*Warning: This story contains harsh and profane language.
The fearless founder of Phoenix-based pirate radio station KWFUCC goes global online while hijacking Valley airwaves.
Last December, strange transmissions on the 87.9 FM frequency started bombarding southbound traffic on Arizona State Route 51 near central Phoenix: obscure Grateful Dead songs; flatulence sounds; Morse code messages; weird electro mashups using Beatles samples; the soundtracks for The Sound of Music and Conan the Barbarian. But no station identification.
No DJ talking.
Phoenix was hearing its first terrestrial pirate radio station in nearly 40 years. The anonymous, unlicensed broadcasting (an offense which can carry fines up to $15,000) and off-the-wall music struck a chord with counterculture-minded listeners, especially those within a 20-mile radius of central and Downtown Phoenix, where the signal was strongest (see sidebar). The Internet was abuzz with eager people wanting to know more about the station, and who was behind it. “I love it so much, I wish I could get some of the music played. Some of it is so random,” one listener wrote on reddit.com. “Awesome music selection, funny skits,” wrote another.
In January, the station unveiled a call sign: KWFUCC. This was announced in an automated female voice with a vaguely British accent, via a computerized text-to-voice program that also announced various vulgarities about listeners’ lower extremities and their mothers. For the first two months, programming was irregular. The station usually came on in the evenings or late at night for a few hours, then went off-air.
But then an avalanche happened. Local artists and wannabe radio DJs found a Facebook page for the station, and by proxy, the man who built the transmitter. A few folks from the Downtown Phoenix arts scene convinced him to let them play music on his station. Two female fans with backgrounds in technology and marketing also came on board, and by February, KWFUCC was on-air at 87.9 FM 24 hours a day, and streaming online at kwfucc.com. In March, Craigslist ads started to appear in countries like Russia, the Netherlands and Iraq, soliciting DJs from abroad and asserting that KWFUCC is “currently the most powerful FM pirate radio station in the States... with a coverage range encompassing an area populated by 5 million people.”
Phoenix has a history of pirate radio stations (see sidebar), but nationwide, they’ve become rarer and perhaps less romantic since the explosion of the Internet and streaming radio. The man behind KWFUCC is an unlikely radio pirate who says he never intended for things to go this far. He just wanted to see if he could build a functioning transmitter. But he can’t stop now – not now that he’s logging up to 6,000 visitors a day on the KWFUCC stream, not now that he’s gone from loner to local hero, not now that he admits he’s become “addicted” to being on the air.
The longer he broadcasts, the bolder he gets. Though no official has confronted him yet, he knows the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could find his signal and fine him for broadcasting without a license. He knows digital royalty organization Sound Exchange could fine him for not paying royalties for his online broadcasts. He’s well aware that what he’s doing is illegal. And he does have plenty to lose.
“They call me Captain Hook. It’s like the worst fucking name in the world. I’m stuck with it. Just call me The Captain for short.”
Though there’s a good argument that pirates shouldn’t court press, the guy behind KWFUCC agrees to meet me on condition of anonymity. Based on the range of music on the station over the past few days – which included ‘60s folk songs, electronic remixes of reggae and ragtime songs, and local punk rock – I’m expecting a twentysomething libertarian hipster kid who lives Downtown and maybe skateboards or paints murals or works as a barista at a mom-and-pop coffee shop.
Instead, I meet a 36-year-old, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, well-to-do white Republican male engineer who hates communism and loves drug-drenched electronic music. He says he’s in the midst of a divorce, and recently moved the transmitter out of his Biltmore-area home because his estranged wife kept destroying it. He’s originally from California (“Can’t you tell?” he quips, re-lighting a long-mashed-out Marlboro butt) and says this is his first pirate radio station. And while he’s adamant that “We’re not gonna change the fucking world. We’re just a stupid pirate radio station,” the station is clearly changing his world.
“I never intended to do this. What the fuck is a 36-year-old man doing, doing this?” The Captain says over a whiskey and Coke at Phoenix eatery Welcome Diner one night in early March. “I do enjoy it, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I had no idea I would enjoy it so much. It’s addictive, especially in the beginning. It’s like an instant self-esteem boost every time you go on that fucking thing. I don’t know how much of it is bullshit. Simply because of the fact that it’s illegal and it’s a pirate radio station and I’m a ‘bad boy,’ I could probably go on there and play The Smurfs and people would love me. It doesn’t matter what I fucking play. But I think the station is unique, and this is the only environment where a station this unique exists.”
In the 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume, actor Christian Slater portrays a high school outcast who starts broadcasting a pirate FM radio station from his parents’ basement in a Phoenix suburb. Slater’s character is young, good-looking, charismatic and an unknown hipster hero (he uses the handle “Hard Harry”) to his hordes of teen listeners.
“Well, that’s not me,” The Captain says with a chuckle. “I’m a toothless redneck with a transmitter.”
He says he grew up near Death Valley National Park in California and spent a lot of time around Barker Ranch, infamous as the last hideout of the Manson Family. “I like the desert. It’s safe out there. We have control out there,” he says. “The desert is the one place where all the variables are in my favor... I can smell a fucking truck four miles away.”
He relocated to Phoenix about three years ago, and works in the Valley as an industrial engineer. KWFUCC came about by accident. He says he was trying to hobby-build a Tesla coil (an electrical transformer that creates spectacular, lightning bolt-like flares of energy), and in the process, he removed the manufactured modulator board, copied the specs and parts, and sent the blueprint to China, where it was reproduced and shipped back to him. Instead of building a Tesla coil, he used the modulator to build the transmitter. “It fucking only costs 300 bucks to build,” he says.
Originally, he was broadcasting from his home. But his “soon to be ex” wife kept destroying the transmitter. After rebuilding it a few times, he moved the transmitter to a different location in late February. “[My wife] hated that fucking thing,” he says. “I’m a 36-year-old man with a... pirate radio station – are you kidding me? It’s pathetic. But it is fun.”
Within 30 days of signing on-air, fans started seeking him out. One of the first to find him was a twentysomething marketer we’ll call “J,” who had moved to the Valley from Colorado the month The Captain began broadcasting. She sent him messages signed “Your biggest fan” and offered to help grow the station’s online presence and expand programming. “He mentions on-air that he’s married, that he lives in his mom’s basement – he said a lot of things about himself that may or may not have been true,” J says. “I was like, ‘I have to meet this dude.’”
J admits with a wink and a blush that she does “a little more than just help out at the station” now.
KWFUCC is run by The Captain, J and another young female, and only the trio knows the location of the transmitter and the servers for the online station. But numerous local notables from the Downtown Phoenix arts scene, including Djentrification, Phil Freedom and Ryan Avery, regularly host music shows remotely. There’s also a show called “Top 10 from a 10-Year-Old,” hosted by a shockingly profane youngster who goes by the name DJ Triskett.
Though The Captain claims to be “religious” and a Republican (he’s particularly fond of Ronald Reagan speeches and says “Reagan is our fucking Kennedy”), he says he tries to keep politics off the station and asks me not to overemphasize the politics he keeps bringing up. He thinks avoiding political controversy will keep the FCC complacent, but he also says feedback from Facebook and the KWFUCC website tells him his listener demographic is all over the place, and that’s the way he likes it. “I’m hitting everybody equally, and that’s the goal,” he says. “I don’t want to specialize in any one age, sex, group, political point of view. I want to be a voice for everybody.”
He’s garnered some attention from traditional radio guys. Valley radio personality John “Johnny D” Dixon has been on Arizona airwaves since the ‘70s, and currently co-hosts the show “Audio Ranch” on KWSS 93.9 FM. He started listening to KWFUCC online in March, and says that while it’s exciting to hear obscure music anywhere, the idea of “pirate radio” has lost a lot of its luster in the Digital Age. “Pirate radio here and across the country had much more impact years ago, before the Internet and anyone and everyone [was] able to stream worldwide 24/7,” Dixon says. “The fact that he is on an FM band is different, and as long as he’s not interfering with another signal, maybe he can get away with it. In the old days, the FCC would track him down and shut him down ASAP when the commercial stations would complain about an unlicensed signal.”
The Captain admits, “If the FCC wants to find my signal, they’ll find it in two seconds. It’s 150 watts. I could find it with a fucking goddamn Walkman.” But Paul Riismandel, co-founder of Radio Survivor who’s been covering noncommercial media for more than 20 years, says the FCC is not a policing organization, but a regulatory body, and “by and large, there’s not this active scanning going on, and checking out the dial for unlicensed broadcasters. It’s based upon someone bringing it to their attention, and very often, that’s a licensed broadcaster who has skin in the game and cares when there’s an unlicensed broadcaster on the air.”
KWFUCC’s Internet station is also a pirate channel, as it avoids paying royalties to songwriters and musicians via a digital performance rights organization called Sound Exchange (required for all Internet radio stations broadcasting out of the U.S.). “It’s illegal to stream the shit we’re streaming,” The Captain concedes. “They want you to have playlists and shit that’s all been [identified] and is all backed up and everything, but pretty much all the music people send in to me has been ripped, or mashed up. It won’t be legal... in order to keep our stream going, we’ve had to go overseas... right now we’re streaming out of Afghanistan.”
There’s a long history of pirate radio stations throughout the U.S., particularly in large cities that have populations from different countries and underrepresented ethnic groups, like New York City and Miami. Hundreds of low-frequency, unlicensed stations intermittently broadcast all over the country, and the operators of a few – including activists Walter Olenick and Rae Nadler-Olenick of Liberty 90.1 FM in Austin, and Dan Roberts, former manager of Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco – have respectively been hit with $15,000 and $10,000 fines from the FCC for broadcasting without a license.
The Captain says he’s not too worried about the FCC. “Nobody’s complained. If somebody complains, they’ll fuck with me,” he says. “[But] we don’t fuck with anybody, so nobody fucks with us. It’s that simple. If you’re not saying anything too offensive or too political, it seems like nobody gives a shit. And the music I play is so shitty, it doesn’t even fuck with the other stations.”
Riismandel disagrees with The Captain’s risk-assessment and questions him raising his profile. “Officially and ostensibly, the FCC is... not going to care about your programming. They care whether or not you have a license,” he says. “That’s all they care about. Do you have a license or not? And can they find you? Those are going to be the two big factors.”
Though The Captain used his engineering skills to build his own transmitter, FM broadcast transmitters are easy to obtain online via sites like eBay and freeradio.org (where a 150-watt transmitter sells for around $800). Where The Captain differs from many other radio pirates is his brazenness; he’s actually broadcasting 24/7 with a high-power signal, on an FM channel and online, skirting both terrestrial licenses and digital royalty payments. The Captain explains this with a smirk and paraphrases the KWFUCC motto: “I’ve got big balls.”
As this issue went to press, KWFUCC had been on the air for almost six months, with no problems and a ballooning fan base. But in mid-March, The Captain started violating his “no politics” rule, sometimes getting on the microphone late at night and making comments about the conflict in Croatia. “I really hate communism, with a fucking passion. That is the Republican part of me,” he says. “And I really hate socialism with a fucking passion. That’s about as far as I go with my politics.”
But he’s going further in other areas. Like publicizing his pirate radio station. Though he was promised anonymity for this story and didn’t disclose his real name, he did show his transmitter to media prior to moving it to its newer, undisclosed location, he’s been advertising for DJs on Craigslist, and he says he let an entertainment writer from the Arizona Republic into his house. Riismandel says those types of things can be a pirate station’s undoing. “With unlicensed broadcasters, they often walk this line between getting publicity and keeping things on the down-low, as you might understand,” he says. “When you’re operating a radio station and getting a listenership, it’s possible to fly under the radar, or not to be a high priority, because you’re not garnering a lot of complaints. It’s not a huge issue, whereas getting publicity is sometimes what puts you on the radar... getting publicity and being written up in PHOENIX magazine raises your profile.”
The Captain is on the air almost nightly now, and frequently sounds inebriated. His accidental hobby has turned into an obsession. “It’s a full-time job, doing this... I’ve got guys writing dissertations on shit we’re working on [at his day job], and I come in there smelling like alcohol from the night before, because I just turned off the transmitter at 2 in the morning,” he says. “Think about it: I’m sitting in a fucking board meeting being all professional, and all night I’m talking about how I like to fucking smoke pot and get all fucked up. And I’ve got to run a design team of engineers, all with master’s degrees. Imagine that Monday morning.”
Still, he emphasizes his willingness to just walk away at any time. “I don’t even care about radio, really... I’m not one of those guys that sat in the shower with a fucking microphone. I didn’t even talk on [KWFUCC] for like, four months, before people said, ‘Why the fuck don’t you say something?’ So I finally said something,” he says. “It’s not even my freaking gig, you know what I mean? I’ve got my own fucking life. I’m an engineer. I make decent money. I’ve got two fucking houses, and I own a hot spring in Wikieup. I don’t need this shit.”
Noncommercial Radio in Arizona
- Pirate station KAOS broadcasts intermittently on an AM signal from Tempe. One of the DJs is Jim Blades, brother of Jack Blades from the band Night Ranger.
- KKAT broadcasts on an AM frequency. The station is run by a Phoenix high school student known as “Don DJ ” who broadcasts from his backyard.
- KCAC (1010 AM) becomes Phoenix’s first free-form station, giving disc jockeys total control over programming.
- KDIL begins broadcasting from “stately Dill Manor near Downtown Phoenix” on an AM frequency. Podcasts of broadcasts are available at kdil.com
- Launched by longtime Valley DJs Jonathan L and John Dixon, KUKQ (1060 AM) becomes Phoenix’s first “alternative” radio station.
- Radio Limbo begins broadcasting in Tucson. It continues to broadcast today, primarily at night, using a mobile transmitter to avoid detection.
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