Pierre Leach comes from a small town in Michigan called LeRoy, population 275. Five churches, no place to buy beer, everybody knows everything about everybody else. A community. Thirty years later, he was seeking a similar close-knit sense in his Hialeah neighborhood, Mango Hill, a crowded area that covers about 100 acres, most of them packed with townhouses. A ham radio operator, Leach cranked up his own FM station in late 1990, with a small transmitter whose signal didn't reach beyond the boundaries of his neighborhood. And no paid advertising, just an eccentric programming mix that might feature a Forties swing tune followed by a contemporary Korean folk song, intercut with Spanish-language (courtesy of Leach's wife) translations of the Herald Neighbors crime report for Hialeah, followed by a cowboy tune. The feedback was positive.
Not a word was heard of Pierre Leach and his "Fun Radio" (91.7 FM) outside Mango Hill from the inaugural broadcast on Thanksgiving Day 1990 until mid-1991, after Leach made the fatal mistake of erecting signs to make neighbors aware of the Fun. Deeming the placards an annoyance, a Hialeah city official reported the station to the Federal Communications Commission, which silenced Leach on September 12, 1991. Now he's been squelched and has a $1000 penalty, levied by the FCC and payable to the U.S. Treasury, hanging over his silent headphones.
One of a half-dozen radio operators busted since last fall in what the FCC swears is not a crackdown, Leach maintains that his operation wasn't illegal, that among the myriad laws and regulations controlling America's airwaves, he was sure he'd found a legitimate, if maverick, niche. "I was trying to operate a clean station, and I was identifying my location and phone number at least every half hour. But I'm not about to break the law," he adds hastily. "It's not funny or wise to break the law."
John Theimer, the Miami FCC office's chief engineer, says the FCC considers so-called radio pirates a "major concern." The FM band, explains the 22-year FCC vet, is just below the aviation band, meaning that stray signals broadcast by amateur pirates could interfere with air-traffic control. "It's about safety," Theimer says. "There is a potential for danger, and the priority would be much higher if we got a complaint from the FAA that aircraft were hearing interference on the tower frequency. Then it would be a safety-of-life issue."
Theimer says that although his organization doesn't actively seek out pirates, the FCC responds quickly to complaints. Once the existence of an illegal station is confirmed, mobile units with directional finders pinpoint the exact location, and then issue a verbal warning, along with FCC Form 835. If piracy persists, the FCC pulls out its big gun: monetary forfeiture - bureauspeak for what essentially amounts to a fine. "We are no longer playing games," Theimer stresses, waving a nine-page policy statement issued this past August. "This new policy raised the forfeiture from $1000 to $8000 per day. That mounts up real quickly. And there are better ways to invest your money than turning it over to the U.S.
Jeff Brown would agree. For three years Brown operated WLUV radio at 90.9 FM, in order to provide a service otherwise lacking on the FM band. "I come from a family that does a lot of things for the community," says Brown. "I don't feel like a pirate. I feel I had a station with gospel seven days a week for the older people. We counted on donations. On weekends we had Haitian and Hispanic stuff. I was spending money to keep it going, I wasn't making money. I had a problem with the transmitter one time, and everyone was asking, `What can we do?' People were willing to do anything to help."
A music arranger with electronics training, Brown claims his station never intruded on other broadcasts - "no harmonics, no interference, nothing." Still, according to Theimer, somebody from a licensed station reported him to the FCC. Brown doesn't know who told on him; the FCC refuses to say. Brown muted his operation on January 7 after FCC agents showed up at the Florida City warehouse he was using as station headquarters. "They came knocking on the door, saying `we're from the FCC,'" the erstwhile broadcaster recalls. "`We want to check you out, where's your license?'" The 23-year-old South Florida native feels betrayed. "Yeah, the FCC makes the airwaves safe," he says. "They make it safe for commercial stations hyping money out of people's pockets." As for the fink, Brown adds, "That person should feel lower than low. Now the old people have nothing."
Errol Ross is another recent bustee. Originally from Jamaica, Ross spent more than five years in the U.S. Air Force and another seven in the private sector learning about electronic engineering. But when he went to work providing 24-hour Caribbean-music programming on a cable radio frequency for Adelphia Cable Communications subscribers, Ross found himself caught in a triangle.
Ross's broadcast was beamed from a studio in the Southwest Dade neighborhood of Devonaire to Adelphia's transmitter, and from there it went out on the airwaves. But the studio was situated beyond the reach of the transmitter's signal, so Ross found that he was unable to monitor his own program. He came up with an ingenious solution - or so he thought. Ross set up a receiver and a low-power transmitter at his house, which was located within the cable company's range. From there the signal was rebroadcast to the studio on the FM band, completing the triangle.
Ross insists he made every effort to comply with government regulations. "I was not running an illegal station, to my knowledge," he says. "I made dozens of calls to the FCC to get clearance, but I never got a word on it. They kept telling me that if I wasn't over 100 watts, they couldn't license me. So I decided to play it safe and stay under 100 watts. That was a misunderstanding."
Somebody turned him in to the radio feds. Ross doesn't know who, and the FCC won't say. "It surprised me. A car showed up, two guys in suits knocked on my door at ten in the morning and showed me a federal badge. They said they'd like to inspect my transmitter, and I said, `Sure, come on in.'"
The Ross link-up was muzzled on February 3. "I'm not mad at the FCC," says the DJ, "but I wish they were more flexible. They have hard-and-fast rules with no provisions to make an exception. With our transmitter, we took great care not to cause harmonics that would mess up anyone else's signal. When it was examined, they admitted it was exceptionally clean."
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The FCC never did quite catch up with the pirates behind Radio X (88.3 FM), one of the more ambitious outlets operating outside the law. "We rented a house, built a studio, and provided alternative programming that otherwise wouldn't be available," says Steve Alvin, who hosted a jazz show on the X. "We had no hidden agendas, we were broadcasting in peace and harmony, playing and saying what we wish. During the war in Iraq, we were talking out. Yahweh, Mandela, we spoke out and played alternative music."
Radio X originated in a rented house and was transmitted to an antenna located on the University of Miami campus. "All they found was the remote location," Alvin says. "They never could find us." Like Jeff Brown, he argues that the FCC is enforcing the the law on behalf of commercial interests. "Government works for the elite," says Alvin, "not for the people who are trying to do something."
The FCC's assurances notwithstanding, Alvin believes the government is orchestrating a concerted crackdown, spurred by commercial broadcasters who sniff out the outlaw operations. "These people," Alvin says, "are handing them to the FCC on a silver platter and laughing about it. I can assure you our station was cleaner than any commercial station."
There are no plans at this time to resurrect Radio X.
Pierre Leach, however, would like to bring Fun Radio back to Mango Hill. He has applied for a permit that would allow him to operate legally. And, he adds, he would like to clear up all his problems with the FCC. When he was confronted with a $1000 "monetary forfeiture," Leach sent a letter to the FCC explaining his position. That was back on November 1, 1991. He hasn't heard a thing since.