It's after ten on a recent Saturday morning, and more than two hours into a pancake breakfast fund-raiser for the west-side microwatt radio station Guerrilla Love Radio. But only a smattering of people sit around the Autonomous Zone's mismatched tables, where they mainline coffee and munch veggie sausage under an Active Resistance banner.
"People in pirate radio are not early risers," says GLR DJ Toxic Cloud. "But a group of kids in their 20s came in earlier--they'd been up all night."
Most everyone present is a DJ or former DJ for GLR, an illegal free-form station (see www.chifreeradio.org) that broadcast alternative music and talk nightly on 107.1 FM from early 2000 until March 17 of this year. That's when they went off the air for what they thought would be just a few weeks. "A couple of people were playing Irish music and I was thinking, 'It's Saint Patrick's Day, and we have to shut down right now,'" recalls Toxic Cloud. "I remember wishing them a happy Saint Patrick's Day in the process." He won't go into detail about why the station had to pull the plug, except to say that it had far more to do with "potential landlord problems" than trouble from the FCC, which shut down Milwaukee's Wireless Virus station in April.
While looking for a safer site from which to broadcast, the station members sent their transmitter to Honduras, where a group of peasants from the National Center of Agricultural Workers are trying to reclaim land abandoned by multinational fruit companies. "I'm not interested in putting on really great music for Wicker Parkians," says DJ Cyanide, a longtime activist whose roommate took the transmitter down to Central America. He's trying to amass as many pieces of equipment as possible and send them to hot spots around the world, noting that a transmitter is "an important organizing tool, especially for a population that's largely illiterate."
GLR's two backup transmitters proved unusable, and GLR waited months for one to come back from Free Radio Berkeley, a pioneering microradio station that started up in the early 1990s and whose founder, Stephen Dunifer, makes, sells, and repairs microwatt radio kits. Station members are holding the benefit in order to buy a more reliable transmitter--which can cost anywhere between $300 and $600--or possibly two, and they hope to be up and running again by September. Toxic Cloud says that'll mark "a new chapter in our operations," in which they "are a little more proactive in talking to the community and getting people in the neighborhood involved--not just young hip art students but community leaders and nonwhite people and especially working-class people."
Only about half the station's volunteer DJs are from the area the station covers--Wicker Park, the East Village, and occasionally parts of Bucktown and Humboldt Park--and increasing community involvement is partly why they decided to hold a family-friendly pancake breakfast instead of the usual late-night beer-and-band fund-raiser. The sliding scale donation of $5 to $10 includes unlimited coffee, fake sausage, and vegan fruit pancakes, which Toxic Cloud made from scratch using arrowroot and soy milk. A group of about ten regular DJs has been holding periodic meetings since going off the air, and they've publicized this event through the New World Resource Center and the A-Zone. They've also posted flyers around West Town, though none are in Spanish. "I'm not fluent enough to do a flyer en espanol," says Toxic Cloud.
Nonetheless, he speaks rudimentary Spanish to a man who comes in looking for work. "I told him this is a volunteer-run space," he explains, after the man leaves without eating. "Payment creates a hierarchy." Unlike commercial radio, GLR has no program director and all decisions are made by consensus. DJs pay monthly dues of $10 to $20, which go toward expenses like rent and equipment repair.
Three more people wander in, and now the tables include folks with names like Stinky Fish and Malice, as well as the Soul Rebel and the Fishwife. "More DJs will show up later," Toxic Cloud promises. "If they can pull themselves out of bed."
A couple from the motorcyclists' association ABATE sit at a table trading war stories with Cyanide, bemoaning the difficulties they've encountered trying to get health insurance. Then the conversation turns to Honduras. "The corporations here are taking over the airwaves," says Cyanide. "But in Latin America the corporations are taking over the land." He's been teaching other local activists how to set up and use a transmitter, which requires a certain degree of technical know-how and "is not like a VCR, with buttons." He's been approached by a group hoping to set up a station in Back of the Yards, and is on the lookout for a couple of pieces of equipment to send to activists in Ecuador.
Nowadays the only regularly broadcasting microwatt station in town is the north side's Redline Radio (www.
redlineradio.org). It started up last fall on 99.1 FM and covers the lakefront from Uptown to Evanston. The Soul Rebel is involved with both stations. Redline inherited its 40-watt transmitter from GLR, and the stations held a joint benefit carnival earlier this year--another attempt to do something more community oriented.
"We want to show people that there is more to life than what's being presented," Soul Rebel says. "We're hoping they take our example and start doing more revolutionary, autonomous things with their own lives, instead of waiting for a global revolution to come."
By noon--when the event is supposed to end--nearly every one of the two dozen seats in the A-Zone is occupied. A couple with a baby eat at one table. The Breeders are playing on the tinny stereo, and the flapjacks are going fast. "You should start a diner here," says a kid in a black Youth Liberation T-shirt. A pair of skinny guys are wolfing down their food; they had read about the event in the A-Zone's newsletter. They've come by to get information on hitchhiking from the collective's extensive library--and some breakfast. They've never heard GLR, they say, "but we'll probably start listening now."