Coffee, Danish, and a Little Pirate Talk
By Gary Stigall
No one was arrested, but an estimated $3,000 worth of equipment was confiscated at pirate station Free Radio San Diego, Thursday, July 21. The station was located located in the South Park section of San Diego near Balboa Park east of downtown. The FCC was quoted in a San Diego Union-Tribune article to say they make such raids based on complaints. Pirate station rep "Bob Ugly" says on his website "it was understood that this raid was coming." A sign on the door from the FCC had said so.
Bill Zears of the FCC said that he can't comment while the U.S. District Attorney prepares its case.
I sat down one morning in September of 2003 with Bob Ugly at a coffeehouse in the Golden Hill neighborhood in San Diego near where a 5/8-wave vertical antenna broadcasts on 96.9 MHz above his apartment.
So how did you get started?
It started in the summer of 2001 something like that. If you look around radio enough, you kind of get tired of all the same stations, and all the program directors and GMs are the same and what program director doesn't realize it's all the same stuff? A new station tries to fire up, saying, 'What kind of niche can we fill?' It's all so lame. I'll see what I can do about starting a new radio station. It should be easy. So I started looking into low-power FM. The windows [for legal filing for LPFM licenses] shut down in 2000. I started reading about how NPR and NAB had sunk the second adjacents and so on. The more I started reading this, the more I thought, 'Those bastards!' So I started thinking I can do this legitimately. There's no inherent reason to break the law, but the more I looked into this, the more I thought this is ridiculous.
Then I started reading about Free Radio Berkeley and Free Radio Santa Cruz and Radio Rhode Island and I thought, 'These people have a point.' So, basically it was just another guy and me sitting around thinking about what we were going to need to do this. I majored in Electrical Engineering in college at the University of Connecticut, but I didn't really do any RF stuff.
We started doing everything mobile up at Mt. Soledad in October of 2002. There was a radio guy up there who had heard about our upcoming broadcast from some shortwave radio show. He thought we were crazy for transmitting from that open location. We continued to broadcast from that location until Bill Zears from the FCC walked up 30 minutes after we started our show. He was pretty rad. We had fake plates on the van. He had nothing on us, but it was nerve-wracking having that badge shined in our face for the first time.
So then we started going up to Cowles Mountain. We hiked up with our equipment and five people with car batteries, big deep cycle marine ones—a pain in the ass. We did this every week for three freaking months, every Sunday from the summer of 2002 through the fall of 2002. We had this incredible listening range from Cowles Mountain. Bill Zears would set in his SUV at the bottom of the mountain and wait for us to come down, then try to follow us home. One time this guy pops out of the bushes, and it's dark—8:00 in the winter—with a walking stick and headphones on. Here's this dude you can tell hasn't been out in the sunshine. Bill Zears again. I have to give him a little credit because—can you imagine approaching these strangers in the middle of the night like that? He doesn't have a gun or anything. Starts following us up the mountain, though we decide to just turn around and go to La Mesa or something—another hill. That was the last time we decided to go mobile.
So then we put it on a boat in San Diego Harbor. That was really good except for the fact that the corrosion does not really treat copper too well, especially where you have places where copper goes into aluminum. Connectors, anything like that—we had losses through the roof. Suddenly, we found a house in Golden Hill some friends were living in, and one day we were looking from the roof and were sitting up there and we notice that we can see all of South Bay and into east county. I said, 'If we put an antenna up here we could get all the way into Mexico if we had enough juice.' Then I ask the landlord, 'Would you mind if we put a radio station in here?' He was this old hippie guy. He was like, 'I don't care as long as I don't get screwed with.'
We rented a room. We've been doing that since April . I measured the SWR the other day and found out we were getting about one watt reflected. That makes me feel happy. We run about 30 watts and the antenna has about 4.3dB of gain, so so I'd say about the high 50s. Omnidirectional. It's a 5/8-wave ground plane with about 10% downward deflection. Suits the environment. That antenna is built to be located on a fairly high location. 10 percent is pretty steep, so it's not ideal. I deal with all of the RF equipment. I like knowing that we haven't had any complaints. I have two really high end pass filters—they attenuate at 88 and 108 MHz.
I've talked to John Buffalo over at [alternate channel 97.3MHz] KSON. He and I have very different opinions but he's actually a nice guy. He says from what he's heard we're a very small fly on a big ass. They have a tower that I think is just a mile away. At one time we were occupying bandwidth all the way up to 97.1, but that's too much for me and I turned it down. I just want to walk on the straight and narrow.
The biggest thing that the FCC claims—they claim a lot of things—is that if you let people without licenses on the air, then people who don't know their asses from a hole the ground are going to run Ramseys and all kinds of other crap.
Then you don't run a Ramsey?
No, no. 0h, no—I'm not nearly ghetto enough to touch one of those things. No, actually our equipment is Veronica out of the U.K. Pretty bulletproof stuff.
I stay in touch with the unlicensed transmitters in San Diego who take safety as a top priority. Whatever their format is, I have absolutely no interest in dealing with people who are going add fuel to the fire of the argument that unlicensed broadcasters are to going to make planes fall out of the sky. I don't want to help those people. I want them to get the hell out of Dodge.
One of the things I got out of talking to a lot of those people is that the FCC really screwed themselves over when they jerked around with the LPFM thing because they work really hard for that. We're like, 'We'll hang up our pirate spurs and go along with the new rules.' When they jerked this around it was basically the last straw. The cool thing is, if you had to pick an agency of the federal government to screw around with, it would be the FCC.
The thing that bothers me is that the FCC never was against second adjacent low-power FM stations. The coalition of NAB and NPR basically said, 'We'll smash second-adjacent.' The group MITRE had a study that was buried deep in some website that said what everyone already knew—that second-adjacent [FM broadcasting] isn't bad, and third-adjacent—you could use a lot more power than 100 watts. There were seven congressmen who basically got paid off by the NAB and NPR and they put on an omnibus bill in the year 2000. NPR said, 'We are your community station. You don't need any other community stations.' There's big money. Talk to anyone who is in an NPR station. Anyone who's not an idiot knows that second adjacent—providing you're not pumping out 100,000 watts—doesn't interfere with anything.
Stuff like that is what crystallizes a lot of the pirate broadcasters who have been on for more than eight years. People who say "This is bull----." There's always a catch. You got more money, you get whatever you want. I mean, right after that, they gave 96.9 to the Super Bowl [to use at their Qualcomm Stadium event in San Diego], to add insult to injury.
The thing with Bill Zears [of the local FCC office is that] when he comes around we have to treat him like an enemy combatant. I'm sure he's not really a bad guy. He's just doing his job. But we can't really talk to him. Our lawyers refer to this as the Neuremburg Defense which I guess is the classical concept that just because it's the rule doesn't necessarily mean that enforcing it is the right action.
Do you have any argument with the FCC's jurisdiction over local radio?
I'm more than understanding that I'm in the minority when it comes to sticking my finger up at the federal government. We're not causing any interference—we're really not. The only thing that upsets me about the FCC is that if they do come around and seize our equipment is that were not causing any problems. If we were causing problems I'd be the first person to shut us down in half a heartbeat. I run a bullwhip on those deejays and make sure that we don't f--- anything up. When you have a responsibility to the broadcasting community you don't f--- things up like that.
You were approached by the FCC in June [of 2003]. How was it that you're up now in September?
They say they have the ability. They really don't. We just got our response from Senator Dianne Feinstein. If, for example, you went over to the Turf Club there and set up a little Slim Jim omni antenna and a transmitter, sometime later there's probably going to be some geek call-up the FCC and say there's this guy over here with an illegal transmitter. They're going to come out and they're going to tell you, 'I'm here to inspect your equipment.' We knew that they can't just come in and inspect our equipment without a search warrant. If you get a license one of the things is that you give them the ability to inspect on demand. They can inspect without your consent, either by getting a license in which you give them consent to inspect, or if they come around you do say, 'Yes, you can come in and check my sh-- out.' That does not mean they have the right to search. That just means they have the right to ask. You're going to tell them, 'Hey, get the hell out.'
So anyway, they came around and said, 'We have the right to search your house without a search warrant,' and say we have the right not to answer any questions. They kept questioning us—not really big stuff. Anyway, we made audio CDs of that stuff and sent it to the oversight committee and all these different people. Senator Feinstein picked it up and she made a congressional inquiry on them. I doubt it really rattled their cage. We're really small potatoes, and I'm sure all they did was ignore it.
Then they're going to try to find out who you are, what your real name is. Then they're going to give you a Notice of Unlicensed Operation and then a Notice of Apparent Liability. It's like a $10,000 fine. They're going to try to give you a court injunction saying, no, you were never allowed to operate this stuff legally. So then they go after you by saying you violated a court order—that's the worst that can happen. And then they're going to try to get a court injunction on you to see if they can get you in court to enjoin you in court and say you were never allowed to operate legally. If you do, you're not violating an FCC rule, you're violating a court order, which is much worse. That's if they get your name. If they can't get your name, the next thing they're going to do is go for a search warrant. Basically, they're going to tell the judge, 'Hey there's this radio station going on. We don't know who the people are who are running it so we're going to get a search warrant and here's a list of equipment were going to seize.' Then they go in, maybe with some police guys to back them up, and they're just going to take all the equipment. We more less imagine that's what they're going to do with us—they're going to execute a search warrant.
They have to go to the U.S. District Attorney's office, and he has to be the one to go before a Federal judge and ask for that search warrant. Now you're looking at two different scenarios: how bad these guys want to prosecute it, and that's a variable—who knows? I don't know Bill Zears. I don't think he's going to tell me before lunchtime.
The next one is when they go before the U.S. District Attorney's office—John Ashcroft's cronies—and they have to decide, what's our caseload? We have this radio station that isn't causing any interference. Basically one of two things is going to happen: Either they're look at their stack of drug charges and say, 'You've gotta be kidding me,' and throw this thing back at the FCC, or say, 'Wow, this is kind of interesting, something other than running more drug cases.' So it's a matter of luck. A federal judge at that point would have to rubber-stamp them.
Our attorneys basically told us that as soon as the district attorney asked for it, he gives them a couple of pieces of paper, a dock warrant. It has to be done between 6 and 10:00 AM Monday through Friday.
You can only be so worried about that stuff for so long. Every afternoon we would just be incredibly happy that we succeeded for one more day. Now we look at it as just the cost of doing business. We have backups of equipment. We have backups of all our music. We have backups of computers. We have backups of everything. It's going to kind of suck when we take a hit and lose all our stuff. If they want to come back, they have to get another warrant. It gets ridiculous after a while. So we'll see how it pans out. That's our strategy.
We actually did a cost analysis. The last station that got bought was a Mexican station, and it sold for something like $14-million--they actually sold two of them at the same time. If you chop that cost in half, it was something like seven or $8-million. And that was really really low--the station nobody really cared about at the time. So if they raid us every six months for 2000 years, and we had to replace our equipment every time, it would be more economical than buying an FM station on the open market.
We have a lot of fund-raisers. We've raised over $6,000 with their fund-raisers. It's all gone into equipment, web streams, power bills, equipment, of course. It's kind of showing itself, and what I never believed would happen. It's all been very small donations. There's a bar in South Park, Sparky's, that donated sales of five kegs of beer. They had a pirate party for us. Another show on the UCSD campus benefited us, with all the bands playing for free. We got several hundred dollars from an event at Pokie's. A lot of people are pissed that their money may have to go toward replacing equipment that is confiscated.
Stuff's cheap. We have to go into this with the concept of buying stuff that is not too expensive.
Our volunteers actually pay $20 per month to be deejays. We have public meetings the last Wednesday of every month at the Golden Hill Rec Center. At our last meeting, we had 40 people show up, with the sound of basketball going on in the background. Very junior high. Very cute.
With rent, electricity, and so on, our expenses are about $400 per month. We figure about 20 people pay every month.
So you have a real community here.
When I first thought of this, I thought, 'I'm going to play what I want to hear.' Then I started to realize that if you have the privilege of being able to use broadcast, it's really irresponsible of you not to include the community. I'm not really a capitalist, and I have my own show, but we have this guy who's always speaking in defense of capitalism. On Sunday mornings we have gospel music. We have Mississippi blues and bluegrass, rock, hip-hop. We use the software OTS—it's an Australian product—to schedule our programming. We have two rules for the deejays. One is that you can't advertise—you can't use the airwaves to promote your own product. The other is you can't sound like crap--you have to be professional sounding on the air. The only rule I can think about is that we don't allow racist stuff. Otherwise we don't censor anyone.