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

Dr. Diogenes is more than happy to tell the station's story--by phone, from an undisclosed location. He's the most secretive one of the lot.

"To understand the beginning of Free Radio Twin Cities," he says, "you need to know the story of the bunker. In the 1950s, during the height of the Cold War, some of Minneapolis's most prominent families--the Pillsburys, the Cargills, and the like--built a luxurious fallout shelter, powered by its own atomic reactor, beneath the Minneapolis Armory. When the reactor started leaking, they abandoned the project, and pretty soon, the place was overrun with semi-sentient roaches and mutant rats, which is who we had to deal with when we found out about the place and moved the station there. The roaches were kinda Maoist, so we got along with them OK, but we couldn't get the rats to stop chewing up our RCA cables. Finally, we won one rat, Reggie the Mutant Rat, over to our side, and he started taking care of our e-mail. Oh--Reggie was gay, too."

Then he tells the real story. Radio Free Twin Cities was born in the tumultuous days of the Minnehaha Free State at the end of 1998. There, a community of nonviolent activists camped out for four months in woodlands held sacred by the Mendota Objibwe tribe, in hopes of saving the area from the bulldozers and Highway 55. "We did two broadcasts during that period, from a tree," Diogenes remembers. Early in '99, Free State veterans and others began sporadic transmissions from indoor locations.

"The station started mainly because people were upset about the Revolution Radio takeover, and concerned about media consolidation," Diogenes says. "At first it was hit-and-miss. Then a ham radio operator and DJ who called himself Disruptive and a guy named Eon Blue, who had been heavily involved with pirate radio in the Bay Area, came in and put us on a steady enough footing to start broadcasting regularly."

At the moment, while the station broadcasts 42 hours a week, programming is a bit thin in places, particularly on Saturdays, when the only show is Monsignor Marco's Ad Nauseam from noon to 2:00 p.m. Friday's broadcast day begins at 8:00 p.m., with DJ Cali and the Northside's Then and Now, and ends at midnight with Robot. (Your best bet for finding a schedule is Minneapolis's Treehouse Records.) The dearth of person power has nothing to do with programming restrictions (there are none), nor is FRTC's learning curve particularly steep. Except for the turntables and the ancient Yamaha mixer that routes the station's signal to the transmitter (which is tucked into a crawl space in the garage), all the gear in the studio--CD players, cassette decks, MP3 players, and the like--is garden-variety consumer stuff, most of it donated. In fact, prospective members of the Free Radio Twin Cities collective need only attend two meetings and submit a mix tape to get a spot on the air--not a lot of hoop-jumping for access to a 70-watt signal that covers most of South Minneapolis and reaches as far to the east as the Macalester campus.

"I think people just have other things to do on Friday and Saturday," Adante speculates, "and DJs are always coming and going. The nature of the station is such that most of the people who get involved are males in their early 20s. A lot of them stick around for six months or a year, then go off to find themselves or something."

The folks who stick around longest seem to be the ones with the strongest activist orientation: Adante, for one; and Dr. Diogenes, whose Real Truth Radio airs from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesdays. "I consider myself a propagandist," he says. "I'm doing everything in my power to combat the corporate media virus. People are getting fed up, with Clear Channel and its 1,200-plus stations, with Fox. They know they're being lied to. They know they're not getting the whole truth. For me, doing pirate radio is an act of civil disobedience"

FRTC is the only pirate with a strong political orientation to pop up locally in the past decade or so (with the exception of Ballot Box Radio, which broadcasts only just before elections). At least it's the only one to endure long enough to make an impression. We've had short-lived micro-broadcasters galore: Free Radio Como; 2,000 Flushes; a Top 40 pirate vessel allegedly run by a renegade KDWB engineer that operated out of Woodbury for a while. All vanished of their own volition.

The FCC has only gone after one station locally--Beat Radio, the high-profile, superpro FCC bait that broadcast for 103 days in 1996 and fought its closure in the courts for four years after. (Go to www.beatworld.com for the entire story, complete with photos of the bust.)

"The big trade-off with pirate radio," Dr. D says, "is that the better known a station [is], the more listeners it has, the more likely it is to attract the FCC's attention." For the time being, the folks at FRTC, feel safe--although sometimes they wonder if anyone is listening.

"I'd like to think we have an audience," the American't surmises. "If nobody's listening, then it's just our little club."

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