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.

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

"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.

"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."

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."

It'd be a shame if such were the case. Pirate radio is more fun than corporate radio; it's real people fucking up in amusing ways, and playing more different kinds of music in the course of a week than Clear Channel offers in a year. Where else on the dial could a person possibly find the likes of the bizarre Thirties children's song T is back-announcing. "That was 'The Laughing Policeman,' by Charles Primrose," he declares. "It's off a compilation that I downloaded."

By the time the RIAA catches on, Free Radio Twin Cities and their entire operation may have moved into that abandoned milk truck parked down the street from you, or taken up residence in that falling-down tool shed in your neighbor's backyard.

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