able to participate in programmers’ meetings as decision-makers, or to deejay at station fundraisers. In essence, Tree Frog is a station whose programmers are drawn from the young and the young at heart. As one older programmer has expressed it “This experience has revived that sense of awe that I had in my youth when it was all new, when so much was out there to be discovered.” Our oldest programmer is in his sixties, an age group that faces similar barriers to doing licensed radio, whether on commercial, public or even community stations, as are encountered by youth in relation to the ageism of conventional broadcasting.
At licensed campus/community radio stations, while the programmers are volunteers, management is typically paid. At Tree Frog where there are no managers, it is an all-volunteer affair. There is no paid staff and so it is all a labour of love (though not without a bit of ego thrown into the mix). All in all, we are a non-hierarchical and self-managing bunch. At this point, Tree Frog meetings (which are open to all programmers and technical support folks) are mainly concerned with making consensual decisions about programming schedules, community fundraisers and station maintenance. In the past more philosophical and sometimes contentious issues such as whether to accept local business sponsorship for individual programs as a way of fundraising or whether to apply for a low watt (5 watt probationary) license were passionately debated. Both ideas were rejected as inappropriate and unnecessary after much internal discussion. In terms of becoming licensed, as expected, not only was the anarchist contingent at the station opposed to going legit, but, for other programmers as well, attempting to become a legal station was generally considered to be too expensive, to involve too long a waiting period, and to be too bureaucratic a process to pursue.
By now the station flows pretty smoothly on its own steam with only occasional programmer meetings and the use of a Tree Frog email list for information-sharing and trouble-shooting. If an islander wants to do a show, we’ll find him/her a slot in the schedule, offer some technical training and put that person on air asap. And because we do not have scheduled programming 24 hours/7 days per week, aside from our publicized programming, we allow for sporadic unscheduled broadcasts by any of our deejays or guest deejays during times when none of our regular programmers are slated to do shows. Since there is no commercial advertising on the station, we rely on grassroots fundraising to pay the bills which now consist of $35 a month for electricity, and incidental costs incurred in maintaining, upgrading and replacing the equipment. The land on which our tiny trailer/studio sits has been donated to us rent-free, and the trailer itself was sold to us at a discounted rate by an islander who supported our efforts. Much of the consumer electronics that constitute our studio equipment have been scavenged (at the island “free store”), picked up cheap at a nearby thrift store, or were donated (mixer, cd players, turntable, mics, and tape decks). Other studio technology has been rebuilt (computer) or, like the mixer and turntable, were eventually purchased new after our original ones had died and could not be easily replaced. We even had a second transmitter donated to us for live remotes by the person who built it at a pirate radio workshop in Berkeley, California.
As to our monthly electricity costs, they are paid for by the recycling of bottles. The station has its own Tree Frog bin at the island recycling center, and anyone can support us by simply depositing their beer and wine bottles in our designated repository. Though all of the other bins are for legal community groups, from the theatre group to the land conservancy, no one seems to mind that we are illegal since its obvious that we are providing a service to the community and not harming anyone in the process. If someone disapproves, they can just put their bottles elsewhere. Since our bin is always full of bottles, either our usual compliment of 12-24 programmers are really heavy drinkers or the community must think we are doing something right.
At first we had to do fundraising to pay for the trailer and the original radio transmission technology (transmitter, antenna, power supply, compressor/limiter) at a total cost of around $1500, but by now our only fixed cost is electricity which tends to be payable through our recycling dividends, with the occasional fundraiser used to purchase a piece of equipment. These fundraisers have taken the form of dance parties which are deejayed by our programmers or themed sit-down dinner parties where the cooking is done by us. Both take place at the community hall as would be the case for any other island fundraiser. In each case the person who attends these grassroots fundraisers gets to participate in supporting the station while attending a community social event in return for their contribution to Tree Frog. In the ensuing direct interaction, we get to meet our listeners face-to-face, though the latter happens informally all the time at the local recycling centre, general store, bookstore, bakery or café as well. Typically, the station’s supporters use fundraising occasions to get an updated copy of the schedule, arrange to go on-air in the future themselves or tell us personally what they enjoy or find problematic about our shows (any complaints go directly to the programmer rather than to the station as a whole). We also get the occasional unsolicited personal check or cash (the latter is preferred since we have no bank account for obvious reasons) at these fundraising events. Yet, in the eyes of the Canadian government, we at Tree Frog are viewed as lawbreakers simply because we want to communicate with our neighbors without a license.
Because of our illegal status, and our desire to be “underground” but not entirely clandestine (as is evidenced by this article), we are aware that the possibility exists that we might be in danger of being shut down by Industry Canada, which is the enforcement arm of the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). However, the CRTC typically operates on a complaint-driven basis, except for when they accidentally come upon a station during their routine survey operations. Therefore, unless someone complains about a station’s existence, it is pretty safe. Industry Canada does not have the mandate, budget or staff to go around looking for pirate stations without a prior complaint. Complaints are typically from commercial broadcasters in relation to pirate signals that they contend are interfering with their licensed signal. Therefore, unless a pirate station is intentionally trying to interfere with the CBC or a corporate station’s signal (and most are not), the chances of drawing a complaint are relatively small, though the risk is still there. In fact, as chance would have it, official notice was taken of our radio broadcasts on one occasion. However, once we became aware of being monitored, before we could be found, we went off air temporarily, then resumed our broadcasts a few weeks later.
Another kind of possible complaint might come from unintentional interference with low power tourist information or emergency broadcast frequencies, and so care must be taken to avoid such problematic overlap. Finally, a disgruntled listener who is offended by a station’s programming and contacts the CRTC can ask them to shut down the station. In general, such complaints typically are the result of a listener being upset by political content, scatological language, denigrating personal innuendo, or can sometimes just stem from a grudge against one or more of the programmers. Rarely, do they take the form of a moral crusade against lawlessness.
At Tree Frog, we are not trying to intentionally interfere with another station’s broadcasts by crowding their frequency partly because that would interfere with ours as well, so complaints in that regard are less likely. Moreover, our visible role on the island means that we have confidence enough in community support to risk a complaint. Any islander who complained to the CRTC about us would be depriving the entire community of a cultural amenity that has become quite well entrenched as part of island life at this point. Consequently, they might think twice about attempting to shut us down. As we say, if you don’t like what’s on Tree Frog Radio, you can either become a programmer yourself, change the channel, shut it off, or just choose not to listen in the first place. In terms of the latter options, we do not lose any advertising revenue based on listenership statistics since there is no advertising. This in turn allows us not to have our programming options restricted by the constraints of marketing research studies and “audience share” data.
However, should Industry Canada for some reason be dispatched to come over to the island to ferret us out, warn us to cease and desist, close us down and/or confiscate our equipment; our first line of community self-defense is the ferry. Sympathetic ferrygoers are our early warning system that trouble might be headed our way in the form of an Industry Canada triangulator van. As it stands, whenever an Industry Canada vehicle is noticed getting on the ferry, we usually get a heads-up call from someone. Similarly, many islanders, though not themselves affiliated with the radio station, let us know that they have our backs when it comes to Industry Canada by alerting us as to when it might be prudent to temporarily go off-air while the feds are on-island on other business. For example, when the Industry Canada van is scheduled to be on island to check the volunteer fire department’s emergency broadcast signal, we usually find out about it through the grapevine so that we can lay low during their visit. And, of course, the various grassroots lines of defense publicly mentioned in the above paragraph do not include more covert means of obtaining sensitive information about regulatory surveillance or the use of subterfuge tactics to keep Industry Canada guessing about our location.
A Tree Frog in the Berry Patch of Anarchy
Tree Frog Radio is both a refusal and an affirmation. It is a refusal of the demeaning and disempowering passivity of the bureaucratic model of licensed mass communications, and it is an affirmation of an everyday anarchism that is rooted in mutual aid and individual freedom. While the squatted airwaves of pirate radio can be seen as an example of Ward’s “seed beneath the snow,” we can look to the ubiquitous on-island presence of the blackberry vine as a way of expanding upon that metaphor. Since wild blackberry seeds have a hard seed coat, they can remain dormant even under winter snow. Rather than constantly requiring cultivation during the growing season, the self-propagating nature of blackberries, implies instead the opening up of artificially enclosed space for wildness to flourish. New blackberry bushes can start not only from seeds (which are typically not planted but spread by animal droppings) but from subsurface rhizomes or crown regrowth.
Stephen Collis has expressed the affinity between the humble blackberry and anarchy in his poem, “Blackberries,” which he read here on-island one summer evening in 2007. Here is an excerpt:
the fruit which I celebrate
growing everywhere we cannot purchase
what no one owns shared
thus our blackberries remnant commonsii
Unlike the garden variety blackberry, which might be compared to licensed radio, the notoriously difficult to control wild blackberry which is capable of springing up anywhere, might be likened to the unruliness of the squatted frequencies of pirate radio. In essence, the gardener’s nightmare of a wild blackberry invasion might alternatively be understood as the gatherer’s utopian dream of Big Rock Candy Mountain ease and abundance. In fact, the relationship between the gardener and the gatherer are not necessarily mutually exclusive in that the same person might be engaged in both activities. One person’s steadfast commitment to gardening a plot of land need not be condemned in order to appreciate the wandering life of the gatherer and vice versa. For some, it is finding the right balance between the two which makes the whole meaningful.
In the case of Tree Frog Radio, it has been the community that has provided the space and the nurturing soil, with the spark of direct action generating enough light and heat to facilitate the initial growth. However, once up and running, like a spreading underground rhizome, the subversive tendrils of free radio can spontaneously proliferate with the brambled tenacity of wild island blackberries.
This article is dedicated to all Tree Frog programmers and our ace tech support crew for providing the energy which animates the station, and to our community which has enabled us to flourish. Personal thanks to all Tree Frog participants for their encouragement and support in the writing of this article, and particularly to Bruce, Jerry and Robert respectively for allowing me to quote their words on what the radio station means to them.
i Colin Ward. Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom Press, 1973/82, p. 14.
ii Stephen Collis. Blackberries. Toronto: Book Thug, 2005/06, pp. 15 and 35.