Hunting pirates

The Federal Communications Commission has played cat-and-mouse with Boulder County's radio pirates for years.

An online FCC database lists 32 enforcement actions against unlicensed radio operators in Colorado since 2005. Twenty of those occurred in Boulder alone. But they all were notices of unauthorized operation — basically written warnings telling unlicensed broadcasters to knock it off.

Things get far more serious when the FCC pursues forfeiture orders against repeat offenders; those carry a $10,000 base penalty that can increase by $19,639 a day, up to $147,290, for ongoing violations.

A pirate radio signal that first shot out across Longmont's airwaves late last year has drawn an unusual, high-level scolding from the Federal Communications Commission — directed not at the illicit broadcasters, but to an online news outlet that wrote about their hijacking of an FM frequency.

The letter from FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly raised concerns about the Longmont Observer's "tacit support" of the pirate radio signal in a Dec. 6 article, then stated the "proper action" would have been to alert the FCC's Denver field office to its existence, "not suggest people listen while they can."

The Observer last week published the letter from O'Rielly, a Republican appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama in 2013.

"Over the last year, the FCC has increased enforcement actions in order to cease pirate radio operations throughout the nation," O'Rielly wrote. "It would be helpful if Longmont citizens and the Observer assisted this effort by, at a minimum, refusing to listen to or support such 'stations.'"

Jeep MacNichol, of The Samples, records his "Mr. Anonymous Reggae Show" for Boulder’s Green Light Radio in 2012. Green Light is still
Jeep MacNichol, of The Samples, records his "Mr. Anonymous Reggae Show" for Boulder's Green Light Radio in 2012. Green Light is still broadcasting online and at KGLR 93.1 FM — and offering support to a new Longmont pirate radio station — though it no longer carries MacNichol's show. (Kira Horvath / Daily Camera file photo)

Sergio R. Angeles, president and co-founder of the nonprofit Longmont Observer, declined to comment on O'Rielly's position beyond the editor's note appended to the letter when it was published Jan. 3.

"The Longmont Observer generally doesn't comment on letters to the editor, however, we do find it odd, and by what we can tell, unprecedented, that an FCC commissioner would write a tiny digital-only, locally focused news outlet in Longmont, Colo., and tell us what story we should write, and how to write it."

Brooke Ericson, O'Rielly's chief of staff, said the commissioner long has advocated for increased enforcement against pirate radio, and sent the letter to the Observer because "this is the first article (he) has come across that appeared to actively promote this illegal activity."

FCC officials declined to say whether they are actively investigating the unidentified broadcasters behind Longmont's KROC 106.5 FM — the latest in a small crop of unlicensed stations peppering the Boulder County airwaves.

In his letter to the Observer, O'Rielly argued "pirate radio can cause real harm to Coloradans" because such stations don't comply with federal regulations or facilitate the over-the-air Emergency Alert System during public safety events.

"And," he wrote, "these scofflaws often don't pay any fees as required by law or keep any paperwork, exposing listeners to potential fraudsters and rip-off artists."

But the FCC's main point of contention with the Observer appears to be the final line of its story about the unlicensed signal. After describing the broadcasts and explaining the FCC's enforcement process, the uncredited writer concluded, "In the meantime, enjoy Longmont's pirate station while it lasts."

Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, defended the Observer's coverage, saying the outlet was educating readers about the broadcasts and delving into issues surrounding pirate radio.

"That's what news organizations do — they inform their readers, viewers and listeners," he said. "They have a First Amendment right to do that."

Jason Lanman relaxes while listening to the Analog Quartet perform at Boulder’s Fox Theatre during a 2004 benefit concert for pirate radio station
Jason Lanman relaxes while listening to the Analog Quartet perform at Boulder's Fox Theatre during a 2004 benefit concert for pirate radio station KBFR. (Patrick Kelley / Daily Camera file photo)

John Anderson, director of the Journalism and Media Studies program in the Department of TV & Radio at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, addressed O'Rielly's letter on his blog, similarly invoking the First Amendment.

"It is absolutely unprecedented for an FCC commissioner to attempt to badger journalists for simply doing their jobs," Anderson wrote.

'New pirate in town'

It's not clear when KROC first joined Longmont's airwaves, though it drew notice on Reddit on Dec. 3 via a post from someone identifying himself as monkkbfr, the founder of the area's most famous pirate station, Boulder Free Radio. "There's a new pirate in town (not me!) at 106.5fm," he wrote.

The Longmont pirates were simulcasting Boulder's Green Light Radio, a long-running underground — and very free-form — station that broadcasts all variety of music online and over the air at KGLR 93.1 FM.

KGLR is part of the Colorado Community Radio Network, an umbrella organization formed in 2013 that included three other unlicensed signals in Boulder County: Nederland's KNED 93.1 FM, Ward's KWHR 90.5 FM and Boulder Free Radio, KBFR 95.3 FM. The network allows the under-the-radar broadcasters to support each other and share programming.

Rocky Flats, the pseudonymous co-founder of Green Light Radio, said in an email that "a cousin" in this "family of community advocates and pirates" started the nonprofit KROC in Longmont "with our symbolic support."

"They are apparently using our internet stream to play music until they get their own crew formed," Rocky Flats wrote late last month. "Thus is the way of the pirate."

Not surprisingly, pinning down pirates — or even hearing them on the radio — can be tricky business; they operate under assumed names, switch frequencies if needed and don't necessarily broadcast 24 hours a day.

The person or persons behind the Longmont station declined, through Green Light Radio, to be interviewed for this story.

It's not even clear whether KROC is still broadcasting. Multiple attempts to find a signal at 106.5 in Longmont this week yielded only static.

Following publication of O'Rielly's letter, Rocky Flats demurred from answering further questions "in light of the recent events with the FCC."

'Little you can do to win'

Heat from the FCC, though, is nothing new for Boulder County's radio pirates.

The original KBFR — Boulder Free Radio — crackled to life in 2001 after the man who called himself Monk bought a few thousand dollars' worth of broadcast equipment and decided to become an over-the-air DJ.

Monk's original plan had been to operate legally.

The FCC approved low-power FM — noncommercial stations broadcasting at fewer than 100 watts — in 2000, and began taking applications for licenses. Congress, though, made implementation nearly impossible in urban areas with a high concentration of full-power FM signals after lobbying by the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio, which argued the low-power broadcasts would interfere with established FM stations.

So, Monk became a pirate. "We're taking back a valuable public resource," he told the Daily Camera in 2003.

The FCC was after him from the start, and federal agents found KBFR's fixed antenna — which boosted a signal beamed from a mobile broadcast van — several times. Then, following a 2005 raid, Monk threw in the towel.

"We're gone for good," he wrote in an email at the time. "When the government decides they want to 'get' you at all costs, there's little you can do to win."

Yet that wasn't the end of Boulder Free Radio. KBFR stirred back to life in 2008, this time run by a different person — or at least someone with a different pseudonym — and broadcasting from 93.9 FM. The illicit station continued to broadcast in Boulder, and at some point moved back to 95.3 FM.

The FCC remained on the hunt and, according to KBFR's website, agents shut down the operation on July 27, 2016 — apparently because of overlap with Denver-based Christian station KLDC, which also uses 95.3 FM.

Will Wiquist, the FCC's deputy press secretary, declined to comment on the agency's investigation of KBFR.

A representative of KBFR contacted through the station's website declined an interview request.

'True community function'

The FCC's interest in the new pirate frequency in Longmont didn't go unnoticed in Ward, the hamlet in the Boulder County foothills that's home to KWHR, a 75-watt station dubbed Way High Radio.

Way High, one of the underground stations flying the Colorado Community Radio Network banner, has been broadcasting since 1997, save for some extended downtime from 2009 to 2011.

Porsche Steve — like most pirate DJs, he goes by his on-air handle — said he'd hate to see the feds shut down such important community assets. (Way High is not a particularly secret operation; Ward allows the station to locate its studio next to town hall, according to KWHR's website.)

But beyond just playing music, Way High proved to be an invaluable resource during 2016's Cold Springs Fire, using generator power to broadcast vital emergency information over its own signal and that of sister station KNED in Nederland. Way High's crew stayed on the air for five straight days.

"Look, we're not stepping on anybody else," Porsche Steve said of potential conflicts on the FM dial. "We're trying to keep people informed about things they may not hear from other sources. It has a true community function."

Matt Sebastian: 303-473-1350, sebastianm@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/mattsebastian