The Life (and Death) of WRFB

I’m not sure of the year that it first went on the air, but I am darned sure of the exact date when it went off. And that was December 15, 1975, when officials from the Federal Communications Commission arrived at the Bolinas Community Public Utilities District building on Elm Road, confiscated radio equipment from a small studio on the second floor, and padlocked the doors so that no one could get in.

This was the end of the road for WRFB, call letters that were short for WRadio Free Bolinas, a small station — 1/10th of a watt – essentially designed to barely broadcast across the span of the Bolinas Mesa and be difficult to receive downtown – that had been launched by Michael Rafferty a year or so earlier and that had inspired the inner DJ that lives inside all of us, including myself and Charles Whitefield, two young pals that shared a teenage radio program one evening a week. This wasn’t your average teenage radio show as Charles did then, and I’m sure still does, have far better taste in music than I and was responsible for any musical selections that we would broadcast. It was what happened between the songs that I believe got the station thrown off the air, which I will go into later.

Anyone that was around Bolinas in the 1970’s remembers that all good things sprang from Michael Rafferty. He created the Bolinas Hearsay News around 1972, and started Faultline Institute, an institute of community-based learning. Michael was also an incredible butcher down at the Bolinas Store, and obviously was a media mogul in the making as he came up with the idea of launching a community radio station. If memory serves me correctly, Mickey Cummings and Terry Bell had something to do with creating the electronics board and studio high above the BPUD, though I could be mistaken about that.

Anyway, many of the townspeople signed up for time on the air, including Dotty LeMieux, Beta, Paul Elliott, Max Crosley, my older brother Hacsi, and others. Program schedules were printed in the Hearsay and one would sign up for time on neatly organized sheets of paper that were kept at the station. Informal critiques of previous day’s programs could often be heard across breakfast tables at Scowley’s.

Charles and I were no different than anyone else. It was just fun to have a radio show where we would play music, comedy albums, and make prank telephone calls on the air from a pay phone that had been installed in the studio. We even prank phone called the White House, calling collect and asking to speak with the president. This is where the trouble began.

We should have noticed that something was awry that night in mid December when we received a phone call from a listener who said that he was picking up the signal from his home in San Francisco, which of course is a straight shot across the bay from the mesa club house. We had been asking for listeners to call in with requests, and the caller had phoned in to say that WRFB’s signal had drowned out his classical station. He was pleased with our broadcast, however, which only bolstered our resolve to keep having fun.

The evening of the call-in was December 14, which also happened to be my 15th birthday. After the call, I remember remarking on the air about how the 1/10th of a watt signal must have been more powerful than we had realized, and that instead of having dozens of listeners that we must have listeners in the thousands! In a brief moment of teenage gravitas, and entirely joking, I leaned into the Microphone and dared the FCC to shut us down. And then we went back to playing music and a cut or two from the Firesign Theatre.

It was the very next morning at around 10 AM when the FCC arrived with the padlocks.

Tagged with: