by Tom Hallett
I slung my beer-heavy backpack to the ground and stepped forward to meet the remainder of the pirate radio gang. The first of the three to reach me, a short, pudgy fellow with horn-rimmed glasses and just a smattering of grey hair crowning his reddened scalp, stuck a meaty paw at me and nearly shouted, “Hallett! Damn good to meet you! I’m Ranger X, and these here are my partners,” he nodded to the man standing on his right, “Mr. Ta-Da,” then to the tallest one of the bunch, on his left, “and this, this is the inimitable Dr. Skiboobalee, professor of all things radio, at your service.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Have I done the world good,
or have I added a menace?” -Guglielmo Marconi
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Left Of The Dial” -The Replacements
I shook hands quickly with the pair, then immediately cracked
a by-now quite warm Old Mil. Yuck. I twisted open my bottle of schnapps and
took a healthy pull. “Ah, now that’ll get the old blood back in
your cheeks, won’t it, boy?” laughed X, as he threw one arm across
my shoulder and led me towards the lights and noise ripping from the open barn
doors. I shrugged inwardly (between my backpack and X’s weighty arm, the
strain was too much to shrug physically) and followed along, content to finally
get back at my bottle. I had a lot of catchin’ up to do, judging from
the strong odor of whiskey fairly oozing from my new friends’ pores. Just
my kinda folks, I thought, and took another slug.
And then we were inside. The doors slid shut noisily behind
us, and I found myself in a large, carpeted, furnished room that more closely
resembled a Chinese opium den than any radio station I’d ever seen. But
no, there it was, off in one corner, a tiny glassed-in booth with a mic and
a stack of equipment. Seated in front of the mic was a very, very old man, wearing
bib overalls and stomping one booted foot up and down in time to the pounding
cacaphony of Howlin’ Andy Hound and co. Needless to say, I was floored,
man. It was like a scene from an old Sixties biker movie, or maybe what Quentin
Tarentino might interpret as one, anyway. Ranger X guided me expertly through
the tangle of chairs, speakers, beanbags, and several prone bodies shrouded
in smoke, to the booth.
“I know you’re here because you’re going
to write about this,” he said in a hushed voice, cornering me by a stack
of old vinyl albums. “but I also know from reading you that music- and
radio- are just as important to you as they are to me. So I’m gonna tell
you real quick here what I think about things, and then we’re just going
to enjoy the radio the rest of the night. Deal?” “Deal,” I
agreed quickly, taking another belt. “OK,” he continued, “here’s
the low-down, Tommy. I helped these kids get started because, to me, what we’re
doing here is a dream come true. We’re promoting talented, mostly local,
artists who have something to say. And we’re doing it almost for free.
He caught my eye and I could see he’d drifted to a higher
plane, “when I’m driving down the road, and I hear our local musicians
on the radio- radio that was created to promote local music- I just think that’s
creativity in its purest form, unrestricted from The Man. And as for advice
to anybody who wants to do this themselves, I say yeah! You can do it! Do your
homework, know what you’re getting into, and be one step ahead of the
game. We did our research, and now we- and our listeners- are reaping the rewards.”
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a flask, and
taking a huge bracer, continued: “One other thing- when people ask you
why we don’t just buy a license, have ‘em check with Alan Freed
and find out what that process is really like. Believe me, “They”
don’t want you and me on the air- period!” And with that he quickly
turned and slipped away, leaving me staring into the dimly lit booth in front
It was a simple affair, really. A few gadgets, plugs, wires,
and doo-dads. A couple of CD players. A turntable. A DAT machine. A wind-up
clock with the call letters ABUM scrawled across the front. And an old mic taped
to an even older lamp stand. I was standing directly behind the old man “modulator”
when he suddenly gave out a tremendous shriek and hoisted the mic up next to
his shriveled face. “Hey, hey, heyyyy!! Babies! Yeah, that’s right,
it’s your Big Bad Grand Dad comin’ atchew here on Earwig Radio 0,
so grab on to your ears and get ready to lose your minds!!”
And with that he effortlessly hit a switch on the CD player
and another great wall of fuzzed-out guitars hit me with the force of a sledgehammer.
A Kingdom Of Ghosts track. Fucking cool! So this was what real radio felt like.
I mean, I’d done some tame, licensed FM “modulating” in my
time, and man, it was nothin’ like this. This was free-form, live, off-the-cuff,
crazy, rock and roll radio, and if I take nothing else with me from the night
I spent at those studios, it’ll be that I never hear radio the same again.
Not in this lifetime, pal.
As the night wore on, I watched each and every one of my newfound
buds take their turns on the ‘waves; Rex Roswell spun nothing but local
and regional music, lots of bootlegs, live shows, and rarities; Sheena, despite
her name and appearance, was not a punk rocker: she spun hip-hop, trance, techno,
and found sounds discs and “modulated” like she was talking to her
own family- and maybe she was; Ranger X ranged all over the musical map, spinning
the latest Dylan next to home-taped live local gigs and indie artists from every
corner of the country; “Guy” played nothing but his own band and
bands he’d worked with, and nobody complained because every song sounded
like a different band; Ta-Da played everything from Hendrix to Hank Williams,
The Kinks to Carole King, and Dr. Skiboobalee played the weirdest, spaced-out,
otherworldly shit you’ll find this side of the lageR Galaxy, or so he
informed me at around 3 AM.
And me? What did I play once I got my turn at that ol’
mic? Well, once I got that 12-er of Old Mil cooled down in an old ice chest,
and had sufficiently warmed my bones with my wee bottle of schapps and a healhty
fattie, I dove head-first into the gang’s local music section (apparently,
several of them have held jobs at local used CD bargain joints over the years
and have managed to pilfer themselves a respectable pile of kick-ass music.
What, you thought record labels sent free promos to pirate radio stations? Sheesh!
This is war, man, these cats gotta get their supplies where they can) and began
amassing a huge stack of personal faves. I was allotted two hours of air-time
(which I thought was more than generous until I realized the gang was sucking
down the last of my suds and not really even paying attention to what I was
doing), and lemme tellya, time went fast.
I don’t have the space or the memory chips left in my
head to recount every artist I played that crazy night, but I do remember a
few. If you know or are in any of the following bands, you woulda been thrilled
to hear your favorites or yerselves crankin’ out loud an’ proud
somewhere out in the woods beyond the city lights: Arcwelder/The Mammy Nuns/The
Minor Planets/12 Rods/Martin Devaney/Curtiss A/Kruddler/Spikedriver/Grant Hart/Paul
Westerberg/The Trailer Park Queen/Katastrophy Wife/Ol’ Yeller/The Rakes/Hungry
Horse/Charlie Dush/Danny Viper/Tulip Sweet/The Great Depression/The Centurions/Dander/The
Violettes/The Soviettes/Frances Gumm, every single artist on the Pulse’s
latest Twin Town High disc...the list goes on and on, as I did a lot more rockin’
than talkin’, but ya get my point.
Let me make this perfectly clear: There’s absolutely
no feeling in the world like sitting in that booth and sending songs and artists
out over the airwaves you really, truly believe in and want the world to hear.
I’ve spent 30-plus years cranking various stereos across this country
so others could hear- if only for a moment- the songs that inspired and fired
me up, and with Earwig, all I had to do was turn up my headphones, stick in
a disc, and kick back while folks for twenty miles in every direction were listening
to my favorite tunes. Live radio is better than drugs, man.
The night faded- as all really great nights do- into a haze
of drink, smoke, and music. At some point, after the sun had already begun to
rise and the birds were shouting their displeasure at our choices in tunes from
the treetops, someone slipped the ski mask back over my head and announced that
I was going home. I remember stumbling through the barn, banging my shins and
“Shit-sorry! Shit-sorry! Shit-sorry!”-ing my way over sleeping bodies
until I was once again in the smelly back seat of that crusty Volvo. The ride
home does not exist in my memory banks. I awoke, sitting up with my head in
my hands, on the bus bench at the corners of Snelling and University, my beer
backpack wrapped around my shoulder (quite empty, I might add), and a serious
throbbing behind my eyelids.
All I knew for sure was that I was in for one fuck-a-ree of
a hangover, and I gotta tellya, if it wasn’t for the EARWIG RADIO 0 poster
I found tucked into that bag later on, I might’ve just written the whole
thing off as just another invention of ol’ Hallett’s overworked,
alkee-holic imagination. But then I’d have to admit to a whole lot of
other shit, and what fun would that be? Naw, I thought, warmly greeting my old
friend denial and giving her a big, fat hug: I’ll just sip NyQuil until
the pounding subsides, and then try to piece together the whole wacked-out she-bang
and write it down....
*Note: The above story may or may not be a complete work of
fiction, combined with the after-effects of heavy ingestion of beer, schnapps,
and the recreational use of the cough remedy NyQuil. Whatever the case, the
author found the following notes in his pocket a day or so after the above-mentioned
events- which, again, may or may not have actually happened- allegedly happened.
HOW TO START YOUR OWN LOW-WATT RADIO STATION:
(Keeping in mind that you will be breaking the law, unfair though it may be)
1) Buy a transmitter from Veronica. They’re English,
you can find them on the web. $750.00 will get you 30 watts. That’ll reach
far enough to get you in trouble if you’re not careful. Word. FIND A BARE
SPOT ON THE DIAL LEFT OF 90.1 FM and stick to it. If you find you’re nudging
someone else out who was there before you, move dial positions or broadcast
times. Nobody likes an air-hog. That’s why you’re doing this, ain’t
2) Buy an antenna. Veronica will link you to the appropriate web site. $100.00.
3) Buy a mixing board. You might think you won’t need one, but you will.
It’s how you’ll separate your mic, CD players, turntable, etc. Try
a Mackie 16-track for starters.
4) Buy a stereo receiver. A good one, with an A/V control center. You’ll
be glad you did.
5) Buy several pairs of good headphones. It’s a personal choice, but the
light Sennheiser models are great.
6) Buy an Ultra-Dyne-Pro digital limiter from Behringer. This is optional, but
it’ll give you the sound quality you want and help manage your waves.
Cheap, really, at $278.
7) Buy a couple of CD players, one with a burner and two side-by-side discs
(for proper “modulating” procedures) and one with a five-or-more
changer so you can stick a bunch of music in and go party at the campfire you’ll
surely have burning outside your comfy rural studio.
8) Buy a DAT machine. This is optional as well, but is invaluable for recording
fake ads, funny bits, messages, station ID’s, live performances, and just
your own damn show if you’re that egotistical. Fostex is a decent brand.
9) Buy several microphones. Shure is usually a sure bet, but this is a personal
choice too. Just make sure they work and that your cords aren’t as tangled
as your playlist will surely be. Sho ‘nuff!
10) Miscellaneous: You’ll need connectors, lots of coaxial cable for your
antenna, etc. Just check with Radio Free Berkeley online and read the instructions
that come with your equipment. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun above
all. And the fact that you’re doing your patriotic duty to preserve the
rights laid down in our constitution and Bill Of Rights is no small potatoes,
either. If you can’t afford to start your own station, pitch in with other
people. Or just do your part by always scanning left of the dial when you’re
out and about, who knows? Maybe you’ll run into Earwig Radio 0 or something
just as cool on one of those long-haul drives across the vast, radio-friendly
plains of the midwest...
One final note on this subject. I took Ranger X’s advice
and contacted Alan Freed, the man who allegedly inspired the alleged characters
in the above tale, and asked him how he was doing these days and if he had any
advice for folks starting their own micro-broadcast stations. I’d already
found out over the web that his case against the FCC and the U.S. government
is still in limbo- and may be forever, for all we know- and that he’s
now working for XM Radio. But I’ll let Alan update you himself:
Hey, Tom! Good to hear from you.
The short statement is that I'm with XM Satellite Radio in DC. Music
Director and on-air at The Move, 80 and BPM, 81, two of the dance
What's funny is that if Jim Wychor, former MBA top dog (and gentleman
and steward of the public's airwaves that he is *cough*, broker of
the sale that snookered Glencoe residents out of KARP 96.3 to make it
a move-in to the metro as B96), Eddie Fritts, head of that sinking
ship the NAB, MPR and ex-Senator Rod Grams hadn't worked so hard to
squash licensed LPFM in urban areas (using the false "interference"
argument), I may not have made it to XM, instead pursuing community
radio of 100 watts or less.
Instead, people across the country are now subscribing to satellite
radio in record numbers because terrestrial radio isn't cutting it
for them. XM picked up 320,000 new subscriptions in Q1 2004 and the
numbers continue to grow at that rate and better.
Now, which is an actual threat to Fritts, et al, LPFM or satellite
radio? Do the math! Maybe I should send them all a thank-you note for
helping me get to XM. It's awesome.
Even more enlightening is that in my new role at XM, I'm getting
calls and email from former Beat Radio listeners in the Twin Cities
and across the country who have largely abandoned FM and AM and are
now XM subscribers. They hear the future, and it's *X*M.
I realize that this has little to do with low-power broadcasting, but
that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
And that’s it for me this week, kiddies. Tune in again,
same time, same page, next week, when I begin the first of my twenty-seven part
series on my adventures in Pago-Pago as a rum-swilling, card-playing lagabout
who....just kidding! More CD reviews, etc. next time ‘round...until then,
make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/CD’s you’d
like to see reviewed in this column, or you’d just like to complain that
I didn’t use Starship’s “We Built This City” for the
song of the week this time out, send replies to: (temporary e-mail) email@example.com.