Making Airwaves

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

But most unlicensed broadcasters in Miami and environs played on. They tended to be party and club DJs who spun hip-hop, dancehall, reggae, and other Caribbean music. That format is different from other parts of the country, where the buccaneers often have more political agendas. Orientation ranges from anarchist to libertarian to leftist, observes New York City-based journalist Sarah Ferguson, an expert on pirate broadcasting who is also a DJ on a Manhattan pirate station called Steal This Radio (88.7 FM). "You've got free-speech activists who do microradio to oppose corporate consolidation, and then you've got the Florida folks, who just want to have a good time," Ferguson asserts. "A lot of the stations elsewhere in the movement are adamantly anti-commercial. Miami is one of the more commercial scenes in terms of getting local sponsors."

Miami is also one of the louder scenes. In contrast to Dunifer's 50-watt Berkeley station, Hot 97 fired up two 1000-watt transmitters to pump out its hip-hop. "Nobody else in the country would ever think of putting up 2000 watts," marvels Ferguson.

Little did the Hot 97 DJs and their fellow South Florida mutineers know that the FCC was planning something special for them. Details about the raid are scarce. Judges have kept all but one of the fifteen federal cases against the broadcasters sealed from public inspection, says John Schlesinger, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami. He cannot explain why. FCC officials would not allow New Times to interview any agents, nor would they even divulge the location of the Miami office. But interviews with several pirates and information from federal search warrants offer some information.

Preparations for the crackdown began with FCC employees listening to the radio at the agency's office months before any action was taken. In cities around the country, FCC employees known as resident agents are responsible for monitoring public safety, television, and radio frequencies. Offices are equipped with high-quality radio receivers and gadgets known as direction finders that can trace the source of a signal. Those devices are connected to a computer, loaded with city maps, that allows the agents to determine a station's general location.

Resident agents Marcus Stevens and Rodolfo Pomier first documented Hot 97's illicit broadcasts in January, according to the search warrant. Four months later they were still listening and taking notes on other pirate stations. On April 28 they tuned in to at least two more unlicensed stations: 107.1 FM in Miami Beach and 99.5 FM in downtown Miami.

By June FCC agents from outside the region had arrived to help out and listen more closely. They hit the streets in a car loaded with receivers, direction finders, and something called a "Potomac Instrument," which measures transmission strength. On the afternoon of June 22, for example, Tampa-based FCC compliance specialist Anthony Burgos and Houston-based FCC resident agent Lloyd Perry were driving through South Beach when they locked on to 107.1 FM and heard ambient music from a station that announcers identified as "The Womb." After the agents' gear guided them to a two-story mustard-color building at 1655 Washington Ave., they spied a loop antenna mounted on a 50-foot rooftop flagpole. Though Burgos registered a signal almost 10,000 times the legal power for an unlicensed station, they didn't act immediately.

On June 23 Burgos and Perry tuned in to 99.5 and traced the signal to the Biscayne View Apartments, a block north of the Miami Arena. They noticed a "single-bay vertical J-pole antenna," a common tool of pirates, mounted on the balcony of apartment H3006, according to their report.

The following day's schedule brought Burgos and Perry to Homestead. Cruising through the city, they discovered a gospel station -- WLUV-FM (90.9) -- that records indicated was unlicensed. When they traced it to a one-story stucco house, they saw a 60-foot antenna. The station's power exceeded the legal limit for a nonlicensed transmitter by 2486 times, according to Burgos's affidavit. That day they also homed in on a religious station broadcasting in Haitian Creole.

Over the next several weeks, FCC agents continued to compile information about pirate operators, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami prepared complaints.

Then an unexpected thing happened. Beach Radio (96.9 FM) suddenly closed up shop. Station founder Mark Underwood, a 29-year-old concert promoter, says a tipster told him about the planned raids. He says a microradio enthusiast who has sources inside the FCC warned him -- though he won't give the name. Underwood still has his 100-watt transmitter but insists he is out of radio for good: "I'm retired now."

Underwood first glimpsed pirate radio's potential four years ago when he tuned in to a station run by hip-hop DJs in northwest Miami-Dade. Here was an outlet for publicity more affordable than big stations like WEDR-FM (99.1), he thought. "A bell in my head went off, 'Ding-ding-ding,' when I realized I could push my own shows and not have to pay WEDR thousands of dollars for airtime," he recalls. Two years later Beach Radio hit the air. The first studio was a seventeenth-story two-bedroom penthouse at Seventeenth Street and Washington Avenue they rented for $1600 a month.

Some 40 DJs and talk show hosts ambled in and out of the building every week, Underwood explains. The musical mix included house, funk, reggae, and soul. Talk show hosts included drag queen Shelly Novack on Tuesday nights and retired nightclub doorman Gilbert Stafford on Wednesdays. Among the guests on the Saturday Morning Live show were homeless people, a dominatrix tied to a table, and someone getting a tattoo. At about three o'clock one morning early this year, the program featured a surprise shootout between two bickering DJs. (No one was hurt).

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