BROADCASTING PIRATES REFUSE TO BE UNPLUGGED
by Rona Kobell
They are the pirates of the airwaves. They've
been shut down, fined,
harassed and even arrested for speaking their minds on unlicensed - and
therefore illegal - low-power stations.
And still they broadcast, taking their
equipment on the road or playing
their music from mountain hideouts.
News that the Federal Communications Commission
may be changing its tune
on low-power broadcasts has inspired purveyors of pirate radio to take
their gospel to the road.
Last week, the FCC voted to consider letting
some low-power stations,
those under 100 watts, broadcast without paying the $100,000 to $500,000
that commercial stations pay for licenses.
But at the Beehive in Oakland last night,
where pirates Joan D'Ark of Free
Radio Memphis and Pete triDish (pronounced "petri dish") of Radio Mutiny
in Philadelphia came to discuss the free radio movement, there was clearly
no love lost with the FCC.
One sign read "FCC - kiss my bill of rights."
The two pirates are on a 10-city tour as
part of the new Prometheus
Radio Project, whose mission is to educate the public about the FCC's
Pittsburgh's only known pirate station
was Radio Carson, which Mark
Lange broadcast on the South Side for three years until the FCC shut it
down in October.
Pete triDish, who was in Pittsburgh a year
ago and remembers the
station, said he's not surprised it's gone. The FCC shut down both Radio
Mutiny and Free Radio Memphis last year after a protracted court battle in
which it shut down Free Radio Berkeley in California, which renegade
broadcaster Stephen Dunifer ran for three years.
Dunifer, considered by some the dean of
the free radio movement,
responded by mailing pirate radio start-up kits all over the country. From
Dunifer's kit, D'Ark's station was born.
Pete triDish, a construction worker, said
he broadcasts as a labor of love
and as an act of civil disobedience. When Congress passed the
Telecommunications Act of 1996, which increased the number of stations
that big companies such as Disney can own, "they gave away the store to
the commercial broadcasters ... most of what was in it was exactly what
their lobbyists had asked for."
He wasn't optimistic that the FCC, long
his nemesis, has had a change of
heart. He traveled to Washington for the hearing on the proposed rule last
week and said "what they had in mind wasn't exactly what we had in mind."
But, he added, the proposal is broad, and
the agency is seeking public
comment before making any decisions.
Many among the flannel-and-cargo-pants
crowd of 25 asked about radio
set-up, perhaps indicating pirate radio here will rise again. Etta
Cetera, who works at an Oakland coffee shop and helped organize the
event, is learning about the civil disobedience movement and was
introduced to free radio through it.
"It's political freedom of speech," she
said while passing around a can
for donations to finance the pirates' trip.
D'Ark said it's large stations, not the
FCC, that are prompting pirate
shutdowns. In her case, an executive from the National Public Radio
affiliate complained to the an FCC agent, and he apologetically pulled the
But pirates will not be deterred. D'Ark
stuffed her equipment in two
backpacks and went mobile until the FCC clamped down again. And after
Radio Mutiny closed shop, Pete triDish organized 20 friends on a bike ride
to broadcast from the road.
"For every station they close down, we
want to get 10 more," D'Ark said,
"legal or not."
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