From suburban garages and urban apartments, a contemporary band of radio pirates is plundering the airwaves in defiance of federal authorities and mighty media conglomerates. These low-wattage broadcasters, whose transmissions typically can be heard only within a few miles to a few blocks of their locations, operate with little more than the technological basics and a rebel's attitude.
Operating underground, and increasingly under pressure from the Federal Communications Commission, the broadcasters and their advocates say they are the only alternative to a deadly homogenization of on-air content by commercial radio stations controlled by a shrinking group of owners.
"Radio everywhere is cookie-cutter, and it sucks," explains Andrew Yoder, publisher of the magazine Hobby Broadcasting and author of a book about pirate radio. "There is really nothing else to say about it."
And management by cookie-cutter can stifle the ability of local musicians to hit the airwaves in their hometowns. "The bigger guys are squeezing out the local sounds," says Andre Bekker, owner of East-West Compact Discs and Tapes, a Winter Park store that promotes Central Florida recording artists. "Nowadays, the actual music is not as important as it used to be."
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency that is pledged to monitor the airwaves, and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the trade group representing FCC-sanctioned radio stations -- those legal broadcasters serving up sound-bite staples such as the Spice Girls -- couldn't disagree more. "Our view of it is that they are clearly breaking the law," says Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the NAB, a national lobbying group. "Logical minds would agree that the potential of anarchy of the airwaves is a real possibility."
In response, the FCC has taken to doing a little swashbuckling itself. In the last 20 months, a time frame that coincides with NAB's increased interest in the issue, the FCC has pulled the plug on over 200 pirate operators across the nation.
FCC officials say 90 percent of those such stations, including a Spanish language-station and a rap/hip-hop station broadcasting in Orlando, go off the air -- or at least further underground -- after simply being contacted by federal officials. More drastic measures are directed toward the 10 percent that don't shut themselves down voluntarily. Operators face sometimes hefty fines and confiscation of their equipment. Last November, a SWAT team that included U.S. marshals, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, state and local police, agents from two federal agencies and "one guy who came later who said he was a CIA guy" stormed the suburban Tampa home/headquarters of Douglas Brewer, known on the air as the "Party Pirate."
Curiously, while FCC spokesman David Fiske says there has "been accelerated effort" to silence the pirates, the agency is simultaneously exploring whether what it calls "microbroadcasters" should be made legal. Fiske says this consideration has nothing to do with the surging efforts of pirate operators across the country; rather, he says, the FCC just wants to explore whether there is a need "to increase the number of opportunities for community voice and niche programming and that type of thing."
The FCC is accepting comments on the idea through July 24. Although Fiske says there is no firm timetable, if the FCC decides to take action that would set up a licensing system, the same microbroadcasters it is currently trying to crush could be legit by this time next year.
Meanwhile, the Tampa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is prepared to support a lawsuit on behalf of broadcasters Brewer and Kelly Benjamin, also known as "Combat Kelly." By going after such pirate operators, Tampa ACLU legal chair Susan Fox says, "the FCC is just blanketly prohibiting a particular form of speech, which there is no good reason to do."
Alan Lunin, chairman of the Central Florida Chapter of the ACLU, adds that pirate radio, is "really an extension of handing out leaflets on the corner."
While willing to pay for litigation, the ACLU needs a legal expert in federal communications law. Even then, Fox says, it will not be easy. "There are a lot of difficulties in taking on the FCC and the very well-financed commercial radio stations."
The debate over who should have access to the nation's airwaves is hardly new. A few pirate operators have been on the air for years, since a 1978 FCC ruling that denied licensing to stations under 100 watts. But the movement has picked up power in the 1990s, partially due to recent technological innovations. Aspiring pirates with the technical know-how can go on the air for a couple of hundred dollars, even via the Internet.
The availability of pirate-station technology increased just as the Telecom Act essentially eliminated caps on the national ownership of radio stations. This has allowed station owners to own more stations in radio markets and create giant radio chains capable of controlling on-air content and ad rates. In 1997, 2,250 stations changed hands. In many markets, including Orlando, owners control multiple stations.
According to the research report, "State of the Industry '98," published by BIA Research, an average of 7.2 owners account for about 90 percent of the listeners in each of the Top 10 radio markets. In Central Florida 17 stations are owned by just three companies. Clear Channel Communications owns WJRR-FM (101.1); SHE-FM (100.3) , WTKS-FM (Real Radio 104.1); WMGF-FM (Magic 107.7); WWNZ-AM (740) and WQTM-AM (540). Cox Radio owns WCFB-FM (94.5); WDBO-AM (580); WHOO-AM (990); WHTQ-FM (96.5); WMMO-AM (98.9); WWKA-FM (92.3) and WZKD-AM (950). And Chancellor Media owns WJHM-FM (101.8); WOCL-FM (105.9); WOMX-AM (105.1); and WXXL-FM (106.7).
In the wake of such a concentration of ownership, pirates say, local flavor is lost. Hip-hop is preprogrammed in Hopkinsville, Ky., the same way it is preprogrammed in New York City. "It's getting to the point where only one or two companies own the radio stations" in any given area, says pirate-radio advocate Yoder. In light of this, the more militant pirate operators -- using names such as Free Radio Berkeley, Black Liberation Radio and Radio Mutiny -- see access to the airwaves as a focus of the free-speech movement.
Although most operate with the utmost secrecy, some make a point of making their presence known. Some even make money selling airtime. But most pirates operate under the basic assumption that too few rich conglomerates are offering too much preprogrammed pabulum while increasingly denying access to other voices and ideas. They see pirate radio as a form of civil disobedience. The pirates say the FCC crackdown is an overreaction, more a matter of simply exerting control rather than any true interest in keeping the airwaves open for necessary communication.
"It's not like we're trying to say anti-government things, or racist or sexist kinds of things," says Brewer, (http://www.ldbrewer.com) the Tampa broadcaster who became a pirate icon after the police raid. Brewer says his 24-hour station was "community radio where you could come in and say and do and address community issues."
The FCC's Fiske says pirates do more than spotlight local music or issues -- they violate federal law. What the public needs to remember, Fiske says, is that there are legitimate users competing for access to the airwaves. Each is carefully regulated not to interfere with the next. Pirates disrupt signals from both licensed stations and other legitimate users of the airwaves, and there have been reports of that occurring in Miami and West Palm Beach.
"I don't know about you," says the NAB's Wharton, "but when I am flying into the Orlando airport I would prefer that my pilot not be interrupted by the pirates."
Carol Dedman, assistant programmer for Real Radio 104.1, says her station experienced interference from a local Spanish-language pirate who has since gone off the air. Although it was a nuisance, she says, what is more bothersome is the attitude of pirate operators who enjoy the "romance of getting away with something. It's not that there aren't opportunities for public input into public stations," she says.
After all, Dedman says, listeners not being served by the corporate-owned stations can always tune in to WUCF or WMFE. What happens most often, she says, is that the programming that pirate operators want to hear -- and play -- just isn't very good. "A lot of people think they have great ideas and they are not in the best interest of the community," she says. "A lot of pirate radio station [operators] are frustrated and angry that no one is listening to them."
Fox, of the Tampa ACLU, says her research indicates "the complaints received from commercial radio station are not based on any actual interference with their signal." Rather, she says, the stations are interested in "maintaining the value of their licenses."
Comments on whether pirate stations should be allowed to apply for a license are being accepted by the FCC until July 24. To comment, visit the FCC website at http://www.fcc.gov or write to the Secretary of the FCC. Re: Rule Making 9208, 9242 and 9246, 1919 M Street NW, Room 222, Washington, D.C., 20554.