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6/17/2010

News

Killing the messenger
The takedown of an Orlando radio pirate
Illustration by Shan Stumpf

 

On March 3, 2009, two agents from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Gang Enforcement Unit were staked out on a side street in a high-crime area of Orlando off Orange Blossom Trail. Aided by two federal agents from Tampa, they scoped a small white home. According to written statements, the owners of the house had rented a bedroom for $150 per month to then-27-year-old Christopher Robert Roth. Also staying there was a 20-year-old drifter with a rap sheet, Balthazard Senat.

Three days later, warrants in hand, the crew arrested Roth shortly after he left the house in question. The police then went inside the bedroom and got Senat. Their crime: radio piracy.

According to police records, the Gang Enforcement Unit was “summoned” by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the day before the stakeout in response to a complaint lodged with the agency’s field office in Tampa. Someone had picked up a frequency on the FM dial – 91.3-FM, to be precise, just two clicks of the dial away from WPRK (91.5 FM), Rollins College’s station – of an unauthorized broadcast called Street Heat. Headed by Roth (DJ Skippy) and Senat (DJ Done-Done), Street Heat beamed out hard-edged local hip-hop, “vulgar” tracks (in the words of the arresting officers) with “cursing language,” and, according to the complainant (though never substantiated by the stakeout), information on where to buy drugs and hookers.

Although pirate radio is a phenomenon that dates back to mad scientists Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison and saw its heyday with the musical obscurantists of the 1990s, it’s an issue that rarely comes up anymore with the advent of Internet streaming. Actions taken against these pirates by the FCC are even more rare, with only a few cases per year across the nation, most of which end with stern warnings. But Street Heat was a special case, made more so by the FCC’s enlistment of a gang unit to bust the airwave thieves and by a national headlines-hungry Orange County Sheriff’s Office eager to trumpet yet another win in the battle against what they deem to be the city’s unsavory elements. In the end, a practically homeless young man – some might say a tech savant – bore the full force of a government agency tasked to enforce laws it doesn’t support itself.

The breakdown of what exactly the agents heard, as spelled out in detail on the arrest affidavit, reads like the patriarchal panic against gangsta rap that’s been part of the exhausting battle hip-hop has faced since the days of Tipper Gore: “During the broadcast, it was mentioned about the ‘BLOOD’ gang symbol/sign ‘five-point star,’ about a ‘BLOOD’ jargon ‘brrrrrrrrrrat’ (meaning BLOODS members are present/another meaning is that when the BLOODS pulled the trigger on their automatic guns the rival gangs can only hear the gun blast sound ‘brrrrrrrrat’).” Local crews like the “Parramore Snakes” and “Oakridge Niggas” and hood areas like “Ivey Lane” and “Mercy Dr.” received shouts, along with talk of moving kilos of cocaine and the dreaded bandanas. “It was mentioned on how you (gang members) fold your ‘FLAG’ (meaning bandanas) who they (gang members) ‘reppin’’ (representing/name of criminal gang),” the affidavit continues. “It was also mentioned about either you’re down with the BLOOD gang (meaning part of the gang) or you’re not.”

In other words, the kind of content that makes national artists like Snoop Dogg and Clipse so popular. Los Angeles artist the Game even cracked the Billboard Top 100 charts in 2006 with a song titled “It’s Okay (One Blood),” which contained the couplet, “Bandana on the right side, gun on the left side.”

One phrase in particular stuck out to the agents listening in: “If you reppin’ for the hood, motherfucker, throw it up.”

But you can’t arrest someone for playing offensive music – not unless it’s transmitted over unlicensed radio waves. With the assistance and urging of the FCC, the Gang Enforcement Unit used “direction finding techniques” to trace the source of this gangsta rap to an antenna mounted in a tree behind the white house off OBT. Starting there, the two FCC agents followed the coaxial hardline cable from the tree to Senat’s bedroom window. A quick check confirmed that the house was not licensed by the FCC and exceeded the legal field strength of micro-broadcasting – just over 300 feet – by several thousand times. Street Heat was reaching huge chunks of the county, and maybe the entire city. But why would anyone risk arrest and enormous fines for a pirate radio station in the age of seamless online streaming and podcasts that can go out to the world?

“For different communities, radio stations are the best way to reach people,” offers Brandy Doyle, a regulatory policy associate for the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit advocacy group for low-power communications. The organization forms coalitions to push Congress to reform the rules and regulations that prohibit people from gaining access to the airwaves. “We find that even in the age of the Internet, people still want radio stations,” says Doyle. “In Florida, many of the unlicensed stations are operated by Haitian communities and other Caribbean communities that [have] immigrants who come from places where radio is really vital and important. They come to the U.S. and they can’t get a radio station license. They’re trying to reach the Haitian community in Miami, for example, where it’s really local. In many parts of the world, radio is much more central to daily life than it is in the U.S.”

Susan Carpenter, a Los Angeles Times columnist whose 2004 memoir, 40 Watts From Nowhere: A Journey Into Pirate Radio, chronicled her run as the operator of über-hip (and illegal) music stations KBLT Los Angeles and KPBJ San Francisco before being shut down, is slightly puzzled by the existence of Street Heat, or any pirate radio, for that matter.

“It seems like a moot point, generally speaking, because technology has sort of usurped the need,” says Carpenter. “There [are] so many more options to get your music. I think that for [Senat] there’s the rebel chic to it, too. It probably has more of a cachet to be doing something illegal, like pirating.”

Ironically, as technology has enabled virtually anyone with an Internet connection to become their own DJ, the laws against illegal broadcasting over the airwaves have never been tougher. Even stranger, Congress has continued to push a policy of cutting off access to the airwaves for anyone other than media conglomerates, despite the FCC’s own belief that they should be opened. As of press time, there’s even a bill, the Local Community Radio Act of 2009 (S. 592), on the Senate’s agenda this year that would implement the FCC’s desire for open FM stations. The bill, which passed on the House floor, affirms that the FCC believes there has been “too much consolidation” in the radio industry and that in 2003, the average cost to acquire a commercial radio station was more than $2.5 million. It goes further to clarify the FCC’s assertion that “LPFM [Low-power stations like Street Heat] “would not compromise the integrity of the FM radio band” and that after an industry-backed study to prove that they do interfere – which cost taxpayers more than $2.1 million – “the broadcasters’ concerns were demonstrated to be unsubstantiated.” It’s a piece of legislation similar to the bipartisan bills introduced by Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Republican Sen. John McCain several times this decade. It has yet to pass in any form.

Who is whispering in the ear of Congress that’s more powerful than the FCC? According to many, it’s the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a lobbyist group representing broadcast networks and radio giants like Clear Channel Communications. In 2000, at NAB’s urging, Congress passed the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, which effectively shut down low-power stations after a brief window in which such licenses would be offered. Due to bureaucratic red tape and mishandled communication, relatively few low-power licenses were actually obtained during this window, and some, according to Doyle, took upwards of five years to take effect.

“Unless someone in your area wants to sell you their station, you have no chance of getting one legally,” says Doyle. “There was only one opportunity [in 2000] and many communities didn’t even get a chance to file then because partway through, the FCC opened a window at different times in different parts of the country. In the middle of that, Congress instituted new regulations and a lot of those applications were thrown out.”

Regardless of what has or may transpire in regard to free airwaves, the FCC is still tasked with enforcing a policy against radio pirates that its legislative efforts show it does not support, and its agents enforce the law with rigidity.

When OW called the FCC for comment on this story, the spokesperson – who did not offer his name – had little to say. He says the agency does not consider context or content when enforcing the nation’s anti-piracy laws and refused to elaborate on the Street Heat situation. “We do not speculate on the details of a case,” he says, before hanging up.

And why would they speculate? Field strength and microvolts per meter are easy and infallible data to determine, and the law clearly states what those limits are. If the agency reads a signal’s strength to exceed the non-licensed limits of 250 microvolts per meter at three meters, then that’s a felony, plain and simple.

Only it’s not that simple. Sometimes they send cease-and-desist letters. In Carpenter’s case, she was given a choice. She writes of her encounter with an FCC agent: “’I’ll tell you what. You’ve got two options,’ he tells me. ‘You can sign the equipment over to me or take a fine of ten thousand dollars.’ The equipment cost 500. I tell him he can keep it.”

“It was a different era,” says Carpenter. “What I was doing probably seemed more quote-unquote pure. I would imagine what [Senat] was doing seemed a lot more threatening to the status quo. I think if it has a gang affiliation, I would think that would be more of a motivation to say, ‘We’re gonna outright bust you.’”

Judging by the wide press coverage the day after the arrests, in which the Orange County Sheriff’s Office announced the bust and informed the media of Senat and Roth’s “advertisements” for illegal gang, drug and sexual activities, there may have been more mustard slapped on the case than usual. In fact, such a bust is relatively uncommon to begin with. The FCC lists 136 total “enforcement actions” toward unauthorized broadcast stations from the beginning of 2000 to the end of 2009. Of those cases, 38 percent took place in Florida and most of those occurred in the counties of Polk, Pinellas and Hillsborough, which surround the FCC’s Tampa-based enforcement office. With only a handful of busts per year, most within FCC spitting distance, it would appear as if the government agency is simply looking for busts in its own backyard.

As Carpenter writes in her book, that was exactly the case with her. After her station was shut down, Carpenter filed a Freedom of Information Act request to learn who filed the complaint against her station. “According to my file,” she writes, “that was the FCC complaining to itself. The Bay Area field office found out about KBLT through an online pirate radio fan site and tipped off the office near L.A.”

“I still don’t even know all the particulars of it,” says Carpenter. “It was just one office noticing that my station existed. My understanding the whole time I was operating, which was for three years, is that somebody would need to complain. My understanding was that it would be somebody out in the community or another radio station. I didn’t think it would be the enforcement agency itself.”

Roth, aka DJ Skippy, pleaded no contest on Sept. 16, 2009. He was fined $500 and is still paying it off in $10 increments. Senat didn’t get off so easily. He also pleaded no contest, but there was another factor at work in his case besides the FCC – a bag of marijuana found next to him on the floor when the agents raided the small white house. Senat was charged with third-degree felonies for both the pirate radio transmission and possession of a controlled substance. As for the latter charge, he was fined $855. Last month, the FCC had its way with Senat, slapping him with a $10,000 fine, to be paid within 30 days. That is, if they can find him.

Today, Senat, aka DJ Done-Done, is a ghost. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, at the time of arrest, listed him as a “transient.” More than a year later, even his public defender has no idea where he is. A visit to the small white house off Orange Blossom Trail offers nothing but bleak surroundings. A pink motel offering hourly rates overshadows the neighborhood, along with a lot that sells granite and marble slabs. In front of the depot, a lengthy message scrawled in black paint greets motorists: I have crack in my mouth brags the 300 lb blk man at sands motel pay phone!

“Nobody by that name lives here,” says the polite woman from behind the door of the small white house when asked about Senat. “Have a good day,” says the man holding the door just before closing it emphatically. There’s so much to wonder about Balthazard Senat; so much that will likely never be known. Why was he compelled to illegally broadcast local rap and why in such an outdated forum? Considering how little cash was on him at the time of his arrest, could he have possibly made money off his so-called “advertisements?” And perhaps the most perplexing of all, how did he do it?

“It’s not easy,” says Carpenter in regard to setting up a pirate radio station. “In one sense it’s easy, if you’re technologically minded, but you would need to find your transmitter kit … “ She trails off a bit, possibly distracted by memories of her days compiling her own station with Radio Shack gear.

A more likely scenario is that Senat felt the same compulsion for freedom of communication that so many before him did, from the offshore DJs of Radio Caroline in the UK at the start of the pop British Invasion in the ’60s – a fight dramatized in last year’s film Pirate Radio – to the mail-order illegality of Mbanna Kantako in the ’80s, a pioneer of the low-power broadcasting movement who used his FCC-defying airwaves to speak out about housing projects in Illinois on Black Liberation Radio. It’s a tradition continued, legally, in Immokalee, Fla., which boasts Radio Conciencia, a low-power community station that reaches the area’s farm workers on issues of rights and warnings of abuse from employers.

Florida is no stranger to pirate radio. Thanks to its tall buildings, flat land and multicultural melting pot, Miami was overstuffed with pirate radio stations in the 1990s, leading to sweeping busts by the FCC toward the end of the decade.

These days, however, they come more as anomalies. Of course, with that rarity comes a certain amount of folk-hero status. The dozens of comments that the news of Senat’s arrest garnered on the website boingboing.net last year speak to that feeling of nostalgia. “Back in college … ” start some of the posts.

“There’s a romance to it, right?” says Carpenter. “And if you’re a tech-y geek who knows this used to exist or maybe knows somebody from the scene back in the ’90s, it’s a very alluring idea. I don’t think that idea ever goes away. I don’t think it will ever disappear.”

jstrout@orlandoweekly.com
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