Since 1997, Ward had played host to an unlicensed FM radio station called Way High Radio. Colloquially known as “pirate” stations, radio operations such as Way High Radio are expressly forbidden by the FCC, which regulates America’s airwaves. That the station had been able to illegally broadcast from 90.5 FM for so many years was largely thanks to the isolation of the mountain town, roughly an hour-and-a-half drive from the FCC’s enforcement office in Denver.
When DJ Willy (not his real name) heard about the federal agents parked near town, he got a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. This was a moment he’d been dreading for a long time. But he’d also studied up on FCC enforcement, and knew the agents would want to catch someone actually inside the radio station’s studio, a small trailer located next to Ward’s town hall with an antenna on top and a wooden sign that proclaimed “Office of Human Rights.”
In anticipation of such a visit, Willy and other Way High Radio DJs had devised a way to shut down their FM signal remotely through the Internet, without going to the studio. After Willy confirmed that no one was in the trailer, he told the station’s technician to cut the signal. Sure enough, the moment the station went dead, the listening FCC agents raced down the curving road in their black SUV to the trailer, certain they were about to corner someone who had just pulled the plug. If they could catch someone red-handed, they could obtain a signature on the infamous FCC “notice of apparent liability,” the agency’s equivalent of serving someone with a legal document, a way to nab pirates.
Only no one was there.
Willy watched the feds from inside Ward’s post office, just a couple hundred feet away. While he was nervous, he was also amused to see one agent, who was wearing a ridiculous bright-orange vest, express frustration that the trailer’s door was locked and the inside empty.
That day, someone posted a dire proclamation on the station’s Facebook page:
Good afternoon Way High Family. We are under attack from the FCC and are stream only at this time. This is your government in action, taking away more lines of communication, as they hide behind a directive of protecting us…We feel the FCC’s actions are a direct threat to our mountain community.
And not just the community of Ward: Willy soon learned that the agents’ visit was part of a broader FCC crackdown on pirate stations along the Front Range. On January 24, the same agents shut down a sister station, KNED, in the nearby town of Nederland. Within the next few days, two more pirate stations in Boulder, Green Light Radio and Boulder Free Radio, were issued warnings. Since late January, three of the four stations have stopped broadcasting FM signals for fear of being fined or having their DJs thrown in jail, though all of the stations are still streaming content online.
The recent FCC actions are just the latest in a long-running skirmish between radio pirates and the FCC in Colorado. Over the past two decades, the agency has tried, and failed, to fully force pirate stations into submission. Instead, a resilient and swashbuckling underworld has evolved and adapted, a world replete with colorful DJ personalities, counterculture goals, mysterious guardian angels and even personal vendettas among individual pirates and FCC agents.
But there’s no question that FCC enforcement is heating up — by the agency’s own admission. It goes far beyond Colorado, too. In a rare interview with the publication Inside Radio on December 22, the FCC’s enforcement chief, Rosemary Harold, said her agency is “very interested in pursuing pirates. It has become a higher priority for the Enforcement Bureau than it had been in the recent past.” (The FCC declined to speak with Westword for any part of this article, citing “ongoing investigations.”)
Half a dozen radio pirates from four different stations, who all requested that they be identified only by their DJ names, say they’re feeling squeezed by The Man as never before, and that the FCC’s pressure over the past two months is unprecedented. Is pirate radio finally sunk in Colorado?
“People are really feeling its absence,” Willy says of Way High Radio. “Twenty years of broadcasting is a long time. It’s like losing an old friend.”
Initially, Monk intended to play by the FCC’s rules. “I’m a normal guy, and I have a normal job,” he told Westword that year. “I’m in my mid-thirties, divorced, with a couple of kids. I don’t have dreadlocks. I’m not a typical hippie radical.”
What compelled Monk to enter the radio arena was the corporatization of the nation’s airwaves. When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed, it gave companies such as Clear Channel permission to own eight radio stations in a single market and an unlimited number of stations overall, giving corporate giants carte blanche to go on buying sprees of smaller mom-and-pop signals and replace their local content with nationally syndicated shows and homogenized, corporate playlists. In Colorado, this meant that homegrown stations like Boulder-based KBCO eventually fell into the hands of Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia); the company spent $30 billion in the late ’90s and early ’00s, amassing as many as 1,200 stations.
Within a few years, even the FCC became alarmed at the number of independent signals being gobbled up. So in 2000, the agency announced that it would allow applications for low-powered FM signals (100 watts or less in strength) in cases when specific radio frequencies weren’t already being used. This would help balance local, independent voices with corporate ones.
Monk was excited to learn about the upcoming LPFM licenses: Here was a chance to strike back at Clear Channel! He decided to submit an application to the FCC, and was so confident he’d be selected that he went ahead and purchased all the equipment he’d need. He was surprised by how inexpensive it was. “The system I had cost $2,200, and it was a Cadillac — or maybe more like a Lexus,” he told Westword in 2001. “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.”
Soon after Monk bought his gear, though, such powerful organizations as the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio successfully lobbied Congress to require LPFM stations to be at least three dial positions away from existing stations on the FM spectrum rather than two clicks away, as the FCC had originally suggested, to avoid signal interference. While the change sounded minor, it made it nearly impossible to legally operate an LPFM signal in any sizable city — including the Denver-Boulder market — because there were almost no FM signals available with three open frequencies on both sides. Nearly 80 percent of the applications that the FCC had already received for LPFM signals became obsolete.
Monk’s defiance of the FCC was not without precedent in other parts of the country. In 1989, a man named Mbanna Kantako had started Black Liberation Radio in a housing project in Springfield, Illinois. Kantako’s station inspired another enterprising pirate, self-described anarchist Stephen Dunifer, who hiked into the hills above Berkeley, California, with a transmitter and a skull-and-crossbones flag, according to legend. Dunifer’s signal carried over the entire East Bay, inspiring copycats and providing a proof of concept for setting up illicit radio operations.
Boulder Free Radio’s maiden voyage through the airwaves over Boulder generated a lot of excitement. “It was amazing how we caught on,” Monk said in 2001. “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.”
Well, not everybody. To this day, Monk suspects that KBCO ratted out his station to the FCC in 2001. “Fuck those guys,” Monk writes in an email. “Clear Channel had purchased them not too long before...and gave them a mandate to report pirates.” (KBCO representatives repeatedly denied snitching on KBFR in multiple news articles in the early 2000s.)
No matter who tipped off the FCC, on July 12, 2001, two FCC agents arrived at the house where Monk was living. The homeowner answered their knock but refused to admit the agents because they didn’t have a warrant. So the agents wrote out a complaint right there, which stated that failure to terminate the FM broadcast emitting from the property “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.”
Inside the house, Monk and his roommate strained to hear the exchange on the porch. They had no problem hearing their landlord after the FCC agents left; furious, he told the pair to take the antenna off the roof, and he subsequently kicked Monk out of the house.
But Monk wasn’t ready to give up radio; he knew he just had to get more creative. Teaming up with another DJ named Sparky, he devised a method for moving the transmitter location as needed while still maintaining a permanent studio elsewhere in Boulder that would communicate with the transmitter via an Internet stream. (The transmitter “site” was just a weatherproof box with a laptop and an FM transmitter inside that was wired to an antenna placed on a roof.)
Monk found KBFR listeners who volunteered to host the transmitter equipment at their homes. While the FCC inevitably discovered each of these locations — on average, it took ten to twelve months — as long as the transmitter was immediately cut off after a bust and moved to another volunteer’s house, there were no legal repercussions for anyone involved because each warning was written up for a specific address.
Monk’s plan was simple and ingenious. KBFR would occasionally go off-air for a few days following a bust, but the resilience of the 95.3 FM signal allowed the pirate station’s ranks of DJs and on-air personalities to swell.
The station prided itself on being a democratic platform for the community. Unlike at corporate stations, its DJs could say anything or play any type of music they wanted. “Bullshit Free Radio” became a freewheeling presence, and the FCC was not pleased. One particular enforcement agent, Jon Sprague, made it his mission to hunt down Monk and his crew of pirates. In response, the KBFR DJs teased Sprague, saying things like “This is Jon Sprague from the FCC, and you’re listening to Boulder Free Radio.”
One DJ, Phoenix, took the feud too far; he was rebuked by fellow pirates after he called Sprague a “motherfucker” and gave out the agent’s personal phone number over the air.
Sprague then upped the ante. Around the end of 2004, he started tracking down individual pirates and successfully identified a couple, including a DJ whose on-air name was “Beerguy.” Sprague not only handed Beerguy the notorious notice of apparent liability, but went to Beerguy’s workplace and informed his boss that his employee was moonlighting as a radio pirate and regularly breaking the law.
“It was called Phantom Radio, but everyone knew it was really KBFR — that was just to throw the FCC off.”
Above all, Sprague yearned to catch Monk. He came close in 2005, believing that an associate of Monk’s was the legendary godfather himself. The wrongfully accused man was forced to hire a lawyer in order to counter Sprague’s accusation. Watching this all unfold from the sidelines, the real Monk realized that things had slipped beyond his control. If the FCC was going to harass and threaten innocent people, then it wasn’t worth staying in the game. Following another bust of a transmitter site that year, he decided to quit pirate radio and donated his equipment to other pirates who would carry the torch.
The station at 95.3 FM was temporarily rebranded Phantom Radio. “It was called Phantom Radio, but everyone knew it was really KBFR — that was just to throw the FCC off,” remembers Ig, a pirate DJ and punk rocker who used to be a long-haul trucker.
The first years without Monk captaining the ship were rough. “Pirates sometimes fight,” Ig says, and he caused some trouble himself during another rebranding following one of the FCC’s busts. “We came back on air, and I was trying to be abrasive — I was a big fan of shock jocks like Howard Stern — and so I said, ‘Let’s call the station K-U-N-T,’” Ig remembers.
He and other DJs made a bunch of pre-recorded audio drops with the new station ID. “It was so funny driving around Boulder, and on our FM signal, you’d hear, ‘You’re listening to Radio K-U-N-T...The KUNT!,” Ig recalls with a laugh. “I’d be driving around in tears.”
Some people did not find the name funny. “One band refused to come into the station,” Ig admits. “They said, ‘We’ll never talk to you again; we don’t believe in that kind of misogynistic messaging.’ And so that got me personally banned from joining another station that was starting in Boulder at the time.”
That station was KGLR, Green Light Radio, which was founded in 2008 and was one of the FCC’s recent targets. Like Boulder Free Radio, KGLR has a colorful history. According to one of its DJs, Rocky Flats, some of KGLR’s first fans were prisoners inside the Boulder County Jail. They started using the jail’s phones to make song requests to KGLR, shouting out their desired songs during the pre-recorded voice announcement so that they wouldn’t be charged for the collect call. “I wanna hear Lil Wayne!” one would yell, then promptly hang up.
[Below is a sample of an interview Rocky Flats had with the artist Les Claypool that aired on Green Light Radio]
Like KBFR, KGLR has had to learn to be flexible during its decade-long war of attrition with the FCC. “It’s been on and off for all these stations, but they usually come back,” explains Ig. “The weird thing about following the journalism about pirate radio is that you’ll read, ‘They got busted,’ as if that means they got shut down. But we’re constantly busted, and that can mean it stopped for 48 hours. A bust does not imply finality.” And because of its longevity and location in a populous area, Ig suggests that KBFR, which re-emerged in 2008 after its Phantom Radio incarnation (Monk says he was not involved in the relaunch but supports the effort), might have gone through more busts than any other pirate station in the nation.
While Boulder’s mischievous pirate stations became used to their constant game of cat-and-mouse with the FCC, the game was more serious at similar operations in the mountains. Not only was it tougher for stations like Way High Radio to hide transmitter equipment in their tiny towns, but their stations were becoming critical to the community, which relied on the illicit FM signals for news updates and emergency information. When it comes to FCC enforcement in Colorado, the higher the altitude, the higher the stakes.
“Come and speak to the deer!” Ig likes to proclaim throughout the event, as he leads bands to a stage inside the Pioneer Inn, a famed watering hole with a deer head mounted above the area where the acts play. Next to the deer’s antlers, two condenser microphones broadcast music on KNED, a pirate radio station that Ig has been associated with since the K-U-N-T stunt ruffled feathers down in Boulder...or as some Nederland residents call it, “the flatlands.”
Nederland has hosted a few pirate stations over the years, including an operation called Radio Free Ned that was run by a couple of accountants with a massive collection of Grateful Dead bootlegs. That operation was shut down by the FCC in 2002. For the past decade, KNED has flown the pirate flag in town.
[Below you can listen to some "radio drops" that Ig's punk band, Drink Drank Punk, recorded for KNED's pirate broadcasts]
Like Monk, Ig had looked into what it would take to play by the FCC’s rules, but he saw that applications rarely opened up for LPFM signals and are extremely competitive. Denver Open Media, which broadcasts a signal at 104.7 FM in the Mile High City, was one of the last organizations to successfully obtain an LPFM license along the Front Range, he notes; dozens of outfits competed for that slot. “In a market like Denver, there are very few opportunities to get a license, because all of the available spectrum that could be used legally is generally taken.
So the LPFM window of opportunity that happened [in 2013] was a really rare occurrence,” says Tony Shawcross, DOM’s executive director. “We definitely felt lucky to be selected.”
A registered station at any strength, even an independent outfit such as Boulder’s KGNU, faces such administrative requirements as submitting all of its music playlists to performance royalty companies like ASCAP and BMI, which pay artists. Ig, who is used to hustling in a punk-rock group called Drink Drank Punk, rolls his eyes at such bureaucracy. He doubts that a station like Way High Radio in Ward, eleven miles from and 1,200 feet higher than Nederland, would exist at all if it had to subscribe to the FCC’s requirements, let alone serve its community for twenty years.
One of the longest-running pirate operations in the country — if not the longest — Way High Radio got its start in 1997 after a Ward resident attended a conference in the Midwest that had a forum on community radio. When she floated the idea of starting a station in the mountain town, other residents responded enthusiastically and cobbled together individual pieces of audio equipment — one person had a mixing board, another a tape deck, another a transmitter — into a complete setup.
“It was a community effort from the beginning,” says Willy, the DJ who witnessed the FCC’s visit to Way High Radio’s office. “And with our first transmitter, which was only one watt, you could barely get the signal beyond town.”
One of the first shows broadcast on that one-watt signal was a music program by Nigel, aka “The Love Doctor,” so named because he had a sultry Puerto Rican accent and liked to play baby-making music, including some of the sexier cuts by Santana. “Oh, he’d get you through the night,” recalls Willy.
Because the station was free-form, anyone could come in and play music or talk, and “you never knew what to expect,” Willy says. “One thing you knew was that you didn’t want to change the station. It was a platform for sharing and bringing everyone together. A lot of times you knew the DJ, and the DJ is talking about you or the neighbor or some issue you’re interested in.”
During its early years, a mysterious guardian angel gave the station a boost. On Christmas Eve in 2001, a rough-looking old man came ambling into Ward’s Utica Street Market and asked if he could check out the town’s radio station. Way High Radio had just been moved into a log cabin, and when Willy took the old man there and showed him the setup, the stranger’s face lit up.
"A lot of times you knew the DJ, and the DJ is talking about you or the neighbor or some issue you’re interested in.”
“You guys are amazing; you’re my best project ever!” the old man growled. He then went to his car and returned with a ten-watt transmitter, which Willy remembers was “built like a tank.” Since it was Christmas Eve, Willy had places to be, but the man said, “You can just leave me here; I’m gonna switch this out.”
And he did. Willy returned to the studio the next morning and found it rewired and outfitted with the ten-watt transmitter. Like a ghost of Christmas, the enigmatic nighttime visitor had left no other trace. Willy later learned that he was a legendary recluse and radio hobbyist known by the moniker “Radio Mike.”
“We’ve certainly had some interesting people come through,” Willy says — and that includes the station’s DJs.
There’s a wall of shame in the Way High Radio studio, to dissuade DJs from repeating some of the less-proud moments in the station’s history, such as the time a DJ racked up over $1,000 in phone bills by calling phone-sex lines and airing the conversations on the FM signal.
For the most part, though, the pirate station has been an integral part of the community, and everyone from the mayor on down knows about it. Candidates for public office offer interviews before elections. Kids from the local elementary school visit on field trips and learn how to use radio equipment; they receive “apprentice” certificates at the end of the lesson and get to pick their own DJ names. (One of Willy’s favorites was “DJ Fart.”) There’s even an annual fundraiser for the station that most of the town attends, with live bands and an auction featuring donated items from local artists, restaurants and businesses.
“It’s a means of survival here,” says Apache, another Way High Radio DJ. “We’re like the small town in Alaska in the show Northern Exposure with a radio station. Some people [in Ward] don’t have TVs or telephones. And we have over 55 people that are over the age of 60. Some of them don’t have vehicles, even. But it’s very easy to listen to the station. We even lend out radios if someone needs one.”
For nearly fifteen years, few people outside of Ward knew about the station. That changed in 2012, when DJ Rocky Flats of Boulder’s KGLR and a few other pirates went to Ward for one of Way High Radio’s annual fundraisers and approached the station’s DJs with an intriguing idea: forming a radio network with Colorado’s multiple pirate stations.
The benefit of such a network, Rocky Flats and others explained, is that pirate stations can share streams and air each other’s best material. Having a live DJ or interviewer at the mixing board makes for the most compelling radio, but most pirate stations don’t have live personalities on the air 24/7, instead resorting to canned playlists for at least some of their programming. With a network, the participating stations could choose which stream to put out on their own FM signal, usually giving priority to any pirate station that had a live DJ in the studio.
Way High Radio’s DJs were intrigued by the idea and agreed to attend a series of meetings in Boulder with other radio pirates that year. The Colorado Community Radio Network (CCRN) was born out of those meetings, with Green Light Radio, Way High Radio and KNED as founding members. Later, Boulder Free Radio jumped on board. Since the FCC was pretty lax on enforcement at the time, the greater visibility seemed worth the risk.
CCRN proved invaluable during a series of natural disasters, with Way High Radio leading the way on reporting emergency information and other stations like KNED relaying the broadcasts.
During the 2013 floods in northern Colorado, DJs at Way High Radio not only shared bulletins put out by FEMA and the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, but provided local road-closure news, notices about lost pets, information about where Ward residents could find emergency supplies and counseling, and even announcements of which residents were leaving town to make supply trips so that others could put in requests for things they needed.
And when the Cold Springs Fire erupted in July 2016, Way High Radio aired updates almost round the clock and even had firefighters returning from the line come into the studio to give firsthand accounts of battling the blaze. Way High Radio broadcast information about which houses were saved — or lost — as the fire circled around Nederland and Ward, and DJs shared the names of those who had lost everything, because they knew the community would rally around victims of the fire.
After the inferno was suppressed, “we got standing ovations from the town council in Ward,” Willy remembers. A Nederland liquor store owner told Apache that people were coming in and saying that the dual broadcasts from Way High Radio and KNED were the only places that they could get up-to-date information, she recalls.
“That wasn’t going to be our last disaster, either,” Willy points out. “With the lack of snow this season, we already know we’re about to have a crazy fire season.”
But first, Way High Radio has to deal with another, unnatural disaster. All four pirate stations in the CCRN have been singed by recent FCC actions. The DJs think the enhanced enforcement stems from an incident that occurred in Longmont in early December.
ran an article about a pirate station called KROC that had just begun broadcasting in the area.
“A few days ago, we noticed that Longmont appears to have obtained its very own underground radio station,” the story said. “You can listen to it on 106.5 FM. The mix of music is currently uncensored and runs from Willie Nelson to hardcore hip-hop. The actual stream is from an underground radio group out of Boulder called Green Light Radio, sometimes called KGLR. KGLR is part of a larger group of underground stations that call themselves the Colorado Community Radio Network with part-time stations in Nederland (KNED), Ward (Way High Radio) and Boulder (KGLR and KBFR).”
The next day, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who is based in Washington, D.C., sent the Observer a scathing response, accusing the outlet of supporting pirate radio. O’Rielly’s letter was posted by the Longmont Observer on January 3.
“Pirate radio should never be romanticized or its negative impact minimized,” he wrote. “In learning of a pirate station, the proper action should have been to alert the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Field Office in Denver to initiate an investigation and potentially enforcement proceedings, not suggest people listen while they can. Pirate radio can cause real harm to Coloradans. For listeners, illegal radio operations, such as unauthorized ‘KGLR,’ typically do not comply with any industry rules and regulations, especially those designed to protect consumers and the public at large. Chief among these is the failure to facilitate the Emergency Alert System (EAS) which provides vital information during critical moments, such as wildfires or threats to public safety. And these scofflaws often don’t pay any fees as required by law or keep any paperwork, exposing listeners to potential fraudsters and rip-off artists.”
Willy was stunned by O’Rielly’s letter. Not only did it seem to attack freedom of the press, but it raised a red flag for pirate stations. “Plus, this wasn’t just the FCC, this was one of the top commissioners at the FCC,” he says.
The Observer, too, was incredulous, and had put this disclaimer under O’Rielly’s response: “The Longmont Observer generally doesn’t comment on letters to the editor; however, we do find it odd, and by what we can tell, unprecedented, that an FCC Commissioner would write a tiny digital-only locally focused news outlet in Longmont, Colorado and tell us what story we should write, and how to write it.”
O’Rielly specifically mentioned KGLR in his letter; Rocky Flats says that was just another sign of oppression from the same FCC that recently voted, under chairman Ajit Pai, to rescind Net Neutrality protections. “What the Commissioner sent to the Longmont Observer is just scary,” he notes, “because with the Trump administration, we’re seeing regulatory agencies going on a free-for-all, and there’s no real leadership telling them what to do.”
After the FCC’s letter, the January 24 crackdown on CCRN stations wasn’t a complete surprise. Since agents descended on the stations in Ward, Nederland and Boulder, only Boulder Free Radio has kept broadcasting its FM signal, now under the stewardship of a guy named “Crispy,” who’s described by other pirates as a belligerent hippie. “Fuck the FCC,” Crispy says, in his only comment for this story.
Crispy has apparently received over a dozen warnings from the FCC since late January. Last week, the agency adopted an even more aggressive tactic: sending violation notices through the mail and trying to make recipients sign for them to create culpability. According to Willy, even the mayor of Ward received a packet that contained an FCC violation notice — which she signed for. “The fact that Way High Radio has been supported by the town is unique to the FCC,” Willy says. “I think they see us as more of a threat than other pirate operations.”
The trailer in Ward that had housed the radio studio recently disappeared; pirates have hidden it so that the FCC cannot confiscate their equipment.
While DJs at Way High Radio, KNED and Green Light Radio maintain their online streams, they’re strategizing how to turn their FM signals back on. KNED’s Ig says he’s toying with the idea of putting up a bunch of decoy antennas around Nederland to throw off FCC agents. He admits he feels some guilt for what happened to Way High Radio; he thinks that its participation in CCRN put it on the FCC’s radar.
“Way High suffered from our banding together and them getting publicity. I don’t think otherwise the FCC would have ever noticed them,” Ig admits. “We’re all pulling for them. I think there’s a little bit of remorse that they got dragged into this.”
But Way High Radio DJs don’t blame other pirate stations for their predicament. “I don’t have any regrets with CCRN,” says Radiant Rebel. “I think we need to go a lot further, to be honest.”
And if there’s another natural disaster like the floods of 2013 or the Cold Springs Fire, no FCC agent will stop these DJs from restoring their FM signal and again serving their community. “I can promise this,” says Willy. “If we have an emergency, we will turn on and go back on air and protect our community, no matter what the FCC thinks they can do.”