ON MARCH 23, AN AGENT FROM THE Federal Communications Commission knocked at the door of Free Seattle Radio, an underground station hidden on Capitol Hill. The agent had been driving around with a tracking device looking for FSR; since he didn't have a warrant, he wasn't allowed inside. But the station's collective decided to go off the air for a while anyway, just to be safe. FSR DJ and collective member Harper's Fairy (obviously not his real name) says he expects the station to resume broadcasting soon: "Our mission," he says, "is to broadcast music and ideas that are underrepresented in Seattle and to oppose the homogenization of culture. We've been doing just that every night for three and a half months, and we're not about to stop now."

The station, which could be found by much of Seattle at 87.9 FM, had been broadcasting some of the most diverse programming in the city. On a typical night, you might have heard commentaries by death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, "Two Fucking Nuns" discussing homophobia and AIDS, local music, thought-provoking spoken word pieces, and debates over local issues. Anyone from the community was welcome to participate, as long as they checked the hate speech at the door and presented material that couldn't be heard elsewhere in Seattle.

FSR grew out of the ashes of now-defunct pirate stations FUCC and Seattle Liberation Radio, with the help of grassroots activists from groups like Food Not Bombs, which feeds homeless people. FSR was working toward a 24-hour broadcasting schedule when the FCC tracked it down, and was on its way to becoming something of an underground institution. Because it operates illegally, FSR has no official way of measuring the size of its listenership, but DJ Mash Bun, another collective member, says, "We get a ton of e-mail, voice mail, and tapes from local musicians, and when we set up a table at the recent Fugazi/The Ex benefit, many people in attendance said they were listeners." A January FSR benefit, attended by The Stranger, drew an estimated 150 people and raised $600 for the station.

The FCC visit comes at a particularly troubling time. FCC Chairman William Kennard has proposed legalizing "micropower" stations of under 100 watts. Precisely what that means hasn't been spelled out--a battle over the details rages between community radio proponents and representatives of big broadcasting. The most heated discussions revolve around who will get to operate legal micropower stations. Community radio advocates are calling for a system that favors non-commercial, locally owned and operated stations. Big broadcasting interests, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters, are pushing for prohibitive licensing fees--and unfortunately for stations like FSR, they also want anyone convicted of running a pirate station moved to the bottom of the eligibility list.

Locally, and independently of FSR, a group called Community Powered Radio has formed to push the community radio agenda. A coalition of activists, civil rights lawyers, microbroadcasters, and artists, CPR has been organizing citizens, gathering endorsements from grassroots groups, and lobbying city government (city councils in Boston; Grover Beach, California; and Berkeley have passed resolutions supporting micro-radio). While cities have no say when it comes to regulating the broadcast spectrum, the symbolic support of Seattle and other city governments could be a critical factor in shaping the future of low-power radio. Activists point to city council resolutions against apartheid in the '80s as examples of cities influencing national and international policies.

Sheri Herndon, CPR organizer and former KCMU news director, says reclaiming publicly owned airwaves is vital to a democratic society. "FSR is one step in the right direction toward media democracy," she says. "The FCC's attempt to shut down FSR is an example of their fear of the people having their own voice. It is time for the people to get involved in this movement. The result will decide whether America wins for itself another truly democratic institution like the public libraries, or gets stuck with another business."

A benefit for Free Seattle Radio will be held Sat April 3 at Vodvil Theater/Cinema 18, at 18th & Union in Seattle. ICU, the Cuckoos, Ensemble Sub Masa, Ape-o-nauts, Tripod, Sickness, the Yell Kings, Lesli Wood, and various spoken word artists will perform. Suggested donation is $6. To reach FSR, call (206) 233-1198. To reach Community Powered Radio, call (206) 329-6116.