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Feature: Hacking the Dial

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Mbanna Kantako

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In the wake of stepped-up enforcement efforts by the FCC and a move by the radio industry to quash new legal community radio stations, microradio activists are thinking of embracing strategies to broadcast that go beyond setting up their own stations.

This fall in Green Bay, someone hijacked the local public radio affiliate by breaking into its transmitter building, splicing a cheap CD player into the air chain and hitting "play."

Though technically daunting and physically risky, the "station hijacker" was able to broadcast death metal for several hours before someone from the station noticed.

It may now be possible to do essentially the same thing from the comfort of home. The replacement of people by silicon in most commercial stations today may just work in favor of the radio guerrilla.

Radio was quick to embrace automation, and with it several computers were installed in just about every station around the nation. As the industry further consolidated and the Internet matured, radio conglomerates also embraced the concept of regional programming - someone in an office in, say, Texas now has the capability of producing the playlists for dozens of stations in several states.

As this took place, radio stations found themselves growing a bona-fide computer network: the program director can send next week's playlist to the DJ machine in the studio from the office Friday afternoon; the traffic director can schedule commercials to play directly from their workstation.

Any local network with a connection to the Internet can be hacked. Curious and cunning hackers have infiltrated much more complicated systems than what the radio stations or conglomerates probably use.

Chances are there are vulnerabilities in a radio station's computer network that could be exploited. The industry has yet to come to terms with data security.

A recent article on the subject in Radio World magazine laid it out well. Independent computer consultant Paul Flint attended several radio industry functions and expos this year and found one general constant - security is buried deep in the industry's collective consciousness.

"This lack of concern is so dumb, it's sorry," he wrote. While Flint envisions competing companies hacking each other in a chance to affect ratings, think of the possibilities for the rest of us:

A savvy hacker could worm their way into a station's playlist and change it, playing what he or she liked. Advertisements could be deleted and replaced with subtle "parody" files that sound almost like the real thing.  Or full-out protest messages against a commercial station could be uploaded and broadcast.

The potential appears to be real, and it could be effective.  As far as we know, hacking the dial has yet to be tried.