Pirate Radio and the F.C.C.

I read this article in Wired on setting up a pirate radio station and I found myself a bit troubled by all the bad advice given.

To quote Michele Ellison, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau after a bust of a pirate radio station in Roslindale, “We will continue to use all available enforcement tools, including equipment seizures, to protect the airwaves and are grateful for the assistance and fine work of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston.”

What he is saying here should be taken literally.  Wired tells you to avoid being busted, hop around in frequency, keep a low profile, don’t run regular hours.  That will only keep you from acquiring an audience.  What will get you busted fast is interfering with legitimate stations and endangering public safety.  The F.C.C. has far too limited of resources to go after every pirate station out there.  They are going to try to focus those resources on addressing issues of public safety and interference to legitimate operations as much as possible.  If you avoid causing problems in either of these areas, your chances of survival are increased.

I operated a pirate station in the Seattle area in the 1970’s for nearly half a decade, most of that time at power levels of around 100 watts, occasionally a kilowatt, and much of that time 24×7.  We even had record support from many of the major labels.  What finally brought us to the attention of the F.C.C. (and we never did get raided but did receive a cease and desist causing interference letter from R.C. Dietch, the chief engineer at the F.C.C. field office at that time) was when our antenna broke and the piece that remained happen to resonate in the 80 meter ham band.

During our years of operation, we didn’t try to maintain a low profile, quite the opposite, we were trying to (and to a large degree succeeded) build an audience.  We made bumper stickers, we gave out our phone number over the air.  It would have been trivial and easy for the FCC to contact or locate us, yet, until we caused interference, it was never an issue.  Even then, we received a letter, the F.C.C. didn’t have to raid us to figure out where to send it because we weren’t secretive about our location.  And the letter only demanded that we stop causing interference.  I chose to cease operations anyway because at that time I had a 1st Class Radio Telephone Operators license and I knew getting busted would likely result in the forfeiture of that license.

I operated in the AM band but these days most pirates are on the FM band.  With only a fraction of a watt, it is possible with a good receiver and a quiet frequency to cover several miles, much more with 10-100 watts on FM but harmonics can play havoc with television stations and public services such as police and fire communications.  If you want to get the F.C.C’s attention yesterday, interfering with emergency services is probably one of the most effective ways of doing it.  So, I’m going to suggest a few modifications to the instructions given in the wired article.

Do spend the time to very carefully research the frequency you intend to use to make absolutely sure that you’re not going to cause interference.  You should consider not only your intended frequency but adjacent and 2nd adjacent channels as well.

Get to know the engineers of the local radio stations.  This serves a number of good purposes.  You can learn important safety and technical tips from them.  You can find out about used equipment the station is getting ready to sell cheap or dump for free.  In the unfortunate event that you do cause interference, it’s better if you find out directly from them than from a visit by the F.C.C.

Don’t use a transmitter with a variable frequency oscillator as suggested by the Wired article.  These are inherently unstable and are likely to drift onto occupied frequencies.  Use a transmitter with broadcast quality frequency control, something with a crystal oven or vacuum crystal that can provide broadcast quality stability, and preferably something with broadcast quality harmonic attenuation.  An FM broadcast exciter which is intended to drive a higher power amplifier may be a good choice.

Get a functional modulation monitor and frequency counter to assure that you do not over modulate and interfere with adjacent frequencies and that your base frequency is within broadcast tolerances for the same reason.  An additional reason is that modern digitally synthesized tuners with narrow crystal filters will not cleanly demodulate a signal that is not properly centered in the channel.

Understand the safety issues.  You don’t want to get to know Mr. R.F. Burns, he is a pain. You can do more than superficial damage with radio frequency burns, you can damage nerve tissue and lose sensation or the ability to move muscles.  You can get non-trivial RF burns with just a few watts of power at FM broadcast frequencies.  Many people are fooled into thinking that because the present day solid state transmitters don’t require high voltage to operate, they are inherently safe.  But very high RF voltages can be generated even where only low DC voltages are providing the operating power for amplifiers and even though they don’t represent an electrocution hazard, they can be a serious burn hazard. Don’t let low DC voltages fool you into a false sense of complacency.

On the subject of public safety, with FM stations, a big concern is your harmonics. Your 2nd harmonic is going to land somewhere between 176MHz and 216Mhz, in the upper VHF television channels.  If you want to draw the attention of the FCC, interfering with your neighbors soap operas will do it.  Higher order harmonics will land on various public service frequencies and that will get the attention of the FCC since you are potentially interfering with emergency responders.  I suggest that you consider two things, a quarter-wave coaxial stub 2nd harmonic trap combined with a good low pass filter to eliminate the higher order harmonics.

Another thing to know is that harmonics can be generated outside of your transmitter and antenna by any non-linear device. That can include things like two conductors connected with a bit of corrosion. Copper oxide is a semi-conductor and can act as a rectifier, creating harmonics.  If your signal is strong, even though totally harmonic free, it can still overload the front-end of a neighbors television set, creating interfering harmonics there.  Consider choosing a fundamental frequency which has a second harmonic landing in an unused television channel.  If the problem is very local and you are good friends with your neighbors, you might be appease them by offering to install a quarter-wave trap (coaxial or twin-lead stub) at your fundamental frequency to alleviate overload in their television set from generating interfering harmonics.

Have a purpose for existing and create quality programming.  If there are any regrets I have over the way I ran my station, it was not paying more attention to the programming.  My primary purpose was just to wrangle a bit of control from the corporate monopoly on broadcasting, but then I didn’t really say much once I had a chunk of spectrum to talk on.  Other than that, the fascination of knowing my voice was going out there and with AM it’s much different than FM.  FM is much more of a threshold effect, either you can achieve a signal with close to full quieting or you can’t hear it at all.  But with AM, your voice just became lower and the noise became higher as distance increased.  If you had a really good receiver and a really good ear, you could pick out a really weak signal.  Knowing that and knowing skip could happen at night contributed to the fascination of it for me.  But I regret not doing a better job of really understanding how I could benefit the community and tailoring programming to those needs.

Consider legal alternatives to broadcasting illegally. In those days, we didn’t have a legal alternative.  Low power FM didn’t exist with the exception of educational stations.  The internet didn’t exist.  Today there are many good alternatives to explore.  If you are non-profit, apply for official non-profit status, and then you will be eligible to apply for a legal low power FM station, assuming a clear frequency exists, and if it doesn’t, then pirate isn’t a good option either.  If no clear frequency exists, consider an internet station (and we can help you with that) where there is almost infinite address space and dedicated Internet radios now exist for cars and homes and apps exist for many portable devices.

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