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.

Dunifer's success--combined with other factors like the squeezing out of smaller broadcasters from the commercial band--has inspired dozens more to take to the airwaves with micropower. There are now more than 1000 mircrobroadcasters, up from 300 a few years ago. They range from Latin evangelicals and right-wing fanatics preaching conspiracies about the World Bank, to black liberationists, hippy treehuggers, techno ravers, and punk-rock anarchists--and even middle-American, mom-and-pop types broadcasting updates about the high school basketball team from town hall. (See sidebar on NYC pirate stations.)

Cheap technology is another key element fuelling the spread of micropower. You can now order a complete transmitter package for as little as $600. STR built its own antenna with plumbing parts. The movement is also gathering steam over the Internet, which allows pirates to share info and download audio files from around the country. This goes for both the left, which networks through Web sites like www.Radio4All.org, and the right, where militia folk are downloading broadcasts of the American Freedom Network. (STR's Web page can be found at www.blackoutbooks.com).

They may not all share a common political outlook, but microradio enthusiasts agree that FCC rules are designed to benefit big corporations at the expense of local communities. ''The federal licensing scheme, which gives the FCC unbridled discretion to decide who can and cannot speak over the airwaves, is unconstitutional and biased toward big owners,'' argues attorney Robert Perry, who is representing STR in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights. ''It's like letting Rudy Giuliani decide who can and cannot hold a rally in Times Square.''

According to Perry, the FCC's licensing process is so complex, it effectively preempts small broadcasters. ''When you add up the cost for the engineering surveys and fancy Beltway lawyers required to navigate all the paperwork, it costs a minimum of $100,000 just to apply for a broadcast license,'' he says. The biggest obstacle, however, is the government's refusal to license stations that operate below 100 watts.

The FCC maintains that the 100-watt standard was established in order to maximize the number of listeners who could receive broadcasts in a particular area. It also contends that unlicensed broadcasters are a safety hazard because they interfere with air-traffic signals. But the FCC concerns ring hollow given that FM broadcasts and air-to-ground transmissions occupy different parts of the radio band. While FCC officials contend that there have been four cases of air-traffic interference in the last five months, they admit that the problems were caused by faulty equipment, not spectrum overcrowding. The 100-watt minimum's main effect, then, is to make bandits out of low-power broadcasters who are trying to do something with radio besides make a buck.

As the micorpower movement has grown, so has its legitimacy. Take KIND radio in San Marcos, Texas, which was started by a bunch of stoners preaching the beneficence of the ''kind'' bud. They used borrowed equipment and a mixing board donated by the Butthole Surfers (former Butthole Jeff Pinkus has a show on the station called Aerola 51). But as the only locally programmed station between Austin and San Antonio, it's become a beacon for politicians seeking to air their views. Texas congressman Ron Paul and Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone have been guests on the morning call-in show, as have the leading candidates for state attorney general and the former chair of the Texas Republican Party. Though city hall originally tried to close the station, San Marcos mayor Billy Moore is now an avid supporter.

This sort of development has commercial broadcasters increasingly alarmed. In January their main industry group, the National Association of Broadcasters, called on the FCC and Justice Department to create a task force to ''eliminate'' microradio. It's also been vigorously lobbying against low-power in all its forms recently.

With the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which raised the number of radio outlets that any one company may own), these commercial stations have significantly strengthened their position, consolidating into fewer, more powerful hands. In just two years the top 10 owners nearly doubled their holdings, from 652 to 1134 stations, while the number of independent stations was cut in half. Meanwhile, the number of minority owners has dropped from a scant 3.1 percent to just 2.8 percent. (Even NPR and Pacifica have had to adapt to their corporate-dominated environs, tempering their content and dropping much of their community broadcasting--creating more of a demand for microradio.)

But as commercial radio flexes its muscles, and tries to stamp out its unlicensed competitors, it is meeting resistance in unfamiliar places. Even the bureaucrats are now admitting that the merger mania may have gone too far. ''How can we have a strong democracy when most stations are concentrated in the hands of a few?'' FCC chairman William Kennard recently demanded. While Kennard has been adamantly antipirate, as the FCC's first black chair, he's recently come around to the idea of creating a legal, low-power licensing service as a way of opening up the broadcast spectrum to minorities, church groups, and small businesses otherwise excluded.

Kennard favors a plan to license only one-watt stations--an idea that activists call useless. They prefer a proposal put together by the National Lawyers Guild, which has been coordinating strategy for the microradio movement. That plan would allow noncommercial stations to broadcast at up to 50 watts in urban areas and 100 watts in rural areas, without requiring a license.

That the FCC is considering such notions is a major signal of a possible breakthrough for micropower. The movement is seeing other positive developments, as well. The mainstream press seems to have taken up the pirates' cause, widely portraying them as free-speech underdogs. And the corporate efforts to clamp down seem only to be backfiring. On April 15, when STR tripped its transmitter in the financial district, it was joined in its act of defiance by Free Radio Iowa City, Free Radio Bob in Milwaukee, along with 87X and the Party Pirate in Tampa--all of which were forced off the air by the FCC in the recent months.

With all that grassroots pressure, experts believe that the commercial industry will have to concede something. ''I think the FCC and the NAB realize they're in a no-win situation if they just keep trying to blow people off the air,'' says Robert McChesney, author of Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy. ''They understand that this is a tide that can't be stopped. So the smart thing is to establish some sort of orderly system whereby the microbroadcasters won't interfere with the big corporations' ability to make money.''

Such an endgame would allow microstations like STR to flourish and concentrate on their true goal: re-creating community. That's a role that's become increasingly important in places like New York City, where people's rights to parks, gardens, and other forms of public space are under attack. The Internet has already made strides in this area; the more-human communication of a voice on the airwaves can go even further. ''One of the most beautiful things about Steal This Radio is the way it's brought together so many different elements of the Lower East Side's culture,'' says DJ Chrome. ''We've got hiphop kids talking to folks from the radical Puerto Rican poetry scene, and East Village rockers talking to gardeners and squatters, and Sister Sheba from the Black Community News Service. All of these people are now allies, and they all represent different constituencies, and they all bring their listeners with them. The chemistry is really beautiful. People start to relate to each other instead of being alienated as different cultural subsets.''

Stay tuned.

A benefit party to raise money for STR's legal battle with the FCC will be held at Charas/El Bohio (360 East 10th Street) on May 16 at 7:30. For information, please call 358-5774.

Radio Free New York

Inside a south Williamsburg loft, several musicians have assembled with horns, maracas, kazoos, and a toy xylophone. ''We're trying to demystify the radio process,'' says DJ Dizzy of Free 103.9 FM, Brooklyn's mobile pirate station, which broadcasts live performances from friends' apartments and local venues. ''The fact is, anyone who wants to hook up a transmitter in their living room and start broadcasting can do it.'' Tonight's mission is to score a film by Dizzy's friend, Mr. E. The station's half-extended antenna leans against the front window, giving the night's broadcast a range not much further than the bathroom down the hall.

Of course not all Free 103 shows are so slack. Last Memorial Day, it broadcast a DJ battle on top of the Willamsburg Bridge, and on Saturday it aired a live performance by jazz legend William Parker and his quartet, Other Dimensions of Music, from an undisclosed location in Park Slope.

Free 103 is part of a rich pirate tradition in New York City, dating back to Radio Free Harlem of the late '60s and the infamous Radio New York International, which broadcast on a pirate ship off the coast of Long Island in 1987 and 1988 before the Coast Guard shut it down. While tougher enforcement has scared off the dozens of hobbyists and hacks who roamed NYC's airwaves in the late '70s end early '80s, there are probably a dozen unlicensed stations broadcasting in the five boroughs today.

Most are Haitian stations operating in Brooklyn, including Radio Bonne Nouvelle (which has been at 88.1 FM for nearly 10 years), Radio Ideal, Radio Combite, and Radio Intercontinental at 88.9. There's also BAD radio, which broadcasts underground hiphop on Sunday nights from 5 to 11 p.m. at 91.9 FM, and Dr. X in Queens, who reportedly moves around the dial and rents out airspace to local DJs.

Meanwhile, Radiac, an artsy Williamsburg station named after a local nuclear storage facility, has gone back on air sporadically after being scared off by an FCC visit last summer. And stay tuned for a new community station in East Harlem, and Radio Sol, New York's first solar-powered station, which plans to fire up in the South Bronx next month. --S.F.

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