Exclusive: Radio Mutiny pirates speak out after one year of operation!

by April Rosenblum
University City Review
Editor's Note: Everyone interviewed for this article is identified only by his or her "radio name," in order to honor his or her requested anonymity.

It's 6:00 P.M. on Wednesday evening. On 91.3 FM, a steady stream of static is suddenly broken by the rhythm of African drums and a deejay's voice. "You're listening to . . . Pirate Radio" he says. "I am Malinga, and this is African Perspectives. We bring you news and music of the African continent." The deejay we're listening to tonight is a South African expatriate, a journalist banned from working in his home country for criticizing the military regime. If this sounds unusual for Philly radio, rest assured that Malinga fits right in at 91.3.

Broadcasting from a secret location, WPPR (also known as Radio Mutiny) can be heard six nights a week pumping out news, music and commentary that you may not hear anywhere else. And according to the 50 volunteers -- including health-care professionals, community organizers, construction workers, artists, college students and an ex-con -- who run the station, that's just what they intended.

"Radio Mutiny isn't exactly trying to air the Top 40," says Bertha Venus, who has been on board at 91.3 since the idea for a low-watt station first came up around the dinner table at her West Philadelphia home. "Our point is really to reach out into this incredibly diverse community, get people together, and learn how to take the media into our own hands. It's about time people got to report on the news that affects us, instead of settling for whatever the commercial stations say is important."

The operators at WPPR face one obstacle: their station has no license from the Federal Communications Commission. This can lead to heavy fines and seizure of their equipment. Just last week, another local pirate station, WSKR, was visited by the FCC and had their studio confiscated. WPPR continues to broadcast in spite of the risk because they believe that the courts will eventually decide in favor of low-watt stations like theirs.

Venus and six others have been working steadily since early 1996 to set up the station, which aired its first broadcast on Columbus Day last fall. Today, 45 deejays work to produce programs packed with commentary and music that's local or unavailable in the mainstream media.

"It all started" says Venus, "when my friends and I got a taste of freedom of the press, Phillystyle. We were loyal listeners of National Public Radio and WRTI when these two stations tried to air a series of commentaries recorded by Mumia Abu Jamal.... First, NPR was bullied into dropping them by Bob Dole on the Senate floor with threats of budget cuts. Then, Pacifica Network News was entirely eliminated in Pennsylvania in response to their decision to air Jamal's commentaries. We started talking about the need for truly independent radio, with no ties to the government or to corporations."

The station exists entirely on donations and has no paid staff or station manager. The content of each show is controlled by the deejay, and the station seeks out community activists, neighbors and friends to join the effort -- whether by running their own shows, being interviewed, or calling in tips for news and announcements.

The group says that stations such as theirs in other parts of the country have been endorsed by community groups and local politicians, citing Grover Beach, California as one example. There. the city council bought equipment for the local low-watt station so it could broadcast the cities' meetings live. But, says station volunteer Pete TriDish, "while we have the support of many community groups, we haven't approached the city because we've seen with Mumia's case how far they're willing to go to silence differing opinions."

And the opinions at Radio Mutiny sure do differ. Shows like 'The Poetry Sauce" (featuring live readings by up-and-coming Philly poets) run side by side with the sultry safe-sex klezmer. Tawdry cocktail tunes and rockabilly are balanced by shows devoted to traditional blues and Appalachian music. Other highlights include local news, music industry analyses, and interviews. Local organizations (including ACT UP, Books Through Bars, Food Not Bombs, the National People's Campaign, Prevention Point, ADAPT, American Indian Movement and Critical Mass) are regular contributors to the shows.

"The station has a really obvious twist," says Jamal Johnson, a listener from the Cedar Park (West Philadelphia) neighborhood. "When I turned it on, I was like, 'great, more talk. I'm sick of talk radio.' But when I listened for a minute, it was pretty clear: these folks weren't reading something that someone put in front of them. They were speaking from their hearts. Nobody was paying them to say this or play that -- it was the first time I ever heard a real live person speaking comfortably on the radio, like they were talking to me in my kitchen."

WFLN. WDRE. WMMR. If you live in or around Philadelphia, you'll know that within the past six months, these and other stations have been bought out and reformatted. What many are surprised to learn is that takeovers like these are happening in growing frequency all over the country.

With the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ownership restrictions upon the radio industry loosened dramatically. In the past, a single corporation could legally own no more than 20% of the radio stations in a listening area. Today, when American listeners tune in to radio, up to 50% of the stations on their dial may be owned by one company. In one year since the bill was passed, the number of independently-owned American stations has been cut in half.

We've gotten a number of calls from people who've been deejays, program directors, station owners for their entire lives who've been knocked out of the box by corporate America," says station volunteer Pete Tridish. "As an owner of three stations put it to me: 'I'm calling you -- a radio pirate -- because in a few years, that's the only way that I'll be able to do what I love: radio.' For his three stations, he pays for all the production for each one. A corporation that owns 50 stations in 50 markets across the country pays once for its production, deriving ad revenues from all of them. How can he compete with those kinds of economics? They'll undercut his ad rates until he goes out of business, or has to sell out. The new market will practically preclude locally produced radio."

It's a trend Tridish and friends were vehemently against -- enough to start their own station. "It's not just that we were dissatisfied with the pointless commentary and plastic music of the major stations," says deejay Millie Watt, who covers the news. "It's that we think it's dangerous to leave the news in the hands of a few giant, wealthy companies. What an Orwellian setup! In an age when people get most of their information from radio, TV and newspapers, our right to free speech has to mean more than just standing on a street comer with a bullhorn."

"It's all about being a venue for the neighborhood, and the neighborhood's own issues," Watt continues. "That's one of the big things lacking in the new scheme of things, now that the Telecommunications Act says it's legal for big stations to own everyone else. Because the same corporations own the media nationwide, news and politics sound the same wherever you go, totally homogeneous. And even alternative media, such as NPR, are weeding out local programming in favor of nationally syndicated stuff."

Watt and Tridish are not alone in their criticism of the current restrictions. Last summer, Boston's city council passed a unanimous resolution in support of micropowered radio. In Grover Beach, California, the City Council bought equipment for the local low-watt station so that it could broadcast the city's meetings live. Reed Hundt, the former chairman of the FCC, has called current radio regulations "intellectually indefensible" and "a meaningless hoax on the American public."

Despite local support and Hundt's observations, the FCC continues to frown upon the actions of microbroadcasters.

At only 20 watts, West Philly Pirate Radio is large enough to be heard from Gray's Ferry to Kelly Drive, and Delaware Avenue to Lansdowne, but too small to gain legal status from the Federal Communications Commission. It's a position low-watt stations have found themselves in around the country since 1978, when the FCC eliminated the long-standing category for community radio stations, known as the Class D License. The change occurred after 10 years of intensive lobbying from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which sought to establish regional flagship stations of National Public Radio and saw the 10-watt Class D stations as an obstacle.

Operators of stations that lack an FCC license can be (and have been) raided, fined, and threatened with imprisonment. But what the FCC calls "piracy," microbroadcasters consider constitutionally protected free speech.

In 1993, Berkeley engineer Stephen Dunifer ignited a major court battle when he refused to pay a $20,000 fine, issued by the PCC, for operating Free Radio Berkeley without a license. Saying his actions were constitutionally protected free speech, Dunifer took the matter to court.

Two weeks ago, Dunifer won yet another round in his legal bout with the FCC. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken has ordered the Commission to respond to the constitutional issues raised by Dunifer's lawyers.

With recent advances in communications technology gaining momentum, the FCC has focused more on issues such as digital TV and internet regulations than radio pirates. But some groups have been pushing the do-it-yourself stations to the front of the Commission's agenda. The National Association of Broadcasters is leading today's charge to prosecute microbroadcasters.

"We are delighted that federal authorities have stepped up enforcement against pirate radio stations," proclaimed former NAB chairman Edward Fritts in response to raids on Florida and North Carolina stations this year. "We commend the Commission for sending a strong message to broadcast bandits that their illegal activities will not be tolerated."

According to the FCC, not only do low-watt stations make for "chaos on the airwaves," they pose the threat of interference with aircraft navigation, V.H.F. emergency frequencies and law enforcement communications. Without licenses, it's said, there is no way to ensure that operators have adequate equipment or training.

Microbroadcasters insist that such a threat is insignificant. "In radio, 'small' by no means equals poor quality ' says Venus. "Small, well engineered low-wattage stations have potential to cause far less interference than huge 50,000 watt stations. Technology has improved a lot over recent years and with very little money you can have a good quality transmitter and a clean signal. The FCC knows this."

Aren't the Radio Mutiny volunteers afraid of being found by the FCC?

"Of course we're concerned," says Tridish, "But we keep in mind that we are a community resource, and our community would come to our defense if we were threatened. Second, we have good legal representation and we're confident in our lawyer's ability to protect our First Amendment rights."

In addition, Tridish says, "It's worth it. At certain points in time, it's important that people have the courage to step forward and do what they believe is right in order to protect free expression."

In spite of possible legal threats, Radio Mutiny volunteers say, the number of pirate stations around the country is burgeoning. "We're here because we're dedicated to making a forum for our West Philadelphia community," says Watt. "But there are hundreds of stations like us around the country who are in it for the same reasons. It's really exciting to be a part of a national movement of people who care as much as we do about making sure their neighborhoods have a say about the issues that affect them."

While the legal situation is hammered out in the courts, Radio Mutiny continues to broadcast -- and people continue to tune in. "I don't necessarily agree with everything I hear on Radio Mutiny," he says, "but I listen every night because I never know what's going to happen. Mainstream radio has no surprises for me like WPPR does."

"A lot of thought has gone into this," says deejay Jeannie Jenkins. "West Philly is going to be hit hard with welfare changes. We'll need a strong community to get through that, and we've got to start strengthening those bonds before the full force is felt. Radio Mutiny is, if not bringing people together, at least building bridges so people can understand one another."