'Pirate' radio operators plunder the airwaves

At 10:46 p.m. the disc jockey pivots on an old kitchen chair to reach the half-dozen pieces of electronic equipment needed to run the station. Loose cassettes lie strewn at his feet and coils of wire and tools are hung on the walls. He twists one last knob, drops in a cassette of prerecorded music, and the Voice of the Northeast is on the air.

''Unlicensed, unregistered, uncertified, and unfettered - this is pirate radio,'' intones the announcer, known to listeners only as the Crystal Goblin. The station, run from a cluttered upstairs bedroom in the Goblin's suburban home , is just one of more than a dozen pirates operating in the New York City area.

Radio pirates broadcast illegally on the AM, FM, or shortwave bands. While pirates can show up anywhere on the dial, the frequencies just above 1600 kilohertz on the AM band are a hotbed for the activity.

''If everyone who wanted to use the radio spectrum went out and used it,'' the airwaves would soon get hopelessly overcrowded, says Joe Casey, chief of the Federal Communications Commission's investigation branch. The FCC, which regulates the use of the spectrum, says clear frequencies need to be reserved for broadcast stations and vital services, such as air traffic control.

Many pirates try to convey the image of unity among their ranks, but the fact is they're deeply divided over their reasons for plundering the airwaves. Some view it as a game, aimed at outfoxing federal regulators while putting out a signal heard as far away as possible.

Others are aspiring broadcasters who say they would set up legal stations if they had the money. It costs from $2,000 to $50,000 in lawyer and consultant fees just to file an application for a commercial station with the FCC.

There are also some pirates who broadcast political and racial propaganda.

''Many pirates are kids who play music the commercial stations won't handle because it's too long or too esoteric,'' says Tom Kneitel, editor of Popular Communications, a magazine for amateur radio enthusiasts. But he adds that some of these pirates are ''drug-oriented and use a lot of dirty language.''

Because of their secretive ways, it's impossible to know just how many pirates there are in the United States. Some put out such a weak signal that they're seldom heard beyond their local community. The FCC says it shuts down 12 to 20 pirates a year.

If caught, a pirate could face a maximum $10,000 fine and one-year jail term. But for practical purposes, the FCC usually gives out $250 to $750 fines and stiff warnings.

The penalty usually depends ''on the intransigence of the pirate,'' says Herbert Terry, assistant professor of law and public policy in Indiana University's department of telecommunications.

With enforcement funds scarce, FCC officials say they can afford to nab only the worst offenders - those interfering with commercial stations, broadcasting offensive programs, or disrupting vital services.

''At this stage, we're operating on a response mode. We'll respond to complaints,'' says the FCC's Mr. Casey. The commission also scans for pirates through a network of 14 monitoring stations spread across the US.

A night's programming on the Voice of the Northeast is eclectic, bringing together such odd combinations as ''Valley Girls'' by Frank and Moon Unit Zappa and Gregorian chants by Benedictine monks.

The station has been operating for about a year, broadcasting mostly on weekend nights - using a frequency just above the AM band. While some observers say this is a relatively ''safe'' zone for pirates, the FCC contends these frequencies are allotted for other uses. Even some pirates favor a degree of federal oversight.

''I don't think pirates should just pop up anywhere they like on the broadcast band,'' says the ''Flying Dutchman,'' a veteran radio pirate in Bloomington, Ind., who operates Jolly Roger Radio.

The Flying Dutchman launched his station in the middle of the FM band about two months ago after being closed and fined by the FCC in 1980. On the high seas of radio, Jolly Roger takes a unique approach: He offers community access to the airwaves.

''We aren't clandestine at all,'' says the Flying Dutchman. ''We announce our own phone number on the air and solicit people to come in and do shows.'' The station, crammed inside the Dutchman's small Bloomington apartment, now involves about two dozen volunteer disc jockeys, many of them students from Indiana University.

The Bloomington pirates say they expect to stay on the air until ''the FCC knocks on the door.'' The Flying Dutchman says their distance from the nearest FCC office (Chicago - 225 miles) could explain why they've stayed on as long as they have.

''To me, the attraction is not so much the pirating as it is the alternative this station offers the community,'' says ''Joan of Arc,'' a folklore student at the university. Joan's broadcasts, fashioned after her own special interest, feature everything from Iranian santir music to Irish folk tunes.

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