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Not all pirates are bad

Montrose Radio's backers thought of themselves as champions of liberty, but the FCC called them pirates. They were both right.

Truth is, the pirates of the high seas have always gotten a bad rap. Though there were some bad apples among them, so were there among the kings of England, France and Spain, whose laws they defied. And think of the injustice of those laws. Hungry children hung for stealing a loaf of bread. Abused women transported to the ends of the earth for fighting back at their boorish husbands. Half-starved peasants strung up for poaching a quail from some fat duke's game-swarmed hunting grounds.

Little wonder that many young men (and some women) took to piracy. Most pirate crews were run along democratic lines, with captains elected based on merit rather than anointed by birth. Wherever the laws of royalty lapsed, in backwater islands like Madagascar and Hispaniola, the pirates established some of the modern age's first and purest democracies.

When Radio Montrose attempted something similar on 94.9 FM, a neglected Madagascar of a frequency, the FCC acted with all the subtlety of an enraged tyrant. The agency shut 'em down. Twice. This despite the fact that the FCC's mandate is to maximize public use of the airwaves, and that Radio Montrose allowed no obscenity, broadcast 24 hours a day per FCC requirements, and had much too weak a signal to interfere with any other stations on the dial (see "Silence on the Dial," by Shaila Dewan, May 13, 1999).

Some, including M. Martin, would say today's FCC is akin to an absolute monarchy, and he's tired of fighting. So he's given up. He's pulled down the Jolly Roger and gone privateer on the Internet.

"After we got the second cease-and-desist order, I just had to ask myself, 'Why are we doing this?' " Martin says. " 'Why are we beating ourselves up trying to bust into this heavily regulated medium where there's so many heavy hitters who've already decided that they won't let us in?' Whereas, on the other hand, we can go onto the Internet where the rules haven't really been set, where the major media players have not established that strong a presence yet. We can keep beating our heads against the FCC, or we can go ahead proactively into a network that was designed to survive World War III and that can't be controlled by the government unless they nationalize the phone lines, which you can't do in this country."

To that end, he has rented a clapboard two-story building at the corner of Waugh Drive and Fairview. From the outside, it just looks like a mechanic's garage with a couple of apartments on top. Every Sunday, Martin throws the place open for a jam session/poetry slam/barbecue/ underground salon called Dante's Spicy Sunday Jam, which is broadcast over his Web address at www.earthwire.net.

On this night, the music on stage features a hodgepodge of underground bands working out a few jams. As the spirit moves them, vocalists amble to the stage for stream-of-consciousness ramblings, only to amble off when their souls are unburdened. There are still plenty of kinks to be worked out, and the musicians all complain about the muddy sound in the crowded room.

Not that there aren't some magic moments. A large African-American man in a Fubu jersey, with his head shaved save for a Nike swoosh on either side of his skull, arrives and waits his turn at the mike. He doesn't appear to know anybody. When his turn comes, he runs through the usual hip-hop shtick ("Peace, H-Town," etc.) and launches into a rap that is mostly unintelligible, owing to the acoustics of the joint and the wails of Don Walsh's guitar. Nevertheless there is something exciting about this fusion of Montrose and the wards, as the punk and hip-hop worlds collide. Martin's stage is already providing a space for the necessary cross-pollination that could bring forth new hybrids of music from Houston to the world. Hell, over the Net at least, it already has.

Outside on the spacious back patio there's a salon of sorts. Near a table groaning under the weight of barbecued Jamaican jerk fajitas, potato salad, slaw and smoked kielbasa, Martin and cohort Malcolm McDonald are jokingly griping about the shenanigans of a man, who shall remain nameless save for Martin's description of him as "a cantankerous little wanker" who, while under the influence of God knows what, picked up an acoustic guitar and played, from memory, Jethro Tull's entire Thick as a Brick album, note for note. Unfortunately the improv concerto didn't make it onto the Net, but perhaps the next time the wanker is so moved, cyberspace will be in for a treat.

Unlike many of his former compatriots at Montrose Radio and its many guises, Martin has but one cause, he says, and that is liberty -- specifically freedom of speech. As Martin says, "I'm a Libertarian, not a progressive."

As such, he promises free rein to any and all who want airtime. "We can create this local presence that is somewhere to the left of KTRU, where anything goes, where people who know that there is something interesting on the Internet can go and find it," he says. Already the station is broadcasting blues, world beat, classic punk, poetry, news and underground in all its shades.

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