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Buzz

Can't keep a good Monk down
Boulder Free Radio remains a pirate in the night

by P.W. Miller

- - - - - - - - - - - -
(buzz@boulderweekly.com)

Turn the dial to 95.3 FM, and you might hear it: "This is Jon Sprague from the FCC, and you’re listening to Boulder Free Radio."

The pre-recorded announcement occasionally broadcast by KBFR couldn’t be sitting well with the Denver branch of the Federal Communications Commission. Since this time last year, the FCC has been on the trail of the $2,500 low-power FM (LPFM) transmitter initially owned by "Monk," a radio revolutionary in his 30s who first started using it–without a license–in March of last year. On July 12, 2001, Monk was issued a warning by Sprague for broadcasting out of a Boulder home. He retired, ostensibly, giving away the equipment to the Boulder Underground Radio Group (BURG), who kept the ship–or van–afloat until Jan. 18, when the then-mobile operation known as Free Boulder Radio was warned, as well.

"There isn’t really a single person running it," he says of the current op, once again known as Boulder Free Radio. "This time it’s more of a group of kids. But there’s some older folks involved. It’s the same as before, it’s about 20 people who cycle through. It varies from 10 people to 30. They are literally from 18… up to a guy, ‘Crispy Critter,’ who’s 50 year’s old, 50 or 55."

Crispy has done entire days of rare Frank Zappa. Other jocks feature punk, electronica, hard metal, etc. It’s quite a change from Monk’s original ’70s album rock, mixed with whatever he wanted to spin.

"I’m kind of the godfather," explains Monk, whose old play lists, "Monk mixes," KBFR throws on occasionally. "I’m not actually involved daily. You hear me on there a lot, but it’s recorded. Some of it’s from a year ago."

History repeats itself.

Around 10 a.m., Monday, June 17–roughly six months after the BURG warning–the rig was parked outside a house bordering U.S. 36, where KBFR kids in their early ’20s were broadcasting. The van was beside a tree holding up an antenna, connected to a transmitter inside. The transmitter was powered by an electrical chord running from the house, where the studio was wirelessly linked to the contents inside the locked van. The vehicle’s license plates had been removed and VIN numbers covered.

Two FCC agents, Sprague and Jerry Ulcek, who had apparently brought a Boulder city cop along with them, searched the grounds, including the backyard, before knocking on the door, according to Monk. "They wanted to be let in to be able to search the house," he says. "The person who answered the door asked for a warrant. They didn’t have one, so she wouldn’t let him in. They went to the van that was parked out front with all the equipment in it, and spent about 10 minutes taking pictures, trying to figure out whatever it was they were trying to figure out.

"The FCC, right after they were at that house, went over to the bust in January... They said, ‘Well, this has been going on too long. It looks like it’s time for us to get a warrant.’ Now a warrant for what I can’t figure out. It’s a van. It’s usually parked some place on property where the people who live there don’t own the van. Each time we do it, it’s a different place, and we have dozens of these locations in Boulder." (Sprague and FCC Assistant Bureau Chief John Winston, in Washington, D.C., declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.)

Their antennas are scattered throughout Boulder: one downtown, one on University Hill, one in north Boulder, one in south Boulder, and a couple in the mountains.

According to Monk, as long as they keep moving, using handles–such as "Sparky," KBFR’s professional radio frequency engineer–and no real names are attached to the activities, they should only receive warnings. "Because we’re passing it on to a new group each time, it’s always going to be a first-time warning," he says.

Usually first-time offenders get a warning, he adds, and second-time offenders may be fined up to $11,000.

On the FCC’s website, fcc.gov., you get specifics: "... Unlicensed or unauthorized operation of a radio transmitter or station (AM, FM, International Short Wave and TV) is a violation of Section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, 47 U.S.C. 301. Under the Communications Act, violators may be subject to penalties up to $11,000 and the equipment used is subject to seizure and forfeiture by court order. Unlicensed operators also could be subject to criminal fines of up to $100,000 and/or imprisonment for up to one year, or both, for a first-time offense."

Monk wasn’t supposed to face those penalties, though.

When he purchased his fine European set up, he was in the process of applying for an LPFM license: "I was just about to send everything in to the FCC. I’m really glad I didn’t now because then they would have had a pretty good guess who I really was."

After the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed companies like 1,200-stations-strong, Texas-based Clear Channel Communications to own twice as many stations per market, and an unlimited number overall, the FCC sanctioned LPFMs (100 watts and less) in January 2000. Lobbying efforts from organizations such as the National Association of Broadcasters effectively clipped the movement’s wings, leading to the requirement of three–instead of the previous two–open channels between stations. The legislation was passed in mid-December 2000, slipped in during Slick Willy’s last days. After the FCC adopted the three-channel requirement as a rule, extra, potential LPFM space was squeezed out of the spectrum, making the application process extremely competitive. "I think they’ve given out six licenses so far in the country," Monk says.

KBFR originally broadcasted on 96.9 FM, two clicks north of 96.5 FM, once Denver's Peak, and just two south of 97.3, KBCO, which led to accusations that the Clear Channel-owned, Triple-A Boulder station ratted Monk out. They’re now at 95.3 FM, which, except for a few low-watt translators in the mountains, no station in Colorado uses.

But Monk’s pointing fingers at ’BCO for banishing the ’BFR morning (and afternoon) show last month, as well.

"We had been doing evenings and weekends until about two weeks before (June 17)," he recalls. "Then, we had gone 24/7 again. We figured this out. This is the pattern. KBCO just doesn’t want us on during the day, when the Arbitrons–which are the Nielsen ratings of the radio world–are done, from about 6 a.m. to about 6 p.m. That’s how they get their advertising rates. So, as long as we don’t broadcast during the day, we seem to be OK.

"When we were at 96.9, most of the businesses in Boulder that could get us clearly played us all day long. All of the car garages told us that. About half a dozen of them said that when they turned a car on, 50 percent of the cars had KBFR tuned in as the station they were listening to. That means we had several thousand listeners. My guess is we probably showed up on an Arbitron somewhere, and KBCO went, ‘Oh my God. These guys are taking away listeners.’"

KBCO program director Scott Arbough, who has denied accusations in the past, didn’t respond to requests for an interview. Joanne Cole, development director for KGNU–a station supportive of KBFR–expresses doubt regarding KBCO’s involvement. She mentions the fact that Nederland LPFM stations Radio Free Ned and Jed were brought down almost accidentally by Ulcek earlier this year, after Jed’s dirty signal started interfering with a public television channel ("Radio Free Dead," Buzz, Feb. 28). Thom Mocarsky, vice president of communications for Arbitron, adds, "If you’re not an FCC-licensed radio station, you don’t get in the Arbitron books. An LPFM, if it is licensed by the FCC, qualifies to attend. If it’s not licensed by the FCC, it does not qualify."

Arbitron results posted at radioandrecords.com, place KBCO a healthy second in Denver/Boulder, scoring 7.5 percent of the area’s 2,036,300 12-and-up population, with KYGO at number one, pulling in 8 percent. The ratings are used to "adjust their advertising rates, adjust their programming, whatever people need to do to understand their audience," Mocarsky explains.

However, KBFR continues to wonder why the feds are going after a small, commercial-free radio when there are phone and cable systems to regulate. And a War on Terrorism to be won.

But Monk’s not taking the equipment for granted. Eventually, if a few thousand people across the country set up clean signals, and act as "good radio citizens," he believes the relatively small agency will be over-taxed.

Until then, the Godfather lurks.

"We are doing evenings and weekends only. So, it’s after six, then pretty much whenever the FCC’s not working," Monk laughs. "You know what? They are federal employees, so them showing up in the evenings or on the weekend is pretty unlikely."

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com



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