It was 1996, and big media was swallowing up smaller stations in Los Angeles, leaving little room for Latinx voices. The newly enacted Telecommunications Act had lifted restrictions on the number of stations media companies could own in a single market. Intended to spur competition and increase diversity, the legislation would have the opposite effect.
But even before the media consolidation of the 1990s, FCC regulations privileged big money. A 1978 rule eliminated licenses for so-called low power radio stations broadcasting at 10 watts, creating an insurmountable barrier for community radio.
It was into this barren media-scape that the pirate radio station Radio Clandestina emerged as an arm of the Centro de Regeneración/Popular Resource Center in Highland Park, the cultural and community center co-founded in 1993 by Rage Against the Machine vocalist Zack de la Rocha and local artist Aida Salazar.
According to Mark Torres, the host of “Travel Tips for Aztlan,” a Latin Music show on Pacifica Radio’s Los Angeles station KPFK, Radio Clandestina gave voice to a community that had been overlooked. “There weren’t for-profit or even not-for-profit radio stations that embraced the Chicano community, our history and culture, and the celebration of our culture, the music, the poetry, the activism. And so these young people [who started the station] felt they could make a difference.”
“Regeneración: Three Generations of Revolutionary Ideology,” an exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum that focuses on the intersections of political protest and artistic practices across national boundaries and generations, introduces Radio Clandestina as an important example of the kind of experimentation the artists in that third generation engaged in.
Vincent Price Art Museum Director Pilar Tompkins-Rivas remembers Radio Clandestina from its early days, long before the research into this exhibition began to coalesce. Her friend Victoria Delgadillo was the host of “Chuck D for President,” one of the station’s politically conscious music shows. On air, Delgadillo went by La Victoria, and during her first broadcast, she joked about using a radio name in a nod to the ever-present possibility that the FCC could shut down the station and its DJs could face legal repercussions.
The micro-radio movement, which adopted a stance of civil disobedience in its nationwide efforts to restore radio as a community resource and platform for activism, proved influential to Radio Clandestina’s formation. The plan to start a micro-station at the Centro de Regeneración was hatched after one of its members read in Z Magazine how pirate stations were being used as sites of resistance in other metro areas across the country.
De la Rocha’s interest in the economic empowerment of the families from the neighborhoods around the Center and his solidarity with urban working poor and international labor politics, which informed the aspirations and mission of Centro de Regeneración/Popular Resource Center, in turn, informed the station as well. Indeed, the Highland Park-based Regeneración took its name from the early 20th Century newspaper published by the anarchist Magón brothers, who were major figures in the Mexican Revolution.
According to Edgar Toledo, a DJ who joined the station in September 1996, the DJs wanted to “promote culture and music and perspectives that were not being covered” in the mainstream. The station would also become a “hub for Zapatista support and awareness of the Chiapas struggle,” with a number of DJs and others from the Popular Resource Center, including de la Rocha, traveling to Chiapas for a series of encuentros, the meetings and cultural exchanges set up by the Zapatistas.
Torres also had a show on Radio Clandestina. He says that the station “was modeled in a lot of ways after what Pacifica Radio did when they started in 1949. It was about education. It was about art, community and culture, music, poetry and providing the community with resources they wouldn’t normally have.” That involved inviting on guests who could offer “high-level analyses of the things that were happening in their communities. When people didn’t understand why they weren’t earning a good wage, or why 100 years after the labor movement, they were still working 40 hours a week for minimum wage. They wanted to know why these dynamics were still happening, and how do we do something about it?”
But the station struggled with two existential issues. The first was financial, and they had to change locations frequently and eventually ended up broadcasting from people’s homes. The second was the need to fly under the radar of the FCC.
The two had the potential to intertwine uncomfortably. The station had learned from contacts in the micro-radio movement that for broadcasting without a license, the consequences could include the arrest of any individuals where the broadcast was being made, fines and confiscation of all equipment linked to the transmission. “There had been some micro-radio broadcasters who had been arrested and fined, and some had been let off easy, with just a warning. The DJs didn’t necessarily want to be in that situation, and there was a group that was in charge of finding legal representation in case the FCC came down on Radio Clandestina. They were also responsible for raising legal defense funds,” says Toledo.
“As the FCC started tracking down stations that were operating without a license, Radio Clandestina had several run-ins where they had to protect themselves from getting their equipment confiscated and any other penalties that came with it. They were forced to have to deal with the question, ‘What is the FCC doing keeping an educational resource away from the community?’” Torres says.
According to Toledo there was some disagreement over long-term goals. One of the founding members favored getting caught broadcasting without a license and getting arrested by the FCC. He wanted to take the battle to court. “But some of us just wanted to present different views on the air and to try to do it without getting caught,” says Toledo.
Ultimately, they went off the air for a couple of weeks while the FCC was conducting sweeps. The goal, he says, was to continue broadcasting for as long as they could.
Some of the DJs found their way back on the air as the Radio Clandestina Collective even after the Centro de Regeneración/Popular Resource Center closed its doors and Radio Clandestina folded in 1999. Another micro-radio station called Radio Huehuetero started broadcasting from City Terrace on Radio Clandestina’s old frequency, 104.7 and gave them an eight-hour broadcasting block.
The station’s importance, says Tompkins-Rivas, is that it was a place for experimentation and agency that encompassed a range of expressions, including the arts, music, political messaging and, of course, radio programming, and “it provided a flexible platform for the many different voices that coalesced around the Centro de Regeneración in Highland Park in the 1990s, to become engaged and activate their community.”
“I think it’s important to note the lack of diversity in mainstream media in the 1990s,” she says. “We still experience that today, especially in the Latinx community, and certainly at that time, that was a very important and prescient issue. I think Radio Clandestina provided an alternative form of mass communication. Even if it was only being broadcast hyper-locally, the fact that it existed is a very revolutionary thing.”
Top Image: Asco. Stations of the Cross, 1971 | Seymour Rosen. © SPACES – Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments