This article was published in Vibe Magazine. Buy Sarah Ferguson
Them'a call us pirates, them'a call us illegal broadcasters, just because we play what the people want.-Shabba Ranks, Cocoa Tea, and Home T Four, "Pirates Anthem," 1990
From the street, it looked like an old fillin station in a sea of dusty asphalt. But the gray shed on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale housed the FCC's worst nightmare.
"Mayday, mayday, one-oh-four-point-one FM,WBLO radio, from the trees to the keys, we funk on the FM dial,'BLO style," MC Mighty Pharaoh rhymed as the booming bass of C-Murder's "Makin Moves" thundered from the speaker stacks. By day, WBLO broadcast a mild-mannered mix of R&B and hip hop for local businesses and the after-school set, but by night, it busted raw uncensored rap to legions of fans hungry to hear music unfiltered by advertiser-friendly sensibilities.
With a 65 foot antenna built with parts from Home Depot and using a couple of thousand watts of power, WBLO blared its illegal signal from North Lauderdale to the tony shores of South Beach, Miami. "Sure I'm breaking the rules right now, but it's supply and demand," Pharaoh boasted from the studio last June, seeming more concerned about competing pirates zeroing inn on 'BLO's frequency and blasting Lawrence Welk over his rap. "The feds can't stop us. If they come to shut us down, we'll just move."
Just a week later, local police pried open the station's door and ordered it to shut down. "They brought in the canine team and ran serial checks on all our equipment for four hours," says Pharaoh. The cops fined WLOB for selling CDs without a license, but since they have no jurisdiction over the airwaves, they could not close the station. It was a brief reprieve. In early July, an FCC agent scaled the chain-link fence around the station and banged on the shed door.He threatened to bring in U.S. marshals to confiscate WBLO's equipment and fine the station up to $50,000 if he did not stop transmitting. "The FCC will not condone broadcasting without a license," says Richard Lee, the commission's chief of compliance and information. "Unlicensed broadcasting poses a threat to public safety.
We will aggressively enforce the law." With other pirates in the area dropping like flies in a wave of stepped up federal enforcement, Pharaoh says he didn't have much choice. He pulled the plug.
The rise and fall of WLOB illustrates the pitched battle that has erupted over the nations multibillion-dollar airwaves. Easy access to cheap tech (you can now order a complete transmitter package over the Internet for as little as $700.00) has fueled the boom. And as corporate-controlled radio becomes increasingly homogenized-with virtual DJs pumping out the same old Celine Dion song coast to coast-more folks are setting up there own localized broadcasts, delivering everything from farming reports to hardcore reggae.
Low-power, or "microradio," advocates estimate that there are currently close to 1,000 unlicensed operators, up from a few dozen five years ago. Most broadcast at between 20 and 100 watts of power; they're like gnats compared to 100,000 watt goliaths like Miami's Power 96 FM. But radio conglomerates like CBS and Capstar, alarmed at the growing ranks of pirates, charge that illegal broadcasters are infringing on their turf, interfering with their signals and stealing listeners. Determined to get undergrounds off the air, the nation's powerfull broadcast industry is pressuring the Justice Department and the FCC to eliminate these "broadcast bandits." The war is on, and with one of the most active pirate scenes in the country-thanks in part to flat terrain that allows a weak signal to travel further-Florida is ground zero.
Last November the FCC brought in helicopters and SWAT teams armed with submachine guns to stage a surprise raid on three Tampa stations. "They trained their guns on me and my wife for twelve hours while they carted away everything in sight," says party pirate Doug Brewer, who operated a popular biker-metal station. Brewer estimates the feds seized more than $100,000 worth radio, audio, and video equipment-some of which belonged to a local golf club-as well as the 165-foot broadcast tower he'd erected and the state of the art mobile studio he'd installed in his van.