Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

Pirates in the Sky

Three unknown assailants blindfold me and slide me into the back of my car in broad daylight. Two are in camos. It’s a little after four in one of the most liberal strongholds in America, and nobody watching gives a damn. My abductors drive me to a secret lair, where I’m questioned extensively for an hour by free speech militants before finally released.

“I’m a theatre critic,” I protest. “I’m a journalist the way Rachael Ray is a chef.”

To be fair, I brought this nerve-wracking outing on myself. It was the product of two weeks of back-and-forth emails between me and the security fiends at Free Radio Olympia, a “pirate” FM station broadcasting at 98.5. I first heard of FRO (pronounced “Froh” by its amiably cagey personnel) in a book. I was living north of Shelton at the time, and FRO’s paltry 125 Watts barely make it to Tumwater so I’d never heard the station. But in GrassRoutes Travel’s guide to Olympia: The Sound of the City Next Door (2007), Jesse Partridge writes, “FRO is on the air every day from 8p onward, broadcasting mostly radical and politically-charged music, spoken-word media, and left-wing news programs like Democracy Now.” I’ve been intrigued ever since. Three years later, FRO is a near-constant operation, via FM airwaves and streaming from its website.

The first time I called the number listed on www.FROlympia.org, the voice on the other end said, “Jeff Kingsbury’s office.” I burst into laughter and hung up. Emails were more productive; after several days I was able to correspond with somebody called DJ Ladyfingers. What delayed our conversation? A “discussion among the [FRO] collective.” Oh, sweet fanciful Pan, I was dealing with a liberal hive-mind.

DJ Ladyfingers referred me to DJ Lady Marmalade, aka Marmalady, and I was finally given the go-ahead to meet FRO staffers in person. (FRO calls them “affiliates.”) I expressed an interest in visiting the studio. This threw “the collective” for a loop. I don’t believe FRO was worried I’m a narc; I’m somewhat less terrifying than a Disney cartoon sheepdog. Rather, there’s the risk I might say something that would hand the feds FRO’s current location or personnel. FRO broadcasts without permission from the Federal Communications Commission, and its content violates strict limitations of speech over the public airwaves. Pirate stations get smashed by the FCC all the time. DJs have been threatened with yearlong jail sentences, their expensive gear confiscated. Illegal broadcasters can be fined up to $100,000. DJ Lady Marmalade was not joking in the slightest when she asked me to review several articles on “security culture.” FRO has secrets…and it wants them to stay that way.

I met Marmalady, DJ Rhino, and Dr. Krankenstein at Caffé Vita. I was never given proper last names for any of them. For purposes of anonymity, then, let’s imagine the movie version of our chat. The good doctor would be played by Jared Harris (“Layne Price” on Mad Men) aboard a Harley. DJ Lady Marmalade would be Janeane Garofalo—the cool, smiley Janeane, before she got all angry and unfunny—in bipolar chic. And DJ Rhino would probably fall into the talented hands of Say Anything... era John Cusack. They’re not bad looking, for radio folk. They’re also the kind of people who profoundly resent shallow, oversimplified characterizations like these.

They asked me to empty my pockets. Then they instructed me to remove the battery from my cell phone so I couldn’t be tracked. Even then they wanted to interview me: How did I hear about FRO? What kind of music did I like? They’d read my blog. They asked me about previous articles I’d written. These folks were serious. They’d done at least as much research on me as I’d done on them, and probably more than they let on.

When it was finally my turn to pose questions to them, I asked why they didn’t “go legit.” It’s expensive, for one thing: They’d need about $100,000 up front, and none of them strike me as millionaires. They’d also need to convince the National Association of Broadcasters to endorse their minuscule operation, but the NAB thinks they’re too close to KING and KWJZ, more powerful stations in Seattle. The biggest reason FRO broadcasts illegally, though, is it doesn’t recognize the FCC’s authority over public airwaves. The Free Radio Olympia crew demands the right to say whatever it damn well pleases, preaching far-left politics and tossing F-bombs like rice at a wedding of bird-haters. They’re happy to stream online as a backup, but their scorn for federal and corporate domination of radio keeps them spitting signals into the atmosphere. Hell, high school kids podcast. FRO would rather stick it to The Man where it hurts.

“The content and nature of free radio broadcasting is determined by whoever feels the need and desire for expression,” says the group’s mission statement, “with the only limit to speech being an intolerance of hate speech and threats to individuals.” One imagines Glenn Beck would not be among FRO’s ideal radio personalities. Threats are both illegal and immoral, of course, but playing devil’s advocate, I asked why FRO’s devotion to free speech didn’t extend to “hate speech.” After all, I reasoned, wouldn’t you rather an angry guest expose his or her prejudices, rather than use a charming façade to mask ulterior motives? DJ Rhino explained FRO has aired racist, sexist, and homophobic statements in the context of news clips before, but bigots are never allowed to vent hatred unchallenged.

Does FRO broadcast rap lyrics containing “the N word” or sexist rhetoric? Sure, all the time. Marmalady contends it’s okay for people in minorities to reclaim words used to insult them. (I maintain it’s difficult to reclaim something you never owned in the first place, but I do see her point.) In any case, there’s no denying the liberality or cause consciousness of FRO’s programming.

Actually, “programming” is something of a misnomer. FRO has no program director. Each DJ is free to choose, and in some cases perform, the content of his or her own show.

I asked whether artists get paid when their songs are played on Free Radio Olympia. The blunt answer is no. No artist has ever complained, and local bands often submit their work to gain exposure. “I’m pretty sure Lars Ulrich wouldn’t like us playing Metallica,” Rhino laughed, “but it isn’t likely to happen.” Probably not, but FRO does play a dizzyingly wide variety of sounds, from old-time radio dramas to 1940s crooners to gritty garage punk to a healthy buffet of the B-52s. When 103.7 “The Mountain” plays “Rock Lobster,” a tiny nibble of its ASCAP licensing fees eventually works its way to Fred Schneider et al. FRO doesn’t pay any licensing fees, but Marmalady insists she’d be thrilled to defend pirate radio to Kate Pierson—then ask her and her bandmates for interviews.

As I prepared to meet the FRO “collective,” it surprised me how few Olympians were even aware of these radio bandits who walk among us. Once I talked newbies into tuning in, their most frequent response by far was, “Is there always a DJ running the console, or is this just somebody’s iPod on shuffle?” My three subjects glanced at each other nervously. Sometimes, they admitted, what we’re hearing is randomized playlists, but FRO’s slowly cutting back on this as new DJs join the collective. Some jockeys embrace the shuffle as a salute to sonic anarchy; Dr. Krankenstein has been known to run Pandora over the air, allowing the program to surprise him as it surprises his listeners.

I was out of prepared questions. This was it. After a quick confab, the FRO crew decided I was cleared to see their studio—but only after draconian precautions were taken. What I thought at first was a Hamas-style black bag thrown over my head turned out to be an effective three-ply blindfold. There was a round of goofy slapstick as the crew maneuvered me into my vehicle, then another as they arranged my sunglasses over the blindfold in a half-assed attempt to dissuade cops from pulling us over. Not to worry: Oly’s finest were completely unfazed by the sight of a blindfolded hostage.

Rhino drove me around for five minutes or so—in circles, I’m guessing—before I was led by sound and touch across grass, onto concrete, and through a wooden door. “Okay,” said Marmalade after carefully easing me into a battered foam sofa, “you’re here.” She removed the blindfold, and I found myself in a wooden-walled room about the size of a one-car garage. Perhaps from the outside it looks like a tool shed; hard to say. What I can report is from the inside it looks exactly like the basement project of a mad but dedicated countercultural genius. Its shelves are stuffed to overflowing with CDs. There’s an outdated computer in a corner, its monitor dark. A flyer reads, “Build a wall of resistance—Don’t talk to the FBI.” Did I mention these people were serious? Even if the feds do manage to triangulate FRO’s antenna, this facility would still be secure, and the station could return to the air within a month.

St. Aloicious manned the console with a friend. Halfway through my hour in the belly of the beast, Aloicious decided to change his on-air handle to BB, a U-turn cheerfully and instantly adopted by the rest of the crew. Once you’re inside, it’s an easygoing operation. Yes, FRO is herb-friendly for the most part, an attitude reflected in several DJs’ casual speech patterns; but DJs are careful to keep pharmacological antics away from any crew member in recovery or otherwise troubled by recreational chemistry. They seem fond of each other, respectful of the bravery shown by each member of the collective.

“The collective.” See? Now they’ve got me saying it.

I asked the assembled DJs what they’d most want you to know about FRO. “That we love it,” Marmalady gushed. “We’re so passionate about doing this.” DJ Rhino and BB urge you to get involved in FRO’s campaign against the FCC robber barons. It’s surprisingly easy. Donations of time and money and music are always welcome, so email FRO@riseup.net. You can even have your very own DJ slot, assuming you pass thorough vetting, of course. This isn’t a mere matter of submitting a handful of references. “You’ll be ‘socially Googled,’” BB promises, grinning. “We have contacts around town who already know you.” This is not an empty threat. Hundreds of Olympians have worked to support Free Radio Olympia. Include monetary donations, and FRO’s volunteer pirate band swells to thousands.

After another helical spin around Oly, my gentle abductors returned me to Fourth Ave. and slipped off my blindfold. True to spy movie clichés, midday sunlight turns out to be all but blinding after such an experience. My personal effects were returned and hands shaken all around. “Now,” DJ Lady Marmalade announced, “we have to watch you drive away.” After all that, FRO’s intense security protocols were still in full effect. I smiled and started my car. On my radio, Aloicious aka BB freestyle rapped the end of his show, rather well I might add, leading Oly’s resistance to the hordes of conformity till the news came on at six.

Here’s the punch line: Still dazzled by sunlight, I took a wrong turn coming out of the parking lot, so it took me a few extra minutes to work my way over to Capitol Boulevard. When I stopped at a red light, why, who should cross in front of me but Dr. Krankenstein himself? He didn’t see me at all. He was probably headed back to FRO’s secret studio. It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world for me to follow him, thereby exposing one of Oly’s juiciest secrets…
But I’m not The Man, no matter what the collective may have heard from Social Google; and there are secrets in the world just too lovely to ruin. Rock on, FRO.

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