Feds Bust Top L.A. Pirate Radio Station

The vigorous federal crackdown on unlicensed broadcasters claims a high-profile victim.

LOS ANGELES -- KBLT, the city's highest-profile pirate radio station, fell victim to the federal government's relentless crackdown on unlicensed broadcasters this year when it was shut down by the FCC on Oct. 30.

KBLT was only the latest, though certainly one of the most prominent, of approximately 250 stations shut down by the Federal Communications Commission this year.

After a run-in with FCC workers at the site of the station's transmitter, KBLT operator Paige Jarrett was given the choice of surrendering her transmission equipment or paying a fine of $11,000.

She chose to surrender the equipment, the value of which she estimates at $500. The station, which featured regular DJ stints by the likes of former Minutemen/firehose bassist Mike Watt and Keith Morris, formerly of Black Flag and currently the Circle Jerks vocalist, has been silent since.

Jarrett said she had experienced a range of emotions over the bust.

"First it's shock, then it's anger, then it's sadness, then it's frustration. I really wasn't expecting it to happen," she said Thursday (Nov. 5).

Operated on a budget of less than $100 a month, KBLT, heard on FM frequency 104.7, played a variety of music, ranging from old-style country to drum 'n' bass, rock and jazz. Broadcasting seven days a week and 24 hours a day from the Silver Lake district, the station was rated Los Angeles' best by local weekly publications for the past two years.

"It's a very romantic idea," Jarrett said of pirate radio. "I think a lot of people wanted to do it, but didn't quite know how, so when they found out that it existed they wanted to be a part of it. I was very lucky. It was just a magnet, really, for all different types of people, a lot of different artistic people."

In June, for instance, funk-rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers played a live acoustic set on the station.

Jarrett said that she saw the shutdown as both a political/free speech issue and an anti-corporate issue. "You hear all the time about the homogenization or the conglomeratization of radio, and it's true," she said.

"There's a handful of companies that own the majority of radio stations across the country. That's why ... the modern rock station in New York sounds exactly the same as it does in Idaho. You'll hear the exact same songs every hour, and that's sick. It's not about good music, or cultivating artists; it's about having a quick hit; it's about money."

Jarrett, who is also a freelance journalist, ran pirate radio station KPBJ in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles three years ago and launching KBLT. She said she did not know whether KBLT will rise from the ashes and go on the air again.

David Fiske, deputy director in the FCC's public affairs office, said he had no details Thursday (Nov. 5) about the KBLT bust. However, he added that the federal agency is continuing to crack down on pirate radio stations across the country. "We have an ongoing effort to shut down unlicensed stations, having done 250 in the last year," he said. "Most of them have been voluntary; some have been seizures."

The FCC, which says it targets stations for shutdowns based on complaints as well as on their power levels, launched a full-fledged offensive against unlicensed broadcasters in Miami over the summer, shutting down 15 stations in the area, including 13 in the four-day stretch from July 27-31. It was deemed the largest single crackdown on pirate radio stations in U.S. history.

Jarrett said the first time she knew the FCC was onto KBLT was in July, when the agency visited KSCR, another L.A. pirate radio station, which was operating on the same frequency. She claimed the FCC workers visited the station thinking it was KBLT.

Upon hearing of this, Jarrett decided to take KBLT and its website down. The station was down for two and a half months while Jarrett worked with an engineer to build equipment that would be less easily traced. KBLT went back on the air Oct. 13.

Jarrett said the only indication that the FCC was again onto KBLT came a week ago, when the transmitter was turned off at its hidden site atop a Hollywood building. She and her engineer went over to the transmitter and simply turned it back on.

"We knew it had to be someone who knew the equipment to know that they didn't have to cut the cable to turn it off," she said. "They just opened the box and turned off the switch. We pretty much figured it was either the FCC or another radio engineer who was politely trying to tell us to stop without confronting us."

On Oct. 29, KBLT aired without incident, but the next morning at 11 a.m. the transmitter was again turned off. When Jarrett went to the transmission site, she encountered the FCC workers. Though the men only seized the transmitter, Jarrett said she suspects that the FCC will notify her that they know where the rest of KBLT's equipment is stored and attempt to seize that equipment as well.

"Every day I feel more and more doomed," she said, adding that she just heard of another bust in another state that demoralized her even more. Whether or not KBLT continues, she said, she hopes to raise public awareness of the free speech issues raised by the government crackdown on what she calls "radio by the people for the people."

"I want to have some kind of effect on a political or governmental level," Jarrett said, "because I think that we need to channel the community's support somehow. ... The DJs are definitely up for the fight."