Yo Ho Ho and A Battle of Broadcasters
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 1998; Page D02
As political protests go, it was small, but it did have a certain
A merry band of about 50 "radio pirates" -- low-power FM broadcasters
operate stations without a license -- marched on the headquarters of the
Federal Communications Commission and National Association of Broadcasters
yesterday. Their claim: that in an era of corporate consolidation,
community needs are no longer being served by local stations.
The pirates fill the gap, they say, with alternative music, talk and
intensely local news and public affairs shows broadcast from garages and
bedrooms. Their signals can cover anywhere from a few blocks to several
miles. All, however, are illegal if unlicensed. Theirs is a brigand image
the pirates actively cultivated during their march yesterday.
The highlight came outside NAB headquarters at 18th and N streets NW,
they hauled down the association's flag and hoisted the Jolly Roger to
lusty cheers. Minutes later, someone told D.C police that a 16-year-old
girl in the crowd had stolen the NAB flag. Although it was not found in
her possession, police handcuffed her and another protester. The pirates
eventually disbanded in exchange for the association declining to press
charges against the pair.
"This is highly similar to what you see in repressive regimes," said
protester Jonathan Brown. "Police using scare tactics."
The pirates ranged from youthful to middle-aged, from anarchist to black
nationalist. No matter how much they disagree politically, they all
believe they are guaranteed the right to affordable radio broadcast time.
"We can't afford access anymore," said Zeal Stefanoff, of Micro Kind
in San Marcos, Tex. He wore an "I Love Hemp" button.
FCC Chairman William Kennard, a communications lawyer and one of the
targets of the pirates, agreed.
"When I started in the early '80s, you could buy a small AM or FM radio
station for an amount of money that made it within the grasp of a small
business," he said. "Unfortunately, with radio consolidation and
deregulation by Congress, that's no longer possible. We've got to find
other ways for folks like those who were outside the FCC today."
The FCC wants to accommodate small-power broadcasters, Kennard said,
they must be licensed to prevent "chaos" on the finite number of
frequencies available. Pirate radio signals, he said, have interfered with
licensed stations and with air traffic control communications. Over the
past 13 months, the FCC has shut down 318 pirate stations; in about 40
cases, broadcasting equipment was seized.
"We are absolutely for free speech, but we are not for adding interference
to the already crowded airwaves or for breaking the law," said Dennis
Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.
The pirates assembled in Dupont Circle, then marched to FCC headquarters,
near 19th and M streets NW. In the middle of the procession were three
large puppets: The largest symbolized Corporate Radio pulling the strings
of the NAB, which in turn pulled the strings of "Kennardio," a Pinocchio
puppet meant to represent Kennard, complete with growing nose.
As the pirates marched west on M Street, they broadcast their message
chants on a hand-held transmitter operating on the FM band at 97.5, a
frequency they appropriated for a distance of perhaps a few blocks. The
transmitter was hidden in one of several backpacks, which the protesters
urged the FCC to confiscate. Justin, a 23-year-old computer technician
from Baltimore -- who like many pirates either declined to give his last
name or gave an alias -- acted as a walking antenna, holding a length of
copper wire above his head.
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company