What a jackass. Me, I mean.
A warm autumn evening, 1996. I was sitting on the front porch of the venerable Stanford House, home and hangout to various musicians from Word Salad, Logical Nonsense and Hell Hath No Fury. We were waiting for some Green Party mayoral candidate. “We” being the collective nonentity known as Rebel Radio, comprised of various activists, anarchists, musicians, freaks and weirdos.
A couple of years prior, an inveterate train-hopper, beekeeper and bicycle-powered juice maker known as Pirate Willie and a gutter-punk gal called Sunshine (for her daily reports on how the American empire was falling apart) had gotten ahold of a low-power FM transmitter, a castoff from Free Radio Berkeley.
Call it micro-power broadcasting or pirate radio or whatever you will, but without a license from the Federal Communications Commission, it was one thing for certain: illegal. Some of the collective grokked on that alone. Others wanted to spread the word about corporate misdeeds. Still others were gleeful about spinning music that couldn’t get commercial airplay like Melt Banana or Crass or Anal Cunt.
So it was in the midst of all this—the half-watt transmitter, a homemade antenna swaying above the treetops, a broadcast going out maybe two or three miles to, uh, tens of listeners with some grindcore records on the air—when this guy in a polo shirt clomps up the steps and says, “Hey, is this the broadcast?”
“Sure,” I replied, assuming him to be Mr. Hip Green Party candidate guy. “Come on in.” Like I say, What a jackass.
Before you know it, a badge was glinting in the dim porch light and the district director of the Compliance and Information Bureau of the FCC introduced himself. I was already kicking my own butt for inviting—inviting!—the Fed in and hoping some of the other radio pirates would join me.
In short order, the broadcast was off the air, a citation written and the Fed on his way back to Lakewood, Colo., in his Ford Bronco, tracking and triangulation equipment embedded in the dash. Most puzzling, though: We still had all the equipment. Not that anybody wanted him to confiscate it, you understand, but this wasn’t how the cops and robbers game works in the movies, is it?
So within a matter of weeks Rebel Radio was back and the feds made regular trips to stop this illegal effort that, if unchecked, could (they said) disrupt air traffic control signals and garage door openers. There were mad dashes as the equipment was disassembled and hauled in different directions on bicycles one step ahead of the FCC. There were the evening news reports of this audacious and irresponsible behavior. What no one knew was that our engineer—a professional by trade—made absolutely certain the broadcast didn’t interfere with any commercial frequency.
Rebel Radio continued despite the bust because it was informative. And it was fun. The “Ska and Two Tone Hour.” “The Stock Report” (i.e., what prices junk and scrap metal easily found in any dumpster were bringing that week). Eyewitness accounts of protesters chaining themselves to logging trucks. Reports from Food Not Bombs and Copwatch. “Dirt City,” the local music show. On-air performances by Stoic Frame, the Impatients and Anchorman. Local sex workers reporting on massage parlor working conditions. Support from record shops Mind Over Matter and Drop Out. Press coverage in the Weekly Alibi and even the punker-than-thou Maximum Rocknroll. Anyone was welcome.
This is where the “If we suck it’s your fault” maxim began. Don’t like the broadcast? Then come on over and tell the ’hood what you have to say. There were unemployed crusty punks. Hippies. Latin scholars. Union reps. A chemical engineering / classical music major. Vegetable diesel makers. Sure, it was idealistic. Sure, it couldn’t last (a $10,000 fine and a year in prison is nobody’s idea of a good time). But for almost three years—before the Internet was ubiquitous—there was an outlet for all the creative and chaotic energy floating around UNM’s “student ghetto.”
Things have changed since then. These days, if you can prove your worth to the community and act professional—which Rebel Radio most certainly wasn’t—it’s theoretically possible to score a legal low-power license. That is, if you can do so before all the church groups and wannabe Limbaughs snap them up.