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The Making of a Pirate

Mike Gorman

There's nothing especially swashbuckling about Monk. "I'm a normal guy, and I have a normal job," says the Boulder resident. "I'm in my mid-thirties, divorced, with a couple of kids. I don't have dreadlocks. I'm not a typical hippie radical."

He is, however, a wanted man -- by representatives of the Federal Communications Commission for owning and operating KBFR, a pirate, low-power FM (LPFM) radio station alternately known as "Boulder Free Radio" and "Bullshit Free Radio," for several months earlier this year. Adding to the FCC's wrath, Monk didn't mothball his equipment when he was shut down in July, but instead gave it to the Boulder Underground Radio Group (BURG), an unidentified cadre of what he calls "activist, anarchist musician types and some normal people" who've used it to broadcast from the back of a van in gleeful violation of the law.

"We do music shows. We do talk shows. The guests come up with us, and we talk about all kinds of things," a BURG spokesman says via e-mail. "We've even had a couple of live jams with a band that sounds damn good on guitars and bongos, all on the side of a mountain in front of a fire. It's so cool. Too bad it's fucking illegal."

This little drawback didn't bother Monk in the beginning, either, but it does now, which is why he has no involvement with BURG and refuses to speak about his experiences using his real name. But at the same time, he doesn't feel right remaining silent. When he first decided to give LPFM a try, he says, he planned to do everything by the book, only to find that the book had been rewritten in ways that strike him as unfair and unreasonable -- and he wants everyone to know it.

"All I tried to do is give people something worth listening to again," he says. "But I guess that's not allowed."

In Monk's view, the decline in radio's quality has everything to do with media consolidation -- and for those who haven't kept up with this trend, September 11 offered a primer. Thanks to shared ownership, Dan Rather was not only on CBS, as expected, but on UPN, MTV and VH1, too; Peter Jennings turned up in his usual ABC slot plus ones on ESPN and ESPN2; Brit Hume appeared on local Fox affiliates as well as Fox News, Fox Sports and FX; and Tom Brokaw helmed coverage on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC. Rather and Jennings, in particular, were also heard on untold hundreds of radio stations across the country, demonstrating by their presence there that the alleged variety on our nation's airwaves is largely illusory.

For better or worse (mostly worse), the legislation that made this situation possible -- the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- has had as great an impact on broadcasting in these United States as any legislation since the Communications Act of 1934, which established the FCC and laid the groundwork for all subsequent regulation of the industry. The telecom measure, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, gave companies permission to own as many as eight radio stations in a single market (Texas-based Clear Channel is at the cutoff point in Denver) and an unlimited number of outlets overall, thus spurring a buying frenzy that spelled doom for hundreds of so-called mom-and-pop signals. Independent radio voices began disappearing so rapidly that even the FCC became alarmed, and under the stewardship of former chairman William Kennard, the agency developed a plan made public in January 1999 that would have allowed individuals to operate low-power FMs (strength: 100 watts or less), thus providing local alternatives to homogenized corporate programming.

What happened next is extraordinarily complicated; the tale of LPFM told on the pirateradio.about.com Web site by Wisconsin journalist John Anderson, widely regarded to be the movement's most knowledgeable historian, is broken into a whopping nineteen parts and clocks in at more than 8,000 words. But the key facts are as follows:

The FCC approved LPFM in early 2000, and set up an application process that drew hundreds of submissions. In the meantime, though, a number of broadcasting organizations, including the powerful National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Public Radio (NPR), were lobbying Congress, arguing that an LPFM outlet within three dial positions on either side of an existing station would cause tremendous interference problems. An LPFM at 92.1 FM, they claimed, might well disrupt broadcasts at 91.5 FM and 92.7 FM, each three dial clicks away.

The FCC rejected this argument, and pretty much the only experts who agreed with it were those on NAB and NPR payrolls; indeed, Pete Tridish of Prometheus Radio Project, a Pennsylvania association that supports the LPFM movement, says every study he's seen shows that low-power signals two dial positions away from other stations would be perfectly fine. But legislators, many of whom receive hefty campaign contributions from broadcasters, weren't convinced. And last December, a rider was attached to a budget bill that disallows all LPFMs three dial positions away from another station until the FCC conducts a series of tests proving the concept's technical viability -- and Congress passes a new bill taking these findings into account.

 

This legislative maneuver made it virtually impossible for anyone to legally run an LPFM in a sizable U.S. city, since the radio dials in the vast majority of urban areas, including the Denver-Boulder market, don't have any spaces with three open channels on either side; approximately 80 percent of the LPFM applications received by the FCC were instantly rendered obsolete. Last February, Arizona senator John McCain introduced legislation that he said would put LPFM back on track, but it never became a front-burner issue -- and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. Moreover, LPFM's two biggest boosters at the FCC, chairman Kennard and commissioner Gloria Tristani, have left, and current FCC head Michael Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell), who's toed the industry line almost exclusively since taking charge, seems unwilling to take up the cause.

The backroom dealings had a considerable impact on Monk, but not right away. When he first heard about the FCC's openness to low-power FM, he was thrilled; he couldn't even listen to local commercial radio anymore "because it's gotten so bad," he says. Despite having no professional radio background, he immediately took steps to participate in what he hoped would be a grassroots revolution.

After acquiring an LPFM application, Monk hired an engineer to help him find a suitable dial position; together they settled on 96.9 FM. The frequency belongs to a Pueblo station required to dampen its signal over Boulder because of the city's "quiet zone" -- an area maintained by the Department of Commerce for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which conducts millimeter wave measurements and other research there. It was only two channels to the right of the Peak, at 96.5 FM, and the same distance to the left of KBCO, at 97.3 FM, but Monk was so confident his venture would ultimately receive the FCC's blessing that he purchased all of the equipment he'd need. He was pleasantly surprised at how reasonably priced and easy to use it was. "The system I had cost $2,200, and it was a Cadillac -- or maybe more like a Lexus," he says. "You took it out of the box, plugged it into an antenna and a CD player, and that was it. You could be on the air in fifteen minutes."

The December ruling complicated matters immeasurably. "I had a choice to make," Monk says. "I could stick my stuff up on eBay, or I could go on the air anyway. But the more I thought about it, the more this whole thing stuck in my craw. The whole idea of the federal government taking a natural resource, which is what the radio spectrum is, and selling it almost exclusively to two or three big corporations like Clear Channel is like Disney buying national parks. Little guys like me don't have a prayer if we play by the rules. So I decided not to."

In March, Monk launched his scheme. Freshly separated from his wife, he moved into an acquaintance's home, where he and a roommate mounted an antenna to the roof. (They didn't mention that they were operating a pirate station, instead telling the homeowner that they had installed a ham-radio setup.) KBFR then began broadcasting to the greater Boulder area, using a format like KBCO's prior to its takeover by Clear Channel: lots of blues and blues rock (Monk is a big Jimi Hendrix buff), a plethora of rock on the edges of the mainstream (everything from Frank Zappa to Sonia Dada), and plenty of local music by the likes of Sally Taylor.

This similarity to KBCO's previous programming raised suspicions that the station chose to narc on Monk and company, and pirate-radio expert Anderson adds fuel to the fire. "This wouldn't be the first time Clear Channel's dirty paws have turned up in the middle of an enforcement action," he says. "There's never any proof, because there's no open records about this, but everyone knows it happens." Nonetheless, KBCO representatives adamantly deny that they had anything to do with eliminating KBFR. Chief engineer Bill Kleronomos says he knew nothing about the outlet until he received an inquiry from the FCC, and although program director Scott Arbough admits to having heard the station while in a car, he insists that he didn't contact the feds about it. "There are a lot of opportunities for the FCC to find out about illegal stations that have nothing to do with us," Arbough says. "It's because I'm part of that big bully Clear Channel that these kinds of rumors get started. I guess some people don't have anything better to do than think up conspiracy theories."

 

Arbough scoffs at the idea that KBCO might have viewed a low-power station as a threat -- but Monk thinks otherwise. "It was amazing how we caught on," he says. "We found out that a huge subset of Boulder had the same taste we did; we were being played in all these local businesses -- garages in Boulder were playing it all the time -- and getting this amazing feedback. Everybody loved it."

Everybody except the FCC, that is. On July 12, two reps from the Denver field office knocked on the door of the place where Monk was living. When the homeowner answered, the agents told him that an illegal radio station was broadcasting from his property, and they requested to see the equipment. The homeowner asked if the agents had a warrant to search the building; when they told him they didn't, he refused to admit them. In response, they asked if they could write out a complaint while standing on his porch, and subsequently did so. The document, signed by Denver agent Jon Sprague, stated in part: "You are hereby warned that operation of radio transmitting equipment without a valid radio station authorization and/or refusal to allow inspection of your radio station constitutes violation of Federal laws...and could subject the owner of this illegal operation to the severe penalties provided, including, but not limited to, a maximum fine of $100,000 and/or one year imprisonment." (Sprague declined comment, as did FCC spokesmen in Washington, D.C.)

After the agents departed, the understandably miffed homeowner went to Monk and his roommate, who had been in the house during the entire exchange, struggling to overhear what was going on, and ordered them to take down the antenna and stop broadcasting. They did as they were told, relieved that they'd personally gone undetected and that their equipment hadn't been confiscated by the FCC. "A lot of people aren't that lucky," Monk says.

He's right. According to Anderson, the FCC has been "cracking down" on illicit LPFMs nationwide, and on several occasions, agents were far less amenable than those who came calling on KBFR. Perhaps the most notorious case involved Free Radio Austin, based in Austin, Texas, which was raided twice in 2000 before being permanently silenced, with one of the invasions broadcast live to the station's considerable listenership; a recording of the chaos can be heard at austinresistance.net. Another Austin pirate outlet, Radio 1 Austin, was also gagged about a year ago; it now exists only as an Internet station, radio1austin.com. But Radio 1's Jim Liberty (a pseudonym) hints at more civil disobedience to come. "You can get transmitters for fifty dollars apiece now," Liberty says. "They only broadcast about half a mile on a good day, but on a college campus, that's a lot of listeners. And if we can get a hundred of them going at the same time and let the monkeys try to find them, we can keep the system tied up until eventually we wear the FCC out and they start giving up."

The Boulder Underground Radio Group appears to be somewhat less militant than Liberty but just as dedicated to taking back the airwaves. BURG's spokesman was a big fan of KBFR and describes it as "a refuge from the commercial media onslaught we're slammed with almost every minute of every waking hour of every day. It was music, pure and simple...no politics, no bullshit, just great music from the '50s to the present, with a healthy dose of local musicians in an explosion of free expression on the air." Like his colleagues, he blames the demise of Monk's creation on KBCO employees -- or, as he calls them, "the commercial fucks."

BURG pays homage to KBFR with the name it broadcasts under ("Free Boulder Radio," a twist on "Boulder Free Radio"), but because it has no permanent location, it can't match its predecessor's 24-hours-a-day, seven-day-a-week schedule. The dozen or so contributors range from "an eighteen-year-old high school girl to a fifty-year-old Boulder hippie," according to the spokesman, and they broadcast several times a week "as long as it's warm...We park the van in a secret location near the mountains, and all of our members have a key. It's mostly first-come, first-served. We usually wait until dark, but some of us don't have jobs and do it during the day.

"So far, it's very communal," he continues. "Nothing's ever missing from the van, and usually something's been added. Stuff like a nicer chair, some new CDs recently burned on someone's CD-R, paper towels replaced, shit like that...sharing the music, man. Sharing the tunes."

 

The BURGers feel confident that they'll continue to evade detection. "We generally don't stay in one place very long -- an hour to, max, four hours -- mostly so we can't be triangulated," says their spokesman. "As long as we're on the move, it's pretty much impossible to track us down -- and as long as we keep our knowledge of each other's personal info to our handles only, there's no target." Besides, he believes the feds have more pressing priorities right now: "Considering what happened in New York and D.C., why would the government even bother with something like this? I mean, Jesus fucking hell, we're a ragtag band of people who play a little music in a little town about four by four square on an unused band of the FM dial at a tiny power-wattage rating. It's insane to even bother with things like this, and if the government is going after Americans who are patriots -- and we are -- when it's got a real target in terrorism, I've got to ask what the hell we're spending our money on...Why squish such a harmless little thing that's doing nothing but making people happy?"

Monk seconds that emotion. Although he's keeping his distance from the BURG insurgents because "I'm too old and past the point in my life" to risk getting busted, he believes in their cause and wishes them well.

"Something's got to be done about how bad radio has gotten," he says. "And I'm glad they're willing to do it."

Course correction: Even as last week's edition was going to press, Denver International Airport's media-relations office issued a release that appears to be a preemptive strike against "Talking Points," the September 27 Message detailing complaints from numerous area reporters about the DIA press staff's actions before, during and after the facility's September 11-13 closure. The missive begins on a conciliatory note -- "We understand how demanding the past two weeks have been on everyone with a role in communications... and we appreciate your patience" -- before stating, "We have had to rethink and reinvent how we will be able to sustain our ability to meet" increased demand for information. The most substantial modification? "Additional staff members have been reallocated to support the DIA Media Relations Office."

Yet not everything has changed. That same release asks reporters to use the press-office pager "only when there is an urgent need for airport information unavailable through other sources" -- implying that staffmembers may still get cranky if awakened in the middle of the night for reasons they don't feel are important enough. Furthermore, the release was sent to Westword not by DIA, but by mayoral mouthpiece Andrew Hudson.

Who's clearly doing a better job of spreading the word than anyone at the airport.

A tangled Net: When talk-show host Jimmy Lakey purchased DenverRadio.net ("As the Web Turns," August 16), visitors to this invaluable site were evenly split between surfers who thought he was a savior and folks fearful that the end was near. Now even the first group has something to worry about: On September 18, Lakey was pink-slipped by KNUS, the low-rated AM station where he worked, in favor of syndicated yakker Dennis Prager. E-mails to Lakey prompt an auto-reply in which he thanks listeners for their loyalty; provides phone numbers at KNUS and Salem Media, which owns the station, for those eager to complain; and suggests that people visit his personal Web site, jimmylakey.com, over the next several weeks for updates about his future.

And the future of DenverRadio.net? Lakey's auto-reply doesn't even mention the site.

The crap returns: A sign that local TV news is getting back to normal? The September 30 edition of Channel 31's late news led off by teasing a story about training cats to use a toilet instead of a litter box.

That's the kind of scoop we've come to expect.


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