Pirates Scuttled

South Florida radio gets more homogenized following raids of unlicensed radio stations

"Why is this a story?" grumbles the weary drug-enforcement agent, clad in black boots, black pants, black sidearm holster, and a black T-shirt with the words Six to ten seconds to make a first impression on the back. He stands guard near the rear entrance of a dingy, five-story office building on Miami Gardens Drive near U.S. Highway 441 in North Miami-Dade while other agents pile confiscated material into the back of a white Ford minivan.

The DEA agent is perhaps vexed because he and his cohorts -- about 20 U.S. Marshals and other federal officers -- seized no drugs and made no arrest. Indeed the impounded items on the van's carpeted floor hardly seem to warrant such firepower. They look like components to a nice used stereo set that a soccer mom picked up for her teenage son.

But this is no pubescent party. When Mario Eaton and his fiancée Maribel Garcia arrive, they read the notice taped to the door of the small, first-floor office space he rents. It warns that removal of additional equipment from the premises could result in imprisonment.

Break it down: That's what federal agents did to the unlicensed station run by Maribel Garcia and Mario Eaton
Kirk Nielsen
Break it down: That's what federal agents did to the unlicensed station run by Maribel Garcia and Mario Eaton

Until the August 17 raid, at various times during the past year, Eaton and several associates had broadcast, mostly at night, hip-hop and Haitian compas from a small studio. When they built the station in July of last year, they drilled holes through five floors and ran a coaxial cable up to an antenna on the roof. They transmitted on 104.7 FM and called it Supa Radio.

Unfortunately the broadcasts were illegal because Eaton didn't have a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). So when federal agents started sniffing around several months ago, Eaton and company changed their frequency to 91.7 FM. But the FCC sleuths locked onto the signal in June, and the station's fate was sealed. Now Eaton's radio equipment, worth about $6000, is locked away in the FCC's storage facility.

Yes, folks, the war on pirate radio has returned to South Florida -- the mecca of mutinous broadcasting -- for the third time in a year. FCC agents from Miami and Tampa led the charge, even as their bosses in Washington, D.C., considered proposals for the issuing of new licenses. In June and July 1998, FCC agents descended on 15 unauthorized stations in South Florida. But radio renegades quickly returned to the air. This past December another operation closed 19, some of which popped up again like so many mushrooms. In recent months at least ten pirate stations have been on the air regularly.

The August 17 FCC raid targeted more than Eaton's sometime station. FCC terminators seized a second stack of radio equipment from an office on the fourth floor of the same North Miami-Dade building, where another band of pirates had transmitted Caribbean pop music on 95.3 FM. And earlier in the day, in Miami Beach, the regulators also nabbed broadcast paraphernalia from the garrulous DJs of MIXX 96 (96.1 FM), an unlicensed yet exceedingly commercial Caribbean station.

This third and latest wave of shutdowns began July 27 with onslaughts against two other stations. One was 96.9 FM, which emitted hip-hop from a building in El Portal. The other was 97.7 FM, a hip-hop and R&B outfit run by DJs of the Pure Funk Playhouse in Liberty City.

Fueling the rebellion is the fact that in major metropolitan areas, including Miami-Dade and Broward, the only way to obtain a license is to buy a station that already has one. Mario Eaton, an affable 29-year-old native of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, doesn't have the millions of dollars it costs to buy a station. Standing in his now-closed studio, he says he thought he was justified in broadcasting without a license. After all he did not interfere with authorized stations or emergency frequencies used by air-traffic controllers, police, or fire-rescue personnel. Eaton notes that pirates supply a demand not met by corporate radio licensees. "There's commercial music," he explains, "and there's underground music that doesn't get played on commercial stations."

His fiancée, Maribel Garcia, a 31-year-old Bronx native who owns Bagel Babes catering, interjects: "Freedom of speech! We're entrepreneurs just trying to make it in life. Hard-working parents. And these people keep shutting us down. We're not hurting anybody. We're not dealing drugs."

Back in the lobby, operators of 95.3 FM are fearing the feds and so pretending to be innocent bystanders who loved the pirate sound waves that emanated from the building. "The big commercial stations don't cater to us," exclaims a tall, gregarious, bald man who says he's Nigerian and declines to identify himself. "We have these specialized musics. What happened to zouk? What happened to soukous? What happened to juju?" He later confesses that he helped run 95.3 FM and is a promoter of dance parties at Caribbean discos. "Every pirate station is connected to a club," he confides.

Some South Florida pirates are choosing to fight for their radio rights by almost any means necessary. A small group has even taken to low-powered lobbying of federal officials. FCC chairman William Kennard, who is African-American, has repeatedly voiced support for the idea as a way to empower urban blacks.

In June, while their station was blasting a powerful 1000-watt signal across the county, some members of the 97.7 FM crew traveled to Washington. They say they met with FCC officials and expressed interest in obtaining a license, should the agency decide to allow new urban broadcasters. "If a window opens up, I want my people to be able to jump through it," says Bill Ferguson, a lawyer who has been advising owners of 97.7 FM. "One percent of radio stations in this country are owned by black people," he adds. He says U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek was "instrumental" in setting up the meeting.

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