If you happen to be driving within a 300-yard radius that finds its center somewhere in the downtown Seattle area, and you tune your car radio to 81.9 FM, you may be surprised by what you hear. From a small, comfortable room located very nearby, a roughly 30-hour loop of recorded music, speeches, and public-service announcements will be playing itself out. Or you may find yourself tuned in to a show that is actually happening in another city, piped live into this microcosm of radio space that exists beneath the radar of FCC regulation and the advertising dollar. There's even a live local DJ approximately 12 hours per week--the amount of free time Allan Steed and a few friends can spare to actually man the station. What you are listening to is Black Ball Radio.
This is pirate radio, called that because it is unlicensed by the FCC and therefore illegal. Black Ball Radio, however, affects no one but those who choose to tune in. Steed is tapping an empty frequency on the radio dial; his signal isn't powerful enough to bleed into any FM commercial radio stations, which is the complaint that opponents of low-power FM, primarily the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and NPR, use to block legislation that would liberalize low-power FM licensing. "The FCC has a million better things to do with its time than chase after radio pirates," Steed tells me. "The problem is the NAB. And, in this town, I'll indict a couple of local engineers who work for large radio stations. Advertising is huge business, and here's Black Ball Radio. If we're doing great programming--the kind of stuff that appeals to our community--we're taking maybe half an Arbitron point. Well, in this market, they quantify that at a half a million dollars a month out of their pockets. So they're very interested in holding on to their territory so they can continue to charge over-inflated advertising rates and skew their Arbitrons."
Steed and I have been getting acquainted on the excellent porch behind his studio space, and now he brings me back inside. He speaks quickly and enunciates well. He is an engineer, and he carries himself like a confident, perhaps slightly agitated brainiac. The studio consists of a decent computer, a box that houses electronics, a mixing board, and a microphone. Behind Steed, resting on a chair, there's a crappy old boom box. The clean minimalism belies the fugitive disarray, the duct tape and makeshift gadgetry that one expects to find in a place like this.
But Steed makes up the difference. He is a kind, eccentric man--tall, thin, funny, and even a bit bossy with me, but only because he knows I'm impressed with his venture. "What we have here is an integration of Internet radio and what I'm going to call, not low-power FM, but micro radio. And the reason I define it as micro radio is because the low-power FM standard is 10 watts. We're far under that, at like four watts. If you've got a little ghetto blaster like that...." He points to the one on the chair. "And you're anywhere within 250 to 300 yards of here, you'll pick us up pretty good. Or, if you're in a car with a digital tuner, or if you have a nice tuner in your home stereo, anywhere from say Green Lake down to SoDo, to the water or the crest of the Hill, you're good to go. Because this is a PLL [Phase Locked Loop] transmitter, and digital tuners pick it up." Otherwise, people can stream Black Ball over the Internet (www.blackballradio.com), which is likely where the majority of his listeners hear him.
One would assume that Steed would be a joke to someone in macro radio, but he's not. "This is big business that we're coming against," he tells me. "But we're coming against it with the highest level of technology that we're able to support. If they're too big and unwieldy to apply technology effectively or make decisions about how it should be implemented, that's too bad. The technology we're developing is something that's going to suit a lot of people and do more for the community and for radio in general than they were ever able to do. At least that's my mind on that subject."
And his mind is made up, firmly. What Steed enjoys about this technology is that he can take a transmitter and an antenna and hook it up via Ethernet to any DSL line, and it will act as a receiver for Black Ball, quickly able to be moved in case of a chance encounter with the law, or for the creation of other remote workstations. In theory, Steed could set up little patches of airspace anywhere in the world and broadcast within them from his central location.
I ask him why he doesn't just put them up all over Seattle. "We could, yeah. In fact we're talking about putting one over on the Eastside." Steed says it's only lack of money and manpower that keep him from expansion. "It's a network.... You're saying to somebody, 'I'll buy you free DSL if you let me park these two boxes here and an antenna on your roof.' And then you've got some guy in an apartment in Amsterdam who's totally happy to get DSL, who's going to park boxes, and you've got your station in Amsterdam. You're feeding it from here. The day that happens, it ceases to be Blackball Radio 81.9 FM in Seattle. It's now Black Ball Radio network 89.1 in Seattle, 89.4 in Amsterdam, 107.6 in Eugene."
But one always runs the risk of being traced directionally in pirate radio, and with Internet technology having far surpassed the four-watt transmitter, one has to wonder, why take the chance in running the micro broadcast? I ask him if he's ever been in trouble. "Oh yeah, they came after me. Hello George. Hello Clay. George and Clay are the two engineers at Entercom that are the community troublemakers. They're the ones that go around df'ing [directionally finding] pirate radio stations," he says, both annoyed and amused. For six months last year, Black Ball Radio broadcasted off a boat in Lake Union. "We gained thousands of listeners," Steed tells me. "Finally these [Entercom] guys woke up and reported Black Ball Radio. "The FCC wasted a week on my account and I heard about it from somebody. I pulled my transmitter off the boat, made other arrangements, and sure enough, a week later they boarded the boat and turned it upside down. They didn't find anything. That really probably infuriated these guys."
Again, why all the risk? "I'm a romantic," he says. "Radio is amazing. Out of 50 people that you know, how many have computers?"
"Thirty-five," I say.
"Right. How many of them have a radio? All of them. It's accessible to the masses. You don't need to have $1,000. Just go to the thrift store and get yourself a little boom box."
It's true, for now. And besides, the man loves his broadcast. He jumps on the air several times during our interview to comment on the Noam Chomsky speech that is running, and to announce my request for Neutral Milk Hotel. When he speaks into the microphone, into his 300-yard radius of air space, Steed is most animated.