Seattle Weekly 1/17/96
The Monkeywrench Gang
by Mike Romano
Radio: An unlicensed station broadcasts alternative music and a tangy vocabulary.
When I try to tune in 89.1 FM around 11 o'clock at night, it sounds like Ray Suarez from KUOW's National Public Radio and Jim Bohannon from KIRO's The Buzz are interviewing each other. I'm told that the crossover between 94.7 and 100.7 occurs because my radio is too sensitive, which is too bad because what I was attempting to find was the weak signal from Seattle's pirate radio station. After a night of driving around Capitol Hill, Eastlake, and the University district listening to Ray and Jim and their respective guests talking over each other, I parked my car and decided to try 89.3. Thar she blew, behind only a little static: Seattle's radio pirates.
The station has been broadcasting evenings in Seattle throughout the winter. Before that, Pearl Jam was using the equipment for their Monkeywrench Radio project, broadcasting their shows live from concert parking lots. A man who goes by "Pfeltch Dunderhead," a radio pirate since his teenage years, toured with the band, running their unlicensed 75-watt mobile radio station, and we can thank him for keeping the station going in Seattle.
When the band returned to Seattle in the fall, Dunderhead wanted to keep the station going, and using equipment from the concert tour, began broadcasting on 89.1. Although Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder paid for the original equipment for the band's Monkeywrench Radio, the group has officially severed ties with 89.1 and the name "Monkeywrench" has been dropped.
Still, the radio station's web site, http://bahh.internet.com/mwrench, which displays the on-air schedule, general music news, and links to related sites, is clearly labeled "Monkeywrench" [It was; It has since been changed to "FUCC 89.1" -- 5h] and offers direct connections to several web pages dedicated to Pearl Jam. As it stands today, 89.1 is a collective of dues-paying on-air DJs, none of whom are in Pearl Jam (although several have close relationships with the band), who meet regularly in members' living rooms to discuss station security, programming, and maintenance.
Because the entire station must be regularly disassembled and moved to new locations, 89.1 broadcasts only at night, usually from 7 or 8 until the early morning. It can be difficult to receive 89.1 because of the station's weak signal and because the transmitter moves to new locations several times a week to elude the Federal Communications Commission. "Jon Harrison," another 89.1 DJ and co-founder, says the station's mission is primarily non-political, except that it's run by non-commercial and non-governmental interests playing music not subsidized by major record labels (i.e. music you probably won't hear elsewhere). The programming is dominated by a mix of underground rock, hip hop, dance music, and sometimes live concerts, "for the purpose of finding as much new music as we can," says Dunderhead. The station has broadcast live shows from several Seattle clubs including RKCNDY, Moe, and the OK Hotel; sometimes, DJs read random prose and poetry over the air, and the talk show What's Up Next airs Sunday nights from 9 to 10.
Typically, pirate radio stations stress political agendas, such as Radio Free Berkeley, which focuses on community outreach with call-in talk shows for Berkeley and Oakland community groups, and weekly programs by groups such as Earth First! and Cop Watch. If 89.1 has any political leanings, it's to subvert FCC regulations and government censorship. Harrison wants the station's call letters to be "FUCC," Dunderhead's first name, "Pfeltch," is a play on a glorified sex act, a DJ named Snatch hosts a music show called Pussy Cock Juice (is Weird). The agenda is meant to challenge the moneyed monopoly on musicial expression and public dialogue that's enforced by the FCC -- in other words, the DJs revel in cursing over the airwaves.
Despite their in-your-face style, 89.1 hopes to escape the attention of the FCC by flying beneath its radar and staying on an unused frequency. Some at the station claim they cannot apply for an FCC license even if they wanted to. Since their transmitter broadcasts at 75 watts, 89.1 lies in an unregulated zone and a legal gray area. The FCC disagrees and says that even transmitters under 100 watts must apply for "low power licenses" with the Mass Media Bureau in Washington, D.C.
The issue will probably be decided in an important Federal case on FCC regulations over micro-powered broadcasting involving Radio Free Berkeley's Steven Dunifer, slated to begin trial on February 2 . Dunifer's case will rest on First Amendment issues and -- ironically -- on FCC president Reed Hunt, who has said that FCC regulations for public interest are intellectually untenable and "a meaningless hoax on the American public... an injury to constitutional standards."
Dunifer, who goes by his real name, considers "pirate radio" a derogatory term. He worries that stations like 89.1 Seattle have a "romantic attachment to the idea of pirate radio," and hopes they will "cut down on the music mix because there's no point in being a farther-out college station." Indeed, few would be able to distinguish 89.1's programming from the music played on the KCMU (90.3 FM) -- which comes as little surprise: At least four of the DJs for 89.1 are KCMU veterans.
Not everyone can take on the FCC, but the 89.1 secrecy (interviews in ski masks, secrest beeper codes for communications, etc.) seem unduly excessive, and their adolescent penchant for expletives undermines their most important political feat: that they're on the air to begin with. To quote its pirate founder: "It's a totally divergent form that can only be a positive thing and it will move forward as a voice of positive social change. It's like radio Dada." Spoken by a true Dunderhead.