That Sinking Feeling

For two weeks something different made waves on local radio. Then the FCC heaved-ho.

The last two hours of October 28 sounded like death. Anyone listening that night to 88.3 FM (home of pirate Radio X) heard a grueling, cacophonous dirge -- as if someone had locked a gang of Gregorian chanters on acid in a room with a symphony of drunks, recorded every bleat and gurgle, then magnified it times ten. No need for an announcement, or even an announcer -- clearly something was very wrong in the broadcast studio.

It wasn't until an hour into the show that Big A took the microphone and explained what was up: Radio X was shutting down for good at midnight; the noise was its swan song.

Earlier that Thursday, a little after four in the afternoon, two suits showed up at the house in Southwest Dade that headquartered X since its debut October 18. "We asked them if they were federal agents on private property without a warrant," Big A recalls. "They wanted to come in. We told them to get the hell off the property. As they left, they were yelling about how they were going to shut us down."

In fact, the Federal Communications Commission says, it does not shut down illegal radio stations -- it cites them. To enforce compliance, it can also fine them. In a recently revamped penalty schedule, the continued broadcasting of Radio X could have cost its operators tens of thousands of dollars. The base fine for "construction and/or operation without service authorization" is now $20,000. In extreme cases the FCC can levy that amount per day of illegal operation.

But John Theimer, the agency's Miami chief engineer, says such hefty fines are rarely attached to pirates unless they happen to be professional broadcasters who've started up illegal stations. So far Radio X operators have not been threatened with any fines, according to both Theimer and Big A.

In fact, Theimer adds, the FCC doesn't aggressively track down pirate broadcasters, and until this paper ran a story about the illicit station ("Shiver Me Timbers!" October 27), the feds didn't know it existed. "Radio X is not on the air for one reason: because of your story," Theimer says. (The FCC will also take action if they receive complaints, but Theimer asserts that his office didn't receive any protests until after publication of the New Times article.)

Big A says the clampdown came just as the station was beginning to take off. "We had hundreds of calls on our hotline, all of them supportive," he reports. "No one said we were full of shit, that the music we were playing was full of shit. About a third had just read the article and they were excited, they said they were going to start listening but wanted to call first and let us know they supported the idea. On Thursday, when we announced the shutdown, we got a bunch of calls. Six people who called were in tears, literally crying, because we were going off the air."

He argues that the FCC's abrupt arrival reeks of selective enforcement. "I know of at least two pirates who've been operating for a long time without any hassles. We were in the major media with the New Times story, and Radio X was broadcasting. That combination is exactly what they want to stop," he argues. "They want to stop protests and alternative ways of thinking. The FCC acted as an agent of commercial broadcast interests."

Where Big A sees an insidious agenda, the FCC merely sees its job: to keep radio frequencies from interfering with each other. A limited number of frequencies can physically operate on a radio band, and the FCC is the government bureaucracy charged with maintaining and enforcing clarity, among other things. In South Florida, all the available frequencies are spoken for; it is virtually inconceivable that an operation like Big A's could ever afford to purchase an existing license and broadcast legally. "There's a lot of rigamarole to get a legal station, and it's expensive," is the way John Theimer puts it.

The 88.3 FM frequency, in fact, belongs to the Hispanic Education System, Inc., which on August 24, 1992, received permission to build and operate a station. (Although the FCC confirms that the company has not yet begun broadcasting, the permit, which is valid for eighteen months, does not expire until the end of next February.)

During Radio X's final hours, the dissonant dirge evolved into a tapestry of cool jazz and soft patter, supplied by programming chief Big A, the station's technical whiz Mr. K, and the Angel of the Night, a former WDNA-FM DJ who arrived to discover that his first X show would also be his last. As the buccaneers entered their final hour, Angel of the Night noted a coincidence -- the station had lasted precisely thirteen days. Lucky thirteen. "And it's very ironic," Big A chipped in, "that other pirate stations have been on for years. Words bring the federal government to our door. Words. Ideas."

In fact, four days after the FCC busted the station, two agents visited Big A at his day job, asking questions. Not uncharacteristically, Big A stood his ground. He told the two agents to get lost. "We did not get fined," he proclaims. "We did not get jailed. We kept our equipment. That's because I know the rules." And, he adds, "I wouldn't be surprised at all if you heard from the Big A again."

Listeners should stay tuned. Given the FCC's reading habits, though, you might not hear it here first.

 
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