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Pirate station pushes radio limits
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Pirate station pushes radio limits

Illegal broadcast unlicensed, uncensored

By MARK KRZOS, mkrzos@news-press.com
Published by news-press.com on December 14, 2003

X-rated radio is on the air.

For nearly a year, 91.9 FM has been broadcasting hip-hop and R&B music that no other station could get away with.

Turn it on and you might hear songs about explicit sexual acts, DJs using language that could make a longshoreman shudder and hundreds of kids calling in with song requests and shout outs. Other times you’ll hear souful, romantic ballads.

The signal from 91.9 FM — or WUPT-FM, as it’s known — is coming from somewhere in Fort Myers, but no one knows where — or at least no one’s saying.

Repeated calls to a phone number obtained by The News-Press went unanswered Friday.

The pirate radio station, which plays hip-hop, rap, R&B and soul, doesn’t have a license from the Federal Communications Commission and is operating illegally.

Several messages seeking comment from the FCC in Washington on pirate radio stations were not returned.

Despite the question of the station’s legality, listeners don’t seem to mind.

“It’s a great station,” said Gaye Levine, manager of Club Neptunes. “They play stuff no one else will play.”

The station is also breaking new acts, Levine said. “They broke the Amanda Perez record before anyone else in town.”

They’re breaking new ground in advertising as well. Commercials on the station are at a minimum.

“I’ve got a whole 60-second slot on there and when I went to give them some money for it, they wouldn’t take it,” said Ty Jackson, a local hip-hop promoter and owner of the G-Spot Barber Shop.

The signal from the station isn’t strong, so it may not be heard in some parts of the county. The signal in downtown Fort Myers is clear, but it begins to break up around Cypress Lake Drive in south Fort Myers.

“I can’t get it on Sanibel, but at night I can get it on McGregor,” Levine said.

The station, which goes by Nine-One-Nine, is starting to catch on with people outside the urban areas of Fort Myers, Levine said.

“The white kids are starting to pick up on it,” Levine said. “It’s spreading by word-of-mouth.”

Jim Keating, market manager of Clear Channel Fort Myers, said he’s heard of the station but has not listened to it.

Typically, people who operate pirate radio stations are frustrated that they can’t break into the business, Keating said.

“These pirates are breaking federal law,” he said. “We try hard to get it right and abide by the rules. It’s aggravating to me that someone can buy equipment, throw it up and put obscene language out on the airwaves.”

Keating also fired a warning shot at those who may consider advertising with a pirate radio station.

“If you do business with a pirate station, you will not do business with us,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if money changes hands or not.”

Pete Tridish, a technology director for the nonprofit Prometheus Radio Project and former pirate radio operator, said as little as $700 can buy someone a pirate radio starter kit (usually a five-watt transmitter, amplifier and antenna).

“It’s complicated to get started, but not beyond the abilities of an average person,” Tridish said.

The Prometheus Radio Project helps communities set up small radio stations with frequencies that don’t interfere with larger commercial stations.

“We just built a station for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers,” said Tridish from the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project.

Keating said broadcasters don’t have a problem with the low power stations.

“They apply for their license the right way,” Keating said. “(Pirate stations) don’t. They don’t want to follow the rules. ... And what about community standards? Is this the kind of stuff you want out on the airwaves?”

The black community seems to be embracing the renegade radio station, Jackson said.

“They’re giving away bikes to some kids for Christmas, and they had a block party with turkey for Thanksgiving,” said Jackson, estimating that nearly 1,000 people showed up for the event.

About five years ago, the FCC estimated that there were 1,000 pirate stations operating in the United States.

“No one knows for sure how many there are,” said Tridish, noting that some of the reasons for starting a pirate radio station is a dissatisfaction with commercial radio, presenting different viewpoints or reaching people from different cultures.

“Clear Channel can own eight stations in a city, but if I wanted to start one, I could go to jail,” Tridish said.

Licenses to get a high power frequency are extremely hard to obtain because they’re under the control of the major radio stations. “They’re bought and sold like a piece of land,” he said.

Tridish, who operated his own pirate radio station until the FCC confiscated his equipment, said complaints to the FCC rarely come from listeners but from licensed broadcasters worried about competition.

Typically, what happens when the FCC finds out about a pirate station, a letter will be sent, Tridish said. “Their main goal is stop people and a lot do when they get that letter.”

If there are repeated complaints, licensed broadcasters will ask the FCC to get a seizure warrant. Sometimes fines can reach $11,000, Tridish said.

Tridish, who does not advocate pirate radio, said he now works with the FCC in trying new ways to balance the playing field between major broadcasters and low frequency broadcasters.

“We’ve moved from civil disobedience to trying to make the rules more fair,” he said.

Keating refused to comment on whether Clear Channel has filed a complaint against 91.9 FM or not.


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