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?

In Montrose Radio, "community" can mean activists, or the folks who ride the bus, or everyone except corporations and mainstream Christians, or everyone except corporations but including mainstream Christians, or people who plunk down $20 to be members of the station. "Dictator" often refers to the person who claims to have the best interests of the community at heart.

In all of Kevin Jackson's years as a cog in the motor of Houston's underground scene, as sound man at the early punk club The Island and co-owner of Cabaret Voltaire, as organizer of the Art Guys' first sound performance, as bassist for Grinding Teeth, Happy Fingers Institute and, briefly, the Butthole Surfers, as a member of the original board of Commerce Street Artists Warehouse and a driving force behind Zocalo Theater, as the tech guy at presentations on progressive causes from the Sandinistas to Guatemala, as a mayoral stealth candidate with grand schemes for Houston, as a featured actor in the local feature-length movie Flush, and as the local King of Low-Tech, consulted on all manner of artistic production, no one has ever once, he points out at the end of an interview, interviewed him. Until Montrose Radio.

Not that he doesn't give a good interview. Tall and thin, with bulging eyeballs that somehow bring to mind two brains soaking in jars, Jackson has a worldview so intricate that he contradicts himself from one sentence to the next without seeming to notice, going rapidly from calm narration to jerking about like a decapitated chicken, neck veins bulging with urgency. Montrose Radio, to hear Jackson tell it, was stolen from him, torn from his grasp by a scheming, treacherous, money-hungry band of marauders he once called friends. "All these people who say they love me," Jackson says, "they were all out to get me."

There are many things for which Kevin Jackson is famed. Sanity is not among them. And in all fairness, the same could be said for many of the characters whose lives have intersected with Montrose Radio. Sanity, though, is not a prerequisite for action.

The initial idea for an alternative microstation wasn't Jackson's; it came from the cadre of activists who had coalesced around the embattled housing project Allen Parkway Village. A chapter, if an anarchist group can be said to have a chapter, of the San Francisco-based Food Not Bombs was squatting at the housing project. The group's main mission was taking unsold groceries and restaurant food and redistributing it to the hungry. So taking unused airwaves and redistributing them, so to speak, to those underserved by mainstream media was not much of a stretch.

Because Jackson had built a tiny transmitter so people could receive sound in their car radios at Zocalo Theater's Drive-In Movie nights, the activists approached him for technical help. The station was approved by the Allen Parkway Residents' Council, and the group cleaned out a storage room to use. But in June 1996, before the station could get up and running, the residents were evicted.

But the station, part of a full-blown microradio movement, lived on. It's impossible to know how many unlicensed stations are operating in the United States, but in the past few years two main factors have contributed to pirate proliferation and a subsequent FCC crackdown. One is frustration with the consolidation of radio station ownership since Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The other is Stephen Dunifer, who started Free Radio Berkeley in 1993 by trudging around in the hills with a transmitter in his backpack. Dunifer, spoiling for a fight with the FCC, also began selling low-power transmitter kits for around $1,000 a pop, in effect seeding the country with pirate stations.

Microradio was essentially outlawed in the late 1970s, when the FCC stopped licensing stations broadcasting at under 100 watts (a radius of about 3.5 miles) so as to bring order to the increasingly congested FM band. The effect was to drive up the cost of owning a radio station -- today $100,000 is considered an initial investment, making radio a forum available only to the rich. More powerful stations have to be placed further apart to avoid interference, thus rendering patches of FM real estate unusable by any but low-powered bandwidth squatters.

Dunifer argues that the FCC's refusal to license low-powered stations amounts to a prior restraint on freedom of speech. But the FCC has tried a variety of tactics, mostly in the form of seizures and injunctions, to shut down pirates without confronting the constitutional issue in court.

Last June a judge dismissed Dunifer's case for lack of standing because he had never applied for a license, despite the fact that there is no license category for low-powered FM. The court issued a permanent injunction forbidding the station to operate. In protest, Free Radio Berkeley became Tree Radio Berkeley, broadcasting for several days from 50 feet up in a redwood tree in a public park, out of reach of the FCC agents who paid it a visit.

With $700 of donated money, plus a few hundred of his own, Jackson bought a Free Radio Berkeley kit and put together the transmitter. According to Jackson, he spent a month tweaking the kit until it worked. According to Torry Mercer, one of the original bunch, Jackson promptly broke the transmitter, and the radio cadre spent six months waiting for him to fix it. Probably the truth is somewhere in between -- the FRB kit is known to be buggy, and Jackson admits it blew out several times -- but the discrepancy is typical of Montrose Radio. Nobody seems to agree who gets credit for what.

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