Naked City

Ill Communications

Free Radio Austin's original studio after the Oct. 10 raid
Free Radio Austin's original studio after the Oct. 10 raid (Photo By Shannon Young)

Austin citizens can breathe a little easier this week, thanks to the extraordinary diligence and dedication of the Federal Communications Commission, FCC enforcement agent Loyd P. Perry, and U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks. Under the terms of a preliminary injunction requested by Perry and issued by Sparks on Nov. 13, three Austin citizens "and all those acting in active concert with them" are henceforth enjoined from "making any radio transmissions within the United States unless and until they first obtain a license or the appropriate authorization from the Federal Communications Commission in accordance with the Communications Act."

In plain English, that means Free Radio Austin is once again off the air, and volunteer programmers Rebecca Berthold, John Seibold, and Tilford Ansel Chamkis had better not try to start it up again, unless they want to really piss off a federal judge.

As reported in the Chronicle previously, Free Radio's Eastside broadcasting station was raided and its equipment seized by Perry on Oct. 10 and again (after volunteers and donors quickly reconstituted the station) on Nov. 6, this time by Perry and a company of Austin Police Dept. officers. Driving away, Perry managed to send a station supporter to the hospital (she's fine), and in due course he requested an injunction in federal district court against the only programmers he could identify with certainty -- Berthold (who prefers the on-air moniker "Reckless"), Seibold, and Chamkis -- as well as "any and all John and Mary Does" working with them.

The FCC's court documents read like an episode of "Guy Noir, Private Eye." Perry (who is based in Houston) recounts in painstaking detail how he journeyed to Austin after receiving "anonymous telephone reports" about the station; how he tracked it down with his high tech mobile directional equipment; and how he fearlessly confronted the residents on the property. Perry describes two earlier raids in some detail, but of the Nov. 6 raid says only that "Tilford Ansel Chamkis was found operating Free Radio Austin on 97.1 MHz in Austin, Texas, on November 6, 2000." The injunction itself cites the federal Communications Act to the effect that, without FCC licensing, there would be a "cacophony of competing voices, none of which could be clearly and predictably heard."

Later, Chamkis spoke to the Chronicle about the injunction and court hearing, at which the programmers represented themselves. "We couldn't contest the fact that we were technically breaking the law," Chamkis said, "but the whole premise of the law and the hearing was that the FCC is preventing 'interference' with licensed radio stations. The FCC tells us that we need to have a license, but they've also made it plain that they're not granting licenses to 'pirate' stations. I questioned Perry on the stand, and he admitted that he had no evidence that there had been actual interference with other stations -- only that the 'potential' for interference existed. Well, that's true of any station, licensed or not." (Listeners who have tuned in to 97.1's mix of music, news, and political commentary are well aware that if they're too far from the transmitter -- or even pointed in the wrong direction -- they'll lose the signal. The notion that the station might seriously "interfere" with the likes of, say, KVET's overwhelming yodelings is a stretch.)

Chamkis recorded the last five minutes of Free Radio's Nov. 6 broadcast, and it's a sobering listen. When Agent Perry begins pounding on the door, Chamkis first asks the station's listeners to come out and support the station, and then asks the agents to provide a warrant: "Please, show me a warrant," Chamkis says, "and I'll let you in." The agents' only response is to pound against the door and demand entry. Finally, they break a window, Chamkis lets them in, and within a few moments, Free Radio Austin goes silent.

"I was frightened," Chamkis told the Chronicle, "but I didn't want to let them in without a warrant. Once they broke the window, I thought there wasn't any point to keeping the door locked."

Perry and the FCC have thus far succeeded in silencing the station, as the programmers haven't yet found new equipment or a potential location. Chamkis isn't certain what will happen next; the programmers may seek legal assistance to fight the issuance of a permanent injunction. But the feds may find that enjoining Reckless, Seibold, and Chamkis won't be sufficient to stop the "cacophony of competing voices." There were an estimated 80 or more "John and Mary Does" in attendance at the Nov. 13 hearing, all with the knowledge and determination to bring free radio back to Austin.

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