By Cara Jepsen

In the lighted corner of a large, dark storeroom, a group of young men crowd around two turntables. A tall blond known as DJ Mala Suerte pulls a Carpenters album out of its sleeve and places it on one of the turntables. He moves the record back and forth under the stylus, making the violins strain and Karen Carpenter sing–backward and forward, over and over again–the first line of “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Another tall blond called Il Duce mixes in the song “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams. He twists a distortion knob on a small mixer. The garbled, surreal results emanate from a beat-up boom box resting on an olive green kitchen chair.

The others in the group drink cheap beer and watch the records spin. Occasionally they laugh, as when Il Duce adds an air-raid siren and other end-of-the-world sound effects. They’re all waiting for a turn to play their own records on WPBR, the fly-by-night microwatt radio station that’s broadcasting this Carpenters’ mess to listeners within a four-mile radius.

The 25-watt, mostly music affair is overseen by a rangy, doe-eyed fellow named the Captain, who monitors the proceedings while squatting in front of a wooden rack full of equipment. He built the rack himself, adding wheels to make it portable. The transmitter is housed in a silver box; thick black cords connect it to the turntables and an outside antenna. A battered window fan blows cool air on the transmitter.

The Captain doesn’t play records, but from time to time he’ll cut them off and turn on the weather radio or the police scanner, hit a reverb button, pick up a silver Sputnik-era principal’s microphone, and talk in a voice that sounds like he’s transmitting from another planet.

“This is your captain speaking. Do not attempt to adjust your radio. You are experiencing…WP…BR…WPBR…WP…BR…WPBR…FM, in double-shot mono. Tonight’s split-cast is being brought to you by the F…C…C.”

WPBR stands for either World Public Broadcast Radio or Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, of which there are ample quantities in a red Coleman cooler. The station’s also known as the “Blimp.” The meaning of this nomenclature varies, depending on who you ask. The Captain is doing fewer station IDs than usual tonight, because, he says, he “doesn’t feel like doing them.” Not that the station is bound to identify itself. It is, after all, operating without a license.

WPBR is one of an estimated 1,000 unlicensed radio stations in the U.S. While these so-called pirate stations are illegal, new outlets go on and off the air all the time. Most broadcast news or entertainment. And some are relatively well-known, like Radio Mutiny Collective in West Philadelphia, Steal This Radio in New York City’s Lower East Side, Micro Kind in San Marcos, Texas, and Subterradio in Portland, Oregon. One of the most famous is Black Liberation Radio in Decatur; its proprietor, Napoleon Williams, continues to broadcast despite numerous run-ins with the law. In Chicago, there’s at least one other illegal microwatt station besides WPBR. The mobile Free Radio Westtown broadcasts a mix of music and anarchist rhetoric.

Twenty years ago, these pirate radio stations at least stood a chance of operating legally. Up until 1980, students and community organizations could apply for a license for a noncommercial small-watt station. But that year the Federal Communications Commission ordered stations with fewer than 100 watts of power to upgrade or stop broadcasting. Among the groups pushing for this clampdown was the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which had complained that small broadcasters cluttered the noncommercial band (generally, the left-hand side of the dial). Since then, it’s become increasingly more expensive to put a station on the air.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 exacerbated this situation by deregulating the airwaves, making it possible for corporations to own multiple stations in a single market. A buying frenzy ensued, and prices skyrocketed. Simply securing a permit to put together a small-watt station now costs at least $10,000, according to Thom Moon, director of operations at Duncan’s American Radio, an industry publisher that tracks radio station revenue. Moon estimates an additional $100,000 would be required to actually build the station. Not that there’s any empty space on the dial. “The bands are so crowded it’s difficult to find a frequency where you can put a station that will cover more than six city blocks,” Moon says. That leaves only existing stations, which are free to demand ever higher prices. Within the last two years, stations in the Chicago area have been sold at prices ranging from $425,000 to $140 million. One station in New York City recently fetched more then $350 million.

A handful of legal small-watt stations have managed to slip through the cracks. Since 1996, the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum has operated WRTE (90.5 FM), an eight-watt, 18-hour-a-day community station that was first started by the Chicago Boys and Girls Clubs back in the 1970s. Now 80 students in the museum’s youth outreach program create radio shows for their peers in Pilsen and Little Village. “It’s the only bilingual, urban, youth-operated station in the country,” says general manager Yolanda Rodriguez de Wood. But that hasn’t helped the station’s application to increase its power to 100 watts. “It’s put us in a Catch-22 situation,” says Wood. “When we try to get funding from places like the CPB or other foundations, they say ‘Well, you’re not 100 watts.’ When we go to the FCC, they say we can’t increase our power.

“Unlike most stations, we already have an audience waiting for us to grow, as opposed to the other way around. We get E-mails and phone messages all the time from people complaining that they can’t hear us.”

Two corporate giants now own 14 of the most influential of the metro area’s 48 radio stations. Chancellor Media Corp. owns WRCX (103.5 FM), WNUA (95.5 FM), WVAZ (102.7 FM), WLIT (93.9 FM), WGCI (107.5 FM), and WGCI (1390 AM), while CBS Radio controls WCKG (105.9 FM), WUSN (99.5 FM), WJMK (104.3 FM), WXRT (93.1 FM), WBBM (96.3 FM), WBBM (780 AM), WMAQ (670 AM), and WSCR (1160 AM).

This consolidation hasn’t exactly made radio more interesting. As Mala Suerte says, “I’ve given up on listening because it’s so corporate. If I was in a car, I’d go to college radio first. Or Mexican. But you can’t find any good old country or any good old gospel. The easy listening is terrible jazz fusion. Even dusty radio has become terrible–all that modern R & B sounds the same. Everyone I know has complained about it.”

The “microwatt” radio movement got its name from Mbanna Kantako, a blind radio enthusiast who since 1986 has been running a station out of his home in Springfield. For most of that time, he and his wife, Dia, lived in a public housing project. Kantako’s Human Rights Radio broadcasts talking books for the blind, political commentary, police scanner reports, Noam Chomsky speeches, and first-person accounts of police abuse.

In the early 90s, Berkeley-based activist Stephen Dunifer heard a tape of Kantako’s show. Upset with media coverage of the gulf war, Dunifer decided to start the politically oriented Free Radio Berkeley in 1993. Soon the station was on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 1994, the FCC slapped Dunifer with a $20,000 fine and a preliminary injunction to close down his station. But with aid from the National Lawyers Guild, Dunifer has fought the injunction, claiming that it’s a violation of his constitutional right to free speech. He lost the first round last July, but he’s since filed a motion to reconsider. He told me he’s expecting the case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court “by 2004.” In the meantime, he continues to broadcast from different locations each weekend.

Dunifer also makes and sells microwatt radio kits. His goal is to get as many people broadcasting as possible; after all, he figures, the FCC can’t go after everyone. So far, he says, he’s sold “three or four hundred” kits. He’s also coedited a collection of essays about the movement, Seizing the Airwaves: A Free Radio Handbook.

“The FCC is trying to characterize us as outlaws, breaking the law,” he says. “But it is not in the public interest to sell the airwaves or just give them away de facto permanently to some corporate conglomerate. As far as we’re concerned, they’re the ones who are acting illegally–not us.”

He complains that even the small travelers’ aid radio stations–the low-watt AM spots playing tape loops containing park, traffic, and weather information–cost $100,000 to put on the air “once you’re finished crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s.”

He claims the government intentionally misinterprets the law to aggrandize the sins of unlicensed stations. In his own case, the FCC cited a part of the Communications Act that allows for a negligible amount of power to enter the FM band. Dunifer says the policy was not directed at broadcast entities; instead, it was meant to excuse devices capable of radio emissions such as microphones and computers. “They like to use Part 15 because they can go to a judge and say that a 10- or 20-watt station is broadcasting 100,000 more times than they are allowed,” he says. “It makes it appear like some huge egregious number to the uninformed.”

Dunifer and most other microwatt broadcasters contend that the airwaves are a public trust that has been sold to the private sector. “They are the real pirates,” he says, referring to the main industry organization, the National Association of Broadcasters. “They’ve stolen our airwaves.”

Free Radio Westtown cost less than $1,000 to put on the air, and today the station operates with “literally no budget,” says DJ K-rock.”After the initial investment in the equipment, we don’t need any more money,” she says. “It’s liberating.” The station covers a 2.5-mile radius, and when it’s not broadcasting political broadsides, it plays reggae, rap, and hardcore punk. One hip-hop show is done by high school students. DJ Colin Sick says there are plans for more community involvement. He envisions a station with programming by and for various disenfranchised groups–bike messengers, gay rights activists, Black Panthers, and Latinos from the neighborhood–though the group hasn’t done much outreach yet. “There can be community through music as much as anything else,” he says. Station members voted as a group before agreeing to talk to me, but they declined my request to sit in on a broadcast.

Sick says he consulted the FCC’s own Web site before choosing an empty frequency and going on the air earlier this year. He also did extensive research on other microwatt stations and FCC regulations, and he agrees with Dunifer that the airwaves belong to the people. He says that the FCC leaves most illegal broadcasters alone, unless it receives a complaint. The complaints usually cite interference with another radio station, but the FCC also contends that microwatt broadcasts can interfere with frequencies used for aviation and police and fire emergencies. “We don’t pose a threat of any kind,” says Sick. “We’re broadcasting on a frequency no one else is using, and both sides of it are clear. We have competent equipment so our signal doesn’t drift. It’s impossible for our signal to interfere with anyone.” Nevertheless, the group has two lawyers on call–just in case.

Despite their talk of anarchy, “it doesn’t mean we don’t have rules,” says Sick. The station’s DJs more or less stick to a schedule “because we don’t want to sit around waiting for four hours.”

“It’s still free-form in that each DJ has complete control over what they do,” says K-rock. “There’s no program director telling them what to do.”

In October a member of the Free Radio Westtown collective joined a protest in Washington staged by the Free Radio Coalition. The protesters marched to the FCC and the headquarters of the National Association of Broadcasters, where they took down the NAB’s flag and raised a Jolly Roger in its place. The NAB has been pushing the government to crack down on microbroadcasters.

For its part, the FCC has adopted an on-again, off-again approach to enforcement; last year it shut down more than 300 pirate stations. Some, like Decatur’s Black Liberation Radio, go right back on the air after they’re kicked off. Other microwatt stations shut down permanently. For nine months in 1991, the Chicago Tunnel Company (“Broadcasting from 40 feet below the corner of State and Madison”) broadcast slick music-based programming. With less than 100 watts of power, the shortwave station still covered most of the continent–but you needed a shortwave receiver to hear it. It was raided by a quartet of FCC officials and Chicago police officers. After paying the $1,000 fine, the group’s leader opted not to go back on the air.

The young men at WPBR also run the risk of having the law knock down their door. If caught, they could face a $10,000 fine and a year in prison. The Captain and his friends don’t seem too worried–though they’ve had a few scares. One night easy listening connoisseur DJ Borscht ran into their building out of breath: he had seen three squad cars parked outside and had taken precautions to ensure he wasn’t followed. It was a false alarm. A few miles away, the Old Navy clothing store chain was operating “Old Navy Radio,” a legal microwatt station at 1550 AM that broadcasts advertisements for the store from a billboard on the Kennedy Expressway.

WPBR doesn’t have an agenda. DJ Noid calls what they’re doing an art form, “sculpture on mike–a way of opening doors. There are no egos involved, and nobody’s getting paid.

“People do it because everyone supports each other,” he says. “Everyone sits and listens to each other, even if they don’t know what they’re hearing, and there’s no way to tell if anyone else is listening. That’s the best part.”

“Every night should be Carpenters’ night,” the Captain says off mike, as the music changes to Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Another night was dedicated to music by the 70s stadium band Journey. The DJs, led by Il Duce and Mala Suerte (who lug their turntables to and from the secret location), like to choose a theme. They’ve covered easy listening, songs about revenge, and music played at 16 RPM. “That got a little monotonous,” admits one of the regulars.

Il Duce and Mala Suerte have typed up a set list for the Carpenters’ show; it includes “All You Can Eat” by the Fat Boys. “I think about it a lot,” says Mala Suerte. “I think about what I’m going to play and get my records organized.” DJs come and go throughout the broadcast; sometimes their friends show up too. They usually stay for a beer on the ratty black couch that sits between the turntables and the transmitter. They last about an hour before they get bored and leave; women, in particular, seem the least excited about watching live radio. Just about everyone rifles through a stack of records before leaving.

On easy listening night, the Captain turns down the music, picks up the principal’s mike, and lets out a steady stream of obscenities. Then he gives a rundown of the people “riding the Blimp.” He names Chinese Johnny and John the Plumber. Il Duce has “a James Brady-type head wound.” Sleazy Fred has “no more toes; they were shot off.” The Captain coughs into the mike. “Excuse me, I’m choking up–we need to turn that down; there’s too much feedback,” he says, gesturing toward the boom box. “We have DJ Mala Suerte, who is without kneecaps, and the Unknown Person, who has no nose.” The others pause to listen, beers in hand. They giggle like teenagers at each new insult.

One night two guys wearing big pants show up with stereo equipment and an aluminum case filled with records. Within minutes they set up a pair of giant stereo speakers and unplug the boom box. The room fills with high-speed techno. They close their eyes as they bob up and down like pigeons, oblivious to the rest of the people in the room.

The typical DJ on WPBR– if there is a typical DJ–gets most of his records at thrift stores. Mala Suerte used to collect old albums for their covers. Then once he started listening to them, he found out he liked the music as much as the pictures. Soon he was specializing in what he calls “action jazz, spy jazz,” and sound tracks. He started to carry a wish list in his wallet. “At that point I had to commit to going to real record stores and spending money. There’s only so much you can find at the thrift stores — you can find ‘Peter Gunn’ there, but not More Music from Peter Gunn. I spent a year looking for ‘Mission Impossible’ and More Mission Impossible.”

Mala Suerte and Il Duce hit the thrift stores on a weekly basis; they’ll also take in an occasional estate sale. “It’s a friendly competition–who has what, who’s looking for what, and who’s found the next coolest record,” says Mala Suerte. “It’s even better if you can say ‘I thrifted this.’ It’s a weird kind of egotism–who got what for the least amount of money.”

He says he was particularly proud of his recently procured Logan’s Run sound track, but then Il Duce one-upped him with the sound track from Dawn of the Dead. “It’s about as good,” Mala Suerte says. “Now I have to find something cooler.”

The station’s format evolved over time. “If someone comes up with a show, I’ll give them a shot,” says the Captain. “I’d be willing to let anybody do whatever the hell they wanted, unless it was nonsense. But right now it’s safe and small.”

The 20 or so revolving DJs are all people who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. Most of them have fake, fanciful names. There are no women. The music runs the gamut of genres; the only cohesive factor seems to be that it’s not what’s usually heard on the radio.

Some nights there are 30 people hanging around; other nights no one shows up until two hours into the scheduled broadcast. That’s when the Captain puts on the police scanner, the weather radio, or a four-disc CD set called The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations.

A few of the DJs have worked professionally; others are dabblers who “did a show in college.” The broadcasts have a random nature. Slots last anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a half; they’re handed out on an informal first-come, first-served basis. Everyone is polite. Once, Il Duce and Mala Suerte showed up late to find a guy named Todd E. Todd playing a drums ‘n’ bass set on his own turntables. They set up their equipment on another table and waited patiently for him to finish.

Il Duce and Mala Suerte are followed by DJ Optic, who wears three silver rings on his right pinkie finger. Optic’s record collection includes Barry Adamson, sound tracks from The Pillow Book and a blaxploitation movie, and a superwarped 45 of Sammy Davis Jr.’s “Bein’ Natural Bein’ Me.”

The music “changes each broadcast,” says the Captain. “You can’t pinpoint the music. It goes through phases throughout the night. I think there should always be a station like that, where you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

At one point a visitor from Japan comes to the station. He’s immediately dubbed “Le Geisha Pimp.”

“This is radio,” one of the regulars explains, pointing to the mixing board. Le Geisha Pimp looks confused.

“That’s us,” says the Captain, pointing to himself and then the boom box.

“Oooooooh!,” says the visitor, smiling and bobbing his head. “High tech!”

They place the principal’s mike in front of Le Geisha and ask him to talk. “Hello, Chicago, hello!” he says. There’s a long pause. Finally, Sleazy Fred hands him a Japanese magazine to read on the air. The other DJs stand around smoking and giving each other high fives. Il Duce mixes old folk songs into Le Geisha’s recitation. The Captain grabs the mike; it’s a few days after the U.S. bombed suspected terrorist sites in Sudan and Afghanistan.

“From Indonesia to Pakistan to Iraq…please, ladies and gentlemen, please refrain from bombing everyone.This message is brought to you by WPBR, the world’s most powerful radio network.”

That’s about as political as the station gets.

“Have you ever been to Japan?” the Captain asks the group. No one has. “We should go.”

“We could take the Blimp,” suggests one of the DJs, who wears a small cap on his bald head. When he gets no response, he begins to unpack his CDs.

Mala Suerte puts on Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and looks up to see the rest of the group nodding in approval. Il Duce adds an air-raid siren and a recording of a woman’s voice: “How do you even know you’ll be able to get it up tomorrow, you limp faggot?”

The Captain put together the station for about $300. He ordered the transmitter from Dunifer, but, he says, it didn’t work until he rebuilt it. “That guy is an idiot,” he says. “I’m beginning to think that more and more.”

He schlepps all the equipment to each broadcast. That includes the J-pole antenna, which he built out of copper plumber’s pipe affixed to a Plexiglas square and another piece of PVC pipe. It’s anchored to a concrete-filled plastic bucket. The Captain has painted the whole thing black “because it looked awkward before.”

While there’s no way to know whether anyone outside the group is listening, the people who visit will usually say what they heard in the car on the way over and how far the signal is carrying. WPBR has no phone line and no mailbox. “Sometimes I feel like it’s just as isolated as it looks here–that it’s ten of us hanging around and that’s the audience,” says Mala Suerte.

The Captain says his college didn’t have a radio station, so he built his own. He would make four-hour DAT tapes or put on a CD and hit “play” and drive around, listening to his broadcast. After college he would occasionally set up his transmitter, put on a tape and drive around to see how far the signal traveled. But it was a solitary affair. The first few times, he says, “I didn’t know what I was doing; I was in other parts of the spectrum, above FM, below FM.” But now, he says, he’s “taken all the proper precautions” to make sure that others can tune in to the station and that it won’t interfere with other signals.

WPBR took off after a friend of a friend introduced the Captain to some interested DJs. None of them seem to know much about each other, and most don’t socialize outside of the station. They bond over the music. “You got that? Oh, I got that too!” is a common exchange.

But the Captain gets no response when he picks up the mike and asks the crew–on the air–to help clean up the empty beer containers that litter the room. “At this time we’ll be cleaning the Blimp. Please, if you’d just pick up some empties and help us clean up this motherfucker.” Most of them sit around watching; someone suggests taking the empty cans and bottles, which end up nearly filling a Dumpster, to Michigan where they can be traded for cash.

Later, the Captain plays with the effects knob and breathes into the mike. DJs Optic and Il Duce hunch over the turntables and mixer, distorting records. Someone blows into a Bud bottle. The mesmerizing mix sounds alternately like wind, foghorns, mouse squeaks, wailing, static, and rollerskating music.

The other DJs gather around, drinking beer and chatting while waiting to see what will happen next. “We call it the kitchen,” says Mala Suerte, pointing to the turntables. “You know, like at a party, where everyone ends up in the kitchen.”

The Captain says he will keep broadcasting “until they tell us not to…or until nobody wants to do it anymore.” Each broadcast begins and ends with the National Anthem. “It just seemed like a good thing to do,” he says. “You can’t throw the book at someone who plays the National Anthem.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Andrew Gregg.