Pirate Radio

Once we were on the air our radio station frequency would wander around the upper end of the FM dial and sometimes just fall right off the dial.

After the prosecuting attorney finished his case against me it was my attorney’s turn to defend me in the United States v Jesse Douglas. The charge? Operating a Pirate Radio station.

My attorney began, your honor and ladies and gentlemen of the jury. As you hear the testimony and read the case before you, I hope you will consider the amount of time that has passed since the defendant committed his crimes. We realize the punishment for this crime is up to 5 years in jail and a maximum of a $25,000 fine. The defense points to the fact that every seven to ten years all cells in the human body are completely replaced. This crime occurred more than 30 years earlier. So, the defendant Jesse Douglas has no connection with those cells that committed this crime and is therefore innocent. I looked at my attorney. I’m toast.

So began my trial for the crime of Pirate Radio. Let me explain how I got here. In the late 1960’s I would spend summers at my grandparents’ home in River Edge, New Jersey just across the Hudson River from New York City where I listened to Wolfman Jack at WNBC in New York. My grandfather had an old tube type radio that rested on the bed stand. It was about as big as a bread box and made of mahogany with a beautiful dial labeled with AM frequencies of 55 kHz to 1600 kHz. The dial had a warm amber glow when you turned the room lights down low. This was before FM radio.

I brought the radio back home to Alexandria, Virginia where at night in my darkened room I tuned into worlds far away. When the sun goes down AM radio signals bounce off the earth’s ionosphere and travel great distances. I still listened to Wolfman Jack at WNBC in New York. I listened to WLS in Chicago, the first station in the United States to play the Beatles. It amazed me that at nighttime the power of WLS reached 38 states. From Northwest Washington D.C. just up the river from me came WRC and The Joy Boys. WRC was where Willard Scott who later became Ronald McDonald and the NBC-TV Today Show weather man launched his career. His partner Ed Walker who was blind had a variety of character voices. They would improvise skits for hours and sounded like they were having the kind of fun I wanted to have.

I was always interested in how things work. Particularly electronics like tape recorders and radios. My dad gave me some small reel to reel recorders that had been used in the newspaper business to record interviews. I tore them apart and rebuilt them as an electronic organ for a school project. The assignment was to make a musical instrument. Other kids made drums out of oatmeal containers or banjo’s out of cigars boxes. My organ was crude, but it made synthesized sounds that approximated a music scale.

I later rebuilt it to bug a tent where some girls I knew were camping out in their parents’ back yard. That’s the first time I also learned how to build a small transmitter. It was fun listening to the girls play truth or dare. The girls dared each other to run around the block naked. Us boys were ready. We hid in the bushes at the corner. The neighborhood was dead silent at 1 in the morning. That silence was broken by the unbelievably high pitch sound of young girls shrieking as we jumped out of the bushes. It scared the hell out of us. Everybody ran in different directions.

I didn’t have much of a plan at the end of high school, but I saw a course description offered at Northern Virginia Community College. Introduction to Broadcast Radio. I was in. The course was taught by two guys working in commercial radio. One guy was the morning host at WWDC in Washington. The other guy whose name was Bob worked at WOL in D.C. He was called Bobbis. Bobbis eventually became my housemate where we had the Pirate Radio station.

After several months of hanging around radio stations I decided this was it. I wanted in. At the time there were two required broadcast licenses you needed to be on the air. There was a 3rd class license that allowed you to be a radio announcer. Then there was a 1st class broadcast engineers license that allowed you to be on air and to work on commercial transmitters. I decided to go for the 1st class engineer’s license.

There was a technical school in Sarasota Florida that specialized in broadcast engineering. I was self-studied in electronic circuitry. Heathkits were big with electronic nerds back then. I had a Heathkit that taught circuitry and I learned how to calculate voltage, current, amps, wattage and resistance. What interested me most was RF. Radio frequency. I wondered how on the transmitter end do you generate a frequency, attach an audio signal to it and on the other end have a radio grab that frequency and strip the audio signal off it to get music?  It’s called the superheterodyne principle and it still fascinates me. So, I enrolled in the Radio Engineering Institute.

REI was housed in the Old Will Rogers Theater in mid-70’s sleepy Sarasota. I had a dorm room with the other students behind the balcony on the second floor of the theater. On Sunday we woke to the Southern Baptist congregation that used the theater for their service. There was no sleeping through it. There was fire and brimstone coming from theater. I would sometimes slip into the balcony to catch my dose of dogma. “The dark stain of Islam will sink in the wake of the ship of Christianity” the minister exalted as he pointed to the heavens. The Munich massacre of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian terrorist was still fresh. I guessed then that religions are going to fight each other until our sun is a cool burnt ember. Science will settle this dispute.

School was intense. I teamed up with a guy name Marty from Ohio. His family owned a radio station in Canton. We made flash cards with the circuitry formulas. We carried them everywhere and we chanted the formulas as we made our way to the beach each day after school. We made up prose like this. In Electronics Please Read Instructions to Repair. The first letter of each word represented part of a circuitry formula. P equals power. R equals resistance and so on. I can still do those formulas from that experience. The goal was to pass the Federal Communications Commission 1st class engineering test. We did.

I headed back to the D.C. area and immediately got a job at WPRW in Manassas, Virginia. And I fell back in with the radio guys. I was now one of them. Soon I moved on to WINX in Rockville, Maryland where I did the six to midnight shift. I was having fun and getting paid. Not much but still getting paid a whole dollar an hour over minimum wage.  I knew many of the guys who were on air at other stations in the same time slot. We would talk to each other on the phone while we were on the air and listen to each other do jokes and bits between the records. If you were driving around the D.C. beltway switching from radio station to radio station it would not be unusual for you to hear the same joke in succession on each station. Shameless!

The meager pay forced us radio heads to rent a house together. I found a house high up on Beacon Hill overlooking Alexandria and the Potomac River. There were three of us in a four-bedroom house in a suburban blue collar neighborhood called Groveton. There was Bobbis, the Italian American from Baltimore. And Sky King, the heavy-set Virginia redneck and me Jesse Douglas, a skinny guy just out of high school. All of us were employed on air at radio stations around the area. Sky King and I held 1st class engineers’ licenses. This is pertinent for the court case as we embarked on building a Pirate Radio station in the house.

An engineer friend tipped us off that NBC was rebuilding their radio studios in Northwest D.C. He said we could have any of the old broadcasting equipment they were tossing. We loaded up vans full of 1950’s mixing boards and audio racks. Reel to reels and huge turntables that were as big as washing machines. Our living room décor was early American broadcasting. We built a broadcasting studio and now we needed a transmitter. Sky King and I went to work building one from a schematic. Since we were scrimping, we didn’t buy high quality components. There is a huge difference in components that have a 1% tolerance from those that have a 10% tolerance especially when you start adding them together. Once we were on the air our radio station frequency would wander around the upper end of the FM dial and sometimes just fall right off the dial. This was due to changing temperature and humidity. No matter. We billed our selves as the wandering radio station. We ran the transmitter antenna way up a tall oak tree high atop Beacon Hill. The effect was impressive for a low power F.M. transmitter. Our station signal covered the George Washington Parkway into Alexandria and across the river just into D.C. Not wise, as the Federal Communications office is pretty much on the riverfront.

We named the station WBKS, South Alexandria. We played anything we wanted. The neighborhood started to tune in. We were naive enough to give out the station phone number for music request. If we ran out of groceries, we would play your favorite tune if you brought us a gallon of milk. Soon we were getting brownies and all kinds of food.

To cut our expenses even more we rented out the fourth bedroom to a friend of mine named Penny. She had long brown hair and had a mystical air about her. She was not in the radio world. From the start there was friction. She didn’t care for all this male radio bravado. Bad things started happening to Sky King. He developed food poisoning and was admitted to the hospital. He recovered and was back on the air at WWDC but then ran his car into an iron beam that extended out the back of a truck bed on the beltway. The beam went right through his windshield missing Sky Kings head.

Sky King was very superstitious. He thought Penny was a witch and had cursed him. He and Bobbis went for a drive on the GW parkway to talk about it. They were listening to our pirate radio station. Sky King cued up KC and the Sunshine Bands album on the station before they left. I came home while they were out. I couldn’t stand K.C so I put on an old Fats Waller tune called The Girl I Left Behind Me. Sky King was sitting with Bobbis in Sky Kings freshly repaired car overlooking the Potomac River along the parkway. He heard the Fats Waller tune and blew his temper. Sky King yelled and punched the air. He missed and hit his new windshield. It shattered with a lighting crack across it. See Bobbis! She’s a witch! Somehow attributing all his bad luck to Penny.

The next week Sky King was at work on the air when he said one of the seven dirty words comedian George Carlin joked you cannot say on the air. Sky King was fired. Somehow that brought scrutiny to our pirate radio station. Or it might have been the Christian radio station that we trampled across when our frequency drifted.

The jury heard the evidence presented by the Christian radio station attorney. How instead of listening to the lord’s word the listeners were subjected to Shake Your Booty, Sympathy for the Devil and Fats Waller. The jury couldn’t help themselves. They tried to control it, but they snickered. Even the judge couldn’t contain a glint in his eyes. My attorney didn’t dispute the station and that as licensed engineers we should have known better. But she emphasized the low power and short term the station was on the air. And she noted no one has claimed financial damages due to lost advertising revenue.

The jury returned the next day with a verdict. Guilty. On sentencing the Judge said the 5-year prison term was too harsh for what was clearly young male stupidity. He suspended the prison term and imposed a thousand dollar fine. Then commented he was a Fats Waller fan.

Author: Doug Kuett

Writer, Sailor, All Around Fun Guy.

One thought on “Pirate Radio”

  1. I was among the co-founders of the first all-jazz format radio station on the campus of Trinity University, in San Antonio, Texas, in 1976. There were twelve of us who took donated funds, and donated equipment to build a studio, and a newsroom. Then, seven of us divided up the air shifts for music, and five news hounds worked news reports. Music was on 0600-0200 daily, and news stop sets ran 0600-0900, 1100-1300, and 1700-1900. We were student operated, with one university staff member as a liason.

    Today, FRTU-FM, 91.7 is a south Texas powerhouse, with a staff of numerous professors and administrators. Students, mainly seniors, man the console during 0800-1700 weekday business hours, with lower classmen shadowing them. After 1700, and on the weekends, the station is totally computer-operated. A far cry from the spring breaks and Thanksgiving holidays some of stayed on campus as part of a skeleton crew, to keep KRTU on the air.


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