"We're trying to give a voice to the invisible," says Genny Nelson, founder of Portland's Sisters of the Road Café. Nelson sits in a loft above a busy diner where about two dozen homeless men and women gather for lunch. Six years ago, Nelson came up with the novel idea to launch a pirate radio station by and for the city's homeless.

"We're going to run the antenna right through the air vents," explains Nelson, who said that the station will be hosted right there in the bustle of the café. At the tip of its social services, Sisters of the Road operates a soup kitchen in the Old Town district. By providing a station that sponsors some of the stronger personalities among the city's homeless and broadcasting public service announcements, Sisters of the Road hopes to extend their outreach programs.

Surprisingly, even Multnomah County has welcomed the wild-hair idea for a pirate radio station, granting Sisters of the Road $15,000 for the purchase of a transmitter and other equipment, even though such a station would violate current federal law. As members of the editorial staff from Street Roots have joined the project, the concept has slowly coalesced toward reality. But perhaps strangest of all, the pirate radio station has gained an unexpected ally: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

After decades of battling rogue stations, the FCC made a conciliatory gesture last January when they began accepting applications for "low-frequency FM stations." The federal regulatory board started handing out permits about a year ago and, according to their original schedule, was slated to review applications from Oregon this January.

The new program would allow for community organizations to emit 100-watt signals--a low-level buzz that would cast the station's voice about five miles. According to Andrea Varvas from the Portland-based Microradio Implementation Project, several other local groups, including a Southeast Asian organization and a Latino farm workers' union in Woodburn, also plan to submit applications.

Yet, ironically, what was meant to be an opportunity to amplify the voice of community groups has become a heated battle being played out on a national scale. A pair of unlikely foes--the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio--have stepped in the way of the FCC's program and threaten to derail the whole deal.

NPR is concerned that the low-powered stations will crowd the lower frequencies of radios--traditionally the territory used by their affiliate stations. (Local affiliate Oregon Public Broadcasting, however, supports the FCC plan for low-powered stations and has broken ranks with their parent company.)

Most recently, the issue on whether to provide low-frequency permits was dragged to the floor of the U.S. Senate, where a coalition of commercial stations and NPR strong-armed a rider to this year's budget that would kill the FCC low-frequency permits. Before the Senate recessed for elections, President Clinton vowed to veto the entire budget if the rider stayed attached.

Pirate radio stations gained notoriety--and their namesake--in the early sixties when a small fleet of offshore vessels began broadcasting rock and roll music back to the mainland of England. Until 1974, under the British Broadcasting Commission (BBC), all radio shows in Britain were under governmental control. In part, these offshore stations helped break the government's hold on the airwaves.

Although radio stations in the U.S. have been privately operated since the inception of broadcast radio, the barriers to launch a station have been nearly insurmountable to community groups. Permits and equipment easily exceed $100,000. In contrast, the new low-powered FM stations will not need the megawatt transmitters and can operate with simple, inexpensive kits.

Even if the FCC ultimately pulls the plug on their low-frequency permits, Sisters of the Road plans to go ahead with their radio station--with or without the FCC's blessing.

"We already have permission from our landlord," says Nelson, referring to their scheme to place an antenna on top of their rented building. "We definitely plan to go forward."