Rebel Radio

The Lower East Side's Pirate Station, Steal This Radio, Joins the Fight Against the Feds

''If the FCC comes, don't let them in. If they storm the door, say nothing.'' Argo the Cosmic Cabbie is on a roll, mixing German techno over Persian ragas and ragging on the Federal Communications Commission during his Night Shift show on Steal This Radio (STR), FM 88.7, the Lower East Side's pirate station. ''Fasten your seatbelts. Now that the powers that be have stolen our neighborhood, we're projecting a new one into your living room,'' he says, segueing into some Euro-trance.

It's STR's first night broadcasting after five weeks of self-imposed silence, so the schedule's packed. There's a report on police brutality by the New York Black Panther Committee for Social Progress, and an update on the Zapatistas by Las Hermanas de Ramona, a pair of indigenous Mexican performance artists. A guy named Question Mark reads off a litany of recent natural disasters and UFO sightings for his show, The Quickening News/Polyrhythm Hour, followed by a mind-numbing barrage of dissonant noise by Audio Damage Laboratories, a local DJ crew. Next up is Loisaida USA, a bilingual show of poetry and conversation hosted by a Latin DJ named Cenen, who wants to know, ''How is your soul?''

Welcome to radio at its most unabashedly free-form. Welcome to the notion of localized free expression as an act of electronic civil disobedience, because low-power stations like STR can't get a license to broadcast even if they apply for one.

Tune in fast, because it may not last for long. Like hundreds of unlicensed stations nationwide, STR is in a battle for its life against the FCC, which has vowed to shut all pirates down. Only STR isn't waiting around for the feds to pull the plug.

The station's DJs are fighting back, having just filed a lawsuit against the FCC, the U.S. Justice Department, and Attorney General Janet Reno, charging that radio licensing standards and enforcement procedures for microradio are unconstitutional. ''We want to let people know that we're part of a national movement that's on the forefront of challenging the FCC's corporate sellout of the broadcast spectrum,'' says DJ Chrome, one of STR's founding pirates. ''Even if the FCC takes our equipment, we'll just go right back on again.''

That's pretty much what STR did, restarting their transmitter on April 15 after a ''visit'' by the FCC led them to shut down for over a month. Threatened with a federal raid if they failed to adhere to the letter of the law (a virtual impossibility for the 20-watt station), the STR collective responded by firing up a battery-powered transmitter in a very public show of defiance on Wall Street to announce that they were going back on air. At the same time, they revealed their lawsuit (filed by a coalition of STR DJs, listeners, and supporters calling themselves ''Free Speech,'' hence the title of the suit, FCC v. Free Speech). The FCC declined to comment, noting only that it had not yet received a copy of STR's legal action.

STR's cat-and-mouse dance with the feds began on March 5, when a federal agent traced the station to a Lower East Side squat, where STR had been clandestinely broadcasting for the last two years. The agent was Judah Mansbach, known to the pirate world as ''The Terminator'' because of his zealous pursuit of unlicensed broadcasters. ''He said he was responding to a complaint of interference from the radio station at Hofstra University,'' recalls ''Mr. Peabody,'' an STR DJ and carpenter who specializes in 1920s blues. ''He gave me his card and said, 'Make sure you get back to me real soon, or I'll have no choice but to come back with federal marshals and shut you guys down.''' Hofstra's station manager denied lodging any complaints, noting that ''the Lower East Side is not in our primary or secondary broadcast contour.''

Two days later, STR went off air to avoid jeopardizing the squat. The following week, the agent returned with Con Edison and shut off the building's power. (The FCC often relies on Con Ed to help isolate the apartment that is transmitting in a multiple dwelling.)

Even before the Terminator showed up, STR DJs knew the pressure was mounting. Since January, the FCC has silenced some 65 unlicensed stations--compared with 97 for all of last year--using threats of hefty fines, equipment confiscation, and brute force if necessary. In November, for instance, SWAT teams equipped with assault rifles descended on three unlicensed stations in south Florida, holding the pirates at gunpoint while they dismantled their broadcast towers and carted away truckloads of equipment. One of the DJs, a right-wing patriot named Arthur Kobres, was convicted on 14 counts of illegal broadcasting and now faces up to 28 years in jail and $3.5 million in fines. (He will be sentenced on Wednesday.)

By suing the FCC, the STR collective hopes to win a court injunction to preempt similar enforcement actions against them. They are also upping the ante in a national battle over micropower. Up until now, the micropower movement has followed the lead of Free Radio Berkeley's Stephen Dunifer, who has used the courts to evade the feds for the past five years. Last November, a federal judge rejected the FCC's request for an injunction against Dunifer's station for the second time. Instead, she ordered the FCC to respond to Dunifer's claim that the government's licensing criteria are unconstitutional.

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