The Life and Death of The People’s Radio
By Shane Cohn and Michel Miller 10/04/2012
The Day the Music Died
July 16, 2012. A young mother is nursing her newborn while her other child happily circles the interior of the house on his scooter. Her husband is at least 100 miles away, traveling on business. It’s a typical summer day in the quiet middle-class neighborhood where the couple rents their single-family home. There’s a hard knock on the door. She’s not expecting anyone. Baby in arms, she opens it to find two men with walkie-talkies standing on her front porch. “Do you have a license to broadcast?” one of them asks.
She calls her husband. The Colonel, as he’s known to friends and fans of the pirate radio station he’s been operating out of their garage for about nine months, knows when his wife of 10 years is upset. “How do you turn off the radio station?” There’s panic in her voice. “HOW DO YOU TURN OFF THE RADIO STATION?!”
The men from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), comfortable in government-issued white-collar shirts and lightweight windbreakers, wielding signal detection devices, ask her permission to enter the home and take a look around. Her answer is no. She closes the door and makes her way to the garage where she pulls the plugs from all visible outlets and hits the main breaker switch. The station is running on autopilot until the next DJ is scheduled, and learning the nuts and bolts of radio broadcasting has not been high on her to-do list. She returns to the men, who tell her the station is still broadcasting. They become increasingly insistent about entering the premises. “If they were scarier, I probably would have let them in,” she says. Nevertheless, these are the feds and they want answers. She calls the Colonel back. He instructs her to go around to the back of the garage, or “the bunker” as it’s affectionately known, where a tangle of extension chords will lead her to the master plug. She goes back, follows her husband’s instructions, and 89.7 KSSR The People’s Radio ceases to exist.
Listeners feared the worst, and a cryptic post on KSSR’s Facebook page by the Colonel provided grim confirmation: “That was that.” Though there was the initial shock, everyone knew it was inevitable. “We were all paranoid that we would get found out,” said DJ, a musician and student who hosted a weekly all-vinyl show. “But we were comforted, knowing that the federal government wasn’t doing well so [we figured] they wouldn’t be focused on gnats like us.” While nobody but the FCC knows who dropped the dime on KSSR, those closely involved aren’t spending any time worrying about it. DJ Steve, who hosted a hip-hop program and co-hosted a talk show called “The Late & Bake,” said he was surprised it didn’t happen sooner. Wildboy, an established musician who hosted “Wildhour,” said they would often joke about the feds knocking on the door. “One day it was really windy and something happened like a palm frond hit the roof, and we thought maybe the feds were coming down through the skylight,” he recalls, laughing. “We were constantly joking around, and when the feds actually did shut it down, everyone was like, ‘shut up!’ I don’t think any of us wanted it to last forever. It was kind of a moment in time.” The Colonel says he sort of hopes it was the competition that turned them in. “I’d like to think another radio station ratted us out, that we were causing enough waves in the pool. That’s the punk rock side of me that wishes that’s how it went down, but who knows.”
Photo by Matthew Hill
Taking back the airwaves from left: The Doctor, Major Rager, The Colonel, Wildboy and Steve.
Free Radio Ventura
This month would have marked the one-year anniversary of The People’s Radio in Ventura, one year that these characters with their shared respect for music hung out in a garage, hopped on a public airwave and broadcast something free and organic to the people. There was no money or corporate interest involved. It was pure. As with most pirate radio stations, it was created out of necessity by those who live and love music and want to share it freely without government interference.
“I think people responded well to it because it was real,” says the Colonel. “It wasn’t being shoved down their throats [or used for anything] but to help them get through their day, because it was helping us get through our day.”
The station equipment was inherited from a man referred to as The Godfather, who had been quietly broadcasting from the Silver Strand area of Oxnard for the previous two years. He was beginning to feel uneasy, so the Colonel agreed to carry on the broadcast in Ventura. A 40-foot antenna was mounted on the roof, a transmitter installed and a SAM Broadcaster to stream the broadcast online. There were two USB mics — a yeti and a blue snowball — a dinky set of headphones plugged into a boom box to use as a monitor, and a hard drive containing 2,000 songs.
The Colonel would later learn from the FCC that the 89.7 MHz frequency was measured at 503,000 microvolts per meter at 3 meters, exceeding the legal limit of 250 microvolts per meter at 3 meters. On a good day, KSSR transmitted throughout Ventura, parts of Oxnard, and even scattered patches of Oak View. Had it stayed within the legal limit, its reach would have been a couple of blocks.
The plan was to auto-shuffle the music on the hard drive for two months, feel it out and begin broadcasting with DJs after the New Year. The word spread quickly through the community that a pirate radio station was up and running, spinning vinyl and even doing a buzzed morning talk show.
With the Colonel and associates well-connected in the punk music scene, The People’s Radio managed to get the band Old Man Markley to play live at the station before a scheduled performance at Velvet Jones in Santa Barbara. There was even a ticket giveaway for callers.
“That was the first time I felt this operation could be insanely awesome,” the Colonel remembers.
And so it continued for months. The phones rang every few minutes with requests. DJs had regular time slots, live interviews continued with guests that included Eric Wood from Man is the Bastard and Brooks Wackerman from Bad Religion. Local bands were in rotation with the likes of Fugazi, Wesley Willis and RBL Posse — music that commercial radio would never touch — and letters from listeners began trickling in.
One fan named JW wrote that he was moments away from quitting his oil field job when he remembered to tune in. He had seen people posting online about the station and decided to check it out with no expectations. “That was when I heard Wesley Willis’ ‘Suck a Caribou’s Ass.’ My day changed completely. You guys give me a reason to go to work. Keep it up.”
“Like the rest of us, I became a listener,” says Greg Mitchell, 50, who serendipitously tuned in one day. “I just thought it was cool how they played B sides and stuff going back to the ’60s. I am just so sick of this corporate crap and commercials that go with radio.”
Bluegrass-punk band Old Man Markley and some of the KSSR crew in the “bunker.”
Pump Up the Volume
The pirates of The People’s Radio aren’t swashbuckling anarchists, but the station did operate from “the bunker,” and with names like Colonel, Major, Wildboy and Slshr, one could surmise they were engaged in a battle to take back a public resource. On the front lines, however, it was a completely different scene. The ultimate man cave, the bunker’s décor was decidedly bro with a big-screen TV, dingy sofas, beer bottles, cigarettes, bongs, rock posters, drums, Foosball, pizza boxes and the occasional dog sniffing for scraps. As DJ Maestro puts it, “There wasn’t a cleaning crew at KSSR.” But it was perfect for the time.
Curiosity about KSSR’s headquarters fueled silly small-town rumors of a literal bunker carved into a slope under the train tracks. The occasional KSSR party helped dispel the myths — at least for the 100 or so people in attendance. “People wanted to see that it was a real, actual thing,” says Wildboy. “They wanted to see the bunker.”
There is a seductive twinge of danger attached to pirate radio, not just for the operators, but also for the listeners. There is a tenuous sense that the transmission could flatline at any moment, creating a feeling of disbelief with each song that plays. And for nearly a year, an entire network of fans shared the wonderful little secret that someone in their neighborhood, someone they possibly knew, had snuck behind Oz’s curtain and taken control of all the knobs and switches.
Callers were requesting shirts and stickers and offering to buy the DJs drinks and pizza. “Turns out, this is the one thing an entire community rallies behind,” says Steve. “Shit was getting crazy.”
Even the homeless community was smitten. “There were these street kids from Arizona that ride the freights,” Steve remembers. “They said the homeless kids in the river bottom and beaches listen. One night they got our phone number and started requesting songs.” The kids said they were tattooing the station’s call letters on themselves in a primitive fashion.
As the station progressed and the number of listeners increased, so did inquiries about advertisements, something The People’s Radio refused to entertain.
“There was never an intention to make money with this thing,” says the Colonel. “We just wanted it to be about something good to help Ventura County, to be able to go to the beach and turn on a radio station and listen to music that doesn’t make you want to hang yourself, or have stupid commercials with somebody trying to sell you something you don’t need.”
During the early 1900s, the airwaves in the United States were essentially free, used by amateurs for entertainment and communication until Congress became wise to it and saw the economic potential. The Radio Act of 1927 established a federal commission, which above all things demanded professionalism and began issuing licenses to broadcast. This opened the door for a messy bureaucracy that resulted in the Communications Act of 1934 and spawned the FCC. The government would now be regulating radio in the public’s interest, which ultimately meant the public airwaves were being auctioned to private interests. For years to come the FCC faced many lawsuits and protests under the First Amendment until the Supreme Court finally ruled that licensing was not a violation of the Constitution.
“Historically it remains the case that broadcast is much more regulated than other media outlets,” says Prof. Jens Koepke, who teaches media law and ethics at Cal State University, Northridge. “The theory the Supreme Court used was . . . traditional broadcast media is a finite media, and technologically there can only be so many broadcasters on any frequency. Because of that, government has more public policy reasons to regulate who uses it so you don’t end up with chaos on the airwaves.”
The folks over at The People’s Radio knew it was only a matter of time before they were popped by the feds, and so did their fans. People kept asking them why they didn’t just get licensed? The answer: Unless these gritty, working-class rockers had hundreds of thousands of dollars, a legal team and plenty of patience, the public airwaves were no place for them to exist legally.
According to the Future of Music Coalition — a national nonprofit organization specializing in education, research and advocacy for musicians — after waiting an estimated two years to obtain the appropriate permits and be allocated a frequency, it could cost $3,000 to $10,000 for technical and legal support for the application process, hiring an engineer and keeping an attorney on hand. The next step would be “demonstrating access to capital” to run a professional station without income for six months. Depending on the output of the station, the coalition estimates the applicant would need to prove access to about $25,000 to $200,000. Factor in operating costs, business licenses, annual ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) fees (to legally play licensed music), and costs can skyrocket into the millions.
89.7 KSSR wasn’t the first pirate radio station in Ventura County, and chances are it won’t be the last. In the late ’70s to early ’80s, Tom Spence, program director at KVTA, worked for a pirate radio station out of Simi Valley, 90.3 KCME.
“We were just playing rock ’n’ roll and goofing around,” he says. Spence remembers iconic KROQ disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer cruising over to hang out at the station from time to time. “Pirate used to be a big deal but now it seems the amount of energy that has to go into it has subsided. It’s an illegal activity, but is needed once in a while to stir things up.”
While pirates tend to latch on to an FM frequency, Spence thinks that soon enough AM radio, despite being broadcast in mono, will see a resurgence in interest from pirates and go “off the wall, punk side.”
Both Spence and Chris Cox, operations manager of Cumulus Media in Ventura and Santa Barbara, say that KSSR never interfered with their frequencies and they never knew about The People’s Radio.
One month after the FCC appeared on the Colonel’s doorstep, the official warning letter arrived. Failure to abide by the federal law, the letter said, could lead to monetary forfeitures and criminal sanctions, including imprisonment. An FCC representative told VCReporter that the commission relies primarily on complaints for information about pirate radio stations.
“There was absolutely no forewarning — zero,” said the Colonel. “Someone had to have ratted us out. There’s no way they could’ve just discovered us out of nowhere.”
Rock over London, Rock on Chicago
The Colonel and his family have since moved. The 40-foot tower, the microphones and other accouterments of a do-it-yourself community radio station are packed up and returned to their original owner. In order to fill the void and ease the blow — for themselves and their listeners — a few of the DJs are recording their programs as podcasts that are uploaded to The People’s Radio on Tumblr. Listeners may stream or download the content for free.
Among the KSSR crew there are no regrets. There is, however, a shared feeling of unfinished business and a sense that maybe it got too big too fast. Had they known when their last day would have been, they would have scheduled a final program and a proper goodbye. In the weeks before the station went dark, there were discussions to fine-tune the playlists and bring in more guests for live performances. For now, those ideas are being funneled into the podcasts as they figure out the next step. Slshr, the station’s lone female and host of two shows on KSSR, had high hopes for the future of the station. “I feel like the freedom we had could have grown into something even more meaningful for the community,” she says. And if there’s one word that perfectly captures The People’s Radio zeitgeist, it’s not revolution, it’s not anarchy, it’s community.
“We didn’t feel like we were stealing, but like we were filling a void,” says Wildboy. “It felt like we were doing the community a service and everyone in town a service.” DJ, who recently relocated to Northern California to continue his education, said that while little undercurrents of protest were present within the ranks of KSSR, that’s not what drove it.
“The heart of it was the love of music and that format of expression,” he explained. “The whole point was to play music we loved in the hopes people would pick up on it and go on a search for more of it.”
“We gave people a reason to believe in radio again. I look at it like we changed people’s lives,” says Steve.
As the dust settles and the people who brought free radio to Ventura — even for a brief moment— pick up the pieces and carry on with their lives, what will ultimately be done with the equipment and who might step up to the microphone once again is anyone’s guess. What we know for sure, however, is that every one of them will carry a flame for music, and whether or not the planets ever again align in their favor, they will find a way to share it. In the meantime, they would like to encourage those listeners who got excited about the possibilities of radio by and for the people to take up the mantle, or in DJ’s parting words, “Break the law.”
The People’s Radio can be found online at thepeoplesradio.tumblr.com.
Programs: Word is Born, Late & Bake
Style: Hip-hop, rap, morning talk
“There’s no good real hip-hop on the radio.”
Upon hearing that the Colonel had acquired a radio station, Steve asked him if he could play a couple hours of hip-hop, and sometime around Christmas of last year, he went live. “I was a nervous wreck and it was awesome.” Within a few weeks he and the Colonel began throwing around the idea of a talk show. The Wake & Bake was initially scheduled to air every day at 10 a.m. but the waking part of that scenario proved more than the two could handle, so it was pushed to noon-ish and renamed the Late & Bake. The premise was simple —“Get stoned and read funny stories on the air” — but soon expanded to national and local news discussions with callers, or whatever struck their fancy in the moment. When the Colonel became too busy to do the show, Steve brought in his friend Coach. Steve accrued a sweet stable of fans who occasionally recognize his voice in public. “I met a really big fan and they were in awe that I was even hanging out, and they bought me drinks and stuff.”
Program: The Martian Landscape
Style: Late ’70s to early ’80s rock with an emphasis on ’70s hard rock: Thin Lizzy, Cheap Trick, UFO.
“I will never play any post-1982 Def Leppard.”
A history teacher by day, Maestro works part time at a well-known Los Angeles classic rock radio station and deeply laments corporate control of radio. “The glory days of free-form radio are completely gone. We’re basically down to 20 bands and the same three to five songs. It’s stifling to have to play music by the playlist.” Self-described as the elder statesman of KSSR, Maestro is a radiophile who is obsessed with UFO, so he figured the group’s song “Martian Landscape” would make a great title for his show. “It conveys a mystery, and we’re just discovering what Mars is about and my show is about helping kids rediscover these great bands that have been systematically removed from radio.” “Martian Landscape” was as much educational as it was fun, with Maestro culling juicy bits from his vast knowledge of rock music to share with listeners. “There’s more to Thin Lizzy than ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ and there’s more to Rush than ‘Tom Sawyer.’ I felt like it was my responsibility, in a small way, to try to get the word out.”
Program: The All-Vinyl Show
Style: All genres from early 1900s to 1950s and newer indie.
“A lot of kids said they went out and bought CDs after they heard our stuff. I’m sure Best Buy got two or three people buying Louis Armstrong after hearing my show.”
DJ — a moniker chosen because virtually no one in the KSSR camp used it — is a student, musician and passionate record collector, who until recently, worked at the neighborhood record store and can talk endlessly about music. When he got wind of the radio station moving nearby, he seized the opportunity to spin records, something he’d done previously at a popular dive bar. “It was basically a form of protest against generic radio,” he said. “Some people would call us as soon as they found us and be ecstatic, so happy to be hearing something else — even if they didn’t always like what we were playing.” And what they were playing would often be punk rock, metal or an obscure Wesley Willis tune. “Even with the random thrash metal song at 9 a.m. they still loved it, and stuck with it.”
Program: Wild Hour
Style: Garage,’50s to’60s, punk
“We had this network, this thing that was ours but it was everybody’s at the same time; and I thought, this is the coolest thing that’s ever happened to this town.”
His girlfriend, Slshr, already had a show when Wildboy came on board, so at first he piggybacked on the last hour of her time slot. “I kind of just forced my way in. I just said, ‘Give me an hour, all I need is an hour.’ ” A busy musician, Wildboy appreciated the opportunity to play other people’s music, and to do so without restriction. “There was no format, it was free-form and a lot of times I wouldn’t have a playlist. It turned into a party on the microphone.” With no experience in broadcasting, the DJs learned as they went along, which made for some interesting moments. “It was a pretty ghetto rig — computers connected to computers connected to other things. If something went wrong we’d have to figure it out or call Steve.”
Programs: The Slshr Session and Movie Music Madness
Style: World music, Latin, indie, punk, rare cuts, movie soundtracks
“It’s like you can’t win. We’re becoming more and more of a police state. Conservatism is on the rise.”
Being the only female in an acutely male environment didn’t faze Slshr in the least. “I’m kind of a tomboy. I’ve always hung out with boys. The ribbing goes both ways — they can stick it to me and I can stick it to them.” Other than DJ’s vinyl show, Slshr’s programming was the most eclectic and unusual. “I felt like I got to share some secrets, I even got to play old mix tapes from a long time ago, obscure stuff I never heard anywhere else, and I felt good getting to share it.” KSSR was continually live-streamed online, which enabled people from all over the world to listen in. Slshr says friends who were out of the country would listen and say it made them feel like they were back home in Ventura.
Programs: The Major Rager Show and TMZ updates for Late & Bake
Style: Indie rock, experimental and electronic
“We were calling the shots and doing everything you’re not supposed to do.”
Besides owning a full-size Winnie –the-Pooh suit (and not being afraid to use it), Major Rager has the distinction of being one of the first to tinker with the hardware when the Colonel brought it home. “He was excited, like it was a video game, and he had me over the night he had it set up. We didn’t know how to work everything so a bunch of us got drunk and fiddled with it.” Originally he had no plans to take a turn at the microphone, but that changed and his tenure with the station later opened the door for some club DJ gigs. “I would go over there to kill some time, basically, and ended up being on the radio,” he says. Though he doesn’t think the station fostered any significant change, he’s happy that it turned kids on to radio and exposed them to music they might not otherwise have heard. He even passed out stickers to some neighborhood youngsters who ended up coming back for more, saying that they were listening with their dad.
Program: The Doctor Is In
Style: Garage rock, punk rock
Not actually a medical professional, the Doctor has been collecting vinyl since he was a kid, and prior to his slot on The People’s Radio, he was a local club DJ. He and the Colonel had numerous discussions about taking over the radio station when it was still broadcasting out of Oxnard, so when it came to Ventura, it was a no-brainer that he would host a show. At first, his show had no real direction; but soon he narrowed it down to “party-drinking, beach time, pizza-eating, fun music.” While he knew that he sometimes attracted hundreds of listeners, he didn’t realize the extent to which the community was touched by The People’s Radio until it shut down. “Hopefully, one day we can get something legit going on,” he said, “if we can grow up.”