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?

It was a terrible time to go down. The station had been going strong, and M. Martin had published a program guide that featured an interview with Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker. "The whole momentum of everything was dying," chickpea says. "The Velvet Underground [tribute] show had exposed a huge number of people to a radio station that wasn't on the air." But Jackson, who had received a written warning from the FCC after its visit, wanted to stay off the air until the organization became an official nonprofit.

While the station was off the air, Jackson and Siouxsie traveled to Washington, D.C., for a microradio conference, sharing a van with the leaders of one of the country's flagship low-power stations, microKIND Radio in San Marcos.

MicroKIND is the sort of station Montrose Radio wants to be. KIND went on the air with an aggressive strategy for handling the FCC. The station's founding trio had already won a U.S. Supreme Court battle for the right to distribute its alternative newspaper on campus at Southwest Texas State University. The trio's first move with KIND was to send the FCC a folksy letter as to how the people of San Marcos had no local radio station, and no one there was rich enough to get a license: "If you got a real big problem with what we are doing then you better contact our lawyer ... otherwise we are including a check for all your trouble in the amount of twenty-five dollars." So far, the strategy of bombarding the agency with paperwork has paid off. While an FCC cease-and-desist order languishes on appeal, the station operates with impunity.

Since its launch in March 1997, microKIND has provided the only extensive coverage of local elections and even, according to co-founder Zeal Stefanoff, helped the mayor, an underdog in a runoff election, win. The mayor wrote a letter to the FCC in which he defended the importance of microradio -- just as city councils from Boston to Santa Cruz to several towns in Michigan have done. MicroKIND shows such as "Know Your Rights" and "Touch My Weasel! Touch It! Touch It!" along with coverage of floods and local traffic reports, have made the station a community mainstay -- one woman even called in to remind her husband, who was on his way to the store, to pick up tampons. According to Stefanoff, the station has stopped crime in the 'hood it's broadcast from, because of both a 24-hour presence and the fact that local gangs, who now have their own shows, compete on the air rather than on the street.

Like Montrose Radio, the station offers airtime to all comers. The oldest programmer is a Vietnam vet, and the youngest, Stefanoff's eight-year-old daughter, has discussed the merits of homeschooling versus public school on "The Barbie Girl Show." The station's Tejano oldies hour has been copied by a commercial station in San Antonio, Stefanoff says, and KIND DJs playing the latest evolution of hip-hop, called mix, have gone on the national club circuit. "All these formatted stations don't know where to experiment, where to find the heartbeat of America," Stefanoff says. "If we didn't exist, then you don't get that. You never find the heartbeat."

Attending the D.C. conference psyched up Siouxsie and Jackson. The event culminated in a feisty protest past the FCC building and on to the National Association of Broadcasters, where the pirates hoisted the Jolly Roger on the flagpole. The whole affair was, of course, broadcast illegally on a low-power transmitter. Jackson, who had conducted a technical seminar at the conference, was interviewed by NPR.

But by the time Jackson returned home, virtually everyone in Montrose Radio was chafing to go back on the air. They were in no mood to hear that their leader, who refused to broadcast at home, had been the one daring enough to carry the protest transmitter in his backpack while he marched on the FCC. Jackson had a mutiny on his hands.

While Jackson was at the national conference, the Montrose Radio membership found its voice. "Before that," chickpea explains, "you would go to a Montrose Radio meeting, and it was like the Double-Oh show.... [In Jackson's absence] people realized that hey, we can have all these great ideas and input."

By the time Jackson got to the meeting at Rudyard's, the membership had formulated an ultimatum: go on the air, or give up the transmitter. What's more, they were drunk and ornery. The ensuing confrontation, led off by a litany of complaints from Skelter, sent 00Jones into what Skelter describes as a "meltdown of Wicked Witch proportions."

"It was like a coup," chickpea says. "Everybody approached it the wrong way. We should have respected all the effort he put into it."

After the meeting, Skelter cast about for someone who could serve as a neutral president of an interim board that would be elected to set up bylaws. With Jackson's approval, he hit upon the Old Shepherd, a former KPFT programmer, whose "purged" show had resurfaced on Montrose Radio and who could lend a bit of much-needed respectability to the organization.

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