USA Today "Inside Money"
February 27, 1998
Illegal stations spice up radio dials
Pirates fight the corporate power
SAN MARCOS, Texas - A scan of the radio dial in this
laid-back college town 30 miles southwest of Austin
turns up a blandly familiar mix of pop, country and
oldies fare framed by soothing professional voices.
Until you alight on 105.9 FM. "This is KIND radio,"
mutters the raspy voice as the music fades. "All
right, smoke pot."
In the "studio" - a tiny, graffiti-covered room that
opens on the front yard of a battered blue ranch
house - homeowner Joe Ptak's long, bespectacled face
suddenly appears in a hole in the wall. "Hey, Zeal,
flood watch in Hays County," Ptak says after catching
a local TV warning. Jeffrey "Zeal" Stefanoff, a
beer-bellied disabled veteran, delivers the news to
This, KIND fans argue, is radio the way it ought to
be. Distinctively local. Unabashedly amateurish.
Ptak and his on-air band of 70 college students,
pizza deliverers, activists and knockabouts steer one
of the USA's growing number of "pirate," or "micro"
From dining rooms, basements, garages and even car
batteries across the nation, these guerrilla
broadcasters beam their illicit FM signals at under
100 watts. They are mere flyspecks compared with the
3,000- to 100,000-watt commercial FM goliaths that
blanket entire regions. But the Federal
Communications Commission and mainstream broadcasters
consider them outlaws.
The FCC, worried about dial clutter and interference,
has not licensed stations under 100 watts since 1978.
Last year, it drove 97 microbroadcasters off the air
by issuing warnings or seizing equipment. Tampa
listeners lost their popular "Party Pirate" Nov. 19
when gun-toting federal agents stormed Doug Brewer's
home and confiscated his equipment. "I'm scared; I'm
freaked out about it," says the burly, tattooed
Brewer, who now transmits his obscenity-laced biker
and alternative-rock shows over the Internet.
Napolean Williams of Black Liberation Radio in
Decatur, Ill., whose broadcasting paraphernalia was
seized last month, hopped right back on the dial with
equipment donated by fellow pirates.
A truce of sorts could be in the offing. For the
first time, the FCC this month asked for public
comment on a proposal to license FM stations under
one watt. While many microbroadcasters say that would
be woefully inadequate - giving them perhaps a
one-mile radius - new FCC Chairman William Kennard
says he would be open to more-powerful microstations.
"There are fewer (radio) opportunities for small
businesses, minorities and church groups," Kennard
says. He is concerned that a two-year frenzy of
mergers in the radio industry, spawned by the 1996
lifting of ownership limits, has hurt diversity. "I'm
very sympathetic to the view of some of these
Backers estimate the number of micro radio stations
has nearly doubled the past year to about 1,000
nationwide. They spice the airwaves of urban
cauldrons, Midwestern cornfields and college hubs.
There's Steal This Radio in New York City. Radio
Mutiny in Philadelphia. Iowa City Free Radio. Miami
has about 10, largely Spanish-language, pirate
stations. Berkeley, Calif., and Cleveland each boast
a half dozen.
Williams, 42, who was imprisoned in 1994 for kicking
a city police officer, regularly rails about police
brutality on 99.7 FM from his dining-room microphone.
"Before, it was like black people didn't exist here
as far as radio was concerned," he says.
Low-cost tools fuel pirates
The 30-watt KIND covers a 13-mile radius, enough to
provide San Marcos' 50,000 residents and Southwest
Texas State University students with their only local
Rogue stations, such as the year-old KIND, typically
sell no advertising and make no money. Their
rough-hewn DJs are moved by a need to dispense a
heartfelt message or stoke an ego. They brand
themselves freedom fighters saving radio from a
homogenized dial losing its local strains to
corporate marketing machines.
Driving the trend of pirate stations are plunging
equipment costs - most pirates can get on the air for
less than $1,000 - and local programming voids
sparked by the industry's feverish consolidation.
"There is an enormous increase in standardized
programming in which 10 or 20 stations across the
country will run essentially the same things with an
automatic cartridge," says media consultant Ben
Bagdikian. "I think you're going to see more pirate
The USA was home to just a handful of pirate radio
stations when Stephen Dunifer, 46, a self-taught
electronics engineer and activist, launched Radio
Free Berkeley in April 1993.
It wasn't rocket science. Just plug a microphone and
CD player into a home-brewed, boxlike transmitter
connected to an antenna. Find a dead spot on the
radio, tune the transmitter to that frequency and
presto, you're a radio star.
After the FCC ordered Dunifer off the air, he began
broadcasting his community news, political commentary
and eclectic music from a backpack, jumping to
different locations in the northern California hills
each Sunday night to avoid detection. The FCC fined
him $20,000 and sought an injunction to shut the
But for nearly three years, federal Judge Claudia
Wilken has refused to grant the injunction. She is
still reviewing Dunifer's claim that the FCC might be
violating his constitutional right to free speech.
Emboldened, Dunifer and his 30 cohorts moved into a
commercial building and now broadcast every day.
No other court has been so generous.Microbroadcasters
nationwide are looking to the case as a watershed
that could influence other judges.
But the FCC says the free-speech mantra doesn't
guarantee everyone a radio soapbox. "If anyone could
broadcast on any frequency they wanted to, there
would be chaos on the airwaves," Kennard says.
Johnny Appleseed of radio
Pirate broadcasters point out that launching a
high-power radio station costs about $100,000 in FCC
licensing fees and engineering studies, plus capital
costs that can easily exceed $1 million. Buying an
existing station is pricier: Capstar Broadcasting
recently paid $90 million for three Austin radio
"When the law says you have to regulate radio
stations in the public interest and you create a
regulatory scheme that says nobody but the very rich
has access to the airwaves, that's unlawful," says
Louis Hiken, Dunifer's lawyer.
Dunifer, meanwhile, has become the Johnny Appleseed
of microbroadcasters. He has almost single-handedly
sparked their proliferation by selling 300 of his
transmitter-antenna kits to disciples worldwide and
helping them set up stations.
The FCC says pirate radio signals can interfere with
aircraft and police communications, as well as
licensed commercial stations. It recently shut down
pirate broadcasters in Puerto Rico and Miami, citing
interference with airplane communication.
Nonsense, Dunifer says. Air-to-ground frequencies are
118 to 135 megahertz, while FM radio operates between
88 and 108 megahertz.
Microbroadcasters say they take pains to ensure they
don't overlap with bigger stations by testing their
signals and using modulators to limit their reach.
"How does a mosquito interfere with a gorilla?" asks
Alan Freed, whose Beat Radio, Minneapolis' only dance
music station, was shuttered by the FCC in 1996. "If
anything, they would drown us out."
Radio pirates note that in many countries, including
Canada and Japan, low-power FM stations are legal.
They say the FCC is kowtowing to wealthy licensed
broadcasters who feel threatened by their low-power
rivals. "The FCC is bankrolled by the National
Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and big
corporations," says Millie Watt of Philadelphia's
Richard Lee, the FCC's chief of compliance, strongly
denies the charge. He says the FCC typically acts on
complaints, some from commercial stations concerned
about pirates who advertise or overlap signals.
The NAB's Dennis Wharton says: "We can't go fishing
without a license or drive without a license. We
don't think it's too much to ask to have a license to
be a broadcaster."
Later this year, the FCC might give pirate radio
stations that option. But will they want it?
"Licensing has the connotation of regulation," says
KIND's Ptak. "We don't want any censorship. We feel
we're like the Founding Fathers."
That might be a lofty simile for this group. At KIND,
anyone can host a weekly two-hour show; the youngest
DJ is 10. Owner Ptak, 39, who works odd jobs,
interviews public officials daily, often broadcasting
the exchanges without their knowledge.
Lighter offerings include "Rude Awakenings," two
college students who rile acquaintances with wake-up
calls. Ptak has one phone line, and radio shows are
routinely interrupted by his personal callers who
find themselves on the air.
"It's a lot more natural; it doesn't seem as
planned-out as other stations," says Southwest Texas
student Johanna Van Hoesen, 22.
By Paul Davidson, USA TODAY
©COPYRIGHT 1998 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co.
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