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Pirates of the Radio on 94.9 FM

by   BOB DORAN

THEY FLY THE PIRATE'S SKULL AND CROSSBONES PROUDLY to declare their place outside the law. This is not the "radio without the rules" promised by KHUM. This is broadcasting outside of the Federal Communications Commission's legal boundaries -- radio beyond any rules.

You never know what you might hear when you tune in to 94.9 FM. It could be unexpurgated raps from the latest hip hop artists, hard core punk or a discussion of modern minimalist music with a 20-minute song by Steve Reich. It might be a mix including tunes by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Peter Gabriel. Then again it could be someone reading a book by Dr. Seuss, discussing watershed issues or explaining how to fix your bicycle.

They call it pirate radio because they have no license to broadcast. The low power FM transmitter pumps out a 17-watt signal from a top secret location somewhere in Arcata, far below the level of any commercial or public station. The signal doesn't reach very far. It is clear in most parts of Arcata and if conditions are right you can hear the station on the outskirts of Eureka and in parts of McKinleyville.

You find microradio stations like 94.9 all over the country. Some state their intent overtly with names like Radio Mutiny, Rogue Communications or Radio Free Conscience. There is a Radio Kook in San Francisco, N.Y. Free Media Alliance, Free Radio Memphis and North Seattle Grassroots Radio -- just a few of hundreds of stations operating on a variety of levels around the country. Free Radio Berkeley, founded by Steven Dunifer, is perhaps the most famous.

And the movement is certainly not limited to the United States. Radio Free Quebec, UK Pirate Radio, Radio Topo in Zaragoza, Spain, Radio Onda Rosa in Rome, Radio 4ZZZ FM in Queensland, Australia, and Radio 100 Ether FM in Amsterdam are some of the international pirates who advertise with websites.


[photo of Mr. Ed]   Mr. Ed, 94.9's founder.


94.9's founder is a softspoken young man who goes by the radio name, Mr. Ed. He explained how he ended up in pirate broadcasting.

"I was living in a town in the Sacramento Delta called Bethel Island and got into doing radio through a friend. I met this guy when I was working with him and one day he was like, `Hey, how would you like to learn how to build a radio station?' I said, `Okay.' He showed me the schematic and how to solder. Beyond that it's basically just following an instruction book and putting pieces together."

They assembled a transmitter using parts from several of other radio stations -- one had been shut down, another had upgraded -- and out of spare parts from these incomplete transmitters came one working unit. They installed it in an old suitcase for portability. Their first broadcast location was a boat on the Sacramento River.

"Then we took it all over the place doing mobile broadcasts," said Ed. "We would put up flyers around Sacramento during the day, then broadcast that night. I had never done anything like it before. It was an experiment and it was a lot of fun.

"Eventually I was thinking about finding a good place to set up a more permanent station. I came to Arcata -- I had heard from friends who had lived here it was a cool place so I came and checked it out -- and I really liked it. I had the transmitter with me and told a few people about it, suggesting we could get something going."

In April Ed and a couple of friends set up the transmitter and began broadcasting using a couple of boom boxes linked with a small mixer.

"I started small," he recalled. "I would go on the air at 10 at night for a couple of hours, then I had another person do it on certain nights. After that it just grew and grew."

While at first people just heard about the station through word of mouth, a mention in the Arcata Eye newspaper generated a lot of attention. The deejay known as Mr. Octane got involved early in the station's short history. As a part-time musician, he has been part of the local punk rock scene for years and recognizes the power of the medium. When a friend asked if he wanted to co-deejay a show, he quickly agreed. He said at that point the station's equipment situation was "really minimal.


[photo of Mr. Octane] Mr. Octane


"I had a 16-track board that I donated that allowed us to cue and have fades. That's when people could really start running it like a deejay booth. You could cue stuff on turntables and CDs. That's when we pushed forward to bring more people in.

"I used to deejay at KHSU and being in the music scene I'm really into what radio can do. There was a core group of deejays who were part of the punk scene. We would let people know about shows coming up -- not the big ticket things, just the small shows. Sometimes it was just a band playing at someone's house. When people showed up, you realized that there were people listening," Octane said.

"One thing that radio can do is it can convey a message fast, in fact instantaneously. I think this station fills a void. It does things no one else is doing around here. The public stations do a decent job, but here we have a freedom that they don't. We can play music that is not commercial friendly."

The most immediate indication of the success of the pirates was the response of those who wanted to become part of the station. There were never any hard and fast rules about who could become involved.

"When it started we were trying to get enough people to fill the time," said Octane. "Now if you miss your shift because you just don't show up, there's plenty of people who are more than ready to jump in. We have a waiting list of trained people who want a shift."

"It's all pretty loose," explained a deejay known as Pigpen. "People got ahold of us and we'd put them on the air. There's a little bit of training required, but it's not rocket science. It takes a certain amount of familiarity with the gear. You have to know which button to push and where you shouldn't set your soda."

As soon as Bicycle Bill saw what was going on at 94.9 he knew he wanted to be involved. He has a regular show on Friday mornings, but also hangs around when he can to act as a handyman or to fill in if someone misses a shift. He says his reasons for getting involved were twofold. He liked hearing his voice on the radio and he sees the station as something that allows him to improve the lives of others.

"I do a spiritual uplift thing in the morning for an hour with a little music and my preaching about things. Then I do `Bike Talk' where people call in with questions about working on their bicycles or talk about bicycle-related events or human-powered technology of some form or another.

"The object is getting communication out there. I see the station as a community strengthening device, a communications center. It gets people together so that they know each other better. You end up with people working together for each other instead of battling each other. This is a chance for anyone in the neighborhood to get their say and that's important."

"We have over 50 people doing shows with a wide range of music styles and ages represented," said Pigpen. "We have one deejay who comes in after school. He's 12 -- I think he's in the 8th grade. He plays swing and reggae, all kinds of stuff. Then we have a guy doing a show who is around 75. He tells stories about his travels."

Mr. Ed quickly realized that the station's rapid growth would require the pirates to develop some semblance of an organizational structure.

"Things are coming up that make it somewhat complicated. Certain people have to be accountable for certain things. You have to know what's happening day by day. We're at a point where we have to have some sort of treasurer and a program director. Not someone who tells people what to play. It's more like a coordinator, someone who knows who goes on when."

Mr. Octane says the growth has been part of a valuable learning experience.

"A lot of these people have never been in a situation where they are part of a larger group where you have to come to a consensus. People are learning about the power of radio, but I think they are learning something even more important. They're learning about being part of a bigger picture and finding out where they fit in."


[photo of "Hi there, it's ME."


 

In July, around the time the station was really starting to take off, the station caught the attention of federal regulators.

"What happened was supposedly someone made a complaint to the FCC," said Mr. Ed. "We don't know who it was or when the complaint was made. It was anonymous. They showed up one night this summer and they just came in. They didn't knock on the door. The guy who was on the air heard the door squeak open and someone walking up the stairs. He thought it was the next deejay showing up for their show, but when he looked around the corner there were these two conservatively dressed men."

The deejay that night goes by the name Dave Dolittle. He says he was alone in the building at the time.

"I was playing Bob Marley's song, `Rebel Music,' and two men just walked in and slapped down some badges showing they were from the FCC. They asked me if I had a license to operate the radio station and I said no.

"I told them we didn't have the amount of money required to pay for a license to operate a legal station and went over the whole thing about pirate radio -- how corporations are dominating the media and about how only the big corporations can afford the licenses because they cost way over $100,000, which effectively shuts out the poor and disenfranchised who can't afford it.

"Their response was, `Yes, but you have to follow the rules made by the legislature or whoever.' They were very polite. They didn't order me to shut it down, they said they would like me to shut it down. They said if I didn't, they would be back and they might confiscate the equipment.

"They served some papers but they didn't have much on them, just a little bit about FCC rules. It had (Mr. Ed's) name on it."

The only other identification on the document was the name, "Free Arcata Radio."

Free Arcata Radio was a short-lived pirate station that operated on the far left of the dial out of a closet somewhere in Arcata. A small group started and ran it using a transmitter built by the infamous Steven Dunifer of Radio Free Berkeley.

A visit to the station in fall of 1995, arranged by an Arcata City Council member who was involved with the project, showed a bare bones set-up. The transmitter was connected directly to a beat up portable cassette player, and a Sony Discman was connected to that. F.A.R. never really gained the momentum that 94.9 enjoys and quietly disappeared from the airwaves.

Dunifer founded his 50-watt FM station in 1993 and has been a vocal proponent of so-called free radio. To fulfill his motto, "let a thousand transmitters bloom,'' he has sold hundreds of low-cost kits to would-be pirates.

On the Free Radio Berkeley website you can find everything you need to start a station. At the low end, a 15-watt transmitter and power supply are offered for around $500. The site describes his organization as "part of an ever-growing micropower broadcasting movement to liberate the airwaves and break the corporate broadcast media's stranglehold on the free flow of news, information, ideas, cultural and artistic creativity.''
Dunifer's militant stance drew attention from the FCC and it shut down the station. His response was to take the FCC to court for a protracted battle challenging the rules that regulate broadcasting.

 

But aside from some high profile cases, the FCC has not been particularly aggressive in its war on illegal low-power stations. According to statistics supplied by About.com, FCC agents have contacted just 33 stations nationwide during 1999; 18 illegal broadcasters had their transmitters seized in raids; 13 stations were visited and served papers; and two contacts were made by mail. No fines were issued.

Mr. Ed does not think the FCC agents who visited 94.9 came here to close down the station.

"The way I figure it, they were up here on routine checks of the other stations, K-whatever and K-whatever. They have the authority to inspect anything that transmits whether it's a garage door opener or a radio station. Technically it's not a search, because they are just looking at transmitters, so they can come in any time unannounced.

"Anyway, after the deejay turned the transmitter off they left. The next day we had a station meeting with everyone who was involved at the time, maybe 20 people.

"The FCC guys showed up again and walked in. They thanked us for taking the antennae down. We asked them a few questions about what it was we did wrong and how we could be legal," said Mr. Ed.

"Supposedly we can apply for a license fee waiver. They say you can become a legitimate non-commercial station for free -- they say that -- but they generally don't grant those free licenses. I'm told that in 20 years of the program's existence they have only granted a waiver twice."

The FCC has issued two waivers in the 20 years since the Class D license was abolished. One was for a transmitter on an Indian reservation in New Mexico, the other for a small community in the interior of Alaska.

Some of the many illegal low-power FM stations have applied for fee waivers. Going through the motions may help in legal challenges if they are ever brought to court. In the case of FCC vs. Dunifer, the defense argued the fact that the fee waivers are almost never issued shows that the FCC does not service those without the means to buy a license.

U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken granted the FCC an injunction for almost five years while she considered the National Lawyers' Guild and Dunifer's constitutional arguments. Ultimately she ruled for the FCC, stating that since Dunifer had never applied for a license or for a waiver of the 100-watt minimum requirement for a license, he had no legal standing to challenge the regulations.

Up until 20 years ago the FCC issued "class D" licenses for non-commercial stations operating at a minimum of 10 watts. But the low power permits were abolished under pressure from the radio industry's lobbying organization, the National Association of Broadcasters, with support from National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which wanted to consolidate control of noncommercial broadcasting and what public money was available.

Current FCC rules base commercial FM license allocations on a minimum power of 6,000 watts but also allows transmitters, known as "repeaters," with power levels of less than 100 watts. These stations are not permitted to originate programming. All they can do is rebroadcast the signal from their mother station.

FCC Chairman William Kennard supports an overhaul of the regulations covering low-power FM, much to the displeasure of the NAB. A number of plans are under discussion and supporters and opponents have filed comments. It is likely that the FCC will come up with new rules some time next year.

 

The NAB does not like pirate radio one bit. Nor does it want to see low-power FM legitimized. At a press conference earlier this year NAB officials discussed their dissatisfaction with FCC plans to lower the minimum broadcast wattage charging, "Low-power radio will create chaos on the airwaves."

Bruce Reese, chairman of the NAB Radio Spectrum Integrity Task Force is quoted on the NAB website saying, "I cannot believe the FCC will ignore what every respectable broadcast engineer knows instinctively -- that when more stations are shoved onto a congested radio dial, the result will be more interference for the listener. With all due respect, how does extra static on the radio dial translate into `voices for the voiceless?'"

The argument applies more directly to urban areas where hundreds of stations jockey for position with a wide array of transmitters operating at different power levels and locations. In Humboldt County there seems to be a lot of space on the dial.

"We're not trying to step on anyone's toes," said Octane. "We picked 94.9 because it's a safe spot on the dial and we haven't had any complaints of our signal bleeding onto anyone else's. We're trying to do what everybody else wants to do in running a radio station, but we don't have a million dollars to do it."

The pirates are keeping an eye on the process, but even if the rules loosen they may never bother to apply for a license.

"I don't know what we would gain by being licensed other than the fact that it would take away the legal risk," said Ed. "According to the documents they gave us, the penalty can be $100,000 fine and/or a year in prison. But I think that's just scare tactics.

"What we decided at the meeting the day after the FCC visit was to turn the transmitter back on and go for it. We haven't turned it off for months now. We operate 24 hours a day."

At this point no one involved with the station seems overly concerned with the legality of what they are doing, said Octane. "We don't address the FCC issue every meeting. We're more concerned with improving the equipment, more worried about things like the fact that the headphone jack isn't working right.

"We operate on duct tape and vice grips, that's how we get by. But it works. With 50 people, it definitely gets abused a little bit and we don't have a budget for repairs or plant operations or programming.

"When we did our first benefit we made a decent amount of money. We put it towards getting a 200 disc CD changer and some other equipment that helped make it a little more professional sounding. We don't have big plans for expansion. We'll do small benefits and save up for a better turntable."


[photo of 200-disc CD player] The 200-disc CD player.


While there is some concern that the FCC could possibly seize the 94.9 transmitter and the attached equipment, no one seems to worry about being arrested.

"When it comes down to it, they can't really prove who did what," said Ed. "There are no records, no receipts to show who is involved. They're not going to put 50 pirates in jail. If you take the legal threat away, why would we want to be licensed? They could come in and seize all the equipment if they want, but for a thousand bucks we can go out and get more.

"It seems like part of the spark of it is that we're not licensed. I don't want to sacrifice anything just so they can say it's all right to do what we're doing. I'd like to see it stay low power, unlicensed but community-supported, and see where it goes.

"Even if we could, I would never want to become commercial in any way and follow their guidelines. At that point it's not free radio. Even though most people stay within certain guidelines, it's nice to know you don't have to. There's no one to say that you have to insert this promo here or announce the name of the station on the hour. No one to tell you you have to play three Led Zeppelin songs by noon.

"The community seems to like it and it's been a great thing for a lot of people. You can get on the microphone then hear the phone ring. And there's a complete stranger who's got something to say about what you just said. It feels good to get up there and feel the power, to say something and know that people are listening."


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