Silence on the Dial

Two weeks ago the FCC shut down Montrose Radio. Can the pirate station survive the bust? Can the pirate station survive itself?

On the afternoon of April 27, M. Martin climbed the stairs to a small office above the Texas Hemp Company to use the phone. There, he answered a call from someone down the street, name of John. The call was a heads-up -- the feds were lining up in front of John's apartment. It looked like some action was coming Martin's way.

There were no weapons or contraband to squirrel away. In fact, the criminal activity at 1533 Westheimer appeared quite innocent. Near a sign that said, "Keep All Drunks Away from Equipment," a tape of a radio show called "Glitter House," featuring imported space-age music and progressive rock, unspooled in a tape deck hooked up to a radio transmitter about the size of a pound cake, which was in turn hooked up to a modest antenna that beamed a not-so-covert signal across the local airwaves.

The very local airwaves. On a good day, the signal of Houston's only community access radio station, Montrose Radio, reached as far as the 610 Loop. The station had yet to live up to its potential as a neighborhood soapbox and information source, but with programmers and drum-and-bass crew Purrin Lion, at least people who craved nonmainstream radio fare had an alternative to KTRU. The station's operators had joined a national movement to reclaim the FM bandwidth for citizen use.

Thanks to the warning call, the station was deserted when three Houston police officers, three agents of the Federal Communications Commission and two federal marshals appeared. Martin and his radio buddies had been repairing the station's art car (black with microphone-and-crossbones logo). They were detained outside until the officers succeeded in determining that none of their captives was, in Martin's words, "either Kevin Jackson," the man whom the FCC agents believed owned and operated the station, "or a radio transmitter."

In the interim, according to Martin, one of the cops admitted to being a Montrose Radio listener.

While the radio folk played dumb, the officers kicked through the door to the upstairs office and carried out all of the broadcasting and sound equipment, stopping only to peel a "This Machine Kills Fascists" sticker off a CD player. Rather than argue with the hemp store's very pregnant proprietress, who resembles a healthy version of Althea in The People vs. Larry Flynt, the feds, who were armed with a seizure warrant, deigned to leave a sizable collection of records which, having come free from the discard pile at Half Price Books, were not the station's greatest asset.

Aside from the fact that Montrose Radio was technically illegal, it's difficult to imagine why the FCC would bother with the station at all, what with all the phone slamming and telemarketing cranks enforcement agents have to deal with these days. Compared to the 100,000-watt transmitters that most commercial stations use, the station's 35-watt output was puny. The station broadcast at a frequency, 94.9 FM, whose nearest neighbors on the dial are in Victoria and Beaumont, close enough so that no commercial station could be licensed to that frequency in Houston, but far enough away that tiny Montrose Radio couldn't possibly step on its signals. Montrose Radio DJs were instructed to comply with FCC obscenity regulations, and by broadcasting 24 hours a day the station met minimum operating requirements.

Indeed, Montrose Radio's participants would argue that they were helping the FCC fulfill its own mandate: to maximize the use of the publicly owned airwaves. The station is one of a growing number of microradio, or low-power, stations seeking legal status as alternatives to corporate-owned radio. Unlike National Public Radio (NPR), they emphasize local voices and niche programming. Isolated farmers, Haitian immigrants, cozy couples who decorate their Web sites with woodland flowers, Tampa motorbikers, homeless San Franciscans and blind cooks with tips on how to feel if your meat is done have all barebacked the airwaves. Since August the FCC has shut down more than 450 stations for operating without a license. Problem is, the FCC doesn't currently license stations that are under 100 watts. Although in January the commission announced that it would consider the possibility of creating a new licensing category, it's under heavy pressure from the powerful National Association of Broadcasters -- not to mention NPR -- not to do so.

For the hundred or so dues-paying members of Montrose Radio, pirating is an act of civil disobedience that has already begun to galvanize Houston's pinkos, Libertarians, free-speech advocates, anarchists, hippies, weird-music buffs and mixmasters. As activists across the country have discovered, microradio is a cause celebre imbued with the romance of defiance and the kick of potential power -- or, as they like to say, empowerment. Although compared to other forms of media radio seems a little low-tech, it's still a direct pipeline to the people. More importantly, the fight to legalize microradio is one of the few fights that, in today's political climate, progressives stand a chance of winning.

If, that is, they can get their act together. For a group of people who profess to share a common goal, Montrose Radio's staff has been plagued by vicious infighting of ludicrous proportions. While on the face of things Montrose Radio is struggling alongside other microradio organizations for the right to provide a community outlet, internally, the idea of community -- what it is, what it needs, who belongs to it and who gets to decide who belongs to it -- has been a rhetorical pawn in a power struggle whose participants take matters very, very seriously.

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