Piracy, Hip-Hop Style

Skyjack Radio briefly took over Denver radio -- and its pilots are eager to hit the airwaves again.

The antenna and the first half of the broadcasting kit arrived in October. That meant Bass Ghost had to settle on a frequency, and after driving around the city twisting the knobs on his car stereo, he chose 88.1 FM. "It seemed like the cleanest one in town," he notes, and he's right. Colorado Christian University owns a construction permit for 88.1 FM, but nothing's there at present. Moreover, the closest station (excluding KRMA/Channel 6, which simulcasts the audio portion of its TV programming on 87.75 FM), is KGNU, at 88.5 FM, which seldom reaches downtown Denver. The odds of significantly interfering with KGNU were slim, because without the kit's second piece, they would be operating at just one watt of power.

Nonetheless, Skyjack Radio promptly turned heads in southeast Denver, partly because it aired its mix of local and national hip-hop uncut, with all the profanities left in. This was a conscious decision, Panda says. "We thought, if we're going to drop a bomb on you, we're going to drop it hard."

Just as appealing to rap fanatics was Skyjack's immediacy. Bass Ghost willingly gave out his home number to listeners and treated requests with the sort of respect they seldom receive on commercial radio these days. "Somebody would call up and go, 'You got that new Snoop Dogg?'" Bass Ghost says. "And I'd put the phone right up to the microphone and go, 'Yeah, right here,' and put it on. And people'd go crazy, 'cause they'd be like, 'Did you hear that? I stopped the radio station!'"

Panda (left) and Bass Ghost display their Skyjack equipment.
John Johnston
Panda (left) and Bass Ghost display their Skyjack equipment.

Word of mouth built rapidly. Panda remembers being stopped on the street by an enthusiastic acquaintance, "and the first thing he asks me is, 'Have you heard Skyjack Radio?' -- not knowing I had anything to do with it." But its listener base really blew up after Bass Ghost took delivery of the final item he'd mail-ordered -- an amplifier that boosted the station's power to forty watts. Suddenly, Skyjack, whose previous reception was best within a mile or so of Bass Ghost's apartment, was booming into far-flung suburbs such as Lakewood -- home, as it turns out, to the FCC's Denver offices.

Using gadgets that allow them to zero in on the source of radio transmissions, FCC staffers were able to pinpoint Skyjack's home base -- and after locating it, they moved quickly. At 10 p.m. on a night shortly after the amplifier's installation, Vin¢ was listening to the station when it suddenly disappeared. "I called up to say, 'Hey, change the CD,'" Vin¢ remembers, but Bass Ghost couldn't do it. Nikki Shears and Jon Sprague, a pair of electronics engineers who'd turned up at Bass Ghost's door, made sure of that.

Sprague is well-known among radio buccaneers; he twice shut down a pirate station overseen by a collective calling itself the Boulder Underground Radio Group ("The Making of a Pirate," October 4, 2001). According to Bass Ghost, Sprague wanted to seize his equipment, but Shears was less adamant. She gave Bass Ghost a written warning (complete with a threat of future fines) but let him keep the boxes and antenna after he promised not to use them again without a license.

Doing things by the book may be impossible. Over the past several years, the FCC has provided legal opportunities for individuals who want to create low-power FM stations ("Frequency Free-For-All," October 11, 2001), but the window for such applications is closed -- and even if it weren't, the Denver dial is already at capacity under current regulations. That leaves Skyjack with few options beyond arranging with an existing station to share time (an unlikely prospect) or finding some way to move onto AM. Prices are lower on the AM side, and at least one station, the current home of KNRC, will soon be on the market, as noted below. But without the backing of some awfully generous investors, Bass Ghost and company lack the resources to be considered serious bidders.

Not that they're ready to give up. "This was like feeding a pit bull some blood before you give it a steak," Bass Ghost says. "I'm like, GRRRRRRRR." Currently on the agenda is Alpine: Zenith Sagacity, a forthcoming album by Panda, and continued marketing of Bass Ghost's most recent song, "I Want a Freak." The duo also plans to assemble a CD that approximates the Skyjack experience; tentatively titled Birth of the Airwaves, they expect to have it on the market early next year. Acts wishing to be included in the project are encouraged to e-mail Skyjack at bassghost@yahoo.com.

In the meantime, efforts are under way to huddle with others in the hip-hop arena -- including Jeff Campbell, who heads an education-oriented group dubbed the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition -- with an eye toward resurrecting Skyjack Radio. "I think what they're doing is very positive, and I believe that in order for people to get recognized, you have to take some risks," says Campbell, who raps under the name Apostle. "The corporate-commercial media has made it virtually impossible for someone from the underground to attain a certain level of visibility, and when the playing field is unequal, you have to resort to guerrilla tactics. That's exactly what they're doing -- and that's the spirit of hip-hop."

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