Making Airwaves

This summer the FCC pulled the plug on the county's most innovative radio stations. Some are already back on the air.

When the U.S. government's war on illegal radio hit the Pure Funk Playhouse in Liberty City on July 28, Diamond Perkins was lounging on a black leather couch next to a row of huge speakers. After greeting a pack of law enforcement officers in the entrance of the one-story concrete building on NW Eighteenth Avenue and 67th Street, he grabbed his cell phone and called Brindley Marshall, his boss. Marshall rushed over in his Suzuki Sidekick.

The authorities were from the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Miami Police Department. They intended to close down Hot 97 (97.7 FM), an unlicensed radio station that Marshall, Perkins, and a flock of other hip-hop DJs had operated for two and a half years.

After being served with a search warrant, Marshall led them through a door to the air-conditioned Hot 97 studio. Decorated with lustrous gray carpeting, another black leather sofa, and a black vinyl counter topped with Lava lamps, it was a spiffy contrast to the blighted streets outside. Along one wall was a long mixing board connected to turntables, tape decks, and microphones. Over the next few hours, agents hauled off that equipment and Hot 97's two 1000-watt Armstrong transmitters -- both about the size of a tall file cabinet. A Miami-Dade Fire Rescue crew removed an antenna from a 60-foot tower on the building.

The raid on Hot 97 was part of the FCC's biggest crackdown on unlicensed broadcasters in history. In all, federal agents descended on fifteen stations from Homestead to Davie in June and July. FCC Chairman William Kennard hailed the operation as the agency's "most successful large-scale enforcement action against unlicensed operators to date." He said the stations threatened to cause "serious interference" with licensed broadcasts and public safety frequencies, including air traffic control communications. News of the bust was broadcast across the country as a caveat to a burgeoning electromagnetic insurgency.

But Kennard and the FCC have a problem. Two months after the raids, South Florida is still home to the nation's largest concentration of pirate stations, according to the agency. Our airwaves still crackle with unlicensed broadcasters who may be too numerous and sly to ever be permanently silenced. Since the FCC raids, New Times reporters driving through Miami-Dade have identified pirates on ten different frequencies. And the newspaper has learned that a tipster warned at least two stations just before this summer's raid, allowing them to avoid confiscation of their gear.

Miami-Dade's pirates, part of a nationwide movement fueled by cheap technology and boundless ingenuity, are an eclectic lot. While most are dance club DJs, others range from community activists to dominatrixes talking dirty, gun-toting record spinners, and drag queens. They are inspired by a desire to speak publicly, as well as by boredom with mainstream commercial radio and disdain for the FCC. The government, many pirates say, has made it prohibitively difficult and expensive for small-scale broadcasters to get on the air legally, especially in urban areas.

"We were changing the tide of radio in Miami," asserts Perkins, slumping in a chair in the now quiet studio a few weeks after the raid. Perkins, a.k.a. DJ Ha-Ha, is a gold-necklaced 25-year-old father of four who works construction by day and spins records at night. A Haitian American, he joined Marshall and several other DJs in launching the station. They bought the equipment with money earned performing at parties and clubs.

Until the FCC offensive, Pure Funk's promotional powers gave Marshall and his crew a big advantage over other DJ groups. "You've got a lot of DJs like ourselves who are mobile. Everybody wants to be a competitor," explains Marshall, who was known as "Bo the Lover" behind the mic.

Perched on a stool in the studio, Marshall insists that Hot 97 was more than promotion, though. In addition to music and promo ads, it featured call-in talk shows on topics such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and conflicts with parents. Last year Hot 97 raised $7000 to help the family of Rickia Isaac, a five-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet a few blocks from the station. "Basically we let everybody talk," he says. "It was like public radio."

Miami-Dade Police Sgt. Frank Dean enters the studio, in civilian togs, with a pistol on his belt. "I'm one of Bo's supporters," he declares. "Other stations were a nuisance. Some were involved in drug trafficking. But Bo was an exception to that as far as I know." At least one of the federal authorities who helped close Hot 97 -- and who tuned in moments before entering -- was also sympathetic. "I listened to Marshall's station on the way out there and it sounded great!" raves a U.S. marshal who insisted on anonymity. "I felt kind of bad about that raid because their heart was in the right place."

Hot 97 DJs have been collecting signatures on petitions to show community support for their sound, but petitions are not likely to impress the FCC. "The issue is, they're unlicensed," says David Fiske, an FCC spokesman in Washington, D.C. Popularity of a station is irrelevant, he explains: "Content and subject matter have nothing to do with this."

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