Jose Fritz of the great Arcane Radio Trivia has been traveling around and writing about what he hears on different regional radio dials. He just posted from the Seattle-Tacoma area and it’s interesting that he picks up a very diverse set of noncommercial stations featuring indie rock, NPR news, jazz and even dance music. He also picks up a couple of pirate stations in Seattle, including “The Whore” 101.9 broadcasting from the Capitol Hill neighborhood since 2008.
Posts tagged: pirate radio
Last night I finally watched Pirate Radio (a/k/a The Boat That Rocked) on HD pay-per-view, as it seems I can never make it into a regular movie theater these days. I quite enjoyed this romp through the short life of a fictional 1960s UK pirate radio ship, inspired by the infamous Radio Caroline. While the film exaggerates things for drama and laughs, it nevertheless does a good job at illustrating the significance of pirate rock ‘n roll radio to a nation whose mainstream government-run media was stuck in a rigid cultural torpor, utterly in denial of rock’s brewing revolution. And it does this without sanctimony or excessive sentimentality.
Just before watching Pirate Radio I realized that yesterday was also the 46th anniversary of Radio Caroline, which didn’t meet its fate quite as dramatically as the fictional movie ship. Then today I stumbled upon a very good short documentary about the contemporary London pirate radio scene. Altogether I was inspired to write my newest piece for Radio Survivor on UK Pirate Radio, Now and Then:
What many probably don’t realize is that pirate radio is still going strong in the UK, especially in big cities like London. Contemporary pirates are also inspired by the fact that the BBC still doesn’t play a lot of cutting edge popular music, which these days means electronic music and British forms of hip-hop….
A short blog post from Monk, formerly the brains behind the first iteration of Boulder Free Radio KBFR, reports that two separate unlicensed stations in Boulder, CO were recently “shut down” by the FCC. A new KBFR with new a new crew behind it has been operating in Boulder since sometime last year. Monk has no other details on these recent shut downs.
So I set about investigating what might be going on, since Boulder has been the site of free radio innovation for quite some time. I’ve not been able to find any news reports on any bust, but a check of the FCC’s most recent enforcement actions turns up four virtually identical Notices of Unlicensed Operation (NOUO) dated May 8. Three were issued to individuals and one was issued simply to “Boulder Free Radio, Boulder, CO.” There’s no indication in the NOUOs that the FCC talked to anyone associated with the station or gained access to a transmitter. Unusually, there aren’t even any street addresses listed. Likely this means that agents didn’t mail the notices, but left them at the door.
This evening I received email confirmation from Boulder Free Radio that there was another FCC visit to a transmitter location last Friday, May 29, and that they’re off the air. They’re planning to stay off the air for the time being while they assess the situation. However, their web radio stream continues to broadcast (on the internet only, of course).
The current KBFR is operating according to a similar gameplan as the original station, using the tactic of separating the studio and transmitter using an internet audio stream as the studio-to-transmitter-link (STL). If the transmitter is visited they pack up shop there and move to a new location without the studio or the on-air talent being affected. This method ostensibly allows the station to have a sizable staff of DJs without having to divulge to them the location of the transmitter, or expose the DJs to liability for the unlicensed broadcast.
Indeed, with this method there really isn’t any need for the persons behind the web stream to even know the persons operating the transmitters. This method also has been employed during large protest actions, where a live webstream will originate from a convergence center or Independent Media Center which is then rebroadcast for the duration of the protest by anonymous, unrelated pirates.
Monk and the original KBFR were able to keep up this tactic for nearly five years of cat and mouse games with the unusually aggressive Denver FCC office. He finally called it a day in January, 2005. According to Monk, the FCC agent on their case
bordered on (and in talking to lawyers we know, actually crossed the line) illegal activity. He harassed private citizens at their work place (accusing them, to their bosses, of ‘breaking the law on company time’) and the aforementioned roommate of the original Monk from Five Years Ago. We’ve since learned that this ex-roomie of the original Monk actually had to hire a lawyer to protect himself from having just been the roommate of one of us. And HALF a DECADE ago. …
The reason we shut down is our fear of innocents getting blamed for things they didn’t do…
Who knows if the FCC will be that aggressive with the new KBFR, especially given that the FCC agent in question supposedly retired four years ago.
As for the second station Monk reports being shut down: I’ve found no other recent actions against unlicensed stations in Boulder in the FCC’s enforcement action list. However I have heard that another station, unrelated to Boulder Free Radio, was operating.
The dramatic image of jackbooted FCC agents breaking down doors and chasing down unlicensed broadcasters is an imagine that has often been exploited by the more romantic elements of the pirate community, but one that really doesn’t match up to reality. Now we have a short article on Wired’s Threat Level blog that takes a look at what writer David Singel says is the FCC’s claim that it has the right to make warrantless searches of private residences in order to inspect any sort of radio transmitter.
However, what the FCC’s spokesman David Fiske is quoted as saying is actually, “Anything using RF energy — we have the right to inspect it to make sure it is not causing interference.” While I’m not one to archly defend the FCC’s enforcement regime, Fiske’s claim stops a bit short of a warrantless search-and-seizure, or even warrantless wiretapping in severity and scope.
Indeed, as experienced unlicensed broadcasters and FCC observers have known for years, while a visiting FCC agent will always claim to have the right to inspect a suspected unlicensed transmitter, that agent has no means to express that right. That is, FCC agents aren’t cops, don’t carry guns and can’t enter your house or property without your consent. You don’t have to speak with them except to tell them to go away.
If the FCC really wants to come and inspect or seize your transmitter they need to get a real warrant, requested by a real United States attorney and issued by a real federal judge. Then they need to get real cops–usually federal marshals–to actually serve the warrant. This is a big pain for the Commission and not something relished by US attorneys and marshals more interested in nabbing big criminals, so it’s pretty rare.
Still, it is true that if the Commission thinks it has a pretty good case that you’re operating an unlicensed transmitter in an illegal fashion they’ll hold it against you for not cooperating with them, adding to the fine they’ll try to collect. In a case of this vein, Wired’s Singel reports that,
In a 2007 case, a Corpus Christi, Texas, man got a visit from the FCC’s direction-finders after rebroadcasting an AM radio station through a CB radio in his home. An FCC agent tracked the signal to his house and asked to see the equipment; Donald Winton refused to let him in, but did turn off the radio. Winton was later fined $7,000 for refusing entry to the officer. The fine was reduced to $225 after he proved he had little income.
This reduction in fines is a pretty common occurrence with the FCC. An even more common occurrence is the FCC failing to collect on fines at all, as John Anderson of DIYmedia.net has pointed out continuously on his site and on the mediageek radioshow. Again, the amount of bureaucracy and inter-agency cooperation required to actually enforce the collection of fines against unlicensed broadcasters often results in the statute of limitations running out before any money is collected. For instance, reporting on the FCC’s 2006 enforcement actions, John noted,
These cases highlight instances of negative productivity in the enforcement process: the FCC spent much more in resources (personnel-time and travel, to name two) than it will recoup from the punishment meted, provided the five-year statute of limitations on each case doesn’t run out before the agency makes an effort to actually collect the fines.
So, the kerfuffle over the FCC claiming warrantless inspection powers looks like a tempest in a teapot when compared against the reality of the FCC’s powers to inspect, fine and collect. Nevertheless, we should be critical and mindful of any government agency’s claim that it has the right to make warrantless inspections of our private property. Even when it comes to licensed broadcasters the right to inspect is not absolute; the obligation to let the FCC inspect your transmitter only extends as far as your desire to keep your broadcast license. Still, I’ll be glad if an intrepid attorney or radio pirate wants to challenge the FCC’s claimed right to inspect in court.
Last month I reported on news that Indianapolis cops were illegally using amateur radio transceivers in order to engage in communications with each other outside the normal police radio bands. The misuse came to light when the department took away their cops’ illicit radios.
Now, according to the amateur radio group ARRL, the Indianapolis PD assures the FCC that it has taken action to ensure that its officers will engage in radio piracy no more. The ARRL also reports that, “as part of its inquiry, the FCC reminded the IMPD of the large number of tactical channels available on a secondary basis to police departments from the public safety pool of frequency allocations.”
Yeah, but the FCC probably didn’t remind the offending officers that those additional “tactical channels” can be overheard by their commanders and probably aren’t so good for the private conversations full of naughty words they transmitted on the ham bands.
Maybe the Indy cops should just start Twittering.
You wouldn’t have heard them on the AM or FM dial, but amateur radio operators in Indianapolis heard them loud and clear. Indianapolis police officers were heard on the 2-meter VHF amateur radio band using it for both personal and professional communications, littered with naughty words not allowed on the broadcast airwaves. The problem with this is that the cops didn’t have the amateur radio licenses necessary to use those bands. That’s why the Indy police department was motivated to take away their cops’ transceivers after getting complaints from local hams.
Of course, this situation begs the question of why the cops felt the need to have a second 2-way radio in the first place, given that police departments have their own set of frequencies set aside for just their use. Makes a person wonder just what, besides profanities, the cops were talking about on the 2-meter band that they didn’t want to talk about over normal police frequencies.
As it turns out the 2-meter band wasn’t such a good choice if privacy was their motivation. Hams tend to be pretty protective of the bands allocated for amateur radio, policing them pretty closely, generally on a 24-hour basis.
According to a local news report, “the FCC is letting Indianapolis police handle the issue internally,” even though apparently, “officer use of unauthorized frequencies goes back many years.” Should we be surprised at the double-standard in the treatment of flagrant unlicensed use of the airwaves? If the culprits had been plain old civilians making potty-mouthed broadcasts for “many years” without a license on the 2-meter band do you think the FCC would let them off the hook without a notice of apparent liability, nevermind a fine?
While I’ve been critical of the FCC’s policies for the licensing of broadcast stations and the accompanying enforcement measures, I do believe in equal treatment under the law. Seems as though having a badge means you can abuse the airwaves without a license, with the only punishment being that your chief will take your toys away.
The venerable Free Radio Berkeley has a (relatively) new video demonstrating all the parts in the air chain of a micropower unlicensed radio station, fresh from their Oakland, CA shop:
How To Make a Radio Station from Free Radio on Vimeo.
If you haven’t been keeping up with the mediageek radioshow or subscribing to the podcast, now is a good time to listen to this week’s show featuring our favorite FCC watcher, Matthew Lasar. We talk about the man reported to be Obama’s pick for FCC Chair, Julius Genachowski, and what his appointment to the FCC might mean for internet freedom and media ownership.
Listen to this show right now:
The first show of the new year featured my annual year in review discussion with John Anderson of DIYmedia.net. In the first half of the program we noted the relative lack of progress on many issues and discussed Larry Lessig’s call to get rid of the FCC. For the second half we got down to brass tacks reviewing John’s research on FCC enforcement action against unlicensed broadcasters in 2008 — a whole lotta smoke, not much fire. Ragnar also excerpted a portion of this on his Pirate’s Week podcast.
Listen to part one of the year-in-review:
Listen to part two, all about FCC enforcement in 2008:
I realize not everyone reads the blog from the webpage itself — some read by RSS readers. So you might have missed my Twitter feed over on the right sidebar. I started using the micro-blogging Twitter app about eight months ago, and integrated it into the site some time in the fall. I like Twitter because it’s an easy way to publish quick thoughts or links–tweets are limited to 140 characters–without having to go through the full WordPress blog interface. On top of that, there’s a critical mass of users making it good way to network and pick up some good info.
But this post isn’t just about my Twitter usage (which would make for a lame post), but rather two interesting mediageek-like uses I’ve seen.
Ragnar is the producer of the Pirates’ Week podcast, covering pirate radio–primarily shortwave–for more than three years (listen to an interview with Ragnar on the radioshow). An avid shortwave listener, Ragnar has now been posting his reception reports of pirate stations to his Twitter feed. This is a perfect use of Twitter because Ragnar posts while the station is broadcasting, along with its frequency. Pirate shortwave stations are all hit-and-run affairs. They don’t broadcast 24/7, but rather for a half-hour or hour at a time, especially when shortwave propagation conditions are good (they change with the seasons, time of day and atmospheric conditions). So listening to pirate shortwave stations is always a bit of hunt. While the chase is part of the fun, it’s still nice to have someone give you hand by letting you know when he’s found a station.
To some extent Twitter is even more up-to-the-minute than blogs, since the tweets are short and easy to post quickly, making it an ideal platform to broadcast breaking info. You can also configure Twitter to text message your phone with tweets–you can choose whose tweets do that. If you’re a hardcore pirate listener, then this might be a way to stay on top of things without being on the computer.
Boulder Free Radio is an unlicensed FM radio station that recently returned to the air in that Colorado city with a new crew, resurrecting the name and spirit of a former station that called it quits in 2005. The KBFR crew is also using Twitter to post programming info, events, and other stuff of interest to listeners.
My understanding is that the station is broadcasting nightly, with longer broadcasts on the weekends. To the best of my knowledge the station doesn’t currently maintain a website. So using a Twitter feed is a good way to keep listeners informed of when broadcasts and other events may be happening. Of course, publicity is always a risk for a pirate station, since you also possibly publicize to the FCC. But the more instantaneous nature of Twitter means that you don’t have to give much advance notice. This is an advantage when dealing with the FCC, which isn’t necessarily well suited to running out to bust pirate broadcasters like cops answering a 911 call.
Announcing broadcasts via Twitter would be especially useful for hit-and-run stations that attempt to minimize detection by the authorities by maintaining a less predictable schedule.
Twitter is also designed for two-way communication. Anyone with a free Twitter account can send public or private messages to another Twitter user as easily as posting a tweet. This could be a good way to take requests, reception reports and listener feedback without using the phone or email.
If any readers know of some interesting or innovative use of Twitter by other indy media makers — pirate or otherwise — I’d be curious to hear about them.
Following up on my tangent that veered onto the infamous off-shore US pirate, Radio New York International, the Radio Kitchen has a new post about WHVW in New York’s Hudson Valley, an eclectic AM music station owned and run by “Pirate” Joe Ferraro, who partnered with Allan Weiner in RNI. In addition to shortwave station WBCQ, WHVW makes for another licensed broadcast station run by a former unlicensed broadcaster.
As the Radio Kitchen’s Professor describes:
It’s funny. Joe’s patter reminds me more than a little bit of WBCQ’s Allan Weiner. Which makes sense, because they were friends at one time– fellow radio pirates in fact. Sadly, they had a falling out, which I once heard Allan mention in passion on his show. Apparently money was a problem and maybe some broken promises too. I don’t know the details. But it occurred to me as I was listening to Joe’s show, that if you could somehow combine WBCQ and WHVW into one radio station, it could be a killer combination. Then again, they already kinda did that, as two kids sharing an illegal frequency back in the 1970’s.
It sure seems like the radio dials would be a little less rich without the contributions of these former pirates.