> Radio pirates ride the airwaves
> By RAFAEL A. OLMEDA, Sun-Sentinel
> Web-posted: 12:44 a.m. July 30, 2000
> The antenna sits in plain view, rising 40 feet into the air outside a
> modest, single-family home in central Broward County.
> Until recently, its forbidden signal was beamed to hundreds,
> perhaps thousands, of dedicated listeners in Davie and Dania Beach
> and all the way to Pompano Beach.
> The man who owns the antenna calls himself "The Wiz," and he'll
> have words with anyone who dares to call him a "radio pirate."
> "I'm an unlicensed, community-based broadcaster," said The Wiz,
> 55, a music producer who, until recently, was broadcasting on 89.1 FM.
> "My license is the service I provide to this community."
> The Federal Communications Commission has a different opinion of
> The Wiz, which is why he asked not to be identified by name. They
> say he's a lawbreaker, and so is anyone else who stakes out a
> position on the dial to broadcast without a license, a practice
> commonly known as radio piracy.
> "Any unauthorized use of the airwaves to conduct broadcasting
> transmissions is radio piracy," said FCC spokesman John Winston.
> "Only CB radio operators can operate without a license. Anyone else,
> even amateur operators, must have a license from the FCC."
> Still, hundreds of people nationwide put their music and chatter on
> the air in defiance of the FCC, and many decrythe "pirate" label.
> "I have not stolen and hijacked the nation's airwaves for my own
> personal profit," said Richard Edmonson, who runs San Francisco
> Liberation Radio without a license. Unlicensed broadcasters wouldn't
> need to stake claims on the airwaves if not for the overcrowding
> caused by giant broadcasters, he said.
> The culprit, according to Edmonson, is the 1996
> Telecommunications Act, which made it easier for broadcasters to own
> numerous stations in a single market.
> "In the four years since the passage of the Telecommunications
> Act, many buyouts and mergers have occurred in the broadcast
> industry, resulting in the consolidation of ownership into fewer and
> fewer hands," said Edmonson. "This is not good for democracy."
> South Florida is a particularly popular place for unlicensed
> broadcasters, althoughWinston won't go into detail. Secrecy is one
> thing the FCC has in common with the pirates -- neither wants the
> other tipped off to its operations.
> "It's a troublesome area," said Winston. "It's very troublesome."
> Anyone who tunes in at the right time can catch the uncensored
> raps of 93.5 FM (anywhere from Miami Beach to Opa-locka); another
> 89.1 FM station (northwest Miami-Dade County into Pembroke Pines);
> or 107.1 FM (central Broward). Pirate stations are everywhere, and
> unless they do something outrageous, it takes keen listening skills to
> distinguish them from their FCC-approved brethren. Profanity is
> usually a telltale sign. Others include highly localized advertising
> (which is not illegal), irregular broadcast schedules, and in most
> cases, the lack of call letters.
> Still, the FCC finds them. The agency shut down 44 operations
> across the country between January and June, according to Winston.
> It's not a significant dent compared to the number of pirates still
> operating, but those numbers don't reflect pirates who stop operating
> after they receive warning letters from the FCC.
> Because the stations are clandestine and operate in small areas,
> it's tough to tell exactly how many exist.
> The FCC finds them through complaints, either from consumers
> offended by content or from broadcasters upset because of signal
> interference. Pirate operators face loss of equipment, fines ranging of
> up $100,000, and up to a year in jail.
> FCC agents use simple direction-finding equipment to triangulate
> signals and usually locate the source with relative ease. Operators
> typically receive warning letters, Winston said, and if they continue
> broadcasting, the FCC has to get warrants to seize the equipment or
> target the owners.
> The agency, joined by the U.S. Marshal Service and the Broward
> County Sheriff's Office, raided two operations on July 13, though no
> one was arrested at either station.
> One of them was 90.9 FM, a so-called "ghetto radio" station known
> for playing explicit and uncensored music that often interfered with
> the signal of National Public Radio affiliate WXEL (90.7 FM, West Palm
> But there's confusion about the identity of the second station, which
> was broadcasting from an office suite at 2800 W. Oakland Park Blvd.
> No one was in the office at the time of the raid.
> The Sheriff's Office said it was Broward's 89.1, but The Wiz refuted
> "That wasn't me," said The Wiz, who took himself off the air the
> day after the raids. "I still have all my equipment."
> Evidence suggests the agents raided 92.7 FM, a station specializing
> in Caribbean and West Indian music, which has been off the air since
> the raids.
> Mark Bass, general manager of WZZR-FM, a sports talk station that
> broadcasts on 92.7 from West Palm Beach, said he had been
> complaining about interference from the pirate signal for months, and
> he even provided the Oakland Park address to the FCC earlier this
> year. "We're very relieved that guy is off the air."
> The FCC is staying vague.
> "We have shut a station down," said Winston, declining to be more
> specific. "That station is off the air."
> Winston also said the agency's goal is to stop illegal broadcasts,
> and arrests don't always accompany raids. Only one person has been
> arrested for radio piracy this year, he said.
> Filling a void
> In a radio market dominated by Top 40, nostalgia for the 1980s,
> crossover hip-hop, R&B and country "hits," unlicensed stations are
> driven by a desire for niche programming -- the broadcaster's, the
> community's or a combination.
> While numerous licensed stations cater to South Florida's
> Spanish-speaking population, other ethnic communities tend to be
> ignored. West Indian, Haitian and Israeli pirates crop up to serve
> those communities.
> When 89.1 FM first aired in central Broward in January, The Wiz
> called it "Your community radio station." Many Broward residents
> "I like 99 Jams, I like Power 96, but those stations aren't for the
> community," said Larry Brown, 25, of Pompano Beach. "I could listen
> to 89.1 and I would know what's happening where I live."
> The station offered a mix of hip-hop, rap, R&B, jazz and gospel. It
> also gave residents access to the airwaves, something they said they
> couldn't get on licensed stations. The Wiz played locally produced
> music that would have a hard time getting airplay on licensed
> "We're doing something positive that the other stations are not
> doing," said The Wiz. Listeners called the Sun-Sentinel to tell how
> 89.1 sponsored fund-raising drives for families who couldn't afford
> funerals for their relatives, for instance, or how the station encouraged
> students to stay in school.
> A display case in The Wiz's living room shows off numerous
> "appreciation" plaques, including one from the athletic department at
> a Lauderhill middle school.
> The Wiz, a lifelong resident of the Fort Lauderdale area, said he
> started 89.1 because his favorite station, WRBD (1470 AM) went off
> the air several years ago and he missed the programming, which was
> targeted to a black audience.
> "This was our station, and one day we listened and it was gone," he
> said. Last summer, The Wiz let people know he wanted to start his
> own station. He found local businesses were unable to afford
> commercial time on licensed stations, but able to pay his considerably
> lower rates.
> It cost him a few thousand dollars to buy the equipment he needed
> to go on the air.
> He printed "89.1 Discount Cards" that are honored by hairstylists,
> nightclubs and other central Broward businesses.
> "It was a nuisance when we lost our station," said The Wiz. "When
> you fill a void, you're not being a nuisance. Why should it bother the
> big stations if I'm taking advertising dollars from people who can't
> afford to advertise with them in the first place?"
> So who gets hurt?
> Licensed broadcasters and their listeners have the most to lose from
> radio pirates. If a pirate chooses to broadcast on a frequency that's
> too close to a licensed station, the interference can be considerable.
> The pirate of 92.7 cost WZZR all of its Broward listeners, and WXEL
> listeners put up with 90.9's spillover static for almost a year.
> A pirate broadcast can also play havoc with television reception for
> those who don't have cable.
> Sometimes the stakes are higher. "A number of stations across the
> country have been cited for causing interference between air traffic
> controllers and pilots," said Dennis Wharton, senior vice president of
> the National Association of Broadcasters. "I don't know about you, but
> I'd feel safer if my pilot's transmissions were not interrupted."
> It's happened numerous times, including in Florida, according to the
> FCC. But unlicensed broadcasters say it shouldn't happen.
> "There is hardly any likelihood of anyone broadcasting on the FM
> band and interfering with air traffic control unless they are using really
> low-grade, inferior equipment with no filtering," said Edmonson, who's
> been broadcasting in San Francisco for seven years. "The solution to
> this very remote problem, of course, is to license low-power
> broadcasters and require that they use only FCC-approved
> Low-power FM
> That solution is in the works. The FCC is moving to license
> non-commercial, low-power FM stations to give pirates a legitimate
> claim to the airwaves. In June, the FCC received 769 applications from
> low-power broadcasters in 10 states that are hoping to bring their
> operations above ground.
> Many applications came from church and school groups eager to
> broadcast in specific, small communities.
> "Every day, it seems, we read about a bigger merger and more
> consolidation," said FCC Chairman William Kennard in January, when
> the LPFM program was adopted. "(It) leads to the perception that the
> interests of small groups and individuals are being lost, and that
> important voices and viewpoints are being shut out."
> The LPFM program has critics on both sides. "The plan put forth by
> the FCC would result in interference for hundreds of thousands of
> listeners," said Wharton. "They concede their proposal would produce
> an 'acceptable level of interference,' but we think that term is an
> Kennard said LPFM stations would still be required to remain two
> channels away from existing licensed stations (each channel is
> represented by two points on the dial, so 90.9 FM and 90.7 FM are
> separated by only one channel). Keeping stations two channels apart
> would virtually eliminate interference problems, Kennard argued.
> But that restriction worries unlicensed broadcasters like Edmonson.
> "In some especially large urban areas of the country, there will be
> no room on the FM dial for any low power stations," he said. His
> solution -- to take licenses away from mega-broadcasters to make
> room for more LPFM stations -- is not likely to garner much support
> from the FCC.
> The applications will be available in another 10 states, plus Puerto
> Rico, in late August.
> Florida broadcasters won't get a chance to apply until early next
> The Wiz says he wants to be the first to apply.
> "Tell me how to do it," he said. "Tell me where to sign."
> Rafael Olmeda can be reached at rolmeda at sun-sentinel.com or