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.

Know When to Fold Them

David had just completed his pilot’s license and had never flown this distance before or into the mountains of West Virginia. We were both in our early twenties. Sometimes youth just prevails.

We were a big deal. Or so they thought at WDTV in Clarksburg, West Virginia. My friend David Drew, which was his on-air name and me, known on-air as Jesse Douglas landed in our rented single engine plane at the Clarksburg airport. The T.V. stations main office was at the airport and the station manager named Dusty greeted us as we came in the door.

Dusty had placed an ad for on-air talent in Broadcasting Magazine. It’s a trade mag for the industry that everyone follows to see what other gigs are out there. David was working on-air part time at WPRW in Manassas, Virginia just outside Washington, D.C. I was working on-air full time at WINX in Rockville, Maryland. Both of these were radio gigs. Neither one of us had any T.V. experience. No matter. David saw the ads and said let’s go outside the D.C. market and get some television experience. So we put on our 1970’s wide lapel three-piece pin stripped suits and flew to West by God Virginia.

David had just completed his pilot’s license and had never flown this distance before or into the mountains of West Virginia. We were both in our early twenties. Sometimes youth just prevails. We got hired on the spot. It turned out Dusty the manager had no television experience either. He was married to the station owners’ daughter. Dusty had been the sales manager for a car dealership the station manager owned. When the owner bought the station he needed someone to sell advertising and run the station. So Dusty pretty much turned running the station over to us that day. We looked like big deals from D.C.

We set up shop at the station a month later. We had no idea what we had bitten off. The actual station was located 15 miles away from Clarksburg high on top of Fisher Mountain. Most days it required the stations four wheel drive Blazer to climb the rock strung trail to the top. The building itself was a huge World War II surplus corrugated metal structure that had been hauled up there piece by piece. The studio, the mixing board, and camera equipment were vintage late 1950’s with a smattering of newer video tape machines wired into the mix.

David took over the production side of things. He edited the station promos and paid advertising. I was the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. World News Anchor. Not that there was very much news to report. I quickly found out this was a pretty sleepy place. We were given the green light to hire some on-air talent. Again from Broadcasting Magazine came a guy name Roger fresh from the University of Pittsburg. He had a little college radio experience. He was a sports fan so we asked him if he could do sports. We didn’t have enough money to hire a weather person so we had Roger double as the weather guy. He was a big outgoing husky guy and was game for anything.

We wanted a female news anchor to toss story lines with me on the 6 and 11 p.m. news program. We hired Linda, a petite recent college grad from Uniontown, Pennsylvania. So that was our WDTV “Big 5” News Team. No television experience at all. But we had all seen it done on T.V!

In the mornings we would spread out with a couple of locals hired as camera men. Roger would scrape up footage from a high school football game. I would cover a coal miners’ strike. Or a glass workers strike or a brick makers union strike. It seemed there was always a strike somewhere. Linda would do a story from the science lab at the University of West Virginia.

We spent the afternoons editing the videos and then went on the air at 6 p.m. The 6 p.m. newscast was like dress rehearsal for the 11 p.m. newscast where we pretty much did the same show all over again. My friend David became disillusioned pretty quickly. He spent his days editing bad car dealer ads and then our less than thrilling stories from the field. So he quit and left me in West Virginia.

I stayed but I was not happy. I found I hated being on T.V.  Radio was way more fun. I wanted to go behind the scenes and produce. Maybe we could make this more interesting. So, I placed an ad in Broadcasting Magazine for an anchor to replace me. We got a demo tape from a guy in his 50’s that had a Mr. Broadcasting air about him. His name was Lyle Richards. He had been a news reporter in Pittsburg years earlier but hadn’t worked in T.V. for a few years. He worked selling home insurance at his wife’s insurance agency. He was going through a mid-life crisis and wanted back in the game. If you remember Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that was Lyle. Perfect hair puffed up and vain as hell.

We hired him. During the news I sat in my producer’s chair, headset on calling the shots to the camera guys on the set and to the guy running the mixing board. Each night became routine. We would end each newscast with Lyle and Linda doing 30 seconds of what I call happy talk. Then roll music and credits. The pompous ego of Lyle Richards was driving me crazy. Everything was beneath his standards. That included young me. I was bored, restless and not making much money.

The station owner also owned an easy listening radio station. It was an automated station meaning no one was there on the air. It was just a studio with tape machines called carts playing easy listening music and commercials.  The owner needed someone to program the station so in addition to my producer duties at “Big 5” I made a few extra dollars as the voice of “Feeling Good” radio. Every couple of days I would run over there and shuffle the machine music mix of Barry Manilow and The Carpenters’ among other bland background noise. Every 15 minutes my voice would boom out “Feeling Good!” on 93.7 F.M.

Anarchy was breeding in me. Was anyone watching my T.V. station?  Was anyone listening to “Feeling Good?” I never really knew but wanted to find out. The next day was Halloween. It seemed like a good time to mix it up. I used the stations 4 wheel drive truck to pick up some bales of hay at a farm stand. I also picked up some tall dried cornstalks some gourds and a very large pumpkin. I drove all this over Linda’s apartment. “What’s all this? She asked as I carved a Jack O Lantern on her kitchen table. “Does this look like Lyle?” I grinned. We need to add some corn silk for hair” she giggled. “I’ll get some glue.”

On Halloween I parked the 4x 4 at the bottom of the mountain for someone else to drive up to the station. I loaded the pumpkin and hay bales in the hatchback of my Volkswagen Rabbit. By now I had outfitted the front wheel drive car with oversized studded tires. That car could climb a tree. I figured I might need my VW to get away. This may be my last night at the station.

In the corner of the news set I constructed a fall cornucopia scene. Hay bales first, then a scattering of gourds and dried cornstalks. The centerpiece was the large Lyle Richards look alike Jack O Lantern. The camera guy and I set the lighting and a camera on it. On the mixing board we superimposed the WDTV Big 5 logo over it. All day long we used this scene as our station I.D. I recorded a new audio track using funeral dirge organ music and my best Dracula voice. “You’re watching WDTV, channel 5, Clarksburg, West Virginia. BIG FIVE.” And then let out a Dracula maniacal laugh! No one called the station. Not even Dusty the manager.

The 6 p.m. newscast went fine. No glitches. Lyle looked at the cornucopia scene but not too closely. The 11 p.m. newscast preceded the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. So I figure our audience was highest then. It had to be. The only bar and restaurant in Clarksburg closed at 8:30 p.m. There was hardly a soul on the streets past 9 p.m. They had to be doing something.

As the 11p.m. news cast was about to end I moved from my producers chair and tapped the guy running the mixing board on the shoulder. I told him I wanted to run the board. Happy Talk was coming up. Each camera on the set was displayed on a bank of monitors in front of the mixing board. The guy on the mixing board decides which shot goes out over the air. Right now that guy was me.

Over the headset I asked one of cameramen to give me a very tight shot of the Jack O Lantern. I saw the Jack O Lantern appear big on one of the monitors. We had two other cameras. One was for a big wide shot of the whole set. The other was to focus on the two news anchors. Happy Talk time. As Lyle turned to Linda I used the mixing board to superimpose the Jack O Lantern head in place of Lyle’s head. Out of the corner of Linda’s eye she caught sight of the on-air monitor we have on the set. She belted out a laugh. Lyle caught on. He was incensed! He got up and I shouted into the headset. “Camera one, follow him. Even if he goes off set!” “I always hated this guy” the camera guy replied and followed Lyle off set. I had locked the production room door and Lyle was now shouting at the door as I ran the news team theme music and rolled credits. We rolled into the Tonight Show with Lyle pounding on the door.

The production room hotline rang. It was Dusty. “That was the funniest freak’n thing I’ve ever seen! I hated that guy since you hired him!” My heart sank a bit. He must be drinking. I’ve got to go back to D.C. I can’t even get fired from this place. I’m wasting my time. I told Dusty I’m done. He told me we would talk tomorrow. In the mean time I needed to escape down the mountain.

We got no phone calls. Not one. No one was watching WDTV.  I wrote Dusty a note and dropped it at the airport office.  I packed up my apartment into my VW. I had one last task at “Feeling Good” radio. I re-recorded the station I.D. and shuffled some more mediocrity. Anarchy was still in my blood. It was way past midnight. A snow storm was blowing in from the Great Lakes. I was the only vehicle making tracks down the mountains. The landscape lit up in my hi-beams. I was happy. I turned on the radio. 93.7 F.M. I had shuffled in Kenny Rodgers “The Gambler” in the stations playlist and it was playing now.

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em.

Know when to fold ‘em.

Know when to walk away.

Know when to run.

When the song was over my station I.D. came on, “Feeling good! Right down to my gonads! On 93.7 FM.

It’s okay. Nobody was listening.

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