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Feature: Feet in the Fire

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1/8/01

The most offensive tactic in the radio activists' arsenal has been taking to the air without a license, thereby reclaiming a small spot on the dial where former radio listeners can become broadcasters.

But change appears to be in the air: recent reports from around the country point to a growing use of stronger tactics put to use. They involve turning commercial and public radio outlets against themselves.

Two methods of accomplishing this have been demonstrated recently. The first is the "signal hijack," which can be accomplished in a variety of ways. All of them allow the rogue broadcaster to temporarily disrupt or even take over a licensed station's signal.

The second method is much more drastic: outright vandalism of a licensed station's transmission facilities with the intent of knocking the station off the air.

Of the two, signal hijacking appears to be more widespread. In at least two states along the West Coast, radio saboteurs have researched the frequencies commercial stations use to make remote broadcasts.

These "remote units" typically transmit on frequencies above the FM dial. They allow station personalities to make live broadcast appearances from locations away from the studio - successful stations can make a lot of money off of such on-location remote broadcasts.

Saboteurs using small transmitters (with power measured in milliwatts) at the location of a station's remote broadcast can successfully disrupt the remote unit by interfering or distorting the signal it sends back to its parent station. Not only does this cause confusion and embarrassment on the air (as the personality on location feverishly tries to "fix" his or her "malfunctioning" equipment), but it angers the client who's hosting the remote - potentially ending in a loss of advertising revenue for the station.

Another form of signal hijacking involves taking over an FM translator station. Translators are low power FM stations of 250 watts or less, and are used by  licensed stations as "repeaters" to increase their coverage areas or fill in weak signal spots. Some translators simply receive the signal of their parent station and rebroadcast it on a different frequency.

Other radio activists - primarily in the Midwest - have built small radio kits and, after setting up in a spot close to the translator, broadcast their own programming on the same frequency as the translator's parent station. Because the activists' lower-power station is physically closer to the translator than the parent station is, its signal is stronger - strong enough so that the translator will rebroadcast it instead.

Both of these methods are good for "hit-and-run"-style guerrilla radio activism. The second strategy, however, is much more dangerous - and even more felonious than going on the air without a license.

Break, Enter and Burn

Putting an unlicensed station on the air is illegal; interfering with the broadcasts of another station is, too. But the "ultimate sin" may very well be the vandalism - or outright destruction - of a licensed station's transmitter.

Recent incidents of this sort have been reported in the Midwest and Southern U.S., with the hottest action happening in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, someone burned down the transmitter facility of commercial rock outlet WZOR-FM "The Razor." The blaze has been ruled an arson.

The building housing the transmitter was gutted; the 6,000 watt station was off the air for two days. It has since returned using a low-power backup transmitter but is not expected to be back up to full speed until February. WZOR was recently granted permission by the FCC to increase its power to 25,000 watts; the new transmitter may have already arrived and, if so, it may have also been destroyed in the fire.

In addition, the Wisconsin Public Radio station on the UW-Green Bay campus, WHID-FM, was aggressively hijacked three months ago. A marauder broke into the station's transmitter facility, spliced a home CD player into the 17,000 watt transmitter, and left death metal playing for nearly six hours until engineers could get on the scene and stop it.

Over the past year in Green Bay, several other commercial radio station antenna sites have been vandalized, causing their temporary silence. Police suspect all these incidents to be the work of one person or group.

The battle for control of the airwaves is heating up - in more ways than one. While the new tactics may only result temporary setbacks to the stations who find themselves under fire, it signals a new level of intensity in this war.