Steven Franco never really wanted to go into the family business. He
to make records, hit songs that people would dance to. He wanted somehow -
as a producer, club deejay or radio announcer - to pump out music people
would remember forever, songs to fall in love by, songs of summer and
sorrow, friendship and mirth.
But then Franco's eldest brother started work at Discount Mart, the
chain of four no-frills variety stores. And then number-two son joined up.
The next in line, Steven, saw no choice. It was the late '70s, disco's
heyday, and Franco spent nights spinning tunes at clubs like the Apple Tree
and the Other Side. But days he was stuck running the store in Oxon Hill,
just south of the District line.
For years, Franco, now 39, found little pleasure in the drudgery of
inventories and cash register reconciliations. But in 1994, he discovered a
way to boost business and keep himself engaged: He started playing music and
pushing products over the store's ceiling speakers, creating in-store
Franco adopted the voice and lingo of his all-black clientele. He became
voice of D-Mart. He was "DJ E-Z Dee," playing the tunes on "WDIS." In a
loud, booming citified tone, the Yeshiva High School graduate from Silver
Spring alerted shoppers to Red Dot Sales and Summer Spectaculars. There were
two-for-one deals over in Beauty Supplies, detergent price cuts over in Dry
Franco loved it. Customers recognized his voice. Sales shot up. He wanted
more. He dreamed of taking his station outside the walls of Discount Mart.
So he went shopping - for a transmitter and antenna. That was four years
ago, before WDIS went big-time, before you could hear his voice booming
clearly up to the Washington Monument, seven miles northwest of Discount
Last week, two men from the Federal Communications Commission paid a
to Franco, who had launched his station without a license or even so much as
a phone call to the FCC. The men were very serious. They intend to silence
Franco understands he is in trouble. But before the FCC men left Discount
Mart, he had to know: Had they heard his station? How did it sound?
"It sounds great," one of the engineers told Franco, and when he recalls
moment, he beams like a beacon at sea.
Some radio pirates ply the coastal waters, bombarding landlubbers with
dissident politics and discordant music. Some buccaneers transmit their
illegal signals from mobile antennas, hidden on hilltops or strapped to car
roofs. And then there's Franco, who tethered his antenna to a modest brick
tower atop the Eastover Shopping Center on Indian Head Highway in Prince
It's a simple little metal pole, barely noticeable behind the strip
but it enables Franco to do what would otherwise cost him tens of millions
of dollars and years of bureaucratic wrangling: put himself on the radio.
WDIS - 88.1 on the FM dial - is one of as many as 1,000 unlicensed radio
stations that have popped up across the nation. The illegal broadcasters
call themselves purveyors of "free radio." The FCC calls them outlaws.
Most radio pirates are renegades, folks like Stephen Dunifer, whose
Free Berkeley in California illegally transmitted a mix of left-wing
politics and way-out music for five years before a federal court finally
upheld the FCC's move to shut him down.
The government has decided to get tough on micro-broadcasters, as the
low-power pirates are known. Since last August, FCC operatives have shut
down 255 pirate stations. Most of the pirates quietly unplugged their
transmitters when agents confronted them with their misdeeds. In 32 cases,
gun-toting federal marshals had to silence the renegades, sometimes slapping
huge fines on them, sometimes seizing their transmitters.
In part, the crackdown has come about because commercial broadcasters
want the illicit competition. And in part, it is simply a bureaucracy doing
its job. The FCC is supposed to protect the airwaves from chaos, to make
certain that if a station has a license to broadcast at 88.1 FM, that no one
else pumps a signal onto that frequency.
In Washington, the University of Maryland's student station in College
WMUC, has the legal claim to 88.1. But its own weak signal doesn't reach
down to Oxon Hill, about 13 miles away, so Steve Franco says he's not
hurting anyone with his measly 10-watt transmitter.
The FCC refuses to discuss specifics of Franco's case, saying it is
investigation. But Joe Casey, deputy chief of the agency's Compliance and
Information Bureau, says that what Franco and other pirates are doing "is
illegal, and they can get in trouble for it." The university has a license;
Discount Mart doesn't. End of case.
Except that it isn't the end. The pirates have a movement, a grass-roots
collection of citizens who don't like what they hear on the radio, and who
believe that the airwaves belong to the public. Driven by the frenzied
consolidation of the radio business since it was deregulated in 1996, the
pirates say radio should be about something more than easy pop music and a
big fat bottom line. They envision a radio dial teeming with local sounds -
ethnic music and school board meetings, high school football and regional
bands, far-out politics and neighborhood conversations. After all, you don't
need to own a printing press or pricey TV equipment; a radio station can get
on the air for about $1,500. The only cost after that is the electric bill
and your time.
The micro-broadcasters have a potential ally in the chairman of the
William Kennard, who has pronounced himself eager to create more diversity
of opinion on the air. He says he is open to the idea of allowing citizens
to set up low-power stations to serve urban neighborhoods, small chunks of
suburbia or rural towns. Kennard, the first black to head the agency, is
concerned that as a handful of media conglomerates buy up most of the
stations in most big cities, minority ownership in radio is plummeting.
The pirate movement is persuasive enough that the FCC is considering
changing the rules to create a nationwide system of low-power stations.
"Let a thousand transmitters bloom" goes the slogan of Radio Free Berkeley,
which, before it was shut down, sold hundreds of low-cost, low-power
transmitter kits. The FCC says there are 86 known pirates still in
operation; the underground radio movement says there are many times that
number, perhaps as many as 1,000. They are voices such as Radio Clandestino,
a leftist Chicano station in Los Angeles; Radio Free Bob, a Milwaukee outlet
that features readings from "Winnie the Pooh"; and Excellent Radio, which
broadcasts live coverage of city council meetings in Grover Beach, Calif.
Radio today is "an abomination of morality and taste," says a manifesto
a Philadelphia pirate called Radio Mutiny, which staged a convention of
micro-broadcasters earlier this year. Both commercial radio, which the
pirates say has no goal other than making money, and public radio, which the
pirates say has gone corporate and forsaken its roots in local communities,
produce "an endless stream of scientifically manufactured drivel to befuddle
and distract the American people from their duties as citizens."
You will hear no such highfalutin rhetoric from Steve Franco. He claims
political agenda. He has no beef with commercial radio, except that it has
not seen fit to offer him a job.
But Franco and WDIS are nonetheless the ultimate expression of the pirate
movement. He is a man who wants to be heard, he has a transmitter, and he
believes the airwaves are as much his as anyone else's.
So despite the visit from the FCC, Discount Mart Radio is on the air,
hours a day. "It's a pride thing," the discount pirate says. "I don't like
to be told what to do."
--The Crow's Nest--
Discount Mart is not a pretty store. It's a dim, drab, cavernous space,
16,000 square feet packed with housewares and electronics and beauty
supplies and T-shirts and knickknacks. But out the back door, up a cluttered
stairwell, down an unmarked hallway, lies Steve Franco's secret hideaway - a
sprawling recording studio, shelves of records and CDs, a cockpit stacked
with the mixing boards, tape decks, digital editing systems and computers
that keep WDIS on the air.
Several times a week, Franco slips into the store early in the morning
records three or four hours of programming, which repeats around the clock.
It is not far-out stuff. Some R&B standards, some current black hits, just
enough rap to keep the locals listening (Franco can't stand the stuff
himself) and more ads than any commercial station would countenance. He
doesn't want to improve democracy. He just wants people to boogie to his
music, his voice.
There are crisp, professional-sounding jingles ("Not some days, but
you always get the best price at Discount Mart"), boorish spots for a phone
card Franco sells ("Wha' choo waitin' for? Git down to Discount Mart") and
condescending ads for the store's clothing sales ("Ladies, git on over
there, all you need is $5 to make yourself look good").
Each ad is lovingly crafted, each announcement delivered with sizzle.
- a wiry, smiley guy with short salt-and-pepper hair, oversize silver-rimmed
glasses, gold bracelet and necklace, and jumbo jeans - closes his eyes as he
listens to his creations, savoring every second of the digital delight.
He knew from the start that his broadcasting days might be limited.
transmits from an antenna that Franco bought in a stealth operation. "I
managed to convince the seller that I had the paperwork from the FCC," he
says with a chuckle.
It was in the summer of 1996 that Franco first fired up his 10-watt
transmitter. He drove a mile down the road to the Beltway and punched up
"Wow, I thought, just wow," he recalls. "And then I said to myself,
too powerful, I'm going to get in trouble."
But months went by and, even though Franco plastered the neighborhood
bumper stickers and signs promoting WDIS, nothing happened. Emboldened,
Franco invited a local rapper, DC Scorpio, to share his air. The phones at
Discount Mart rang off the hook with requests; rap fans poured into the
Last year Franco started a "morning zoo" show, modeled after such radio
boys as Howard Stern. It was proudly lewd and crude, with phony ads for a
"nature center for homosexual animals" and lame jokes about intimate
apparel. "We got what we wanted - customer complaints," Franco says.
But one of those complaints came from Franco's father, Discount Mart's
executive. The reputation of the store was being sullied. The gate clanged
shut on the morning zoo.
No matter. Even if WDIS is nothing more than dance hits and Discount
ads, this is what Franco has wanted since he was a little boy. His mother
died when he was 8, and in a house silenced with sadness, the middle of five
sons found solace in a tape recorder, making his own radio shows,
interviewing his older brothers about their girlfriends.
Three decades later, with a wife and three kids of his own, Franco is
playing radio. "My wife tells me, 'Growing old is mandatory, growing up is
Discount Mart has been very good to the Franco family, and Steve has
to buy legal radio stations, but with big-city outlets going for $70 million
and up, he can't hope to compete against the huge conglomerates.
"If someone would let me into radio, I'd be there tomorrow," he says.
show up half an hour early, every day."
But Franco's resumes elicit only rejection letters or, more often, silence.
And silence is the one thing he cannot stand.
The FCC, whose 150 enforcement officers hunt pirates nationwide, was
to show up someday - Franco knew that. "The purpose of a broadcaster is to
get noticed," says the FCC's Casey, "and that's the very thing that alerts
Yesterday Franco received the FCC letter demanding silence. If he does
shut down WDIS, the feds said, they might fine him $10,000 a day, up to
$75,000. And if he stayed on the air even then, they might send in the men
with guns. They might prosecute.
At first, Franco said he would hang tough. "My character is, I'm gonna
this as far as I can," he said Wednesday. But after the letter arrived, he
said he might have to lower the power of his transmitter.
In the end, he knows he will fold. "I am not going to disobey marshals."
And on that day, Franco will be surrounded once again by silence, and
will think about a young boy. "It's all so unfair," he says, "because
somewhere, there's some 12-year-old kid that's got this shining star in his
eye, and if he's not born into money, he'll never have that chance." And he
reaches over to the broadcast console, and pushes up the volume of his very
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