Legalize it... It's hard to imagine a more lethal recipe for anarchy than mixing advocacy of an illicit substance with the support for an illicit radio station. But that's precisely the blend that resulted when the Montrose Radio Collective (94.9 FM) recently moved its pirate operations to the Texas Hemp Company. Add a willingness to promote the alliance, and you're really making a statement -- and inviting trouble.
"It's not the most conservative approach I could have taken," says Richard Tomcala, the outspoken proprietor of Texas Hemp Company. "I'm certain that they would like to find some sort of illegal activity going on here."
But then, trouble has only rarely kept its distance from Tomcala, the founder of both the cannabis-friendly retail outlet and a similar magazine (Hemp). His antiestablishment leanings may help explain his generous (some might say, ill-advised) offer to sublet a portion of his Westheimer business space to the MRC's O.O. Jones and Ronnie Gaitz. Most recently, the freeform 94.9 FM had been broadcasting from a location somewhere in the Heights, which made it next to impossible to pick up the tiny 75-watt frequency in its namesake neighborhood. The MRC was originally established in Montrose in January, but was forced to retreat north a few months later.
"The person that they were renting the [first] space from decided he didn't want to have a pirate radio station in his tool shed anymore," says M. Martin, Tomcala's sometime business partner.
Martin and his MRC associates have all been active in Houston's subversive underbelly over the years. The original man behind Public News, Tomcala also had an indispensable role in bringing cutting-edge talent to the Island nightclub, the pulsating center of the early-'80s punk scene in Houston. To varying extents, Martin and Jones were also witness to the seminal goings-on at the Island. In addition, Jones and Gaitz ran another long-defunct club called Cabaret Voltaire, where Martin was a booking agent.
"Basically, [the MRC] is a bunch of old-school punk rockers that have been hanging around Houston for the last 20 years," says Martin, who's also associate publisher of Hemp.
Adds Tomcala, "The MRC certainly [involves] some of the more dominant players in that earlier scene. The issue of free thinking and independent, non-dangerous activity has been a motif amongst us all."
It seemed inevitable that the four of them would hook up for some reason, and Tomcala can't think of a better one than the battle for First Amendment rights on the airwaves. "I'm willing to risk federal intervention into my business," he says. "The bottom line is, I'm 40 now -- my life is effectively half over. I just want to be able to think that I didn't just take up space. If they put me in jail, so be it. We are guaranteed the freedom of expression, and to express means that someone has to be able to hear. Given those basic rights, it's the moral high ground."
As with most pirate frequencies, on 94.9, anything goes. The nastiest hard-core punk and experimental noise, improvisational jazz, comedy skits and varying degrees of political activism are not only condoned but encouraged -- as is, of course, rampant localism. "Last weekend, for example, we played two hours of a very obscure Godley & Creme album," Martin says. "It's pretty much up to anybody who wants to come down, throw down [his or her] $20 membership fee to join the collective and make a good case [for] something interesting to put on the air."
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At press time, the station could only be heard on weekends, but its staff is striving to expand hours into the workweek as well. But resources -- both financial and human -- are slim, which is why the MRC is staging a series of benefit shows at area clubs to raise money and awareness. The next performance is Sunday at Rudz!, and features Free Radicals, Feared Alien Voodoo and Rusted Shut. For anyone interested in getting his or her hands dirty, the collective also meets Tuesday evenings at Texas Hemp Company.
"They're not out there to make a million bucks; they're not out there trying to rob ASCAP or BMI of their dues," says Tomcala of the MRC. "They just want to be heard."
And frankly, given the lamentable state of radio in this town, I can't think of a better time to stick it to the Federal Communications Commission -- even if it's only a pin prick.
Have a comment, tip, compliment or beef? E-mail Hobart Rowland at hobart_rowland@ houstonpress.com.