Saturday, March 1, 2014

IT ALL SOUNDS THE SAME TO ME : Rebel Radio Memoirs

This is no intent to speak for the Rebel Radio pirate crew but my own recollection and participation. I didn’t start Rebel Radio.  I just showed up there in about 1996 and rode the airwaves until the end. 

Do you remember lying in bed 
With your covers pulled up over your head? 
Radio playin' so no one can see 
We need change, we need it fast 
Before rock's just part of the past 
'Cause lately it all sounds the same to me  

 --- The Ramones Rock and Roll Radio   1980

Episode 1   

Transmission Received *

UV Transmission *CD title  (1998)

It’s pretty sad when the high point of your life is when the new weekly paper comes out.  

I was 38 and single after ten years of raising a couple of step-kids and spending the rest of my time farming and landscaping. I’d mostly given up on rock and roll since age 19 but after two decades as a mellow organic hippie, it was time for a change. That change came in the form of “alternative rock” radio.  

I’d been tuning in with my 11 and 14 year old kids the year before. It was all new to me and exciting as hell. Yeah, it was so new I recall thinking that the Cranberries’ Zombie was grunge. What the fuck did I know. The last records I bought years ago were during the death throes of the Grateful Dead.

It took a year or so but I finally began to filter through the horrid and deplorable Alanis Morisette, Sponge and Soundgarden to discover the punk and indie roots of alt.rock : the Dolls, Stooges, Minutemen, Husker Du – man! I’d missed out on all that stuff. Truth to tell, I would’ve hated it even if I’d heard it the first time around but still…

I was  voracious now and didn’t want to miss a thing. In fact, it was a fight over me attending a Cibo Matto/Babe the Blue Ox show at
the Launchpad that led to my newly-single status. Sounds dumb but it was worth it. I was inspired out of my skull and music was exciting in a way I’d forgotten for first time since I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was five, the Rolling Stones a year later or  Paul Revere & the Raiders on Where the Action Is and Hullaballoo.  After being obsessed with seeds and farming for fifteen years, I  was nuts over loud obnoxious music. I was hungry and haunted Albuquerque shops like Mind Over Matter (the best store on the planet) and Drop Out Records, I pored over the Weekly Alibi in search of shows to scope out, spent all my extra cash on piles of used CDs and checked every phone pole in the student ghetto for show fliers to steal and hang on my walls. One that said  Rebel Radio Tuesdays 6PM to 1AM caught my eye, especially since their contact was Drop Out, a funky little garage/punk rock shop near the college. Not an FM pirate but a go-between, the guy at the counter told me Rebel Radio was an illegal station but cool as shit and worth listening to. 

When I tuned in and heard them spinning everything from anarcho-punks Crass to 1950s acoustic blues as well as reporting on enviro-social justice issues like anti-logging demonstrations in the San Luis Valley or the corporate interests behind Wild Oats Market, I was hooked. Coincidentally, there was an anonymous interview in the UNM Daily Lobo with a few radio pirates during the very same week I found out one of my organic gardening buddies was among them. That was good news since now I didn’t have to actually be cool or anything to check it out but had my Letters of Introduction, so to speak.

Its kinda hazy now but through my friend, the Fun Guy, I think I checked out a broadcast or two and met Pirate Willie, Racer X and Sunshine (hey! I’d met her before too!). Still being a longhair and social moron, I didn’t really get involved but brought a crappy record or two that somebody kindly played on-air. Too, being about 15 years older than everyone else, I was a little intimidated. Well, ok, a lot intimidated.

A couple weeks later, I was tuned in at home when the deejay apologized for not having a good selection of music since hardly anyone had shown up to the broadcast that week. I knew what he meant. In order for the station to function, people had to show up. See, the “studio” consisted of the transmitter, antenna, tapedeck and CD player transported (as likely by bicycle as not) to a willing volunteer’s house, an early effort to hide from the authorities by changing locales but also as a way to involve the community. And when people came, they brought their music. The light finally went off in my hippie-addled brain: all I had to do to be involved was to get involved!

I called the Fun Guy to check where the broadcast was this week. Filling a bag with records and discs, I just about ran the few blocks --the locale was almost always in the UNM Student Ghetto. The latest in a long line of studio turntables had died that week (the consequence of hauling sensitive sound reproduction equipment strapped to a mountain bike) so my records were useless but the beat-to-hell CD player was still working.  Starved that evening for something good to play, Racer X (the deejay on duty) took one look at my pile, said “Cool!”, slammed in an MC5 disc and pushed play. He even let me pick and announce my music. 

Fuck yeah! I felt like I had arrived home. I done good. After that, I didn’t miss attending a weekly  broadcast until The Bust…

Episode 2   

I Got To Find Me a Home

I'll bring you music, refueling
Everything you want
Everything you need babe
Just to have me a home
Right now
In your heart

-- Soloman Burke Home In Your Heart  (1963)

Rebel Radio was always looking for a host broadcast house and there were just two requirements: that you were willing to have all kinds of miscreants and weirdos show up at your place and that there was a  tree tall enough from which to hang the antenna. Legalities of unlicensed FM radio rarely came up if at all. Once weekly, a weak FM signal, tens of listeners: who gave a shit? We felt safe. 

Watching Pirate Willie climb was always a thing of beauty. He'd scamper into the branches contrary to Sir Isaac Newton himself, shinny up branchless trees for fifty feet, hang upside down on limbs too big to climb around. 
Once up, he'd drop rope to us below. We'd tie on the antenna and haul it up, a modified j-pole copper tube, made of parts available at any hardware store. An occasional pirate flag was hoisted but this was soon nixed in favor of discretion. Not nearly enough discretion as it turned out but that's a later story.

As long as the antenna hung free and was above physical obstruction, it was good to go. A cable ran from the antenna to the transmitter that was powered either from a deep-marine battery or, later, an ac/dc adapter. A clip-on plastic Walgreens desk fan cooled the transmitter; it could max and tweak out from too much heat. From there, a limiter / compressor kept the output sound from going into the red. Or I should say, too much into the red. Most of the pirate crew liked loud obnoxious punkass music so a little red was always good.

A beat-to-shit mixing board --that was at one time used to master recordings by Word Salad -- was fed with an even more beat-to-shit phonograph, squeaky battered tape deck and wimpy CD player. One or two or three microphones added to the cacophony. Rebel Radio, on the air!   

The basic rule  of thumb was If you can hear it on commercial radio, don't play it here.The only time we ever allowed full-on commercial music was when Sunshine brought her tiny teeny-bop daughter plus her friend who wanted nothing so much as to DJ new Spice Girls songs. There was a little grumbling from the stick-up-the-ass members of the crew but come on! How much more punk does it get than contributing to the delinquency of a minor? On a federal offense no less! 

One night, some inhabitants of The Tower hosted a broadcast. It's the taller of many of the  buildings down on First or Second Street, one of those places that has an elevator open right into the studio apartment. Up the fire escape and to the roof and presto! the antenna was hung in its most choice location yet, high above the entire downtown. As a bonus, while speaking with one of the gals who lived there, she let out with the statement "Rod Parker is my boyfriend." Whoa! we were impressed!  Parker was the first local (loco?) musician to send a homemade tape for airplay. It was a few 4-track demos. I still have it and Rod is still rockyrolling around town. 

There were regular crew members who hosted weekly shows of  blues, folk, hardcore and local music and, for a time, ska and two-tone. The real pirate heart though was early evening news & info that mostly centered on activist events. From people who had chained themselves to logging trucks in Colorado's San Luis Valley to Cop Watch reports, or striking miner solidarity updates and this weeks Food Not Bombs location.

Other features drifted in and out, like the Weekly Bike Tip (five minutes on how to tune your bicycle but I think she only lasted a couple of weeks) or, my favorite, the Stock Report: that weeks prices for aluminum cans or scrap metals that were easily found discarded in alleys or dumpsters. Speaking of which, inveterate dumpster divers would show up with eats from grocery trash like garbage sacks full with day-old Wolfe's bagels or entire unsold pizzas thrown away, still in the box, at the end of the night shift. 

My first winter on the crew, we even had a permanent studio: a disgusting trash-heap two story garage overlooking the 66 Diner alley. When we first got the ok to set up there, someone knew somebody who lived in the house. Or something. But soon the word was they had moved--like all college kids do on regular basis. But we kept parading back there each and every Tuesday. No one ever said a word. Who knows what went on in that nasty garage during the rest of the week but we loved it. 

First, it was so full of junk, we could stash the equipment there, undiscovered, all week rather than hauling it around.

Second, it was at the edge of I guess what you'd call the UNM mesa and sloped from there straight to downtown. Low power FM waves travel line-of-sight so buildings can deaden the signal. From this spot, our ranting, raving and rock n' rolling was open to the whole of western Albuquerque.

But third and coolest, Willie had built a crane to hoist the antenna: a bunch of dumpster scrap two-by-fours spliced together and pinned to a tree by big fat spikes on which it could pivot. The antenna was tied to the long end pointing to earth, and a rope to the short end pointing skyward. Haul on the rope and up she went, pivoting to bring the antenna ten feet above the eighty foot tree. Normally we were enviro-freaks who wouldn't think of driving a spike into a venerable old tree but this was high-tech for us. I bet that  trunk still bears a Rebel Radio scar.

So amid rusty junk and garbage, sitting on stained with god-knows-what couches, the aroma of diner burgers wafting our way in the cold, awash in beer empties and ciggy butts, Rebel Radio had a real live regular studio space.  No one was ever more excited about hanging out in a smelly unheated trash heap for eight hours a winter night than we were.  

Episode 3  

Somebody's Watching Me

I always that somebody's watching me
And I have no privacy
I always feel that somebody's watching me
Is it just a dream?

-- Rockwell 
Somebody's Watching Me  (1984)

 The sleek silver transmitter that Free Radio Berkeley had donated to Rebel Radio needed help. Although not firing on all cylinders (so to speak), it was accurate, and didn't drift  off bandwidth. That was the last thing we wanted, to interfere with any commercial broadcast. You might as well send the Feds an invitation to come to your door. But new transmitter parts would afford us a further, more consistent range rather than broadcasting only for the student ghetto and random anarcho-punks who happened to remember to tune in each Tuesday evening, if at all.

To raise funds, someone suggested a benefit show. Some local bands thought the station was kinda cool although they knew we didn't have much reach. We couldn't promise them any commercial exposure to speak of since barely anyone knew Rebel Radio existed in the first place. But that was changing a little.

The Weekly Alibi did a pretty decent cover feature with typical avast and ahoy ye matey fanfare and was generally supportive. Even the intolerant punker-than-thou Maximum Rock and Roll ran an interview with Racer X, Betty Crocker (Punk Rocker) and myself with Ron Sakolsky. It was intended for his book, Seizing the Airwaves, but Rebel Radio didn't make the cut. I think overall we weren't serious enough in our anarchy, sort of like the clownish Abbie Hoffman of pirate radio, unlike all those other solemn Dave Dellinger and Malcolm X stations.

Even David Barsamian, of syndicated Alternative Radio fame, took us to task for not playing tapes he'd provided us in proper sequence during the correct week each episode was airing nationwide on  Pacifica and NPR stations. Along with our free speech mission, we wanted stupid fun (the regularly featured anything-goes late night Drunk and Stoned Hour anyone?). What little money we had went to beer and records and maybe a new power strip when absolutely necessary.   So when the benefit idea was proposed, we were all for it. 

Somehow, we shanghaied the Basement Films Collective into jumping aboard and projecting found footage during the show. It became a joint benefit but as I recall, the Basement folk let us have most if not all of the cash. That was pretty cool of them. We corralled a studio artspace/ burnt-out-bunker down on Broadway, rounded up bands, pasted flyers and transmitted from an open loft ten feet above the fray.

Yeah, smart. Advertise the show with address and time then set up an illegal broadcast right on location. What we lacked in caution we made up in audacity. And stupidity.

Pawn Drive, Selsun Blue, the Impatients, Anchorman and Apricot Jam were recruited. A few of us were bummed there wasn't more punkn'roll on the bill but the, ah, music committee thought it best to appeal to a wider range of  audience, sort of like how KUNM went after yuppie jazz snobs. 

That University of New Mexico  station is everything we avoided and worse since they try to project an air of free-thinking non-conformity. Horsefeathers. A college station, yes, but a student station? Not at all. When the same deejays run the same specialty music shows for twenty-five  or thirty years, things become as stale as cigarette butts in backwash beer bottles. Down at NMSU in Las Cruces KRUX, on the other hand, things get pretty free-wheeling because the kids run the station and (for better or worse) mostly bring their own music to spin. KUNM wouldn't touch something like that in a million years. They're like the old guy that gets pierced to "fit in" with the young crowd but looks like what he actually is: an old guy with an earring.   

The benefit went well but since most of the crowd were pirates, Basement people and band personnel, we netted only about sixty bucks or something. As I recall though, the transmitter never got the complete overhaul. It was fine-tuned somewhat though and performed better but what we really needed a new rig and that was financially out of reach.

Meanwhile, the show must go on.  

One now-razed landmark in the student ghetto was The Graffiti House. Every square foot of the place, walls inside and out, roof, chimney, even the trees in the yard: covered in eye-popping script that was as indecipherable to the average human as old Haight-Ashbury psychedelic concert posters.

The little kids who lived there with their mom (and painted the place) had a rough time of it. She was rumored to be everything from a meth-tweak hooker to a drug dealer to a misunderstood free-wheeling mom. It was said the kids, aged like eight to eleven or so, witnessed some guy get his brains blown out in the kitchen. In any case, they weren't candidates for future high school valedictorian or class president.

The Graffiti House siphoned electricity off their neighbor when their own power was shut off. That much I know to be true because their neighbor was an old friend . As that next-door homeowner, she was disrespected by the kids and had a running feud with their mother.  I invited her to a broadcast at my house so she and her boyfriend could check it out for themselves as well as meet the younger punkrock riff-raff I was hanging out with these days.

That same show, Sunshine just so happened to invite the Graffiti kids too since she was on good terms with their mom. The kids dug it: here was something cool (against the law too!) but probably one of the more constructive things they'd seen. Funny thing though. When the kids saw my friend there-- the neighbor who they'd been feuding with-- they didn't say anything to her, just cavorted gleefully during the broadcast.  But she later told me they soon changed their attitude completely. No more graffiti on her house and they treated her with a new found respect, all because she took part in an illegal activity. Rebel Radio wanted to bring the community together but this was quite the twist!   

By now, best-store-on-the-planet Mind Over Matter (RIP) was our drop-off point for music, mail, taped public service announcements, death threats, whatever anyone wanted to toss our way. Not being involved with the on-air activity, they were a safe neutral zone. We even left a questionnaire on the counter to see who was listening and what they wanted. Not that we listened to them though. Not that way at any rate. 

See, Rebel Radio was always in search of new participants. It was marvelous to have a core group of people who could be counted on each week but by now we knew each others music collections and politico-rants too well. Our motto was , If we suck, its your fault meaning if you don't like what we do, come join us and do it yourself. Most new people were introduced by current radio pirates but a few answered the anonymous call.

There was the high school girl who said she was waiting out her senior year so she could get pierced and tattooed; she lasted a couple of months before disappearing but later surfaced in the over-21 club scene. A Greek language major who went by the pirate name of Dave Blood did man-on-the-street interviews, tape recorder in hand about activist issues like anti-aggression pacts or sustainable agriculture or social justice. He was relentless until finals and graduation.  Another studious double major guy (classical music and chemical engineering) showed up one night, spun some symphonies and cleared the room of all the so-called "open-minded" radicals. Except for crustcore deejay and  bassist I.M. Fukt who stuck around, listened to some Wagner and exclaimed, "This is metal!".

Some people got involved and disappeared after a few weeks. Others-- like an techno-industrial gal who worked on computers for a living-- came for one broadcast and never left. She not only showed up each and every week for over a year but kept the momentum going when everyone else was flagging. There were times when she or I were the only ones running the broadcast for hours at a time. What such an excess amount of time on our hands implied, well, I'll let that pass.

Still, though, I think more people had heard of Rebel Radio than actually heard us on air. But there were a few people who'd heard about us that we never counted on. They were from Denver…

Episode 4 

Outlaw Blues

Well I might look like Robert Ford
But I feel just like Jesse James

-- Bob Dylan, Outlaw Blues 1965

The Bust (the first one) happened this way: It was the end of September and I was sitting out on the porch of the Stanford House while a broadcast was going down inside. Close to election time, we were waiting for a Green mayoral candidate to show up and go on air. So when some guy in a polo shirt came up the steps and asked, "Is this the radio broadcast?", I said, sure! come on in.

What an asshole!

Not him, me. For inviting a Fed inside. He pulled out a badge and identified himself as Federal Communications Commission District Director Leo Cirbo. We never considered the FCC would bother with us. The nearest office was outside Denver, over six hours away. We hadn't interfered with any legit station's FM signal; we made sure of that. Our engineer was diligent and re-tuned the transmitter regularly. We were on air only six or seven or eight hours a week and sometimes our transmission didn't reach further than ten blocks.

Alright, so we talked about subverting the dominant culture, about civil disobedience and we advocated anarchy (true anarchy-- a political system of shared authority by small communities--not chaos, not that stupid "circle A" jazz) and no matter how much fun it was to air Jello Biafra and Noam Chomsky or play records by Anal Cunt, it was the principle of free speech and access to the publicly-owned airwaves that was Rebel Radio's foundation.
But naw, I never really believed that anyone in power really gave a damn about that. The rumor was that some policy-wonk at KANW-FM (pretty much right down the street from any broadcast from the student ghetto) complained about an unlicensed radio station. We never knew for certain.

FCC Agent Cirbo entered the room and explained that no one was to leave. There were maybe eight of us present, including residents. Then he went outside to take readings on the signal strength. I turned down the music that was broadcasting, grabbed a mike and explained to the listeners that we were in the middle of a bust and to stay tuned. A few minutes later, Cirbo allowed how he thought it was pretty clever of us to announce what was happening on air. Yeah, we thought so too since we knew we were gonna need legal help. When he ordered us to shut down, nobody moved. Our equipment was so outdated and DIY, I'm not sure he could identify the transmitter in our pile of junk on the coffee table. After more demands, someone snapped the transmitter off. Maybe they even said goodnight, I don't recall.

Notebook in hand, Cirbo asked who owned the station, the equipment. We all looked at each other. Ummm…nobody, we explained,  It's a collectiveThat wasn't rhetoric. Although the stuff was stored at my house most weeks, everything was donated to the nebulous entity known as "Rebel Radio".  No one owned anything. He didn't buy it and repeated his question.
Honest, Mr Cirbo, nobody. We weren't trying to be cute. That's just the way it was. We had no membership, no by-laws, no meetings, no minutes, nothing. Well, that just wasn't in an FCC agent's worldview. Feeling stonewalled, Cirbo threatened to call the landlord.

That did it. This was the venerable Stanford House. Sure, it was only a crumbling trashheap full of hardcore crusties but it had been a punk house for as long as anyone could remember. The landlord had put up with a lot of shit, but a Federal offense? No way, the residents would be evicted sure. As far as I knew-- older by everyone else by about fifteen years--I was the only one there with a regular job and a savings account, a taxpayer; not a student, no parents to contend with. I wasn't all that far from the agent's age either. 

Hell with it. I asked Cirbo, if I claimed responsibility, would he let everyone else off? That satisfied him. Right away, he changed demeanor. I followed him as he looked around, even got into his Bronco and asked about all the triangulation and tracking equipment embedded in the dashboard. Leo (my new buddy!) explained it all and showed me how it worked, very open like we were cohorts or something. 

No, he said, we hadn't interfered with any other broadcasts or disrupted air traffic controllers. Ha! that air traffic thing was the line all the conservatives trotted out every time pirate radio reared its gnarly head: planes will be dropping out of the sky! But it was a crock.

But no, we hadn't messed with anyone except the FCC. We were simply unlicensed and paid no fees therefore I could expect my official Violations notice by registered mail soon.   Finally as Cirbo wrapped things up, I asked "Do you really believe in this, what you're doing?"  That was my only question that he ignored totally. 
Before we knew it, Leo was on his way back to Denver and we were left sitting there on the floor and on dirty sofas and cigarette-burned upholstery, empties strewn about. But we still had all the equipment. Nothing was confiscated. What the hell..?

Episode 5 

Party Lights

I see the lights I see the party lights
They're red and blue and green
Everybody in the crowd is there 
But you won't let me make the scene

-- Claudine Clark Party Lights   1962

The prospect of three years in prison and a $10,000 fine for illegal FM transmission was a little um disconcerting. I think I had replied to the Federal Communications Commission with a yes sir, no sir, won't do it again sir letter, essentially saying I was done with unlicensed FM broadcasting. That seemed to satisfy 'em. But no one wanted the station to die. After a few weeks of airwave silence, it was settled. Rebel Radio was back on. I was not to be present at any more broadcasts. Suddenly, I lost my invitation to the weekly fun and happenin' parties I'd been attending for a year. I was sad. After a few weeks, I occasionally dropped by, pre-air time, to kibbitz equipment set-up but left post haste as soon as the transmitter powered up.

I soon began taping the weekly broadcast while listening alone at home. I'd earlier found a box of dozens of cassette tapes in a UNM dumpster (teaching tapes like Je Voi Dire and Let's Habla Espanol!) which were just perfect on which to record Rebel Radio's lo-fi output. I've hours of archive tapes nobody's had the will power to slog through to this day.

By our own admission, some of the broadcasts were perfectly dreadful. No wonder we had so few listeners. But when it clicked, it was full-on. There were nights when fifty people came through the studio and it was still a useless dog of a show. Other broadcasts would see maybe six pirates and a flawless, entertaining and intelligent show. Bands even showed up to play on air, notably tribal hip-hoppers Stoic Frame who I think may have been among the first live performers. Some participants were appalled at the lack of professionalism, others embraced it wholly.

While the broadcasts may have been tedious at times, it was never boring to locate that week's host house, scout antenna locations, climb trees and run around on roofs, or having to run to Radio Shack at the last minute for a fuse or relay or a length of co-ax cable because oh shit we left the old one at those apartments last week.

Missing all that, I decided to prerecord my weekly Dirt City show, featuring local music and the crew was gracious enough to run them every time. It was pretty strange to tune in and hear my own voice coming out of the speakers. So that's what I sound like. What a maroon!

Not long after, Rebel Radio found another semi-permanent home: a room in an alleyside garage but this time with full blessing of the host household. It was clean, uncluttered and looked like a sterile lab in comparison with our other "studio" dungheap which we'd long abandoned after the antenna crane came abruptly crashing down out of the trees one night. 

In the new garage, the adjoining carspace was piled high with old computer monitors, motherboards, towers and other digital flotsam because the residents were cyber tweaks. This time however there was full-time security posted, someone to hang around the hood, circle the block endlessly by foot or bike and watch for telltale Colorado plates on slow-moving vehicles. A scruffy-looking kid loitering around respectable residences probably didn't look so good, what with the high rate of Breaking and Entering going on in the student ghetto but no way were the feds gonna re-catch radio pirates unaware.  And yeah, I got so cocky that I started attending a few broadcasts again.  

Episode 6 

Fun Fun Fun

A lotta guys try to catch her
But she leads them on a wild goose chase now
(You drive like an ace now you drive like an ace)
And she'll have fun fun fun
'Til her daddy takes the T-Bird away
Fun fun fun 'til her daddy takes the T-Bird away

-- Beach Boys Fun Fun Fun 1964

One evening, a hour into the broadcast,  the security sentry flew into the yard on his bike, reporting a cruising boat of a car, Colorado license plates, slowly rolling through our hood, the driver peering up as if looking for something above the rooftops. Since the antenna was rarely if ever free and above the treeline, it usually wasn't visible but next minute, the driver was spotted walking the alley (our alley!) with some handheld equipment.

At that report, we hastily powered down and disassembled the studio, ditching various components into the pile of computer parts while a few of us took off in different directions on bicycles, each with a piece of incriminating evidence like antenna, compressor/limiter and transmitter, all small enough to be wrapped in a spare shirt or jacket. No fat fed would be able to follow on foot.

The early warning system worked! Too, though, luck was on our side. Using three readings of the broadcast, triangulation monitors (such as FCC vehicles were equipped with) could point towards the origin of the FM signal, but only within a band two or three houses wide.
It turned out the neighbor was a licensed ham radio operator and had a legal and bonafide transmission antenna on his roof. Our intrepid fed, thinking he had uncovered the Rebel Radio pirate cove, demanded entrance to search this innocent bystander's home. Said bystander was understandably indignant and pissed off at the accusation, losing the agent valuable time to find the real miscreants.

We had a good laugh over that and an even better one when (at the fed's invitation), a TV news crew showed up a few minutes later to cover the event. Deducing where the broadcast had originated, our man with the FCC directed the cameraman to the garage. There was nothing to see except the non-studio half of it, that chest deep pile of cyber junk. It  was videotaped and reported on the evening news to be the very technology used by wily FM pirates to subvert and thumb noses at authority.

We were feeling like we could elude the FCC indefinitely, especially with the -- ooooh! -- New Technology our engineer was working on. I won't go into details since it may prove useful yet but it involved the broadcast signal being carried partially on a beam of light, to break the telltale link of wire from transmitter to antenna. It actually worked but the focus tolerances being tight and demanding, the system proved pretty much unwieldy in the end.

Meantime, one of our pirates had put me in touch with Radio Limbo in Tucson, Arizona. Since I was visiting there a few days, it would be worthwhile to scope their more "pro" set-up. I met my deejay contact at a third-party location where I was driven to a nondescript neighborhood. I felt like I was in an old gangster movie, being whisked to the hide-out for an audience with Edward G Robinson or Jimmy Cagney. Their HQ was also in a garage but a bright, clean and permanent studio, professional-looking with actual rules, reg's and by-laws. Hand-written notes pinned to the walls directed deejays to re-shelve CDs in proper order and turn off the lights on your way out. Not our style at all but I was envious none the less. Their rig was a thing of beauty.

Again, I'll keep mum on specifics but as described in great detail by their engineer, it involved a system similar but superior to our man's light beam approach. Designed to bypass physical triangulation and tracking to a studio it called for a wireless phone relay. This back in the days before everybody and their dog had a damn cell phone. I was allowed to play some Albuquerque bands at random during the deejay's show but his was a whole 'nother style. Limbo got phone calls (they had a studio line?!) complaining about it. Their formatting was so rigid they had a core audience but apparently one who didn't want to hear anything else but what they'd tuned in for. When Rebel Radio hosted visitors, we'd pretty much hand over the reins to them, why not. Ours was a non-schedule at best.

Limbo too was later on hassled by the FCC who destroyed their remote antenna, miles into inhospitable hike-only access wilderness--those desert FCC were tough! 
As far as I could tell, Radio Limbo's political/activist content --while not quite non-existent--was pretty small. I had happened to hit town the week they were holding a benefit show on a grander scale than ours. Given the chance to mouth off on stage between bands, no one in the crowd, even Limbo pirates, seemed to give a shit when I talked about free speech and our bust situation. Fuck y'all. In any case, politics wasn't the only determining factor in becoming an FCC target. Federal laws were broken and that was enough.   

Back in New Mexico, our engineer's next tactic was a kill switch adapted from a garage door opener. The night's designated Rebel Radio security sentry could remotely cut the transmission at first sign of a federal interloper. All of us took turns on duty, which involved patrolling the hood with a walkie talkie, kill switch in hand and an FM walkman to listen to the broadcast. There were a few false alarms but the technology worked. Better to be paranoid and cut the signal than take a chance on the feds finding us again. It was a simple matter to power back up when the all-clear was given. Some sentries took it less serious than others, reporting back inside frequently for beers or to just hang around. Not a good portent.

Still, I stayed away more than not since we were on the FCC's radar after all, especially since the egg-on-their-face incident with that ham operator. Fortunately, my official Violations letter turned out to be a first warning. As long as I kept my nose clean, I was golden. Or as close as I could get. Apparently, I'm still barred from ever obtaining a legit broadcaster's license. Boo-hoo. These days, low power licenses are available (they weren't back then) but you still have to operate at a professional level with modern high tech equipment, pass routine inspections and prove your worth to the community. As soon as these licenses were introduced, church groups across the country snapped them up like peanuts in a party dish. God is always on the Federal side it appears.

 Every once in a while I delivered my Dirt City tape to a broadcast in progress despite it being a crappy feeling to be on the outside, missing all the fun and games. One night, I meant to just drop the cassette by and move on but the place was packed and humming. In all, about thirteen or fourteen people were in the host's living room passing the mike around. Some of my old crew was there, some of the new. There were two peep-show/escorts who went on the air to report about miserable conditions for sex workers and corrupt cop harassment. A couple of high school teenies who just happened to hear about it somehow and thought it was, like, cool. Punk rockers and political science majors. Activist discussion was really clicking tonight, the best of what Rebel Radio stood for. I stuck around, just for a little bit, proud of Albuquerque for this diverse event and sank into one of the couches. I never did find out what the fuck was up with pirate security that night.

The front door banged open and two FCC agents stormed in, followed by six APD officers. We got the usual stay where you are stuff as the cops fanned out into the house. The feds stood before us. I sunk my face to my chest but there was no hiding. 
My old buddy Federal Communications Commission District Director Leo Cirbo spoke up : "Hey! Brett's here!"

 I sure was.

Episode 7

Riot Squad

You, you better get ready
You better hold steady
They can't control this angry mob
They'll have to call the riot squad, riot squad

-- Bad Brains Riot Squad 1983 

It was anti-climactic afterwards, although it didn't seem so at that moment. No knock, no warrant, nothing except that cheap Dragnet adrenalin of cops with nothing better to do. The feds eyed those of us in the living room. I kept my mouth shut this time. I was already fucked and decided someone else could share in the fucked-ness. A sizable party situation was going on during the broadcast, never a smart move when committing illegal activities. A couple of party goers made it out the back door and maybe a window but as I recall at least a dozen of us were stuck inside. A glass bong was found in the kitchen but the cop shattered it on the floor, doing us all a favor. Another also did us a good turn: he came out of a bedroom, shut the door behind him and shook his head, signaling other officers to keep out. The occupant of the room (who wasn't even home at the time) had a few unlicensed firearms stashed there. Another safety rule down the toilet: don't conduct illegal activity where there's already illegal activity going on.

As usual, the living room action centered around shutting the equipment down. It seemed no one wanted to make a move since it could be interpreted as an implication of guilt and ownership. But as far as the Feds were concerned though, anyone present during a federal offense is guilty. Someone, I can't recall who, finally stood up and powered down. The weekly Rebel Radio broadcast was off the air for good. I only hope a few minutes of the melee went out over the airwaves.

Inexplicably, the feds once again didn't confiscate the equipment nor make a move to touch it.  My theory is we were just a large pain in their federal ass and the FCC had no desire to actually prosecute. They merely wanted Rebel Radio off the air so they could get back to their routine of making sure garage door openers don't interfere with Clear Channel broadcasts.

 Drivers licenses were collected and names taken. The sex worker duo looked pained but mostly disgusted. They were used to harassment. Those couple of teen girlies looked scared as hell. Who were they anyway? I never knew who invited them nor had I met the occupants of the house. I was way out of the Rebel Radio loop except for making my prerecorded tapes. The party-goers were there just for kicks and seemed put out that they had to deal with this shit. I didn't buy it. They made the choice to be there, they can take responsibility for their actions. That's what activism including Rebel Radio is all about.

 This time, the feds made it clear that everyone in the house was in big trouble and it wouldn't boil down to one perp as it had before. With that, the authorities left. By that time, a couple of the regular Radio crew had arrived on the scene and approached the cops outside, acting like concerned neighbors when all they really wanted to know was Is anyone getting hauled away? Do we need to raise bail? Is the transmitter safe? They were looking out for us, bless 'em. Unlike the Stanford Ave bust, no one really knew the occupants that well and they understandably wanted us the fuck out of there pretty quick. Ejected, dejected,  we dispersed with equipment in tow to await our federal fate. 

My memory's pretty vague after this. I recall a meeting at the Frontier Restaurant where a couple of angry moms made it clear their little girls (the teens) had nothing to do with any of it but were corrupted by college kids and responsible adults like (ahem) myself. Every mom believes its always someone else's fault that their babies get in trouble. Likely those teens didn't know the full ramifications of going to an illegal broadcast but people were drinking beer and smoking dope and I give the girls enough credit to know that that was a risk right there. Stay Out of the Kitchen and all that. Anyway the busted motley group --which had only two or three actual Rebel Radio crew members --agreed that these innocent flowers of youth should be protected at all costs. Of course what Mom 1 and Mom 2 really wanted was for us to plead guilty thereby exonerating their darling angels who, from the looks of them, had their share of activities that would curdle a parent's blood. Still when it came to court time, we'd defend the teens' virtue like Crusaders defending the Holy Sepulture against marauding Turks. 

Paranoia and apprehension ensued for weeks. Contingency plans, consultation with pro bono hippie lawyers, maybe even a getaway plan or two. I lost sleep wondering how the hell I would pay thousands in fines. Would I actually do time for using the public airwaves? See, that's what the FCC wants: to scare you out of using the public resource. To the Feds, the public means stockholders, corporations and money in the bank. We were obviously not that. To our surprise, wimpy warning letters were received by all, basically saying keep your nose clean of radio piracy and all is forgiven. I was astonished but relieved that mine was another first warning. I briefly pondered how many first warnings I could get away with…

But general enthusiasm for the whole thing waned. The Feds actually took us much more seriously than we did. Everyone at the bust that wasn't Rebel Radio crew sighed relief and were glad to keep well away from us FM hooligans. The station non-collective decided to hang it up in support of me which I truly appreciated. But I secretly hoped they'd go back on air after a lull. I sort of got my wish. After a few months the transmitter and what remained of our trashy equipment was bequeathed to a new group of kids who took the mantle of Ditch Radio. The core Rebel Radio crew mostly moved on to other things: bands, biodiesel, graduate school, remote cabins in Tecolote, New Mexico...

I tuned in now and again to Ditch but must admit disappointment that political and activist content was low or at least small compared to us self-important egotistical Rebels. This was the time period when the "second" wave of punk washed out, "alternative" music was waning as a genre in favor of (c)rap metal and no one but Fred Durst was pissed off anymore.

[Correction: I've since been informed that there was indeed lots of political yammering on Ditch Radio but not towards the end of its run, which is when I mostly tuned in. My mistake!]

Ditch Radio has their own story to tell. They even had a couple of run-in's with the FCC but none of their broadcasts included me. Well, almost none. Intelligence whispers once burned, twice shy. I wasn't listening.  Someone called me to a Ditch locale because of antenna logistics. It was a two story apartment building but no one had access to the roof for antenna hanging and no trees were close or high enough to do the job. So I pulled up in my truck with ladder, poles, ropes & tools and proceeded to scale the building. An old lady on the first floor came out to see what was the commotion. I vaguely offered that there was some problem on the roof and inferred that I was the after-hours guy. She was skeptical but finally figured it was on the up and up and went back inside. Its always amazing to me that anyone who acts with the least bit of authority is accepted with the flimsiest of evidence. Caveat emptor.
That was my last act in FM piracy. Theses days, the transmitter still surfaces on occasion in isolated broadcasts, typically political in nature but sometimes just to offer a ghostly voice to music that someone just feels they have to send into the ether. Me, my radio is as close as I get to it anymore.

Somewhere in the chronology after the second bust, the spirit of Rebel Radio made a last but typical appearance. Pirate Willy and Owl Bird bicycled with the transmitter and antenna to a freeway overpass halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, hung a banner urging drivers to tune in and broadcast a freedom of speech loop for a few hours while they picnicked in the nearby shrubbery.   

Rebel Radio Roll Call:

Pirate Willy
I.M. Fukt
Owl Bird
Racer X
Ramona a.k.a Betty Crocker Punk Rocker
The Fun Guy
Jayhawk K-5
Dave Blood
El Gallo
Tone E.
Captain America

if you've been left out, tell me! my addled brain can't recall all the myriad pirates...

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