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Tower of low power

Is pirate radio finally ready to go legit?



When it comes to songs that objectify women, you'd be hard pressed to come up with one that's more obscure, more innocuous or more ridiculous. Over a simple hip-hop beat, two rappers — one male, one female — trade call-and-response lines with the exuberance of teenagers in heat:

I wanna see your breasteses / your breasteses / your breasteses.

Do you wanna see my breasteses / my breasteses / my breasteses?

And so on.

Sadly, the identities of the artists responsible for this pre-Miley Cyrus ode to anatomical attraction are lost to history, as is the song itself. But if you happened to live in Sacramento, Calif., during the mid-2000s — and, like me, regularly listened to KNOZ-FM 96.5 — the "breasteses" refrain is permanently embedded in your brain, right there with "We Will Rock You" and "Whoomp There It Is."

An unlicensed pirate station, KNOZ played nothing but Northern California hip-hop, and was credited with helping regional rappers like E-40 and Keak da Sneak ghost-ride the "hyphy movement" to international fame. Meanwhile, artists whose tracks hadn't reached beyond their own hard drives were suddenly blanketing the airwaves, or at least the three-mile radius that the 83-watt station's broadcast signal could blanket.

Still, all good things must come to an end. While illicit enterprises typically don't advertise their whereabouts, KNOZ was operating out of a rented midtown storefront — its station banner and neon "on air" sign proudly displayed in the window — when the Federal Communications Commission came calling. A complaint had been filed by "103.5 The Bomb" — a 6,000-watt hip-hop station that has since gone Top 40 — and KNOZ was forced to pull the plug.

The closure created a minor controversy — "That them was my people right there," rapper JT the Bigga Figga told the Sacramento News & Review — after which KNOZ faded into obscurity, along with much of its music.

We want the airwaves

If Gallup were to poll Americans on which government agencies they most hate, the FCC would almost certainly be among the Top 5. Established in 1934 as custodian of the public airwaves, the commission effectively reversed course with its deregulation of the broadcast industry in the late '80s and '90s, paving the way for corporate conglomerates like Clear Channel to put an end to local and regional radio.

Meanwhile, the FCC has continued to play whack-a-mole with the heirs to a legacy that reaches back to the Mexican border radio stations that gave Wolfman Jack his start, as well as the offshore British stations dramatized in the movie Pirate Radio.

So what's a poor, increasingly unpopular government agency to do?

Caught between corporate interests and increasingly populist sentiments, the agency is about to make an offer that would-be pirates may not be able to refuse.

Later this month, the FCC will begin accepting applications from non-profit groups that want to start their own non-commercial Low Power FM stations. These LPFMs offer many of the same benefits as pirate stations, but without risking unpleasant side effects like fines and jail sentences.

Those who are chosen will receive free station licenses, after which they're on their own. Equipment and set-up costs will require an investment of approximately $15,000 to $20,000.

Although the filing window was originally set to run from Oct. 15 to 29, those dates may change in the wake of the federal government shutdown. As of this writing, the FCC has taken its website offline, and the Indy's calls to the agency's media relations department have gone unreturned. A recorded message informs callers that FCC duties are now limited to issues that are "immediately necessary for the safety of life or the protection of property."

In the meantime, interested parties can get a head start by accessing an unofficial "LPFM Application Guide" from Prometheus Radio Project, low-power FM's leading advocacy group, at

Signal to Noise

Only once before in its 79-year history has the FCC opened the airwaves to low-power stations. A pilot program was approved by Congress in 2000, but its results were largely disappointing.

"While there were low-power licenses granted, the stations were mostly located in places that had more cows than they had people," explains Prometheus co-founder Pete Tridish, a pirate radio veteran whose organization began pushing for the creation of LPFMs in the late '90s. "In the first low-power FM window, no radio channel was given out in the Top 50 most populous markets in the United States."

Tridish believes the FCC received roughly 3,200 applicants in 2001 and 2002, and granted approximately 1,000 permits. Successful licensees ranged from a youth ministry in Chanute, Kan., to a parks commissioner in Sitka, Alaska, who wanted to air live broadcasts of whale songs. Of the more than 800 low-power stations in the U.S. today, the only one located in a major market is WRIR, a volunteer-run adult alternative music station in Richmond, Va.

What went wrong?

Unsurprisingly, the FCC was under enormous pressure from the commercial radio industry, which had gotten used to getting its way in the wake of deregulation and the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.

Indeed, the modern FCC bore little resemblance to the agency whose mission, according to the Communications Act of 1934, was to "make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, rapid, efficient, nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication services with adequate facilities at reasonable charges."

During a congressional hearing 10 months before low-power licensing began, Eddie Fritts, CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, argued that low-power radio was both harmful and unnecessary. "There is plenty of diversity on the air today," he insisted.

Besides which, the FCC had a higher purpose to serve, which was to protect multimillion-dollar conglomerates' signals from possible interference.

"Congress established the FCC and entrusted it as the guardian for spectrum integrity," declared Fritts. "I think what we have seen here today is somewhat appalling."

The government could hardly have responded more cautiously. Congress added a provision to its authorization that effectively restricted the stations to rural areas. Even though LPFMs were restricted to 100 watts — the same amount of power illuminating your desk lamp — the FCC regulated their locations and frequencies as though they were commercial stations pumping out 10,000 to 50,000 watts.

All that's about to change. With the upcoming offering, says Tridish, the restrictions will be more akin to the 100- to 200-watt repeaters that high-power radio stations use to relay their signal to other markets. "The rules are scaled for the kind of power that [LPFMs] are putting out," he explains. "So low-power stations are going to fit in a lot of places that they didn't fit in 2001."

While the number of new stations that will find their way onto the air is impossible to predict, Tridish is optimistic. "It's like night and day, the availability that we're going to see in this window," he enthuses. "But anybody who tells you how many they think there'll be is really just taking a number out of thin air, it's not really meaningful.

"It's not a set quantity of licenses, in the same way that the United States government doesn't decide how many drivers licenses they're going to issue in a year. You know, it just depends on how many people come."

Drive time

However many applicants do line up for low-power licenses in the weeks ahead, Bryan Elyo isn't likely to be among them. A local musician who performs under the name Mobdividual, Elyo started an Internet station called Local.FM early last year. In addition to a playlist devoted exclusively to artists from the Colorado Springs area, Elyo's station does live remotes from local venues. And that's fine, at least for now.

"I knew the frequencies were coming, and I talked with some people that help get funding for these things," says Elyo. "Local.FM definitely has aspirations for a proper tower, but it's terribly expensive and terribly limited."

While the FCC will give low-power licensees their bandwidth for free, you'll still end up paying around $15,000 for a transmitter, emergency alert system and other equipment. That may be small change compared to the million or so you'd spend on a commercial station, but it's still a high price to broadcast to a less than 10-mile radius.

"It would be cool to stumble upon while in your car," admits Elyo. "But I still think the best listener for regional music is on the Internet — the listener that will have an impact on a band's life, listen while working or hanging out, buy their stuff, and go to shows."

That said, if someone else out there wanted to start up a low-power station serving the same interests, Elyo says he'd be delighted. "I certainly hope someone jumps on it here. We'd love to share our collection with them. Or help them build theirs."

Daniel Hyatt, a former engineer for Denver's Jammin' 101.5 FM ("True Old School, Smooth R&B"), is enthusiastic about the new offering. "If you've got a group of four or five people who are really involved in the local music scene — or are doing something else locally — this is a chance to do that without getting involved in these huge corporations or having to spend millions of dollars."

Hyatt, who started out in the industry doing audio product development, has been consulting with small Colorado municipalities and nonprofits interested in starting their own stations. But he's also hoping that fellow music fanatics will get on board.

"If somebody wants to put a religious station on the air, that's cool," says Hyatt. "But I'm hoping that's not all it is, that there'll be stations that focus on the local rock scene or some stoner guy who's talking about rock B-sides from the '60s."

Lightning rod

Low-power radio owner Brett Reese wants to emphasize the fact that his radio station "The Pirate" is not a pirate radio station. Broadcasting to Greeley at 104.7 on the FM dial, he and his crew operate an FCC-approved low-power station with a decidedly unconventional approach.

Musically, the station's focus is on pop songs from the 1920s through the 1970s. On a recent evening, a deejay segued from big band clarinetist Pete Fountain to soul music pioneer Clyde McPhatter. Arbitron ratings indicate that the 61-watt station has been surprisingly successful in its market, drawing more local listeners than the five commercial stations whose signals reach Greeley.

Reese credits his station's popularity to the diversity of its playlist, as well as the musical knowledge and enthusiasm of its deejays. "I just don't buy into the big conglomerates' idea that people want to hear their favorite 10 songs over and over and over and over," he says.

Between music sets, the station runs "enhanced underwriting" messages on behalf of its sponsors. (Think NPR, except for Grizzly Garage Door Service instead of Citibank.) Oh, and Jesus. Lots of shout-outs to Jesus.

"I don't consider myself so much out to change anybody's mind," says Reese of the station's religious stance. But that hasn't stopped him from becoming a lightning rod for controversy. When he was serving on his local school board in 2011, Reese came under fire for repeatedly airing spots attacking Martin Luther King Jr. in the days leading up to the civil rights leader's birthday.

"All I have ever done, in my estimation, is talk about the truth," says Reese of the commentary, in which King was characterized as an America-hating Communist and sexual degenerate. "What Martin Luther King said was great, but his life is something that needs to be examined."

The story rapidly spread through the media, making headlines in Huffington Post and drawing criticism from the Anti-Defamation League. Reese began carrying a gun with him, even to school board meetings.

"The thing they always leave out," he says of the subsequent media coverage, "is that two weeks before, a school board down in Florida had gotten shot up by a maniac. He brought a gun into the school board meeting and just started opening fire at the school board members.

"I knew I had a bunch of people that hated me because I'm a Christian conservative," says Reese, noting that a letter-writing campaign had left him with just two sponsors. "I've had several death threats — in fact, the local police department began investigating a couple of them. There are probably some real crazies — you never know — but the chances are, they're not really stalking you."

Reese has since retired from the school board and now devotes his full attention to the station. He's brought sponsors back and says the FCC has done "a beautiful thing" by introducing its low-power initiative.

"I started as a deejay in a little AM station when I was in junior high school," he says. "You would go down to the basement, where they literally had dirt walls, and it was a blast. So I eventually bought that station and then sold it shortly thereafter and got into other things like real estate. And when the LPFM opportunity came along, I thought it would be fun to get back into it."

And for the most part, it has. "I'm not the type that plays diplomacy," says Reese. "I mean, I can be a statesman, but I don't want to waste my time."

Radio Mutiny

Another fan of LPFMs is Conexus, a conservative group advocating for "Capitalist LPFM Radio." On the organization's homepage, the "LP" is spelled out in red-white-and-blue block letters, flanked by a pair of cannons. The accompanying text reminds readers that the 2016 election is coming up fast:

"You have the opportunity to apply for your license this year and begin broadcasting next year! This will give you almost two years to help us turn the suicide mission the US is currently on. Do it for the capitalist in you, do it for the American in you, do it for the United States of America!"

Conexus claims to have advocated on behalf of LPFM since the late '90s, making attempts along the way to work with other LPFM advocates: "This has utterly failed with every attempt. The goals and values of our organization are polar opposite to these Social Justice (socialists) organizations."

Of course, there's also the fact that Conexus is as unreachable as the FCC. The "CONTACT US!" link leads nowhere, and the site itself is bereft of information about the organization's size, its history, or its location.

As for the identity of the organizations Conexus considers its polar opposite, Prometheus Radio Project is surely among them. The nonprofit was launched by members of Radio Mutiny, a Philadelphia pirate station, after it was raided by the FCC.

One of Radio Mutiny's founders was the aforementioned Pete Tridish, who in those days preferred the name Petri Dish. He and his displaced Mutiny colleagues set about creating a confederacy of pirate stations from around the country whose mission was to convince the FCC to make low-power stations legal.

Tridish has worked closely with farmworker stations in Oregon, Florida and Idaho, as well as civil rights organizations, environmental groups and musicians.

"At Prometheus, we were very purposefully agnostic about the content of the radio stations. We did have a social justice mission, so we definitely made sure the applicants we worked with weren't neo-Nazis or, you know, something like that."

Tridish left the organization in 2011 to become an independent radio engineer — or, as his LinkedIn profile puts it, a freelance troublemaker. "I've been involved in building a couple hundred radio stations by now," he says.

And how many of those were pirate stations?

"Gosh, I don't remember how many," he demurs. "I worked with a bunch of unlicensed stations before 2000, but since then I've only worked with licensed stations in the United States, as well as some unlicensed stations in other countries."

But while he and his Prometheus colleagues became strictly legit after the first wave of low-power stations, they still empathized with people continuing to operate unlicensed stations. "It was so difficult to get a license, and political progress has been slow. So if you were operating a pirate station in Chicago, there has never been an opportunity for you to start a low-power FM station until now."

Meanwhile, the pirate's life continues to be a risky one. "In some cases, the FCC has gotten even more aggressive," says Tridish. "They've given out fines, they've gotten injunctions that could send some to serve jail time or house arrest. In other cases, they've just decided it wasn't worth the trouble."

As with other law enforcement efforts, judgment calls tend to come into play.

"If you're driving down the highway, and you're going 67 miles and hour in a 65-mile-an-hour zone, maybe you'll get a ticket. But if you're pretty, then maybe you won't get a ticket, you know?"

And then there are all those teenage pirates. Says Tridish: "The FCC would tell them, 'That's really clever, kid, but you could get in a lot of trouble for this. And if you don't stop, I'm gonna tell your mom.' And that'd be the end of it."

But for Tridish and others who've been committed to democratizing the airwaves, the matter is much more serious.

"Groups like ours never really thought we were getting away with something," says Tridish of his pirate radio days. "We were doing the right thing, and we thought that the licensing system should catch up to the reality of people trying to get on the airwaves, and use a piece of the bandwidth as a community resource, instead of it all being for profit."

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