(Or, How To Lose Dem Ol' Transmitter Blues, Pt 2)
by Tom Hallett
The rusty back door of the Volvo swung open with such force that it bounced back upon itself and nearly closed, but I hardly noticed as foul black smoke belched from its exhaust and formed a cloud of noxious material around my head. I grabbed for the door handle through the sooty air, and as I slammed into the back seat, the car shot forward with an audible groan. We were on the road—for better or worse—and I still had no idea who was driving or where we were headed.
As my eyes grew accustomed to the smoky dim light, I could
vaguely make out three other people in the vehicle, all of them peering right
back at me.
"Well, kid," huffed the driver, whose voice immediately
gave him away as the weirdo who'd called me, "you made it! I wasn't sure
you'd show up." I leaned forward in my seat to catch a glimpse of him in
the rearview mirror, and found that the face in the glass bore absolutely no
resemblance to the character I'd imagined over the telly. This cat was young,
man. No older than 24 or 25, I guessed, long-haired, wearing groovy Lennon specs
and sporting what looked like a bull's ring in his nose.
Catching my gaze, he barked out that misleading laugh I'd heard
the day before, and expertly flipped an American Spirit onto his lower lip.
"Har. Har. Har. Not what you expected, eh, Hallett?" Well, no, it
wasn't. But I was a bit relieved to find that my interview subject looked more
like Beck than Charles Manson, I must admit.
"Hey, it's all good," I began, trying not to give
away my thoughts. "Long as you guys ain't up to no good—or should
I say, any more no good than you already told me you are. Besides," I hoisted
up my backpack full of beer, "I could cause some serious damage with the
Old Milwaukee here." There was laughter all around then, and I could feel
the tension palpably ease in the small cab.
"As you may have guessed," continued "Guy,"
"I'm ‘Guy,’ and this—" he nodded towards the front
seat passenger, "is ‘Rex Roswell.’ Next to you back there is
‘Sheena.’ We all work at the station, you'll meet the rest of the
gang when we get to Ground Zero." “Rex” reached around to shake
my hand, and I saw that he wasn't much older than “Guy.” Twenty-something,
with a goofy old-school frizz 'do (think Hyde on “That ’70s Show”)
and a dapper Van Dyke beard/'stache combo.
"Hey," he grunted, then swiveled back to face the
road. I turned toward “Sheena,” who looked up distractedly from
a laptop computer and repeated “Rex's” one-syllable greeting. She
was probably a year or two older than her male cohorts, with long, Electric
Blue hair and multiple facial piercings, including a two-inch bone weaving its
way in and out of her lower left cheek. So this was the infamous pirate radio
gang, or part of it, anyway.
"So what's the plan, man?" I asked nobody in particular.
answered “Guy." "The plan is to get your ass out of the city
and do some fuckin' RADIO, man. First, though, you've got to put this on for
your protection and ours." He dug between the seats, tossed around some
crushed styrofoam coffee cups, crumpled napkins, and empty American Spirit packages,
and finally pulled out a black ski mask. "Put this sucker on backwards,
Hallett. That way you won't see where we're going and we won't have to kill
you later if anybody wants you to talk. Har. Har." That laugh again. I
could tell it was going to be a long night, especially if I didn't get another
beer in me right quick. With a sigh, I slipped the mask on backward and sat
back in my seat, feeling like five different kinds of a fool.
LOCAL WRITER FOUND STRANGLED AND NAKED WEARING A SKI MASK,
I imagined the headline, but then remembered that I'm a non-union, freelance
rock journalist, so I re-imagined it: LOCAL DRUNKEN IDIOT FOUND STRANGLED...
That would be more like it, I thought, then let out a stupid, involuntary chortle.
"What are you laughin' about, Hallett?" barked "Guy."
"You think this is some kind of joke, man? Shit, we could all get in some
serious dutch if anybody finds out who we really are and what we're up to. This
ain't no party-—well, it is, but it's a SERIOUS party, T. And you're the
guest of honor tonight, so listen up."
"Sorry," I muttered, but "Guy" was on a
roll, and I'm sure he didn't hear me. "Sheena" gave me a gentle nudge
in the ribs and snickered under her breath, which I took to mean, "Don't
take him too seriously, he does enough of that himself." I relaxed and
listened to "Guy's" spiel.
"When we get to the studio, we'll let you run your tape
deck, but for now, I'm just gonna fill you in on shit. We got started—me,
‘Sheena,’ ‘Rex,’ and our partners, about two years ago.
We all met at a Twin Cities school of ‘higher’ learning, and found
that we were all interested in radio. We started our own internet station, but
that just didn't have the impact we'd hoped for on the local community."
I raised the mask just enough to have a smoke, lit a Marlboro,
and waited. After a few sharp turns, speed-ups, and slow-downs, "Guy"
"So we looked into pirate radio. We were inspired by a
local guy, Alan Freed, who's probably the best example in the history of micro-broadcasting
of taking this whole deal to the total limit. Freed had a thing called ‘The
Beat 97.7,’ which he ran in right in the middle of the city. He eventually
ran afoul of the FCC, and the last I heard, he'd been fined and lost all of
his equipment, and had taken the FCC to court! (NOTE: You can read up on Freed's
exploits online—and learn scads more about micro-broadcasting— at
the websites http://www.radiodiversity.com and http://www.beatworld.com.) We realized that
we couldn't play the game the same way, so we set up a ways outside of town
and made sure we weren't jamming any major stations with our signal.
"My older brother had been a ham radio nut in high school,
so when I told him we wanted to start our own low-watt radio station, he was
totally into it. He helped us find the equipment we needed, hooked us up with
some cool people who were on the same wavelength—so to speak—as
we were (NOTE: check out Radio Free Berkeley online for more info), and we finally
went live on the air a few months back. Since then, we've managed to pull off
more shit than we ever dreamed we could. We have no sponsors, no play lists,
no genre divisions, no phony DJs—as a matter of fact, we prefer the term
‘modulator’ or ‘host,’ because corporate radio has fouled
the term DJ so badly. We play shitloads of local music mixed with a healthy
dose of regional and indie bands and a goodly portion of quality national music
ranging from the ’30s all the way to today. And the only rules we have
are no ‘fuck’ on the air, and no politics—we'll leave that
to NPR and Rush Limbaugh—and to give as much respect as we expect in return.
We host live musicians on the air, give the mic to anybody responsible, and
generally mind our own business. Any questions?"
"Whew." I sighed. "That's a mouthful, ‘Guy.’
It all sounds pretty fuckin' cool to me, I mean, I've dreamed of exactly that
sort of set-up since I was a kid listening to tapes of Wolfman Jack's Mexican
years. I guess I'll have to see the set-up, get an idea how you do what you
do, and figure out the best way to let my readers know about it. You haven't
had any trouble with other stations or the authorities?"
Suddenly, "Sheena" spoke up. She had a soft, almost
wispy voice, with just a hint of an East Coast accent.
"Naw. We keep it on the down-low, Hallett. You're the
first person outside of our little group and our listeners who even knows about
"And you want me to write about it WHY?" I asked.
"I'll tell you why," blurted "Rex." I could
tell from the sound of his voice that he'd spun around in his seat and was facing
me. "Because even though we can't—and wouldn't want to— use
the corporate media to spread the word so people can listen to us, you can tell
people how easy it is to do, and we can at least hopefully inspire others to
fire up their own transmitters. If just ten or twenty people in every city in
America had their own stations going, and kept spreading the word that it WORKS,
man, just imagine. It would spread like wildfire, along with the information,
and maybe eventually we'll change that damn 1996 Telecommunications Bill."
(You can find information on that bill, which President Clinton signed into
law, and which effectively gave giant corporations control over ALL American
media, online, as well.)
"Whoa!" "Guy" let out a beller and slammed
on the brakes. "Shit! I almost missed our turn-off! Har. Har. Har."
We stopped so abruptly I almost flew over the seat into "Rex's" lap,
then whipped to the left so hard I ended up in "Sheena's."
"Holy shit, ‘Guy!’" I barked. "I
hope you ‘modulate’ better than you drive! Fuck!"
"Har. Har. Har." he responded, and suddenly we came
to a complete halt and the noisy Volvo engine went silent.
As the dust and exhaust particles settled, "Sheena"
reached over and yanked the ski mask off of my head with a flourish.
"We're here!!" she cried, and, after I blinked a
couple times to clear my eyes, I saw that we'd pulled up in a heavily wooded
area in front of what looked like an old barn. Faded grey boards had replaced
its original bright red finish, and there were three signs of various sizes
on the wall by the doors. The first one, on the left, read (of course) KILL
UGLY RADIO. The second, over the door, read EARWIG RADIO ZERO. The third, off
to one side and faded with age, featured a drawing of a healthy ear of corn
and the name DEKALB. Damn, I thought, they weren't kidding about getting out
of the city, were they?
We all piled out of the car and stretched, 30 or 40 miles worth
of cramps, I was guessing, but it was hard to tell, between the ski mask and
“Guy's" ramblings. My companions were dressed in T-shirts and jeans,
secondhand stuff, and I noticed that "Rex's" mechanic's jacket had
the name "Skeeze" embroidered onto a patch on the left breast. "Sheena"
was wearing a pink "Banana Bunch" T-shirt and had on bad-ass combat
boots. "Guy" sported a faded REV 105 "Power To The People"
tee, and wore no shoes at all. I felt right at home in my rock/junkie T-shirt
and torn jeans.
As I began scoping out the area around the barn, the doors
swung open with a loud "Bang!" and I saw the silhouettes of three
figures, standing with their hands on their hips. "Hey! It's Hallett! Hey,
Hallett—are you ready to rock and roll?" A sharp, piercing shriek
ripped out of the room behind them and the unmistakable, growling guitar sounds
of a well-known local rock outfit slammed into my eardrums with the force of
a runaway freight train. Home at last, I thought ... (Tune in next week for
the third and final—I mean it, this time, really, I do—installment
of KILL UGLY RADIO.)
That's all the room we've got this week, gang. Check in next
time for a brief account of my evening spent at the EARWIG RADIO 0 studios and
exactly how and where you can get the information and equipment you need to
set up your very own low-watt, micro-broadcast radio station. At your own risk,
of course. I'm just the information conduit here ... Until we meet again, make
yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/events/CD's you'd like to
see reviewed in this column, or you'd just like to share your own weird/Mexican/underground
radio experiences, send replies to: (temporary e-mail) email@example.com