1939-45 Wartime paranoia prompts the military to police America's airwaves for spy transmitters.
1970 Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book (Buccaneer Books) contains instructions on how to start a station. Enterprising hippies use pirate radio to spread peace, love, and political activism.
1978 After intensive lobbying by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the FCC stopped issuing licenses to stations operating at less than 100 watts.
1986 After being beaten by police while deejaying at a house party in Springfield, Illinois, DeWayne Readus begins broadcasting out of his family's apartment in the John Hay Homes projects.
1989 Git it, git it! Luther Campbell starts broadcasting Miami Bass live from his Pac Jam Teen Disco in Liberty City, Florida on BASS 91.9 FM.
1990 Campbell takes his station off the air after obscenity charges against his label, Luke Records.
1990 London's popular pirate station Kiss FM receives a license to operate as a legitimate broadcaster.
1990 Christian Slater stars in Pump Up the Volume as a high school outcast who broadcasts from his basement while playing records and jerking off.
1990 Readus changes his name to Mbanna Kantako and the station's to Black Liberation Radio. He commits an act of civil disobedience when he refuses to stay off the air in compliance with the FCC.
1993 Stephen Dunifer founds Radio Free Berkeley, hiding a transmitter in his back pack and broadcasting from different Bay Area locations in order to evade the FCC.
1996 Congress passes the Telecommunications Act, kicking off a series of mergers among giant radio conglomerates.
1998 Former pirate Kiss FM is London's top rated station, playing a mix of hip hop, R&B, house, reggae, and drum 'n' bass. Meanwhile U.K. pirates like Kool FM and Hard FM continue to broadcast even better music without interference from authorities.
1998 Florida's Arthur Kobres is the first broadcaster in America to be criminally prosecuted for operating a low power radio station. He's sentenced to six months house arrest.
1998 A California judge rejects Free Radio Berkely's claim that micro radio is protected by the First Amendment rights and shuts the station down.
Mabe they suck, but listeners are tuning in-or rather, tuning out-the bland, Top 40 programing of mainstream radio. "The corporate stations have got the Wall Street people calling the shots, and these people tend to be a lot less willing to take risks as far as new programming goes," says one radio insider. As a result, independent and local artists go to the pirates to get play. If commercial stations are pissed, they have only themselves to blame, says Chuck Taylor, radio columnist for Billboard magazine. "Radio consolidation may have inspired folks to go on the air to pit on more varied or renegade music," he says, "but it's also made pirates realize that there's money to be made."
It's not just local artists who benefit from illegal radio In South Florida. Undergrounds are also a vital resource for strengthening communities. "I'm the Howard Stern of Haitian underground," boasts La Reine Cynthia, who spins for a Haitian underground called Cinque Etoile. "I tell everybody's business, like who's doing voodoo to make there band successful, who's sleeping with who, who's boycotting whose show. You have legal Haitian radio on the AM stations, but it's all politics and news, and the younger people, they couldn't really relate to it," says the 27-year-old DJ. Since the underground stations went on, you have the younger generation listening to Haitian music with the older generation. It's a very powerful thing."
It's also illegal. Federal agents have no problem tracking stations that brroadcast on a regular basis, especially those with strong signals. The FCC maintains a nationwide network of 13 antennas that continuously monitor the airwaves. The automated tracking system can pinpoint an unlicensed transmitter within a 10- to 20-mile radius. The feds then dispatch enforcement in cars equipped with special devices capable of triangulating the offending signal to the pirate's doorstep.
According to the FCC, pirate stations can disrupt police radios and air traffic control signals. Although air-to-ground frequencies occupy a higher bandwidth than FM frequencies, even a small power surge from a pirate's unfiltered signal can bleed into the air traffic spectrum. Last October, the FCC seized two pirates that nearly caused shutdowns at Miami International Airport and West Palm Beach International Airport. "The pilot was trying to land, and all he could get over the radio was reggae music," notes a local licensed broadcaster.
Micro radio advocates contend that with better ebucation and access to proper filtering equipment, such incidents would be eliminated. The real issue, they say, is money. Many pirates argue there would be no underground if they could just afford to get licenses. But applying for a license can cost $100,000 or more once you've paid for engineering surveys and the lawyer required to wade through the FCC's complex bureaucracy. Even then there's no guarantee you'll be approved. FCC records show that all available broadcast frequencies in South Florida are taken. To go legal, a pirate would have to buy out an existing station. One of the last independently owned stations in Miami, a country station called WKIS FM, sold out last year for $56 million.
"It's a monopoly, plain and simple," says G., who manages a popular urban dance station. "The big stations corner the market and don't let nobody in." Such complaints have recently won the ear of FCC chairman William Kennard. Although Kennard remains adamantly opposed to pirate stations, as the FCC's first black chair, he's been pushing for a low power radio service to help expand access to people of color who are rapidly being squeezed off the dial.
Since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which lifted caps on the number of stations that could be owned by a single broadcaster, corporations such as Disney and CBS have been gobbling up the airwaves and the number of minouit owners has dropped from a scant 3.1 percent to just 2.8 percent. In places like Chattanooga, Tennessee, the only place you can regularly hear hip-hop on the radio dial is the local pirate station.
"There are fewer opportunities for small businesses, minorities, and church groups," says Kennard. "I'm very sympathetic to the need for more expression on the air. That is a compelling point that some of these pirates make. We just want them to work in a legal way to change the system."
Of the many proposals for low-power service now under consideration at the FCC, the one favored by Kennard is a plan to create a series of licensed one-watt stations-a concept most pirates reject as little better than a karaoke club. Even so, the National Association of Broadcasters is campaigning against low-power radio in all forms. "It would be chaos. The FCC can't police the airwaves as it is," says NAB spokesperson Dennis Wharton. Responding to the industry's complaints, Kennard is now considering asking Congress to allow licensed broadcasters to sue pirates directly in order to force them off the air.
Over in Liberty City, a station called Hot 97 had been broadcasting out of an old Caribbean rib joint for the past two years. Its owner, a suave MC named Bo the Lover, never bothered to camouflage; the call numbers were spray-painted in bold black and silver letters in the side of the building. The station was loud-Bo was pumping 2,000 watts-but if any pirate was going to survive the sweeps, Hot 97 seemed to be the one. "We do so much positive stuff for the community, so they tolerate it," said Bo, whose crew, the Pure Funk DJs, provides free sound for high school parties and drug-free "Jam with the Man" events organized by the Miami Police. When five - year - old Rickia Isaac was killed by a stray bullet last year, Hot 97 raised $7,000 to help her family to bury her.
So on July 29, when a team of federal agents seized Hot 97's transmitter, mixing board, and turntables, as a hook and ladder dismantled its 150-foot antenna, even cops came out to protest. "They're not just fighting with me, they're fighting with everybody," says Bo, who received endorsements from both the city of Miami and Metro-Dade police departments, Congresswoman Carrie Meek, her son, state representative Kendrick Meek, and the local chapter of the American Red Cross (Hot 97 used to help out with blood drives). Within three weeks of the shutdown, Bo and his fellow DJs collected more than 10,000 signatures from local residents and supporters, who are demanding that the FCC grant Hot 97 a waiver to allow it to become a legal, not-for-profit radio station.
"They're saying there's no frequencies left on the FM band. But they're going by the old rules, and we getting' ready to change the face of everything," Bo insists. "Ain't nothin' goin' on [on the commercial stations]. It's like dead radio. Where's the education? Where's the time to talk to kids about school work and respecting they parents or all the violence that's going on in our community? What's left? People want to be heard.... We had a message worth fighting for. I'm gonna fight till the day I die," Bo vows. "'Cause bottom line, the young people was listening."