Raising The Jolly Roger: Pirate radio invades local airwaves
A copy of the 1994 Free Radio Berkley newsletter reads: “When people develop their own collective community voice it is an extremely empowering act, one that threatens the status quo in a rather serious way since disenfranchisement and disempowerment are two major ways of keeping people down in the dirt. Lack of communication creates extremely negative situations where worst case assumptions are made, and suspicion, mistrust, anger and violence are a natural outgrowth of an alienated populace. Micropower broadcasting has the power to break down these barriers and restore a sense of true community.” Reading that now, I can’t help but think that not only is this true, but the U.S. government knows it is, too. The United States is currently trying to force China to allow Radio Free Asia so that the people will have a voice. Our government is supporting the station as a way to foster democracy in a totalitarian state. So why isn’t the U.S. government protecting democracy here by permitting community-based microbroadcasting?
Before you say something cynical, consider the possibility that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) might just get a big kick in the ass. When the FCC busted Free Radio Berkeley (FRB) for pirating the airwaves, no one expected FRB’s court challenge to be successful. Up to that time, there had never been a case where a court refused to enjoin a pirate radio station. But in this case, the FCC lost. Well, sort of. The Berkley pirate station argued that the FCC regulations were unconstitutional because they made it absolutely impossible to get a license for microradio broadcasts. FCC regulations state that no licenses shall be issued for stations with less than 100 watts of power. The court decided that, because there was a question as to the constitutionality of the FCC’s regulations, they were not entitled to an injunction. Thus, the station was allowed to continue to broadcast until another court decides otherwise. This case is still on appeal. And microradio broadcasts are popping up all over the country, including here in Albuquerque.
Flashback to 1990: My first image of pirate radio is Christian Slater in Pump Up The Volume. A shy, disgruntled high school student by day, a popular and controversial air pirate by night, Slater’s character is hunted down and eventually caught by the FCC, but he makes a valiant effort to complete his last broadcast, running from the FCC in a Jeep with a sound board and transmitter strapped to it, encouraging other students to revolt against the corrupt system. “Talk Hard!” he says to his fans as he is escorted away by the Feds.
Cut to the present: There are about a dozen people scattered around the living room floor of a house near the University of New Mexico. Wires are strewn about the room, connecting microphones and sound equipment to transmitters and attenae. The radio in the corner is broadcasting exactly what is going on in the room. I have entered the “studio.” I wonder whether any of the people here in the living room have a Jeep.
Pirate Willy is on the air, talking about strikes and boycotts as “tools of the revolution.” Willy goes on to explain that after citizens strike and boycott “Big Greedy Corporation” there needs to be “parallel organizations” that provide the goods or services formerly provided by the boycotted “Corporation.” Food, for example, can come from co-ops—an alternative to corporate, hormone-injected, pesticide-poisoned foodstuffs. He starts talking to a guy who has worked in co-ops. The women behind me start talking about how gross processed food is. Someone offers me a beer. I detect the scent of reefer. Pirate Willy asks if anyone else has questions for the food co-op guy. Other people start asking questions. It is all very casual. Casual but energetic. There is a definite vibe in the room.
Americans are lazy, selfish and disconnected, and pirate radio is crucial to such a revolution because mainstream media perpetuates the myths of our artificial and shallow society.
Rebel Radio, 90.9 FM, is true pirate radio: no FCC license and no rules. Created by the pseudonymous Sunshine, Pirate Willy and Owl Bird, the station broadcasts on Tuesday nights from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., from an undisclosed location that changes every week. Their broadcasts feature whatever suits the moods of the participants. The pirates and their cohorts appear to be in their mid to late 20s, maybe early 30s. They don’t have “real” jobs. Sunshine raises her son. Owl Bird and Pirate Willy are blacksmiths. Various individuals procured and contributed the necessary equipment, and Willy had the know-how when it came to setting it up and getting on the air. That was five months ago.
Rebel Radio is about three things: Revolution, Community and Truth. Revolution means different things to different people, but the vast majority of people in the “studio” agree that, at a minimum, an intellectual revolution in this country is necessary. Americans are lazy, selfish and disconnected, they contend, and pirate radio is crucial to such a revolution because mainstream media perpetuates the myths of our artificial and shallow society. It dumbs us down by not providing any real forum for discussion of things that really affect our lives. Owl Bird tells me why she thinks Rebel Radio is needed: “Mainstream media lacks real knowledge.” According to the Rebels’ take on the media, there is no real research. There is no sharing of viewpoints. You never hear from Joe Average, and if you do, it is a polished soundbite, taken out of context from a cutesy little person-on-the-street interview. Sunshine thinks that we need to completely demolish the infrastructure of the society we live in before there can be any change, but no one really advocates violence against other people. In fact, the Rebels want to reach out to other people. They want everyone to get involved, which brings me to the second theme: Community.
Rebel Radio is about combining the efforts of anyone who wants to participate. Anyone is welcome here. “Except Christians,” says Owl Bird. The impression I get is that she doesn’t mean “Christians,” but rather “closed-minded people.” Jesus, with his rather progressive sympathy for the disenfranchised prostitutes and lepers of his time, might have fit in perfectly here. To the Rebels, this is a place to get involved, to speak ones mind, unfettered by pressures or influence of Big Money. By bringing different viewpoints together, they believe, we can get closer together as a community and closer to the Truth. The “Truth” concept propagated here reminds me of that Charlene song “I’ve Never Been To Me” where she says truth is holding a baby. It’s about what is real. It’s about what happens when you wake up one day after years of prancing around with kings and realize that your life has no substance. The pirates want to make people think about what is important in our lives. Did the world ever really need Epilady? HoHos? Cubicles?
There is vision here. Whether you agree with the Rebels’ beliefs or not, you have to respect the fact that they are actually doing something which they believe will improve the state of democracy in this country. All around the world, The People have seized the airwaves in search of change, broadcasting to whomever will listen: Liberation Radio and Radio Libre in San Francisco; Mabana Kantako (Black Liberation Radio) in Springfield, Ill.; Free Radio Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif.; Radio Free Europe; Radio Free Asia. Now Albuquerque has its own pirate radio station and the opportunity for truly free community radio.
The pirates want to make people think about what is important in our lives. Did the world ever really need Epilady? HoHos? Cubicles?
And now back to the original question: Why does our government not support community microbroadcasting in an effort to promote democracy in the United States? Ironically, the U.S. government was the founder and supporter of Radio Free Europe, perhaps the first pirate radio station, which first broadcast on July 4, 1950 on a 7500-watt short-wave radio nicknamed Barbara out of a small town in West Germany to the people trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The United States gave the exiled former leaders of the Soviet-occupied countries the chance to speak to their people, in their own language, about their own countries’ situation in an effort to restore democracy, or at least to give the people access to noncommunist media. Much like the efforts of microbroadcasters in modern America, they were trying to provide an option to the officially sanctioned, sanitized propaganda of the ruling party.
Granted, the U.S. government doesn’t control the content of radio broadcasts in America, with the exception of banning “obscenity,” which is afforded no constitutional protection. The role of the FCC is merely to apportion the limited spectrum of airwaves available to avoid chaos. But the ruling party in America is not the government; rather, commercial interests rule this country. Thus, when the FCC auctions off (or otherwise distributes) the airwaves to private entities who then have the ability to control the content of broadcasts, those companies control what the public hears. In theory, the rules of competition in the marketplace should provide listeners with a broad variety of viewpoints, but alas, competition never had a chance.
AM radio was first available in the 1920s, with FM radio following in the 1930s. By 1941 there were only 900 commercial stations in the United States—80 percent of them owned by just four companies: NBC, CBS, ABC and the Mutual Broadcasting System. Two of those companies, NBC and CBS, controlled 95 percent of the broadcasting power and made the majority of the profits. They had enough market power to choke any potential competitors. All the way back in the 1940s, long before today’s trend toward radio deregulation and mergers, First Amendment analysts saw the concentrated ownership of broadcast media to be a danger to democracy. In 1941, Robert West’s book The Rape of Radio posed the question: “Is there such a thing as freedom of the air? The answer is ‘No.’” West goes on to say: “Any man may hire a hall or stand on a soapbox to have his say, or he may break out in a printed pamphlet. If he seeks a microphone to air his views, he may be up against a stone wall. If his subject is controversial, the networks will not sell him time. The very nature of the commercial system militates against him. He will be told that radio is a business and that commercial commitments have priority. ... During the 1939 chain-monopoly inquiry before the FCC,” continues West, “Lenox R. Lohr, then president of NBC, warned that if individuals or groups could compel the stations to give them time, the result would be virtual destruction of the American system of broadcasting. ... He (Lohr) insisted that the network executives must have freedom to determine who is to have speaking opportunities. ... The use of the ‘wise discretion’ of the networks usually coincides with freedom for the conservatives and the gagging of radicals and liberals. Selectivity of this kind sharpens the sword of propaganda for the favored interests. The people think as the ruling interests want them to think, largely because information on which to make judgments has been suppressed.” Such statements are remarkably in line with the current dissatisfaction among citizens with the tightfisted grip Corporate America has on the media. General Electric, who owns NBC, and Westinghouse, who owns CBS, have played intregal roles in broadcast media since its inception, and you can be sure that consideration to their corporate interests is given to any on-air discussion.
So the next question is, what role should the government play, if any, to encourage democracy in American media? Some commentators have suggested that the government take a more active role in breaking up monopolies. Some suggest the requirement of giving equal time to various groups, but that could easily become unwieldy, as there are as many different views as there are people. Still others suggest that the FCC should be required to distribute licenses based on diversity requirements. But regardless of any government action, the most important and influential group capable of taking action is American citizens themselves. There are options for people who are dissatisfied. First, we need to be aware of the corporate ownership of the media and understand that commercial interests may taint the perspective of their content. Second, we can refuse to listen, refuse to participate, and most importantly, refuse to support their commercial advertisers, without whom corporate media cannot survive. Finally, we can support the efforts of true community radio, like the microbroadcasters here in Albuquerque, who want to give a mass-media voice to those who do not currently have one. You can lobby your representative in the Senate and the House to require the FCC to offer microbroadcast licenses, and encourage others to do the same. If you want to get involved with Rebel Radio on-air, make a tape of what you want to say or play and drop it off at Mind over Matter, or leave a phone number so the pirates can contact you. If you have something to say, this is an open forum for you, and all are welcome, regardless of age or other distinguishing factors. Go ahead, talk hard!?