Six teenage boys in baseball caps are squeezed into a stuffy eight-by-ten-foot room. The door has three locks. Drapes cover the windows. A desk, the only major piece of furniture, props up two turntables and a microphone. “Yeah, 88.7 FM! Where the females at?” cries the D.J. When a few ladies call in a minute later, as requested, all six guys jump toward the mic. Two of them start rapping, working in the chorus to “Sexual Healing.” Free speech never sounded so, well, free.
If Federal Communications Commission agents are still searching for Steal This Radio – the Lower East Side’s notorious twenty-watt pirate radio station – they can find it here, in a building that, at the station’s insistence, won’t be identified. Like all low-power stations, Steal This Radio broadcasts at the dregs of the FM spectrum, far from the big commercial concerns. A collective of about two dozen members runs the place; programming ranges from WLIB-style political talk shows to free-form rap. The station is unlicensed, which has made Steal This Radio a prime target of the FCC since it started broadcasting three years ago, but in a recent preemptive move, four Steal This Radio D.J.’s filed an anonymous suit against the Feds. It was the first time a pirate station went after the FCC before the FCC got to it first. “Basically, the lawsuit says the airwaves are free ground, like a park,” explains Barbara Olshansky, the Center for Constitutional Rights lawyer who has taken on the station’s case.
But in a surprising maneuver, the FCC is now considering opening the lower end of the FM dial to commercial stations – a move that could start a new micro-radio revolution. The only problem: The current plan won’t allow insurgent stations like Steal This Radio to have a license. “Imagine if the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t allow runaway slaves to stay free,” complains D.J. Thomas Paine, one of the pseudonymous plaintiffs, who hosts a pro-Zapatista radio show at the station.
Of course, even if the station does get a license, going commercial could take the wind out of the pirates’ sails. Asked what he likes best about micro-radio, Thomas Paine says, “I think the same thing that appealed to Rosa Parks about sitting in the front of the bus. What appealed to me was the ban. It just felt unconstitutional. For me, the clandestine part of it is fun.”