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 raids began on July 27, other stations didn't fare as well as Beach Radio. Because of the blackout on information, it is unclear which station authorities visited first. But it is clear that at about 11:00 a.m. on July 28, federal agents ascended to the 30th floor of the Biscayne View Apartments, issued a search warrant to a man named James Avery, and seized broadcasting equipment. Avery could not be reached for comment. That day the agents also paid a visit to Hot 97's Liberty City studio.

At about 4:00 p.m. two U.S. marshals, two FCC officials, and two Drug Enforcement Agency agents walked through an unlocked door at the Womb's Miami Beach studio on Washington Avenue. Mark Christopher was preparing a review of a CD in the station's tile-floored and bare-walled second-story studio. "I saw the badges and I said, 'Oh shit,' recalls Christopher, the Womb's 30-year-old creative director. But there was no transmitter to seize: The tipster had also warned Christopher that the raids were imminent and the station had gone off the air. Christopher informed his visitors that he had already sold the 100-watt transmitter.

The raid turned out to be cordial, even jovial, Christopher says. He joked about the presence of the DEA agents. "I said, 'Why'd you bring these guys? I leave my pot at home.'" The authorities were intrigued when he told them the station was sending out its ambient and techno music through the Internet.

Christopher and his business partner Duncan Ross, who is 23, had spent several thousand dollars to launch the station in June of last year. Though it did not turn a profit, it served as a promotional vehicle for two CDs of electronic music that they produced -- Miambient and The Voyage. Some 30 DJs worked there. "We were a place where DJs who had never DJ'd before could come, promote themselves, and start a career," Christopher reflects. "The Womb really filled a void in the community."

Christopher and Ross say they never applied for an FCC license. "All the FCC wants is to deal with someone like Paxson Communications or the big mainstream stations," Ross grumbles. Still, they acknowledge the need for regulation. "It's not bullshit when the FCC says you are interfering with air traffic control frequencies," Ross says.

Two schools of thought have emerged among pirate radio operators in South Florida. Some advocate using low power to avoid interfering with other frequencies, while others seem determined to take on the big commercial stations and the FCC. "A lot of the pirates are saying, 'Yeah, let's go to court. Let's dance,'" observes Christopher. "We're not in that business. We're in the business of promoting and producing music."

The Womb continues to transmit legally on the Internet from a new location on South Beach: a renovated split-level apartment with orange walls, gray carpeting, and a metallic spiral staircase. "Electronic music goes hand in hand with technology, computers, and the Internet," Christopher notes. "I don't know if it would work as well for other stations like hip-hop because the market is already saturated with that."

The FCC crackdown arrived in Homestead on the morning of July 31 when seven-year-old Andrea Bullard answered a knock on the door. Her eyes widened. "Granddaddy, some people are here to see you," she yelled. Then 62-year-old Willie Brown walked in from his bedroom.

Brown, the voice of WLUV-FM (90.9) for the past five years, opened the door to a bevy of U.S. marshals, FCC agents, and Homestead police officers. He led them to his dank, plywood-floored studio. "One of them asked me, 'You have any weapons in the house?'" Brown recalls, "and I said, 'I have my Bibles. That's all I need.' He looked at me kind of strange."

The authorities hauled off his custom-made 100-watt transmitter and twenty other pieces of equipment, including speakers, two CD players, two tape decks, two mixing boards, a microphone, and a set of headphones. They almost took his son Jeff's electronic drum machine but left it after Brown protested.

Weeks later Brown is still optimistic he'll return to the airwaves. Standing at the foot of his bed, eyes closed, head tilted slightly back, he's listening to a tape of one of his shows: "To the people in the old folks' home, let them know that good Christians never die, they just sleep away in Thee," says a preacher who was a regular contributor. Then a rollicking gospel tune kicks in, the choir proclaiming, "Prayer changes everything." Eyelids still shut, Brown exclaims: "Everything is possible!"

Everything except perhaps getting a broadcast license from the FCC. Comments the agency's Casey: "You'd probably have to do a lot of engineering to ... find a frequency that would work within the FCC rules. More likely, you'd have to buy a station. If I wanted to put a station on in Miami, that's the direction I would go."

But Brown, like many other pirates, can't afford that. So he is trying a different tack. He has requested U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek to press the FCC to license low-power broadcasters. "This affects too many people," Brown contends. "They're going to have to do something."

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