Date sent: Fri, 21 Nov 1997 12:33:58 -0500
From: Radio Mutiny
Philly station busted
Hey everyone: This wasn't radio mutiny, but it's a little close for comfort. It got terrible press in the local Inquirer, as you'll read:
A `pirate' station runs into some static
After its owner's repeated promises, West Philadelphia's illegal WSKR-FM is finally silent.
By Joseph A. Slobodzian INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
In the neighborhoods around 52d and Market Streets in West Philadelphia, WSKR-FM offered something people couldn't find anywhere else on the dial: a mix of West Coast hip-hop music, Islamic programming and talk shows on local issues, weaved together by an upbeat entrepreneur named Mike Stone.
Stone and his station lacked just one thing -- a license.
Around noon Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission officials went to WSKR's studio at 23 South 52d St. and removed the transmitter and antenna from atop the nine-story office building where Stone leased space.
FCC officials say unauthorized radio stations are popping up around the country, apparently spurred by the falling prices of radio and audio equipment.
"It's not a major problem, but it is a growing problem -- people taking to the airways without a license," said John Winston, an FCC official in Washington.
When the agency confronts operators of unlicensed stations, 90 percent comply with FCC shutdown orders, Winston said.
But a few others -- some call themselves pirates, others prefer the term microbroadcaster -- refuse to give up their dream and force the FCC to take them to court. It's almost always a quick win for the agency. Offenders can be fined up to $100,000 and sentenced to a year in prison.
Winston said the FCC handled eight such cases last year and one the year before. WSKR was one of them. Last week, FCC officials obtained an order from a federal magistrate judge permitting them to seize Stone's equipment. Stone can appeal the action. If he doesn't, the equipment will be auctioned. He does not face any criminal charges.
In an interview Friday, Stone -- who also goes by the name Monroe Campbell -- said he was eager "to tell the true story about WSKR and Mike Stone Productions," but that the time wasn't right.
He said associates with whom he was working to get the station restarted had advised him to say only that he and the station planned to appeal the FCC's action.
Asked how he got into broadcasting, Stone said he and some friends studied radio electronics at a trade school, bought some used equipment, and got it operating.
"This is all the result of a misunderstanding," Stone said, adding that he was optimistic WSKR would be back on the air soon.
FCC officials said WSKR was technically sophisticated for a bootleg station. Stone purchased syndicated music programming, they said, and had some local advertisers.
The FCC first got complaints about the station in September 1996 from WPST-FM, a Princeton station that operates at a frequency of 97.5 MHZ.
WPST's engineer told the commission that an unlicensed FM station broadcasting at 97.7 MHZ was interfering with WPST's signal, according to an FCC complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
Anthony Gervasi, vice president of engineering for Nassau Broadcasting Partners, which owns WPST, 12 other stations in New Jersey and two in the Poconos, said he learned of the pirate station when WPST listeners began complaining about static and bad reception.
David C. Dombrowski, an electronics engineer in the FCC's regional office in Langhorne, said FCC rules would allow an unlicensed low-power radio transmitter to operate in West Philadelphia at 97.7 MHZ -- as long as its signal had a range of less than 100 feet.
WSKR's signal was regularly being received three to five miles from its 52d Street address, Dombrowski said in an interview.
To prevent chaos in radio broadcasting and to ensure clear reception for listeners, the FCC licenses radio frequencies to specific broadcast stations. FCC rules say a radio station in this region can't broadcast on 97.7 MHZ unless it's at least 70 miles from WPST's transmitter. WSKR was 31 miles from Princeton.
Dombrowski said the complaint about interference meshed with an anonymous letter the FCC had gotten in July 1996 complaining that Islamic programming was being broadcast Monday nights from an unlicensed station in West Philadelphia at 97.7 MHZ.
To find the illegal station, Dombrowski cruised West Philadelphia in an FCC car equipped with radio receivers and radio-wave direction finders.
Shortly after 5 p.m. on Sept. 16, 1996, Dombrowski's equipment picked up WSKR's signal, and Dombrowski traced it to the office building on 52d Street. Listening to a WSKR music broadcast, Dombrowski said, he heard the disc jockey identify the program as a "Mike Stone Production."
After the music came a talk show that the announcer said had been arranged by the Organization United for Success and originated from the Renaissance Center at 23 South 52d St. That's the address Dombrowski was parked in front of as he listened.
Dombrowski said he and another FCC official were denied access to the building, but left a letter advising Stone that he was violating FCC rules. Later that day, Dombrowski said, Stone phoned him at his office and acknowledged that he owned WSKR's equipment and was broadcasting without a license.
Dombrowski said Stone agreed to cease broadcasting immediately.
Dombrowski said he later learned that WSKR was back on the air at least three times after that conversation. Dombrowski said he and senior FCC engineer Barry Peahota went to WSKR's studios Oct. 25, 1996. They met with Stone and toured the facilities. Dombrowski said Stone once again promised to stop broadcasting.
In June, Dombrowski discovered that WSKR was again on the air, its disc jockeys boasting that its signal served a seven-mile area. Stone's broadcasts continued until Wednesday.
Dombrowski said he couldn't understand why Stone would spend the money, time and trouble to set up a radio station that was doomed to be shut down.
"It wasn't bad," Dombrowski said of WSKR's sound. "He had a clear signal, and I believe he was operating a stereo transmitter. He seemed to have a pretty good technical background."
Gervasi, the executive of Nassau Broadcasting, said that in the last six months, he had complained to the FCC about three pirate operations interfering with Nassau stations.
"It cuts into our listeners, and that cuts into our revenue," Gervasi said. "If we can't serve the public, then we are in violation of our operating license. We will do what we have to, to protect our license."
There's not much chance of Stone getting a license to broadcast even if he wanted one. "The band is pretty full of commercial stations here," Dombrowski said. "It's almost impossible to get into Philadelphia."