Also targeted was Arthur Kobres, a former marine who was rebroadcasting American diatribes he picked up from a satellite feed. In July, Kobres became the first pirate to be criminally prosecuted for operating an illegal station. He was sentenced to six months house arrest and 36 months probation. FCC spokesperson David Fisk defended the raids, saying his agency had reports that Kobres and Brewer had stockpiled weapons in their homes. (Both men deny the allegation.)
But for every pirate the FCC nets-it seems another one surfaces. Within a week of the June crackdown in South Florida, four new stations were on the air. Others were hopping frequencies and moving studios to keep a step ahead of the feds. "I get ten calls a week from people looking for transmitters so they can start their own stations," says Mark, who manages Beach Radio, a popular underground in South Beach. "There's no way the feds can stop it."
With more than 30 different undergrounds at last count, Miami is pirate Mecca. Roam the dial on your way down I-95 and you'll find a jambalaya of unlicensed Haitian creole, rap, gospel, and soul along with Latin evangelicals, Jamaican reggae toasters, disco, techno, heavy metal-even Greek and Hasidic pirates.
It was Miami's own Luther "Luke Skyywalker" Campbell who set things off 1989, broadcasting live booty music from his Pac Jam Teen Disco in Liberty City over BASS 91.9 FM. "At that time, rap was popular among teens, and the major stations thought they'd lose abult listeners if they played it," Luke says fron the South Beach offices of Luke Records. Miking performers who rocked the club, BASS was the furst station to play artists like Run-D.M.C., Kool Moe Dee, and Public Enemy on Miami's airwaves. "People used to drive from miles away and have tailgate parties just because you couldn't get the music nowhere else", he says.
In those days, BASS didn't have much trouble with the authorities. "It was in the 'hood, and back then things were pretty tense, so they weren't real anxious to come there," Luke reasons. In 1990, Luke took the station off the air. But by then, other stations were making pirate stations a genuine alternative to mainstream radio.
"We were getting guests like Ice Cube, Naughty by Nature-all of them," recalls Lady Most Dangerous, a dreadlocked sister who in the early '90s spun for a underground station called Flava 91.9 FM. "People would be driving to where they could get our signal, and pulling over to the side of the road and rolling up a blunt-that's how popular our shit was." Def Jam artists were getting so much play, the label helped Flava buy new audio equipment to boost its signal.
Stung by falling ratings, the commercial stations complained, and in 1993 the FCC shut Flava down. But already another underground station, the Bomb, was rising up in Miami's Liberty city. This time, instead of clashing, the mainstream co-opted. In 1996, Miami's leading urban station, 99 Jams (WEDR 99.1 FM), adopted the name the Bomb for it's weekend hip hop mix show, then recruited Lady Most to host.
WEDR programming director Cedric Hollywood acknowledges his station borrows from the pirates. "I Know that they exist, and it's my job to compete against them," he says. "When I got here (in January 1998), I decided to bring in people that were known in the underground circuit. Now we're the number one station."
One strategic acquisition was Luke, who now hosts a notoriously freewheeling Friday night variety show on 99 Jams. Luke's cohost is DJ Khalid, a 23 year old Palestinian who also holds down his own hip hop show five nights a week on Mixx 96, an underground reggae and dancehall station. Mixx's raw cinderblock walls are dotted with signed pictures from the many artists-Fat Joe, Big Pun, Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz, Canibus, Wyclef, Scare Dem Crew, Da Cocoa Brovaz-who have come through to big-up the station, and themselves.
"The scene in Miami is very hot right now, and the pirate stations made it that way," says Geo Bivins, a former street rep in Miami who is now senior vice president of promotions at Loud Records. "We send our records to DJs like Khalid, and eventually they translate to the mainstream." This spring, Khalid was the first to break Big Pin's Capitol Punishmint (Loud,1998),which topped Soundscan charts in Miami weeks before it was picked up by any of the commercial stations.
Beach Radio at 96.9 FM was founded a year and half ago by Mark, a former club promoter, and a 26 year old actor known as Don, who says they were fed up with Miami's dynamic music culture having no outlet on the radio. They and a swelling contingent of DJs started braadcasting an ecclectic mix of hip hop, reggae, jazz, jungle, house, and talk from a South Beach penthouse.
Beach repaired to a former crackhouse that now feels like Moon Doggie's surf shack: walls covered in tags and reggae posters, an old longboard stashed in one corner. DJs range from Luke, a Hilfiger model and grandson of Errol Flynn who plays conscious reggae, to Brother Mike, a blind guy who brings in stacks of oldies printed in braille. During the Saturday night hip hop show, hosted by a local MC named Rolup, it's not unusual to find 30 kids throwing down freestyles. Beyond music, Beach operates like a virtual community center, from helping residents campaign against high-rise development to promoting a campaign to free a whale from the Miami Seaquarium. Neisen Kasdin, the mayor of South Beach, is an occasional caller to one of the morning talk shows.
Still most commercial broadcasters are contemptuous of their unlicensed peers. "Let me find a way to say this tactfully," says Kid Curry, program director for Power 96, who has been lobbying state and local officials to rid Florida of pirates for two years. "Miami has got Venezuelans and Colombians and Haitians and Cubans and a whole lot of people who just got off the boat from these repressive regimes, and now they think they're in America, the land of the free, and they think you can do whatever you want. [But] they're a bunch of little rookies. Quality wise, they all suck".