Pirates of the Mississippi

Yo Ho Ho and 70 Watts: Four Years After Broadcasting From a Tree Limb Down by the River, Local Radio Renegades Keep on Marauding

Talk about cramming as much music into one show as possible.

"Shit," T hisses, jumping out of his chair and switching one of the two Technics 1200 turntables at the far end of Free Radio Twin Cities tiny studio back to 33 rpm. Suddenly, the song speeding by in a helium haze, "Glimpse of Heaven," by '70s cult band the Strawbs, relaxes into its folky prog-rock self. Seems the baby-faced DJ forgot that he switched the turntable to 45 rpm just a few minutes earlier, when he transformed the narrator of a Mormon propaganda record called Which Church Shall You Belong To? into a latter-day chipmunk.

"A typical pirate-radio blunder," says the American't, a tall, pleasant-looking fellow with wire-rimmed glasses and a blast of curly red hair. His show, Makes Ears Happy, fills the 6:30-8:30 slot on Sunday evenings. Usually he hangs out until T's Sound Judgement, the last show of the evening, ends at 10:30 p.m. or thereabouts. Then the pair head down to Stub and Herb's for some post-piratical quaffing.

Broadcasting from a fallout shelter ruled by semi-sentient roaches and mutant rats: The  masked DJs of Free Radio Twin Cities
Darin Back
Broadcasting from a fallout shelter ruled by semi-sentient roaches and mutant rats: The masked DJs of Free Radio Twin Cities

"Happens to me all the time," the American't continues. "We don't want blunder instead of plunder; we just get it some times. At least we don't have corporate bosses breathing down our necks and yelling at us when it happens."

As blunders go, it's certainly not T's worst. "Early during my first show," T recalls, "I had to pee really badly. Not knowing the station's peeing policy at the time, I looked around the studio and found a beat-up old bucket that looked like it had already been used for that purpose, so I peed in it. When the guys who did the show after me walked in, they were like, Uh, what's that smell?"

On the subject of secretions: The last track in T's set, "Dismal Day," by those most venerable balladeers, Bread, begins to ooze toward its end. The song finally hits empty at the same time as T's first beer of the show--or is it his second? "Ashcroft is an idiot," he exclaims on-mic , continuing a studio conversation about the Department of Justice's current prosecution of Greenpeace on the basis of an obscure 1872 law.

"I think you're on the wrong mic," the American't advises. T turns to the live mic and repeats his assertion with a little more authority, then adds "You're listening to Free Radio Twin Cities, 93.1, broadcasting from a secret location in South Minneapolis."

Of course the spot is hidden. Call Free Radio Twin Cities' transmissions what you will: microbroadcasting, low-power FM, or pirate radio (the preferred designation at FRTC). They're all against the law, and have been since 1978. Yet the threat of fines (up to $10,000) and imprisonment (if Ashcroft's Department of Justice gets involved), has done little to dissuade the few thousand free-speech advocates, religious zealots, music lovers, and thrill-seekers who have hoisted antennae like Jolly Roger flags all around the country in the interim. The abundance of open space on the dial in most locales is a great temptation to most pirates. ("Potential signal interference" was the excuse offered by the feds for scrapping a plan to offer low-power FM licenses a few years back; the real interference came in the form of intensive lobbying from the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio.)

Yet startup costs remain low--around a grand--and some online retailers even market kits. Technical information is widely available on the web (start with www.freeradio.org). Plus, much of the time, if a station does get busted, the FCC only confiscates its equipment. In four-plus years of operation, Free Radio Twin Cities has received two visits from warrantless agents, who were initially refused entry. By the time the radio police got around to paying a return visit, the station had moved.

FRTC's fourth (not counting the tree--more on that later) and current location is an unusual one for a pirate vessel: a jerry-built chamber in the front of a garage, behind an unassuming white frame house in a quiet residential neighborhood. The windowless sliver of a room provides just enough space to accommodate the long, wood-grain Formica-topped table that holds the station's gear, a single row of chairs, and the shelves that line most of the cranny. Walls and ceiling are insulated with a layered patchwork of cardboard, plastic sheeting, and gold velour. A portable propane heater warms the room--sort of.

"We've certainly had warmer locations," notes a woman named Adante. Compact, with long red hair and a lighthearted air that belies the gravity of her mission, she's the trio's seasoned veteran and one of FRTC's most dedicated activists. "I got involved with the station in 1999," she recalls, lighting a clove cigarette. "Dr. Diogenes"--the only one of FRTC's founders still involved with the station--"and I did a show every Sunday called The 120-Minute Anarcho-Pagan Radio Hour for a couple of years. I'm on hiatus right now. I wanted to do something more concrete to be able to protect this movement, so I sacrificed myself and started law school."

While Adante's command of station lore is considerable, she demurs on discussing the origins of this strange broadcast project. "For that," she says, "you need to talk to Doctor D."

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