Dead Air

When the FCC shuts down pirate broadcasters, it sometimes unplugs whole communities too.


It's a routine afternoon at the Pure Funk Playhouse in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood: A couple of DJs are hanging out in the shade of a Ryder truck after a morning's work–a pro bono "Stop the Violence" assembly at a nearby middle school. Classes are done for the day, and a few local teenagers and other hangers-on are sitting in the doorway, waiting for a local dance team's daily drills to start. A few feet away, a disheveled man crunches by on a bicycle, apparently unconcerned that his rear wheel lacks a rubber tire.

Until a year ago, there would have been one more activity going on–a live broadcast from Hot 97, (97.7 FM)–and about 50 more kids hanging out. Sometime between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. each day, Brindley Marshall, aka "Bo the Lover," would have slipped behind the microphone for his afternoon show, mixing the latest jams for his younger listeners with oldies for their parents. When circumstances warranted, he would use the station for live call-in talk about the issues of the day. A police officer might stop by to "shout out" to a wife or girlfriend or to deliver a message for Bo to pass on to his young, sometimes volatile listeners.

But early on July 28, 1998, just as the sun peaked over the abandoned bank facing the playhouse, one of the station's DJs looked up and saw a mass of cops approaching. They were from the federal government, and they were there to help–help themselves to Hot 97's equipment, that is.

Hot 97 was caught in a Federal Communications Commission crackdown that closed 13 South Florida "pirate" radio stations between July 27 and July 31. FCC Chairman William Kennard hailed it as the "most successful, large-scale, enforcement action against unlicensed operators to date." Before the year was over, Kennard's cops would shutter another 21 stations in the area. The closed outlets ranged from the youth-oriented jams pumped out by Bo and his DJs in Miami to the all-gospel sound that Willie Brown Sr. had been airing in rural Homestead for 13 years.

Kennard, concerned with broadcast diversity, is making noise about licensing low-power radio stations and has proposed licensing them even as he has been shutting them down. Established broadcasters oppose his proposal through their Washington lobbying arm, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the idea is meeting resistance on the Hill. (See "Radio Waves," June.) In a May address to the NAB, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman and presidential hopeful John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked, "What possible diversity interest is advanced and what kind of opportunity is created by manufacturing thousands of new radio stations in an already overpopulated, transitional market?"

Both of these Florida stations, neither particularly unique among "pirate" broadcasters, answer McCain's question and vindicate Kennard's belief that micro radio is diverse radio, both in ethnicity and in programming. These Florida operations were in fact community tools, black-owned and operated businesses that served listeners otherwise being neglected.

There's not a lot to look forward to in Liberty City–a riot-prone neighborhood just north of downtown Miami that is distinguished by its vacant, trash-strewn lots and boarded-up buildings, some decorated with spray-painted "R.I.P." remembrances. The area's main commerce appears to be barber shops, small churches, laundromats, mom-and-pop groceries, and drugs. "It's the drug den of Miami," confirms one local activist who operates a teen pregnancy center across the street from the project where she grew up.

Even the feds are scared of the neighborhood. One of the officials who sleuthed out Bo's signal claimed in an affidavit that he didn't take any signal measurements at the time of a phoned-in complaint "due to the dangerous environment of the neighborhood where the station is located."

If the agent hadn't been so scared, he could have found the station without spending much of the taxpayers' money: The call numbers and telephone number are painted in large orange, white, silver, and black letters on the building's bright red, white, and yellow exterior. "Why try to hide?" asks Bo. "We didn't think we was doing anything wrong."

Not that Bo has never done wrong. He first made the papers at age a 21, when he held a gun to a bailiff's head in a Miami courtroom where his brother was standing trial. The courthouse soon got metal detectors; Bo got 12 years in state prison. But he emerged five years later, in 1989, determined to turn his life around. And by all measures he did. Starting with a new set of clothes, $100 release money, and a bus ticket back to Liberty City, Bo built a DJ business one piece of equipment at a time, playing at weddings and parties and producing his own dances at the local National Guard Armory.

"We started with a cheap system," says Bo. "You give me two speakers and come back a month from now and I'll have 10. Because I can make things happen. That's just the way it is." Today Bo owns nearly 200 speakers, enough equipment to keep 15 parties in music simultaneously.

Bo got interested in radio in the early 1990s, when he was doing promotional spots for another Miami station. When a friend said he could put him on air, Bo's only question was, How much? Bo spent $4,000 to go live with 100 watts. Within a year, and many thousands of dollars later, he was blasting 2,000 watts, covering all of Dade County.

Bo was not only doing well; he was also doing good. As a commercial venture, Pure Funk Enterprises was a booming success. His radio station pumped up his DJ business and he became an even more prominent figure in the community. No one was getting rich, but that was never the goal. Local youths, many of them formerly skirting on the edge of the drug economy, had something to do, even if it was only carrying the speakers. Take G-Money, a Pure Funk DJ who started carrying Bo's speakers in the early 1990s. "Before I got with Bo, I was into a lot of wrong. I was very violent. I got shot two times," he says nonchalantly, pulling down his shirt at the neck and exposing a penny-sized scar smack in the middle of his upper chest.

"Bo just totally changed my life," he says, later adding, "I would put on gasoline drawers and jump into a fire for him."

Miami Police Sgt. Frank Dean is also a fan of Bo's. Unlike the FCC officials, Dean works Liberty City's streets, as both a police officer and a Baptist minister, and is familiar with the drug-infested corner on which Bo chose to locate his business. "It amazes me that he was able to set up a radio station in this area," says Dean, who calls Bo a great entrepreneur. "He keeps these kids employed." Rodney Baltimore, the morning DJ with the licensed Hot 105.1, agrees. "These kids have done what the middle class has been unable to do: They got a black-owned radio station in Miami. They are making something out of nothing."

Bo's Pure Funk Enterprises also gives back to the community. When an errant bullet cut down a young girl on Martin Luther King Day in 1997, Hot 97 DJs took to the air and raised $7,000 for her family. Hot 97 had one weekly show that addressed the issue of teen pregnancy and another that dealt with the self-esteem of adolescent girls. Bo's Pure Funk DJs still provide music for a series of "Stop the Violence" assemblies at Miami area schools. "He has a tremendous following with the kids," says Baltimore. "He may not get a NAACP Image Award, but he will get the hearts and souls of the people who listen to him."

But few people are listening to him these days. When the police bust was splashed all over TV, clients thought the government had carted off his DJ equipment along with the broadcasting equipment. "It took us down, slap down," says Bo.

He's trying to get his equipment back and secure a broadcast license, but neither pursuit looks like it will be successful anytime soon. The community rallied behind Bo, sending the FCC some 11,000 signatures in support. The government ignored them; licensing, an FCC spokesman told the Miami New Times, is not a popularity contest. Elected office is, however, and the signature drive caught the attention of local politicians. Bo says many, including Rep. Carrie Meek (D-Fla.) who represents the area, offered support. But he's not happy with the follow-through. "I even went as far as to go up to Washington," he says, adding, "If they had stuck to their word, we would have already been on the air a long time ago."

In Homestead, nearly an hour south of Miami, Willie Brown Sr. is also familiar with politicians and the FCC. The 63-year-old has been a community activist since nearly the day he arrived in Homestead in 1945. He came to live with his grandmother, who earned her living working in the fields. His dining room wall is covered with dozens of plaques from appreciative governments and organizations. Both July 15, 1995, and May 25, 1996, were declared Willie Brown Sr. Day by Dade County. He was honored on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on May 21, 1996. And there's a picture he's very proud of–himself cheek to cheek with a blushing Hillary Clinton, taken in 1997. He was the first black man to get his picture taken with the president's wife, says one local resident in a telling overstatement. You know he must be somebody.

But he wasn't somebody enough to save his radio station of 13 years, WLUV 90.9, when the FCC, U.S. marshals, and local police arrived on his doorstep July 30. Willie was resting when they arrived mid-morning. His radio equipment was off-line, since he'd been alerted that the sweep was taking place. It didn't matter–they took everything anyway. Recalls Willie: "The guy asked me, `Do you have any weapons?' I said, `Only two.' So I showed him the Bibles. He looked at me like I was crazy. I said, `That's all I need.'"

Brown needed just one more thing to keep pumping his 100 watts of gospel music and community announcements to the residents of Homestead and nearby Florida City–a license. It's just that he couldn't seem to get one. He says he asked three times over the years, and the answer came back the same each time: no. So he did the next best thing to going legal: He stayed on the air and tried hard not to step on anybody's toes. He knew it was illegal, but so is jaywalking at a deserted intersection at 4 a.m. He wasn't interfering with anybody, and he was providing a needed service, since most stations serving the greater Miami area cut out north of Homestead. "It was like civil disobedience," explains Brown. "You try to do things to get people the services that they need."

In some ways, Homestead is a world away from Liberty City. Liberty City is multicultural, youth oriented, and urbane. Homestead is an agricultural community on the edge of the Everglades. It's rural, culturally segregated, and, at least for many of Willie's listeners, aging. Yet in other ways they could be sister cities.

Fourth Street, once the heart of a thriving community of farm workers, is showing fatigue. The buildings are boarded up, lots lie vacant (albeit with a bit less trash than those in Liberty City), and the only going concerns are barber shops, mom-and-pop grocery stores, and laundromats. Small houses line the side streets, many with boards replacing windows blown out in the 1992 hurricane.

Drive through the streets of Liberty City with Bo, and women and men, boys and girls, will call out his name. Walk into a grocery store, or a school for that matter, mention Bo, and eyes will light up. Ask them about Bo's Hot 97, and you'll get an earful about what he meant to the kids, how he used the station to help ease tensions between young black males in the community and the police, and how he could draw crowds to his events. For residents of Liberty City there seems to be a sense of ownership, and pride, in Bo's Hot 97.

In Homestead, Willie is known as "Brother Brown," to the locals, black and white. If you drive around town with Willie, be prepared to make many stops so former listeners can tell you what the station meant to them and how much they miss it. According to one perhaps apocryphal story, the operator of the local rest home phoned Brother Brown with a problem. It seems the residents were refusing to take their baths, afraid that they would miss something important on the radio.

With Brown off the air, person after person complains, nobody knows what's going on in the community, who's sick and who has died. After 13 years of broadcasting gospel music and community announcements, keeping track of who was doing what in Homestead, WLUV had become an integral part of the community and a soothing companion, especially for religious residents who spend much of the day at home. "The older people were really pissed," says the manager of Allen's By-Rite, a grocery store in downtown Homestead. Adds Mary Major, a loyal listener and professional babysitter, "We ain't got nothing to listen to [except that] that old nasty, stinking blues all day. And a person into the church doesn't want to hear all that rickety-rackety stuff."

The issues affecting Homestead and Liberty City may be different, but the radio stations seem to play surprisingly similar roles in both communities: spontaneously evolved, locally controlled community centers.

This is exactly as Brown wanted it. He has already written the epitaph for his gravestone: "He Tried to Make a Difference." When asked what's the most important thing he's done in his life to earn this inscription, he cites his radio station, not his founding of the Martin Luther King Day Parade, the African American Festival, or even the community center for which he worked to secure government funding. "We never had the means to communicate with the community," explains Brown. "With the newspapers, people don't read. With the radio they were there in the morning and afternoon."

In his own way, this was Bo's motivation too. "I was not an angel. I did some wrongdoing," admits the 36-year-old Bo. "I looked back on my life and the things that I've done, and I said, `I don't want people to be like me, because I see a lot of kids out there doing the things that I used to do.' The point is to get the message across."

Today, the studio from where Brown broadcast for 13 years looks like it was hit by Hurricane Andrew. Bo's is in a little better condition: A June 1998 American Red Cross plaque inscribed, "For the Love of Us," is propped next to counter where the FCC took Bo's turntable just a month later. Neither Brown nor Bo likes to think about the raids. Willie hasn't even worked up the stomach to spend the hours necessary to put his studio back in order. He just keeps the door closed. Like Bo, Brown wants to get an FCC license and go legal. He too has sent thousands of signatures to the FCC. Both the Homestead and the adjacent Florida City governments passed resolutions urging the FCC to let Brown back on the air. Still he knows it will be tough, as the NAB fights to keep the stations silent.

"They don't care about the little ladies who will never walk again, or can't get out, and can't go to church," says Brown. His more pessimistic moments may sadly be his most realistic. "If God himself came down, they wouldn't give him a license."