Monday, 28 December 1998
The Arizona Star News

Pirate radio station plots comeback


* Chuck Roast, program director, alternative rocker, KFMA, 92.1 FM: ``It was kind of cool, with a lot of neat, weird music. As long as it doesn't interfere with any other radio stations, that's fine. It should have to pay their fees for usage of music and abide by rules that everyone else has to, but other than that, the more the merrier.''

* Jeff Rice, managing editor for news at classical station KUAT, 90.5 FM, and jazz-public affairs KUAZ, 89.1 FM. He was speaking for himself, not the station: ``My tastes run all over the place. That's why I was interested in it to tune in. You never knew what you were going to get. They were so brash. They had a huge signal, and I sort of couldn't believe they were doing it.

``I don't advocate illegal broadcasting, but I just sort of couldn't help but tune in. It added a lot to the radio dial. I think a lot of people in radio sort of felt the same way.''

* Mark Landwher, program director, community radio KXCI, 91.3 FM: ``I felt pretty supportive of what they were doing. Knowing what we have to go through with the FCC to get things done, we have to wait so long just for routine bureaucratic clearance to improve our signal. It kind of makes me feel good to see someone able to bypass all that stuff and do pretty much what they want to with broadcasting.''

Radio Limbo is part of a nationwide movement involving hundreds of illegal low-power radio stations that hit the air recently, only to be shut down.

By Tony Davis
The Arizona Daily Star

Close-cropped, sandy-colored hair, huge eyeglasses and a sweat shirt emblazoned with the ``Batman'' logo make Edwin Armstrong Jr. look far more like a computer nerd than an outlaw.

But he is both.

For a living, lifelong Tucsonan Armstrong works in the computer business. For a hobby, he helps run a pirate (translation: illegal) radio station that beamed to Tucson for more than a year.

Unlicensed by the Federal Communications Commission, Radio Limbo operated in the name of creativity, freedom of speech and musical variety. Its partisans saw it as an alternative to the growing homogenization of commercial radio.

Now, after the federal government shut it down, it is planning to come back in February or March.

Radio Limbo is part of a nationwide movement involving hundreds of illegal low-power radio stations that hit the air recently, only to be shut down.

The microradio stations have provoked a debate that goes to the heart of how the airwaves are defined in the United States and who has access to them.

Limbo debuted at 103.3 FM on June 21, 1997. To start it up, Armstrong and his colleagues packed a transmitter, an antenna and other equipment up the Catalina Mountains.

There, they kept it out of public view in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Total start-up cost: about $2,000, compared with hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a mainstream commercial station.

For a while, Limbo's studio was Armstrong's house. Eventually, it moved to someone else's garage.

Operating with only 20 watts of power, the stationmanaged, through means that Armstrong will not discuss, to reach most of Tucson. By contrast, many commercial FM stations beam 50,000 watts and up.

Equipment seized

On Election Day, Nov. 3, after an FCC investigation, a commission agent and two U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officials went into the mountains and seized the station's equipment.

The equipment included solar panels, antennas, batteries and a transmitter, all packed on a few square feet of the Catalinas' south face, said Greg Lelo, the Coronado National Forest's law enforcement supervisor.

Armstrong said that later that day, the station operator was unable to start up the studio equipment.

The next morning, Armstrong hiked to the station's transmitter location and everything was gone but bits of baling wire.

``I am still wondering if they packed it down or used a helicopter,'' Armstrong said. ``It was sheer hell to pack it up there. The battery alone weighed about 60 pounds.''

The FCC's compliance officer, Pamela Hairston, did not return calls seeking comment on Limbo's case. Other FCC officials had referred calls to her.

Lelo said that in addition to being illegal, it was ``kind of rude'' for station operators to put their equipment on wilderness land.

To the Forest Service service, the Limbo equipment was just another example of junk illegally stashed on public land.

Weekly, the service gets calls about people leaving stolen cars, household trash and construction debris, and it occasionally discovers someone building a shack in the mountains, Lelo said.

``If we just had people go out there with their own wants and desires, we'd have a shack and a house on every square foot,'' Lelo said.

To build something in the forest, people must put their projects through environmental and archaeological reviews and other clearances.

Broadcasters regroup

Now, Armstrong and others involved with Limbo are regrouping.

A week ago, more than 200 people packed the Mat Bevel Institute, a downtown club, for a Limbo benefit featuring alternative acts Al Perry, Calexico and Weird Lovemakers. The benefit raised enough money to buy new equipment, Armstrong said.

``The presence of Radio Limbo's equipment on the mountain brought joy to hundreds, if not thousands of radio-listening Tucsonans,'' Armstrong said. ``Did it bring sadness to hundreds of hikers? I seriously doubt it. Doesn't that make it a positive thing in the balance?''

Edwin Armstrong is not the Limbo engineer's real name. He and several other station personalities interviewed would give only their broadcast names out of fear the FCC might prosecute them or keep their station permanently off the air. So far, the commission has prosecuted one pirate radio station owner, in Tampa, Fla., FCC spokesman David Fiske said last week.

Armstrong took his broadcast name from an inventor who perfected FM radio technology in the 1930s.

Other Limboites' handles include DJ Outlaw and Penny Rimbaud, named in part for poet Arthur Rimbaud.

Rimbaud said he saw nothing wrong with violating FCC licensing rules by operating Limbo.

``If the law is immoral and it's a victimless crime, then it's not much of a wrong, is it?'' Rimbaud said. ``The station helps a lot of people, and it doesn't hurt anyone.''

National movement

Limbo is part of a nationwide movement called micropower radio that mushroomed in response to the 1996 federal Telecommunications Act.

The act drastically eased the limits on how many radio stations companies may own.

Since then, the number of commercial station owners nationally dropped 12 percent, FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani said in September.

In the same period, the number of commercial stations increased 3 percent.

When the act passed in 1996, Tristani said, the top two group owners accounted for less than 13 percent of total industry advertising revenues. By the end of 1997, that figure had more than doubled to over 27 percent.

In the Tucson area, four companies own 16 of 42 licensed radio stations. Those 16 include many top-rated stations, such as KRQQ, KHYT, KIIM and KLPX.

``I got tired of hearing the same crap on the radio all the time'' is Armstrong's explanation for starting Limbo.

``When I turn on Limbo, I can hear something interesting that I haven't heard 50 times. Tucson needs this kind of station, that caters to people who listen to stuff that commercial stations won't play.

``As far as I'm concerned, radio is owned by corporations who are in the radio business for a business, not to put on interesting radio.''

Limbo's format was a cross between the free-form sound of the late 1960s and that of many innovative college radio stations of today. Its raw, edgy ambience lacked the smooth voices of commercial or mainstream non-commercial radio such as KUAT-FM.

The fare included industrial punk rock, avant-garde classical, rockabilly, bluegrass, jazz and poetry readings.

For practical purposes, the playlist was unlimited; ``whatever the person on the air wants to play,'' Armstrong said.

During its tenure, the station's on-air time slowly expanded from four to 12 hours daily. Nobody knew how many people listened to Limbo because it was not rated by commercial ratings services such as Arbitron. But plenty of people wanted to be pirate disc jockeys. About 100 volunteers spun records on the station, and there was a waiting list of people wanting air time, Armstrong said.

Probably 10,000 different songs were broadcast during Limbo's tenure. By contrast, commercial alternative rocker KFMA offers 30 to 35 current records and 315 to 350 older songs. It is, by far, Tucson's most wide-open commercial station.

``Most people listen to radio 15 minutes a day,'' said Chuck Roast, KFMA's program director. ``The assumption is that you have to play a song 17 to 20 times a day before people listen to it. Radio is made for people who hardly ever listen to it because that's most people.''

If it were up to him, he would play the eclectic fare offered by Limbo, said Roast.

``Unfortunately, that kind of music doesn't draw a huge market for advertisers who are trying to sell tires and Pepsi,'' Roast said.

Swift response

The federal reaction to the micropower movement has been swift and double-edged. It is aggressively silencing existing illegal stations while groping for a way to license new, legal low-power stations.

The FCC has shut down 360 pirate stations since August 1997, a commission spokesman said last week.

In Miami alone, the commission shut down 15 stations in July.

In part, the shutdowns stem from concern that pirate radio diverts listeners and airspace from established stations that pay licensing fees and invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to get on the air.

The federal government is also concerned about pirate signals interfering with legal ones, although Limbo's was far from any other Tucson-area station on the dial.

But in an October speech before the National Association of Broadcasters, FCC Chairman William Kennard expressed concern at the increasing concentration of radio ownership.

``I am concerned when I talk to small, independent broadcasters who tell me that they are being squeezed out of their markets. I am concerned when I talk to advertisers who tell me that large multiple owners have locked up certain (audience groups) in many markets,'' he said.

In a New York Times interview, Kennard said he saw no contradiction in trying to crack down on pirates and finding room for the low-powered stations on the dial.

``If there's not some discipline to this process, the spectrum just won't work,'' he said. ``We can't have pirates just signing on to frequencies as they choose and broadcasting willy-nilly on the airwaves.''

As early as Jan. 28, the commission may propose for public comment new rules allowing low-power radio service across the country.

But the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents most commercial broadcasters, warned in a letter to the FCC that a flood of low-power stations would interfere with existing stations.

The association contended that the commission lacks the staffing to license and monitor hundreds of new stations. It said that low-power radio is not an efficient use of the airwaves.

``The commission must keep in mind that a low-power station would not be able to serve communities as well as a larger station,'' the association said. ``Low-power stations would only be heard by a small number of people and, for all practical purposes, would be unavailable to mobile audiences.''

Armstrong does not buy those arguments. The fact that Miami can support 15 pirate stations shows that the mainstream stations are ignoring a large audience, he said.

He contended that more empty spots exist on the dial than the broadcast establishment will acknowledge.

But he is dubious that the low-power effort will succeed legally. The broadcasters, he said, ``have oodles of money and influence in Congress so they have a lot of pull.''

Some material in this story came from The New York Times.

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