Electronic music, as we’ve lamented time and time again in these pages, is nowhere on the radio spectrum in Chicago. Outside of a record here and there, it hasn’t been for years. And while we’re stating the obvious, let’s add that it ain’t coming back any time soon. In fact, there’s just about nothing on the radio for people interested in something more than Auto-Tuned pop, paleolithic rock and rabid political talk. This isn’t unique to Chicago. Due to the mega-mergers of the last 15 years, it’s true everywhere in the United States.
The need for a multi-million dollar license hasn’t stopped some broadcasters from taking to the airwaves. From the first citizen operators at the dawn of the 20th century to Wolfman Jack and the “border blasters” just across the Rio Grande, unlicensed broadcasting has played a major role in pushing music to the masses in America. It’s been even more crucial in other countries. And some are still out there, with all of the romance and mystique of a Rob Roy or Sir Francis Drake on the high seas.
This is an excerpt from a lengthy talk with a pirate radio broadcaster who, for understandable reasons, would prefer to remain anonymous for now. His name is not important; what is important is that he’s been broadcasting on the West Coast from a homemade radio rig for more than a year. He’s faced the agents of the FCC and spent from his own wallet just to broadcast his favorite independent music to his local community.
But with the risks have come rewards. The payoff isn’t monetary. Though some of Europe’s pirate stations have gone legit, it will never earn him a dime. But it keeps his community energized, informed, and exposes them to some great music.
First, why pirate radio when you could do it legitimately over the internet?
Audience and context. The audience on terrestrial radio is potentially enormous even with a very low power station. You don’t need special equipment to listen to the radio. People just need to know the time and the frequency and need to be within so many miles. They can be doing anything they want and can have a huge system or a tiny car radio to listen. And they know I’m down the block, not at a studio in New York.
The airwaves belong to everyone and it was a political decision four or five generations ago to dice it up and sell it off to the highest bidder. This decision had nothing to do with me nor with the majority of citizens – polls have shown consistent support for community-based, low-power radio.
Aren’t you running the risk of serious consequences from the government?
I’ve been busted three times in less than two years. I’ve heard of stations that use remote locations with recorded music but nobody seems to be able to connect any names to them, so I believe they’re just urban legends (pirate radio has a lot of urban legends, which is one of the things that draw us to it). John Draper (“Cap’n Crunch”, the very first hacker) ran a pirate radio station out of a van high in the hills above San Francisco, at an observatory. British broadcasters in the rave scene used microwave beams to broadcast to a remote transmitter. That stuff is way beyond me. The reality is that if you broadcast on anything like a regular schedule, in a place where people can hear it, you are going to get caught.
We’ve discovered a couple of loopholes which is the main reason I’d prefer to remain anonymous in this interview. I expect the FCC to look for our antenna but I don’t want to sound like I’m taunting them.
The letter of the law is that once they find you, the FCC must send written notice that you are violating the law and a demand that you cease. There are reports they’ll try to confiscate your equipment on the spot but it’s never gotten that far with us, anyway. I received the first letter about a month into broadcasting and I crapped my pants. I thought I was going to jail. But I’m not the only one involved in our station and someone suggested we should move it to her place. We did. The new location actually improved reception.
A month later, the FCC came calling again, sent a written letter notifying my friend that she was violating the law. We moved again. We’re now on our seventh location and it’s never gone further than receiving a warning letter. Lucky? I have no idea. I’m not a lawyer and this is illegal, and people better acknowledge that risk before they get into this. However, Dave Conway from Little Radio in Los Angeles has written that they encountered this loophole too when they were broadcasting. For the record, we’ve been “notified” 3 times in 14 months. I repeat: I’m not a lawyer. Whatever risks I take are my own. There are stories of people receiving permanent injunctions. I still might get one. But we have a large team and we feel comfortable playing cat and mouse for the time being.
What does your rig look like? Did you build it or buy it?
We’ve needed to tailor our rig to local conditions at each broadcasting location. Building the broadcasting rig was my biggest stumbling block – I wanted to do this years before I did. Actually, it’s VERY easy. It’s NOT expensive, or at least not unreasonably so. You WILL have to do some shopping as few people have a broadcast transmitter or amp lying around, but the equipment is easy to find on the market.
The most important thing about a station is reception. The higher you are, the better. There’s a reason why radio transmitters are on skyscrapers in major cities. If there are any obstacles, they’ll block your reception. So first, before you buy anything, you need a really good location (and as the FCC starts hunting you, more than one).
At the heart of my rig is a simple MacBook Pro laptop. I play MP3s with iTunes. A mixer enables us to switch to a Technics 1200 MK2 for vinyl and the microphone. It depends on your style of music, if it’s mostly on MP3 or if you want to take the time to rip CDs.
To take the mystique out of it, I can break down our rig into three sections:
The Media Players: This is your laptop, CD player, turntables, microphone. This is the fun stuff that everyone that loves music has. You don’t need special connections.
The Enablers: You need a mixer even if you’re broadcasting from a laptop. As with everything: the cheaper and lighter, the better. The mixer plugs into a compressor limiter. This is great for making a professional broadcast. Without it, you’ll sound like a pair of kids talking on walkie talkies.
The Broadcasters: Your compressor feeds into the transmitter, which feeds into the antenna. The power of your signal depends a lot on the location of your antenna. If you score a nice 30 watt micro-transmitter, you’re probably all set. If you have a lower watt transmitter, then you can use a 5/7 watt amp to boost the signal. You can begin with something as tiny as a 1 watt transmitter and use the amp to boost it. I started with the cheapest equipment possible and upgraded as I learned.
The transmitter is fed by a length of co-ax cable to the antenna. We use a 5/8-wave vertical antenna. They’re a couple of hundred bucks new. The longer your antenna, the better your signal. The higher your antenna, the better the signal. The higher your elevation, the better the signal. Long cables will sometimes diffuse the signal, so I try to keep the transmitter as close as possible to the antenna and run less cable.
For your frequency, you want something that will minimize the spillover of your signal bleeding into licensed stations but also their signal spilling over into yours. Most free radio stations that I know about broadcast in the high 80s. 88 to 92 MHz FM is the space reserved for “non-commercial radio” which is NPR and churches. They’ll drop a dime on you as quickly as anyone, but that’s where most free radio stations I’ve heard of rest.
I asked this in the beginning, but… why take the risk?
The music that I like isn’t broadcast on the radio. I’ve read a lot about the history of radio since I started this. In the “old days” there were so many choices. Even if they were mostly bad, they weren’t all bad. Today it’s all bad. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was a disaster for radio as it allowed a handful of companies to gobble up every station out there and concentrated the entire broadcasting dial between five or six very powerful entities. They ate so many stations and now they’re all going bankrupt because nobody likes it. Who loves a radio station anymore? It’s background noise.
If you are in a community that isn’t being served by what’s on radio – if you live anywhere in the US and like anything other than right-wing rage and commercial music, then this applies to you – you can do this. You don’t have to pay for XM/Sirius to hear your favorite local artist. I think people can take this into their own hands and make a movement.