October 23, 1996
Pirate Radio Wavemaking
By Simon Peter Groebner
THE EVENING OF September 21 promised to be just another Saturday night of steady dance grooves on 97.7 FM, a.k.a. Beat Radio. But at approximately 8:19 p.m., the unlicensed station's signal was interrupted by high-power interference from an intrusive transmitter, lasting more than an hour. Instead of the usual high-tech club beats, listeners were subjected to polka, jokey country-western music, and Michael Jackson's "Bad" played beneath the menacing sound effect of jingling change.
"The obvious intent was to cause interference," says Beat Radio operator , who concludes from the overwhelming power of the jamming signal that it must have originated from the nearby IDS Tower--"and only about six companies have the facilities on the IDS to do that." Freed thus suspects that the interference, one of three separate jammings that have occurred since his station took to the air July 21, may have come from a licensed broadcast competitor. "What they're doing in essence, is putting that station's license in jeopardy," Freed notes. "If they want to make the case that we're illegal, then that's just as illegal."
(For the record, Jim duBois of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association agrees with the latter point, but not with Freed's hypothesis: "The charge is absolutely ludicrous. Why would any licensed broadcaster take that kind of risk to jam a tiny pirate broadcaster? It makes no sense at all.")
But mysterious jammings have not been the only signs of opposition to the Beat. The Federal Communications Commission sent Freed a letter in August warning that he could be subject to a fine of up to $100,000 and time in prison. The Minnesota Broadcasters Association filed a complaint with the FCC and says that numerous Twin Cities stations (including Cities 97 and KTIS) have done the same. And Freed says the Beat has received a fair amount of anonymous harassment, mostly of the "we know where you are" variety.
Such are the perils of broadcasting without a license. Beat Radio is just one of a dozen unauthorized "micro broadcasters"--such as the short-lived Radio Free Como and the well-publicized but inactive 2000 Flushes Pirate Radio--that have popped up across the Twin Cities in the past year or two. But the Beat, which Freed says cost approximately $6,000 to set up, is the most long-lived, professionally-run, and well-known. Its 20-watt transmitter near Loring Park sends a signal over a western Minneapolis region shaped like a backwards "D": from I-35W in the east to Riverplace to the north, Uptown and 40th Street to the south, and parts of St. Louis Park and Golden Valley to the west. The Beat signs on at 4 p.m. on weekdays and at 11 a.m. on weekends with a continuous, non-commercial, all-dance format that has garnered droves of fans via word of mouth and unsolicited media coverage. About half of the station's airtime is taken up by guest shifts from popular local club DJs. And while the Beat's tiny wattage does not interfere with other stations, Freed has drawn enemies in the broadcast establishment--and a controversy that goes to the heart of issues of corporate media control and the First Amendment.
Freed, 34, looks his part: a professional by day and a dance club regular by night. Inside his clandestine studio, several thousand CDs are stacked against one wall. In one corner are the CD players, tape decks, and VCR used for audio. The operation is remarkably efficient and practical: Freed adroitly pieces together the on-air production using the SoundEdit program on a Mac Powerbook. The effect is every bit as pro as a normal station, despite the lower budget.
A veteran of Twin Cities stations KMOJ, KTCJ, and WWTC--as well as Philadelphia's top-rated Power 99 in the early '90s--Freed talks at length about Beat Radio's rogue status. He objects to the term "pirate radio" since it implies recklessness. Responding to the common industry demand that micro broadcasters "play by the rules," Freed says he would love to. But the FCC makes that impossible because licenses are only granted to stations with a minimum of 100 watts. But if a Twin Cities station at 97.7 were powered with 100 watts, it would interfere with the signals of stations in St. Cloud and Rochester. Therefore, FCC regulations make it technically impossible to broadcast at 97.7--and Freed calls this a waste of perfectly usable dial space, and an unfair obstruction to a small, low-budget broadcast enterprise.
The forefront of the legal battle for micro broadcasting is currently waging in Oakland, California, over the renowned Stephen Dunifer and his unlicensed Free Radio Berkeley. A district court judge has refused to issue an injunction against FRB, and the case is going through a series of appeals and may go to trial by early '97. In the meantime, lawyers say micro broadcasting remains in a "gray area" between legal and illegal. This has opened the floodgates for hundreds of indie broadcasters of all stripes to set up shop throughout the U.S., while the Oakland team strives to secure micro power broadcasting as a free speech right. The key issue at work is "public interest"--the FCC often charges that micro broadcasters disrupt the public interest, while proponents fire back that the FCC is abusing the judicial system to protect big-money media conglomerates at the little guy's expense.
As far as whether or not Beat Radio is providing a "public service," well, its unique format and support for local artists does make it a welcome addition to the local broadcast spectrum. It's not the most radically programmed dance station in the world--the usual mix is standard dance club fare, heavy on house and r&b with a smattering of unusual funk, disco, acid-jazz, and trip hop grooves splashed in. But the station also provides what no other local station does: a steady dance beat all night long, with no commercials and surprisingly professional production quality. "We're providing something that nobody else is going to, looking at what the (local broadcast) structure is right now," says Freed. "My partner and I are, and have been, broadcasting professionals, and we felt we could provide a good product with whatever restrictions we had to operate with." People seem to be responding. "The one thing that we did not anticipate was the reaction that the public would have to us," says Freed, after proudly displaying several stacks of fan mail, postcards, e-mail printouts, and even artwork sent to the station. "We knew that there were people who wanted to hear this--we're not playing it for ourselves--but the response has been simply overwhelming."
So the Beat goes on--sustained, for the time being at least, by legal limbo at a unique juncture in broadcast history. While both his public and anonymous enemies in the industry might portray the micro station as a threat to the status quo--dismayed, perhaps, by how cheaply the operation is run--Freed insists that Beat Radio isn't abusing its position. "We're providing a service as any other station does, the only difference is we don't have a license," Freed emphasizes. "That's not because of our choosing--that's because of the Commission. But we are doing something responsible and worthy with the signal."
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