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Feature: Scene Report - Tucson, Arizona

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8/13/01

Within the last two weeks FCC enforcement agents have been spotted and encountered by unlicensed broadcasters in Virginia, Arizona and Colorado. Nowhere have the scene reports been flying faster then from Tucson, Arizona.

Tucson's crackling with microradio activity. At least three stations have been on the air there recently, which made Tucson a prime target for the latest FCC sweep: we've gotten reports from all the affected stations that agents have definitely been nosy, to say the least, to varying degrees.

Contact has ranged from simple warning letters to the confiscation of equipment. In at least one instance FCC agents and their attendant Federal Marshals left a raid location empty-handed after barging in, weapons drawn, insisting there was a pirate radio station in operation there and finding no trace of it.

The hardest hit (so far) has been Free Radio Tucson, a 24/7 operation broadcasting "patriot"-style talk programming. The station's manager, Larry Welborn, recently made the following statement to a radio mailing list, which was then forwarded to the alt.radio.pirate Usenet newsgroup.

It is rare for station operators to be as open and candid about their encounters with the FCC as Free Radio Tucson has been. My thanks to Mr. Welborn for permission to republish his thoughts on the experience for a wider audience to learn from.

I have made some minor edits for spelling and punctuation, and deleted two paragraphs of the original post, which can be accessed from the linkbox on this page.

My name is James "Larry" Welborn. For the past 2-1/2 years I have been involved with a project to bring at least one alternate media outlet to the Tucson area. Based upon the pioneering efforts of Steven Dunifer and Pastor Rick Strawcutter our concerned citizens group, (The Old Pueblo 2000) gathered donations and purchased kits to build a 100-watt FM transmitter for use on what is referred to as the commercial FM bandwidth.

We first attempted to obtain a "Low Power FM" License from the agency. We weren't denied. We were ignored. When we broadcast under an individual commercial license of one of our group, (legal, according to Title 47) we were threatened with seizure and fines and ordered to "cease and desist" our broadcast.

I wrote and sent a registered letter [to the FCC] outlining all of the above when we received the second threatening letter from the FCC at what became the permanent location of the transmitter. No reply.

Starting November 1, 2000 we went on the air with a 24-hour line up of national call in talk shows and additional taped information concerning a plethora of issues for the concerned and informed citizen. We interfered with no existing radio station transmission.

On Monday, July 30, 2001, at 11:30 p.m. I received word that there was a better than average chance that the FCC would be in town and that this might be a really good time to develop a technical problem and not be on the air. In that we had planned to shut down in the near future for some maintenance and upgrades anyway I thought that now would be as good a time as any to begin that process. The next day the transmitter was packed up and went to its next assigned location. Now, all that was left at my house was my recording studio, which I have used for years both commercially and personally.

On Wednesday August 1, 2001, at about 2:00 p.m. I heard tires screeching in front of my house and went to the front door to see what was up. I have a security screen door that allows me to see out without anyone outside seeing in and I watched as four people, two men and two women with U.S. Marshal windbreakers walk up to the door, ignore the door bell, slam the screen door with the palm of the hand four times. They all had badges on their belts as well as prominently displayed sidearms. They did not draw their weapons.

From behind the screen door I answered, "Yes?" The oldest of the four announced that they had a search warrant for this house to look for broadcasting equipment. I replied that there was no broadcasting equipment to be found in this house, nor was any broadcast being generated from the house. This made no difference to them.

I told them to go to the carport door and I opened it and seven or eight U.S. Marshals came pouring in. One of them was a woman about 40 who had her windbreaker zipped up to the collar in the 100 plus degree heat. She got right in my face and said as if speaking to the retarded or one who does not speak the local language, "IS THERE ANYONE ELSE IN THE HOUSE?" I had not seen anyone pull this stunt since my tour in Viet Nam and had watched as the ignorant tried to communicate with the Vietnamese.

There is a type of person who thinks that by speaking loud and enunciating carefully they will somehow bridge the language barrier. It is comical to watch but irritating if you are on the receiving end of this nonsense. When I did not answer immediately she repeated the question in the same style. I said, "I speak English, and no, there is no one else in the house." She turned and dispatched a young male Marshal with a marine recruit haircut to check out the veracity of my statement.

What I took to be the head guy handed me the warrant and rattled off some of what it said. The warrant did not name me. It specified the address and listed as defendant, "broadcasting equipment." Because the warrant did not name me I figured I was free to move about as I pleased and I went to the phone and called my wife to let her know that she would be better off going to the library after work instead of coming straight home.

The "studio" area is a room directly off the dining room to the rear of my house. I could see the marshals and FCC personnel as they wandered about my studio.

Now, I hate having jackboots invade my property. I hope none that read this ever have to duplicate the experience and feel the sense of helpless rage that I was feeling. However, at the same time, it was all I could do not to laugh out loud at this hapless bunch. All right, I confess. I did laugh out loud.

At one point a young Marshal came up and asked me to unlock my workshop. This is a separate building on the property. He said that they had to check it to make sure there was no one inside. I said, "Let me see if I have this right. You want me to unlock a building, which is locked from the outside. A building that is probably about 140 degrees inside at this time of day to see if anyone is inside the building. Have I got this right?" He mumbled something about the rules and I did not see even a glimmer of understanding of my previous statement on his face or in his eyes.

Prior to that day I had held, for no good reason, the opinion that FCC personnel would have to know a great deal about electronics and RF technology as a requirement for any position with the agency. I was disabused of that notion on that day. No less than the Director of the San Diego office was wandering about my studio. And he did not know excrement from boot polish about the situation. I watched as he and his assistant tried unsuccessfully to figure out the signal chain.

After about a half-hour of staring at the assembled technology they decided to take the mixer, the computer, a cassette deck, a CD player and a microphone. They left the 60' antenna tower. I suppose taking it would be too much like real work in the afternoon heat.

We are planning on bringing suit against the FCC, as well as all the little jackboots that participated in the violation of my property. We will see in court what the FCC told Judge Velasco to obtain the warrant. It was signed July 31, 2001. There was no transmission of any kind coming from my location on that day. They took property that they had no proof was in any way related to the transmitter that they did not find.