Silence on the Dial
On the afternoon of April 27, M. Martin climbed the stairs to a small office above the Texas Hemp Company to use the phone. There, he answered a call from someone down the street, name of John. The call was a heads-up -- the feds were lining up in front of John's apartment. It looked like some action was coming Martin's way.
There were no weapons or contraband to squirrel away. In fact, the criminal activity at 1533 Westheimer appeared quite innocent. Near a sign that said, "Keep All Drunks Away from Equipment," a tape of a radio show called "Glitter House," featuring imported space-age music and progressive rock, unspooled in a tape deck hooked up to a radio transmitter about the size of a pound cake, which was in turn hooked up to a modest antenna that beamed a not-so-covert signal across the local airwaves.
The very local airwaves. On a good day, the signal of Houston's only community access radio station, Montrose Radio, reached as far as the 610 Loop. The station had yet to live up to its potential as a neighborhood soapbox and information source, but with programmers and drum-and-bass crew Purrin Lion, at least people who craved nonmainstream radio fare had an alternative to KTRU. The station's operators had joined a national movement to reclaim the FM bandwidth for citizen use.
Thanks to the warning call, the station was deserted when three Houston police officers, three agents of the Federal Communications Commission and two federal marshals appeared. Martin and his radio buddies had been repairing the station's art car (black with microphone-and-crossbones logo). They were detained outside until the officers succeeded in determining that none of their captives was, in Martin's words, "either Kevin Jackson," the man whom the FCC agents believed owned and operated the station, "or a radio transmitter."
In the interim, according to Martin, one of the cops admitted to being a Montrose Radio listener.
While the radio folk played dumb, the officers kicked through the door to the upstairs office and carried out all of the broadcasting and sound equipment, stopping only to peel a "This Machine Kills Fascists" sticker off a CD player. Rather than argue with the hemp store's very pregnant proprietress, who resembles a healthy version of Althea in The People vs. Larry Flynt, the feds, who were armed with a seizure warrant, deigned to leave a sizable collection of records which, having come free from the discard pile at Half Price Books, were not the station's greatest asset.
Aside from the fact that Montrose Radio was technically illegal, it's difficult to imagine why the FCC would bother with the station at all, what with all the phone slamming and telemarketing cranks enforcement agents have to deal with these days. Compared to the 100,000-watt transmitters that most commercial stations use, the station's 35-watt output was puny. The station broadcast at a frequency, 94.9 FM, whose nearest neighbors on the dial are in Victoria and Beaumont, close enough so that no commercial station could be licensed to that frequency in Houston, but far enough away that tiny Montrose Radio couldn't possibly step on its signals. Montrose Radio DJs were instructed to comply with FCC obscenity regulations, and by broadcasting 24 hours a day the station met minimum operating requirements.
Indeed, Montrose Radio's participants would argue that they were helping the FCC fulfill its own mandate: to maximize the use of the publicly owned airwaves. The station is one of a growing number of microradio, or low-power, stations seeking legal status as alternatives to corporate-owned radio. Unlike National Public Radio (NPR), they emphasize local voices and niche programming. Isolated farmers, Haitian immigrants, cozy couples who decorate their Web sites with woodland flowers, Tampa motorbikers, homeless San Franciscans and blind cooks with tips on how to feel if your meat is done have all barebacked the airwaves. Since August the FCC has shut down more than 450 stations for operating without a license. Problem is, the FCC doesn't currently license stations that are under 100 watts. Although in January the commission announced that it would consider the possibility of creating a new licensing category, it's under heavy pressure from the powerful National Association of Broadcasters -- not to mention NPR -- not to do so.
For the hundred or so dues-paying members of Montrose Radio, pirating is an act of civil disobedience that has already begun to galvanize Houston's pinkos, Libertarians, free-speech advocates, anarchists, hippies, weird-music buffs and mixmasters. As activists across the country have discovered, microradio is a cause celebre imbued with the romance of defiance and the kick of potential power -- or, as they like to say, empowerment. Although compared to other forms of media radio seems a little low-tech, it's still a direct pipeline to the people. More importantly, the fight to legalize microradio is one of the few fights that, in today's political climate, progressives stand a chance of winning.
If, that is, they can get their act together. For a group of people who profess to share a common goal, Montrose Radio's staff has been plagued by vicious infighting of ludicrous proportions. While on the face of things Montrose Radio is struggling alongside other microradio organizations for the right to provide a community outlet, internally, the idea of community -- what it is, what it needs, who belongs to it and who gets to decide who belongs to it -- has been a rhetorical pawn in a power struggle whose participants take matters very, very seriously.
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.
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."
But in March 1998 another visit by the FCC put a stop to the fun. Skelter, who was in the shed broadcasting a Buddhist psychology tape, slipped out the back gate, but the agent trailed him around the neighborhood in a Chevy Caprice. "Every time I was like, okay, it's safe to go home now, there he would be parked in front of the house again. Finally, 20, 25 minutes later, it was like, thank God, he's gone. And he pulls up right in front of me. And he gets out of his car and he says, 'Mr. [Skelter's real name], I presume?' "
Skelter and the agent had a friendly chat, during which Skelter discovered that his house had been under surveillance. The agent left after requesting that Skelter turn off the transmitter. "We were never threatened by these people," Skelter says. "Of course, the situation was threatening. But I never felt threatened by them.... They're just doing their job." When Jackson, who had the station's phone bill and post office box in his own name, found out about the visit, he told Skelter to turn the station off.
The loss of momentum was more than Skelter could take. After two weeks of dead air, he turned the transmitter back on, hoping to protect Jackson by keeping him in the dark. When Jackson found out, he came back on board and even devised a mobile unit for the transmitter. Montrose Radio jubilantly broadcast from local clubs, the Westheimer Art Festival and the Art Car Ball.
At the time, Montrose Radio could be described as an "organization" only in the loosest sense of the term. As is often the case with such entities, power falls to those who do the most work, which in this case were Skelter and Jackson, whose radio handle was 00Jones (pronounced Double-Oh Jones, or Double-Oh for short). While Skelter took care of workaday details such as tracking the station's finances and picking up the mail so taped shows could be broadcast on schedule, Jackson kept the equipment working.
The group began holding regular meetings, where Jackson presided, in the words of one participant, like "a benevolent dictator." Jackson tried to set up a nonprofit organization for the station and put together a slate of officers that included himself as president, but he avoided letting the matter come to a vote. "He was the natural leader of the organization," says Mercer, who advocated democracy. "But he was afraid that people wouldn't elect him president."
When Skelter tried to bring in a former radio engineer who had offered to help relieve the tremendous workload of running the station, Jackson -- who, friends say, is of the rubber-band and chewing-gum school of engineering -- not only balked, he interpreted the suggestion as a threat to his sovereignty. He appeared at the station with a group of supporters, intending to yank the transmitter from Skelter's meddling hands.
After an aggressive interrogation, during which Skelter told the group that his "loyalty," if he had any, was to the programmers, Skelter says he was told he had "passed the test." The transmitter stayed. But the incident was near to the last straw. Two weeks later, Skelter decided the station had to go. "It was like being in a tree house with a sign," he says. "No Grown-ups Allowed."
Fuck Brassieres. Fuck Inflation. Fuck Girl Scout Cookies. Fuck Money. chickpea's faded T-shirt is an artifact of the 1970s, but she and her housemate Siouxsie Kreemcheese, both in their early twenties, are Montrose Radio's hope for the future. As secretary at radio meetings where Robert's Rules of Order carry about as much import as a beer coaster -- actually, less -- chickpea takes wry, cool-headed minutes wherein sections have titles such as "Did someone say bylaws?" and Maxxam is referred to as the "local evil multinational." Siouxsie, for her part, is largely responsible for organizing the station's popular Velvet Underground and David Bowie tribute concerts to raise money. At their bungalow, the decor includes a placard for the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World. Vegan cookies are proffered, and a bright blue kitten -- harmless vegetable dye, Siouxsie points out without prompting -- skitters across the floor.
Siouxsie was at the station, broadcasting the local-music show sponsored by Rudyard's, when FCC agents paid their third visit on August 20, 1998. By this time, Montrose Radio had found its new home above the Texas Hemp Company. The lead singer of local band Spunk was headed down the stairs, wearing a big plastic penis over his leather pants, when the agents showed up. Skelter, who by that time had rejoined the station, politely let them in and left to call Jackson. When Jackson arrived, he told the agents he was the owner and operator of the station and agreed to disconnect the transmitter. The last thing Siouxsie saw when she split the scene was Jackson standing on the landing, cradling the transmitter "like a dead child."
Skelter was having a beer at Rudyard's when Jackson walked in and plunked the transmitter down on the bar. "Well, that's it," Jackson said. "I guess from now on it's Zen Radio."
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.
At the next meeting, the Old Shepherd was duly elected, but the struggle with Jackson was not yet over. He demanded $35 an hour for future engineering services and $500 apiece for Montrose Radio's registered business names (they'd cost him $11). What's more, he was still balking at handing over the transmitter.
"At one point," the Old Shepherd recalls, "he held up the keys to the station and said, 'Who's man enough to take these keys away?' And somebody walked up and just took 'em." Finally, Jackson asked everyone to sign a document stating that Montrose Radio agreed to be the responsible owner/operator of the station. Within a week the station was back on the air.
Jackson maintains that the coup was the result of a systematic attempt to discredit him, not a last-ditch attempt to get back on the air. He even says -- although many dispute this -- that he agreed to go back on the air before the explosion at Rudyard's.
Although he won't explain exactly how a community radio station that several people have poured hundreds of dollars into could be a profitable endeavor, Jackson maintains that the "piranhas" were motivated by financial gain. He whips out a $10 bill and points ominously to the motto "In God We Trust."
"There were continuous conversations about the evil god," he says, adding that if people had "let me alone and let me do my stuff," everyone would have benefited. "How do you think I knew the community wanted a radio station?" he asks. "Because I listen to the community.
"They felt they could steal anything they wanted from me. They felt they could steal my transmitter. It's my transmitter," he says, then abruptly shifts direction. "I wanted the community to take it from me. They had to take it from me because it was the community's. In a way, it was the fulfillment of my own making. In a way, I'm glad it happened.... Getting the community to do something is a tough job. When you're the Lone Ranger, you've got to fight your own battles."
There's more than one Lone Ranger at Montrose Radio. When the station was first being planned, Edwin Johnston was booking the punk rock concerts at the Allen Parkway Village Community Center. APV leader Lenwood Johnson recommended him to serve as the liaison between the radio station and the Residents' Council, which was campaigning to save the public-housing project. Johnston, a peace activist and cable-access producer, was an active participant in the station and even made a video documenting the station's first broadcast from Skelter's shed. He also arranged for the station to lease the office above the Texas Hemp Company.
"Me and Kevin [Jackson] had done most of the work," he says. "Me and him were the hardest workers there."
After the "coup," for which Johnston was not present, he was nominated for the interim board and lost to Martin, and his subsequent offer to "facilitate" meetings was rejected in favor of a rotating chair. Nevertheless, he attempted to attend the board's first meeting at Brasil, a cafe on Westheimer. When Martin saw him there, Johnston says, Martin threatened to hit him but refrained when he noticed people watching. Martin denies this. Martin and the Old Shepherd claim Johnston tried to disrupt the meeting; the Old Shepherd says Johnston came up to him and said, "You're dead."
When Johnston left Brasil, Martin says, he was in such a state that Martin called the Texas Hemp Company, where whoever was there agreed not to let Johnston enter the station. Five minutes later, Johnston did show up at the Texas Hemp Company, even though he wasn't scheduled to do a program. The refusal to let him in added fuel to his later contention that he had been unfairly and unilaterally banned.
The next day Lenwood Johnson, who hadn't attended a Montrose Radio meeting since the station was based at Allen Parkway Village, sent members an e-mail claiming that Jackson had been "forced" from the organization and calling for the immediate resignation of the board. He also wrote that the board's rejection of "Edwin's mandate" to serve as facilitator for the group was an "obvious symptom of the antidemocratic nature of the coup plotters and their cynical leadership style."
In response, Skelter released some of his e-mail exchanges with Johnston, which showed that Johnston had lent his support to the proposal to go back on the air with or without Jackson. Johnston now refers to Skelter's release of private e-mails as "blackmail."
That's only one of many accusations that Johnston has made. In e-mails sent all over Houston, and to a national microradio listserve monitored by the FCC, Johnston called Montrose Radio "fascist, totalitarian and Hitlerian." In what is presumably not typical pacifist fashion, he urged Montrose Radio members to "Destroy Harry!" Most recently, in letters published in Houston Peace News and Urban Beat, Johnston accused "the coup-plotters" of conducting a "COINTELPRO-like black campaign of intimidation" and heralded "the death of Montrose Radio."
"Eddie," chickpea explains, "is, like, really a purist."
After Johnston's e-mail campaign had begun, Skelter walked into Rudyard's one day to find flyers with Montrose Radio's logo transformed into a swastika, and "Storm Trooper Radio" underneath. Unamused, he cornered Johnston, who had been distributing the flyers, and confronted him. Johnston and his friend Bryan Kilburn say Skelter shoved Johnston, which Skelter denies. At any rate, accusations of "assault and battery" and "intimidation of witnesses" soon followed, as did repeated written demands to the membership to address the violence perpetrated by Skelter "and his minions." Johnston, who is not a dues-paying member of Montrose Radio, refuses to attend meetings unless his physical safety is somehow guaranteed.
Johnston maintains that Skelter is a "con man" who somehow duped the membership into voting for his handpicked board. And while Johnston thinks of himself as "a true community leader," he says Martin, a computer programmer, and Skelter, an antique dealer, "aren't really members of any sort of community." Then he backpedals, saying, "They don't represent community organizing."
In his many letters, Johnston has not hesitated to name the real names of people involved with Montrose Radio. His taunts have angered many members, so much so that his accusations are becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. When Martin caught sight of him at the Montrose Radio/Houston Other stage Martin had rented at the Westheimer Art Festival two weeks ago, Martin told Johnston to leave immediately. Johnston refused, and Martin ejected him into the street. Afterward Martin admitted to having acted like "a macho asshole."
The most interesting thing about Johnston's one-man campaign against Montrose Radio is that even his accusations of censorship have virtually nothing to do with what the station broadcasts. When asked, Johnston was unable to point out anyone who had been denied access to the airwaves -- Johnston himself was not a regular programmer. The best he could come up with was a DJ whose show was given to someone else -- after she didn't show up twice in a row.
Edwin Johnston and the FCC notwithstanding, Montrose Radio is not yet dead.
At the first meeting after the bust, it took all of two seconds for everyone to agree to go ahead with a Dylan and Dead tribute concert scheduled for this Sunday afternoon at the Last Concert Cafe. It took a hell of a lot longer to decide whether to let Winston, a nonlocal evil tobacco company, pay for the ads. Over the protests of the nonpurists, who thought the rest of the members should "grow up," political correctness won out. No Winston.
After that, the decisions got harder. Should the station try to retrieve its equipment? Should they buy a new transmitter? Should they (chickpea's suggestion, of course) stage a protest? A letter-writing campaign? Appeal to politicians such as Sheila Jackson Lee, who've expressed support of microradio? Set up an Internet broadcast? And then, a more pressing worry: Who will take over this summer after Skelter's gone?
One reason to go on the Internet is that the FCC may rule as early as this summer on a proposal to begin licensing low-power FM -- the commission received 13,000 inquiries about it in the last year alone. Until then, pirate radio operators who hope to go legitimate are in a bind. On the one hand, they're gaining experience and stability, proving that microradio can work. On the other hand, if they're busted before licensing happens, they might not be granted any amnesty under the new rules. Anyone fingered by the FCC, as Kevin Jackson has been, could be forbidden to get a license.
Also, there are still major questions about what the FCC will do. The commissioners might license commercial as well as noncommercial microstations. They haven't figured out how to decide who gets a license -- a university or church with deep pockets could outbid an organization like Montrose Radio in a straight auction.
It's not at all certain that the FCC will approve low-powered transmitters. Although FCC Chairman William Kennard has defended the proposal, the National Association of Broadcasters, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, has been whining about signal interference and legitimizing scofflaws. NAB insists that "radio program diversity has never been greater" and that low-power stations are no more economically viable for small rural markets than commercial stations, an argument that seems clearly flawed. Joining forces with the big guys, NPR has protested the crowding of the FM bandwidth and argued that "it is neither self-evident nor established" that low-power FM will result in a "diversity of media voices."
Questions about Montrose Radio's future bring, once again, the issue of community to the fore. Although a few of Montrose Radio's members and critics have always been more interested in the organization's politics than its transmitter, the transmitter is the only thing, really, that joins the organization to the community. Without it, the idea that Montrose Radio can do more than beam another music option to its listeners remains just that: an idea. Before the community at large will rally around the potential of micropower, Montrose Radio has to.
And for all his gentle tyranny and nutty rhetoric, that's one idea that Kevin Jackson understands. The "community" may have plundered his transmitter, but at least part of him is glad they cared enough to fight him for it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.