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?

The next step was to find a home for the station, preferably in Montrose. Putting the transmitter on someone else's property meant Jackson had to loosen his hold on it. To many Montrose Radio members, this was a good thing. But to Jackson, letting what he calls "factions" gain a foothold in the station spelled disaster, and the FCC seizure only proves he was right. "I knew it was going to happen.... Everybody thinks they're right, and everybody wants total control.... When a faction's involved, if you step back, they'll hang themselves," Jackson says. "Which in a way, they did."

On January 9, 1998, Montrose Radio's first broadcast -- or second, or third, depending on whom you ask -- emanated from Harry Skelter's toolshed. Skelter (his radio handle) will serve as president of Montrose Radio until he moves back to his native Britain this summer. But seated on the covered deck of his backyard, the 40-year-old doesn't quite fit the image of a law-defying pirate. His three-year-old daughter, the younger of two children, frolics naked in the small forest of trees while, in one of the yard's two rock ponds, a fountain sprays. Weathered English railway signs culled from Skelter's antique business dot the property. Only his decidedly British smirk and close-cropped post-Beatles hair hint at incipient lawlessness.

It was in late November 1997 that Skelter was drinking at his local pub, Rudyard's, and ran into Kevin Jackson, who told him he was looking for a home for a clandestine radio station. Although Skelter mused over the risks for two weeks, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would sign on. While many of those involved in Montrose Radio were interested in its potential as an activist organization -- some have even professed to have no interest in programming -- Skelter was inspired by one thing: operating a radio station.

After spending his early twenties in Houston working as a navigation consultant, Skelter was drawn back here by the city's ground-level media outlets in 1988. Jackson, in fact, had appeared in one of Skelter's early short films. Skelter wrote for Public News, volunteered at local Pacifica station KPFT, produced television programs for Access Houston and had won a National Endowment for the Arts grant for documentary film. But by the time Jackson approached him, those sorts of opportunities were disappearing. KPFT had eliminated many of its local niche shows; Public News was faltering; NEA grants to individual artists were a thing of the past.

"Of course, to do such an idiotic thing, you have to find a way to make it make sense to some corner of you," Skelter says. "In my own circumstances I had been so grateful for the access of the media.... I thought, well, if nothing else it'd be nice to do something big. If I can help provide that access to the next guy like me who's looking for something to do, who's looking to get out of a corporate life and into the arts.... That's what got me in there, was access to the media. That's what got my head working that way.

"I thought about it, and I -- yeah, hmnh, oh, dear, okay -- I've got a perfect spot for it. It was the only thing to do. It was a rush of blood to the head, of course, but it was the right thing to do."

It wasn't long before Skelter discovered exactly what he was in for. Two weeks after the station began broadcasting, his wife called to tell him that a couple of men who looked like the Blues Brothers without the hats were at the back gate. They had been notified about the station, according to court records, by amateur radio operators and had located the transmitter using a mobile detector. At the time, the FCC and law enforcement agents had been conducting some hard-core raids of pirate stations in other states, stripping houses of all electronic equipment and reportedly pointing guns at family pets, so Skelter was understandably rattled. But his wife was able to deter the agents. Through a hole in the fence, she explained that she and her husband leased the toolshed to someone else (technically true), and they didn't have a key. The agents went away.

At the time, Montrose Radio was limited to a core group of seven or eight members, partly because Skelter was very cautious about who he'd let on the property, which rankled some of the others involved. "He had a high scare factor," says Mercer. Although there was no shortage of willing music DJs, the group soon found that generating the public affairs shows they'd hoped for was difficult, particularly because the station had yet to win enough listeners to make such labor-intensive programming seem worthwhile. Skelter's solution to the programming problem was less than ideal: People could send in tapes to be played on the air.

Instead of trying to guess what kind of programming the community wanted, Skelter came up with an open-door policy modeled after cable access. He went to clubs like the Oven and the Waxx Museum to recruit drum-and-bass DJs and called on old friends like Houston scenester Kathy Kowgirl, who played her eclectic all-vinyl collection. Taped contributions from people who had heard about the station started to trickle in. "We had to ask ourselves, are we reaching more than just a bunch of white left-wing hippies?" Skelter says. "And yes, I think we were at that time."

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