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."

Marshall has hired two lawyers to reclaim his transmitters and other equipment. "I think it's a First Amendment issue," says Bill Ferguson, one of the attorneys. "You've got a bunch of kids locked out of the system who built 'em a radio station that was a power tool, one that was used in the community. They became so good at it that the FCC decided, 'We've got to shut them down because they're interfering with big competitors.'"

Though the pirates appear to be a riding a wave of the future, prosecutors cited an old federal law as the basis for last summer's closures -- the Communications Act of 1934. The basic purpose of the measure, passed in the early days of commercial broadcasting, was to prevent chaos on the frequency spectrum, which has a limited amount of space. Today the FCC enforces the law by requiring licenses for specific frequencies, and by penalizing unlicensed broadcasters. (An exception is made for extremely weak transmissions that reach no more than about 100 feet from the source.) Punishment can include confiscation of equipment and thousands of dollars in fines.

Most big American cities are saturated with radio. Virtually the only way to get a broadcast license is to buy an existing station, and that can cost millions of dollars. Commercial giants, whose transmitters typically blast 50,000 to 100,000 watts, dominate the dial. But between them are the pirates, who usually use transmitters of 100 watts or less.

Hundreds of the rogues hit the airwaves each night, and their numbers have increased radically in recent years. (A year ago the FCC counted 300 unlicensed stations nationwide.) One reason is that the technology has become more affordable than in the past: For less than $1000 just about anyone can buy a transmitter, antenna, and other hardware needed to start a radio station. Even if the FCC confiscates a pirate's equipment, it can be quickly replaced (a 100-watt transmitter, the heart of the system, costs a few hundred dollars). And the stuff is portable, which means it sometimes disappears from the studio before FCC agents can get a search warrant. Word travels fast among pirate DJs when a station is shut down, allowing others to cease operation and hide their equipment. The pirates' use of relay systems is another FCC headache. Broadcasters can send weak signals from a studio to a more powerful transmitter in a different location. Or they can use the Internet to legally pass along a broadcast.

They'll do anything to provide an alternative to the banal banter and soporific sounds of mainstream commercial radio, says a former pirate broadcaster, who declined to give his name because he still owes the FCC a fine. "We consider radio to be an art form. I take bits of sound and paint the airwaves," he proclaims. The broadcaster was once involved with the now-defunct Radio X (88.3 FM), a southwest Dade station that the FCC shut down in 1991 and again in 1993. Mainstream commercial stations "put out radio like people who manufacture tires and rubber bands," he says. The FCC, which he dubs "the FUCC," is "a workhorse for the commercial licensees," he gripes.

That is the kind of antiestablishment spirit that inspires many members of the so-called microradio movement, including Stephen Dunifer, who started California's Free Radio Berkeley (104.1 FM) in 1993. That year the FCC ordered him to shut down the unlicensed 50-watt station, but he appealed and remained on the air while the case dragged on in court for more than a year. Dunifer argued that an FCC policy -- still in force -- that prohibited licensing of stations under 100 watts violated his First Amendment rights. In January 1995 U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken of San Francisco denied the FCC's request for a preliminary injunction to halt Dunifer's broadcasts.

Wilken's denial of the injunction was a Pyrrhic victory for the pirates, a victory that delayed FCC action, but eventually led to the Miami raid. Agency directors wanted the legal weight of a court victory behind them before launching an extensive and costly crackdown, says Joe Casey, deputy chief of the FCC's Compliance and Information Bureau in Washington. Wilken finally ordered Dunifer to close down this past June, nearly five years after the FCC began its effort.

But the rebellion had spread. By this past August the FCC had counted 40 unlicensed stations in Florida alone, most in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. "It became obvious that things were just getting too bad out there. There were lots of unlicensed stations, and we were concerned we might start having some really major interference problems and that this was just getting away from us," recounts Casey. "We said, 'We gotta move out and do something about those pirate radio stations because there are just too many of them.'" Plans for the FCC's assault on South Florida began.

Fears that a pirate station could cause a plane crash prompted the FCC to make a move in Miami in October 1997. Flight controllers at Miami International Airport had complained that a broadcaster using 105.5 FM was disrupting their communications with pilots. FCC agents immediately shut down the unlicensed broadcaster. That same month, the agency also silenced a pirate who was wreaking havoc with frequencies at West Palm Beach International Airport. In November FCC agents went a step further, closing three unlicensed Tampa Bay area stations that apparently did not interfere with air traffic.

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).

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."

The Womb's Mark Christopher concurs. "I hope the FCC will realize that communities don't need more commercial radio, they need a voice. I hope there'll be enough press or awareness raised that these guys will realize they can't fight this whole movement."

Like its population, South Florida's pirate broadcasters are undeniably a mixed lot. They are also resourceful and defiant. "It's a showdowwwwn. It's a showdowwwwwn," chimed a group of singers on a hip-hop tune emanating one recent Friday night on 94.5 FM in Miami. That's the same frequency used by one of the fifteen pirates the FCC silenced in July.

Drive through Little Haiti and you might be able to tune in Haitian pop on Radyo Classic (92.7 FM). "Here's a shout out to Pierre," a baritone DJ boomed one recent afternoon before introducing a compas tune. Move up the dial a bit to WOHM-FM (94.3) and you'll find static during the day. But at night you might hear trance, garage house, progressive house, or other current club music. You might be surprised to learn that pirates run Mixx 96 (96.1 FM) and play its assortment of Caribbean dance music. The station has one of the strongest signals in the area, but its operators are keeping a low profile. "We're not really talking to the media right now," says a woman who answered the phone.

Further up the dial, Radio Swing (101.9 FM) plays merengue, cumbia, and salsa tunes, with very little talk. Keep going up and you might catch more hip-hop on Supa Radio (104.7), whose DJs segue from rap to Van Morrison or Steely Dan, then back to rap. On a recent night, two Supa DJs plugged dance clubs and joked as hip-hop music played in the background: "I'm Jamaican," said one. "He's Ja'fakin'," rhymed the other. "I'm Cuban Haitian," said the first. "I'm going to give the mic back to Face now." Exclaimed Face: "Hip-hop culture! A shout out to the Zulu Nation. Call us up!" He cranked up the volume on a rapper blurting: "I got a hunger for the mic."

"We try to run it as a community-access station," the 28-year-old owner of one unlicensed hip-hop station told New Times. A local concert and party promoter, he launched the station about four months ago. "We help a lot of beginning hip-hop artists, whereas the commercial stations wouldn't even let them through the door," he asserts. "The commercial mainstream is very saturated and very monotonous." But he adds that he'd rather be legal and is "in the process" of applying for a community-access license.

Soon after Brindley Marshall's Hot 97 fell silent, Cool 97 (97.7 FM), a hip-hop station with a lot of call-in chatter, moved in to the slot. "97, WHASSUP?" yelps the DJ. "You going to be at Miami-Dade tomorrow night?" inquires a flirtatious female caller. "I don't know nothin' about that," the DJ chirps. "We're going to be at the National Guard tomorrow. Y'all check us out tomorrow night at National Guard."

The next night teenagers were trickling through the glass door of the National Guard Armory on NW Seventh Avenue and 28th Street for a hip-hop party sponsored by Pure Funk Playhouse. Music blasted from a dimly lit ballroom as they paid seven dollars to a young man at a folding table. Nearby, Diamond Perkins was perched on a chair selling glow sticks for two dollars and cans of Crazy String for three dollars.

He swears that Hot 97 has not returned to the airwaves, but smiles about DJs at its feisty successor. "They can't stop now!" he exclaims, adding a couple of dollar bills to a thick wad of cash.

Says the FCC's Casey: "We're very much in favor of communities having a voice on the radio dial. The difference is that we've got laws to enforce and we can't allow them to break the laws even if we agree with what they're trying to do in the long run.

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