(en) FCC crackdown on 'Pirates' (Miami Herald)

Aaron (aaron@burn.ucsd.edu)
Tue, 30 Dec 1997 01:56:24 -0500

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Miami Herald, Monday, December 29, 1997

Pirate radio stations make the feds' hit list

Photo Caption: OUT OF BUSINESS: Motorcycle enthusiast Doug Brewer ran a pirate radio station from his garage until the feds raided his studio.

TAMPA -- Hey, welcome back. It's another Florida morning and you're not listening to the super-hit sounds of pirate radio, at least not on 102.1 FM in Tampa or 105.5 FM in Miami or 106.5 FM in West Palm Beach. Ambushed by an armada of pirate stations, federal authorities are pulling the plug all over the state. And the free-spirit broadcasters are turning up the volume of their displeasure. ``It's all wrong,'' said Doug Brewer of Tampa, whose home studio was raided last month. ``They came in here with deadly force. They brought more cops here than they did to O.J.'s house.'' The feds busted two other Tampa stations the same day. A month earlier, they sank pirate stations near Miami International Airport and Palm Beach International Airport, though dozens of pirate stations still ebb and flow in South Florida. The Federal Communications Commission said the low-power, unlicensed stations interfere with licensed broadcasts and endanger in-flight communications. ``There is an increased problem for public and aircraft safety because of unlicensed FM operations,'' said Richard Lee, acting chief of the FCC's compliance and information bureau. ``We will move as swiftly as possible to prevent the proliferation of unlicensed broadcast operations.''

Pirate stations on the rise

Broadcasting experts say pirate stations are proliferating around the country as the cost of low-power transmitters drops (to as little as $1,000) and the cost of high-power broadcast licenses rises (to as much as $100,000). Also known as micro-broadcasters, pirates are nearly always hobbyists, enthusiasts of unusual music or advocates of fringe political groups. They rarely are in it for the money. Typically, they broadcast at 100 watts of power or less -- enough to be heard maybe 20 miles from their transmitter. The most powerful licensed stations broadcast at 50,000 watts and can sometimes be heard across the country. Typically, the pirates also maintain a low profile. Why look for trouble? Brewer is not typical, and he certainly does not keep a low profile. A motorcycle enthusiast who works as a disc jockey at a biker club, the longhaired, burly Brewer publicized his station as ``Tampa's Party Pirate.'' He was broadcasting nearly 24 hours a day from a studio in his garage and even from a mobile van. He assembled a regular rotation of DJs. He handed out bumper stickers that said, ``Pirate Radio 102.1 FM. The Real Rock 'n' Roll Alternative.'' He accepted advertising, though he claimed to be losing money anyway.

Defying the FCC

He shrugged away warnings by the FCC and publicly challenged the agency, eventually ending up on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. ``License? We don't need no stinking license,'' he told the paper. Oh yes you do, said the agency. ``Sooner or later, I'll nail him,'' a local FCC official said. It was sooner rather than later. Within a month, a task force of heavily armed federal officers raided Brewer's house and studio. They carted away so much equipment that the inventory filled 20 written pages. Though another pirate broadcaster was charged with criminal offenses that day, Brewer was hit only with civil charges punishable by forfeiture of his equipment. A week later, more than 100 people protested outside the local office of the FCC, which they called the ``Federal Censorship Commission'' and ``Nazis.''

`A real vengeance'

``It was a surprise attack,'' Brewer said of the raid. ``They came in with a real vengeance. If I was a drug dealer or a murderer, that would be a different story. ``All I had was a radio transmitter. I wasn't hurting anybody.'' Not true, said the FCC and the U.S. attorney. Pirate stations are a growing problem, they said. In addition to the stations raided in Tampa, Miami and West Palm Beach, others have popped up in North Dade, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Fort Pierce and other areas. Police agencies around the nation have complained about interference in their communications systems. Overseas, London's Heathrow Airport was closed briefly in September because someone was broadcasting hard rock on an air traffic control frequency. ``Interference is the name of the game,'' FCC spokesman David Fiske said. ``We're not saying that every micro-broadcaster is going to bring down a 747, but this is still a very serious issue.''

Motives questioned

Pirates suspect that the real issue is more commercial in nature. Licensed broadcasters have complained about the competition, the pirates said, and the FCC is responding to the industry. ``I know I made them mad,'' Brewer said. ``There isn't a licensed broadcaster in this town who's ever appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.'' Now, he's moving into Internet broadcasting, distributing his material over the World Wide Web for use by other pirates. And he's anticipating a few more battles with the FCC. ``All I did was good work, and they made an example out of me,'' he said. ``I'm going to be a miserable thorn in their butts for the rest of their lives. ``I may have embarrassed them a small amount, but the FCC has been embarrassed by Howard Stern a lot more than they've been embarrassed by me.''

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