|I had a radio station once.... It
was a 40 watt pirate station that was my reason for living for 10 years.
Recently, the FCC came by the house to register their disapproval. Needless
to say that my day was ruined by the realization that the jig was up.
About a year earlier, I finally gave in to a very persistent reporter at
the Mercury News. This article ran in January of 1998. I do not believe
the article led to the visit from the feds.
BY JACK FISCHER
Mercury News Staff Writer
January 11, 1988
Larry Krishna slides into place below a huge, suspended microphone, a red bulb on the wall flashes on, and Krishna begins to speak with a smooth, blind faith that someone - somewhere - is listening.
"Give us a call and weíll play any requests you have," Krishna is saying. "Helllooo, anybody! And right now, Don Morrow with a little thing called ĎRumplestiltskin.í ...Youíre tuned to KKUD - bootleg radio..."
Itís a rainy Saturday night in a basement somewhere in the heart of a peaceful San Jose neighborhood, and one of the cityís longest-running pirate radio stations - KKUD: "Music You Can Chew On" - is back on the air.
Broadcasting at a power of just 10 watts, KKUD can be heard about 10 miles out at most, and thatís with a clear line-of-sight and a stiff wind behind it. But it has listeners, and it conjures the kind of romance that radio has always had with its listeners - the lone guy working a night shift with the radio on, kids cruising in their cars on a Saturday night, an alienated teeny-bopper in her room - all of them looking for a soundtrack for their night.
Itís also illegal. In recent weeks, the Federal Communications Commission has launched high-profile raids on pirate radio stations in Boston and Tampa, FL and continues a long-running legal battle with Radio Free Berkeley. In San Francisco last month, Federal Judge Claudia Wilkin handed the pirates a victory by refusing to issue the FCC a permanent injunction to close down Radio Free Berkeley pending arguments that the current laws are an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech.
Since 1978, when the FCC stopped granting licenses for stations with transmitters putting out less than 100 watts, little pirate stations like KKUD and Radio Free Berkeley have begun springing up all over the country, scruffy and elusive outlaws of the ether. Insiders say there are probably half a dozen in the South Bay alone, most of them - like KKUD - broadcasting intermittently and over relatively small distances. Among those broadcasting in the South Bay are Radio Free Los Gatos and Radio Free San Jose.
Traditionally, the FCC has focused its enforcement efforts on the larger, high-profile pirate stations - those broadcasting seven days a week, 24 hours a day - and mostly left the little week-enders alone. But, pressured by commercial broadcasters, the FCC has stepped up enforcement since last summer. Violators face fines and the confiscation of their equipment - even, rarely, criminal prosecution.
The piratesí motives are as varied as the number of transmitters. For Krishna and fellow KKUD disc jockey Walter Ego (their noms de broadcasting), itís all fun and diversion - two smarter-than-average Silicon Valley working stiffs looking or a way to unwind after work at the close of the 20th century. The two San Jose natives have been at it for seven years.
They are, admits Krishna, a far cry from radio renegades like Stephen Dunifer, the crusader behind Radio Free Berkeley, who builds and sells transmitters in a broad, grass-roots political attempt to free the airwaves and whose real quest is to give a voice to the community.
"This is how I live with my tensions," jokes Krishna, quoting from a comedy album he plays later in the show. "...Iíd hate to lose this."
These days, since the two college buddies have acquired jobs and wives and babies, these opportunities to unwind are not what they used to be. The station typically is on the air once a week at most. Itís hard to be a pirate with toddlers.
Along with himself and Ego, Krishna says there are perhaps half a dozen friends who periodically drop by, Cds or Lps in hand, to broadcast a show. Counting the once- or twice-a-year folks, there may be a dozen regulars. The station always broadcasts at the same frequency, which Krishna asks be described no more precisely than at the high end of the FM dial.
On this particular Saturday, Krishna and Ego are joined by Egoís wife, their 6-year-old daughter (who also takes brief turns at the mike) and her baby brother, asleep on a couch in the corner.
The station is in a space Krishna created by knocking out a section of his basement wall and digging it out by hand. He jokes about removing the dirt one-gallon jugs and discreetly scattering it outside, like a prisoner of war tunneling to freedom.
But if its origins are humble, the
result is fairly polished. The station sits behind a curtain of wooden
beads, a low-ceilinged nook with dimmed, recessed lights and walls of white-painted
cinder block. Above bins of records, the jackets for some of the most obscure
entertainers ever committed to vinyl line the walls Tikis and Pez dispensers
over other available surfaces. In a corner sits a low-slung, teal blue
vinyl wing chair, circa 1962. And in the center of the room, directly below
the capsule-shaped Shure #M5B microphone (the approximate size an shape
of a at chihuahua) is a battered white stool - the driverís seat.
An honest policy
"Do any of these words embarrass you?" a quintessential booming radio voice inquires in a taped interlude that identifies the station for listeners. "KKUD! Bootleg Radio!"
Egoís wife, who has arrived with an eclectic armful of music Cds, goes first tonight. Unlike Ego and Krishna, she rarely intrudes on the music, and then only to identify whatís just been played. Tonight, it ranges from hip hop to the classic funk of Parliament and Marvin Gaye, with some Patsy Cline thrown in. Somehow it hangs together.
While she broadcasts, Krishna and Ego talk about why they go to all the trouble for what Krishna describes as the "few misguided individuals" who may be listening.
A bible for the two of them is a book called "Sex and Broadcasting: A Handbook on Starting a Radio Station for the Community," released by a long-defunct Los Gatos publisher and written by someone with the improbable name of Lorenzo Wilson Milam. While it doesnít actually focus on pirate radio, itís the attitude the two appreciate. The bookís opening paragraph reads:
"Broadcasting as it exists now in the United States is a pitiful, unmitigated whore. At some stage in its history, there was chance to turn it into a creative, artful, caring medium; but then all the toads came along, realizing the power of radio and television to hawk their awful wares...."
Says Ego: "Itís really about just doing something different, something that commercial radioís not doing, playing things that arenít going to sell a million records And doing something irreverent.
"Weíll worship at the alter of cheese and kitsch with some irony and self-awareness," he continues. "We can be willfully difficult to listen to sometimes."
Itís impossible to describe a KKUD "sound" because itís as idiosyncratic as only a group of of friends together can be. There is an elusive sensibility that runs through it because the friendsí tastes in music naturally overlap and extend one another.
Who programs this?
Where else would you hear Texas rocker Joe "King" Carrasco followed by an utterly tuneless Leonard "Spock" Nimoy singing "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins"? Or a set that moves from a singing Dick Van Dyke (from his album "Songs I Like") to a Middle Eastern pop tune, to Lorne Greene, of "Bonanza" fame, singing "It Must Be Santa Claus"?
Krishna, whose labor of love the station really is, says he was captivated by the allure of radio in the third grade. While still at San Jose State, he came across KDOG, a pirate radio station run by a local guy out of his walk-in closet near Ross and Branham. Eventually, Krishna did a regular show on KDOG and hung around the legendary KFAT, a Holister station with a pig logo that began life as a pirate and then won a license. (KFAT morphed into KHOG, and then into KPIG, now based near Watsonville.) When Krishna started KKUD seven years ago, he says he selected the call letters to keep with South Bay tradition of pirate stations with animal motifs.
He still vividly remembers when a radio engineer friend called to tell him he had located an old transmitter someone was willing to sell. Krishna rushed over to buy, then rushed to his parentsí home to set it up. He climbed onto their roof, jury-rigged an antenna, hooked it up to a CD player and the drove around town listening, transfixed.
"Iíve invited professional radio people over to do shows, and theyíve gotten kind of misty," he says. "They were like, ĎYes! This is what I went into radio to doí."
After Egoís set, an eclectic blend of ska, punk and god-knows-what, Krishna takes the seat, clearly the maestro.
Lately, a certain stripe of retro lounge music has gained his favor. He scours garage sales and record store cutout bins for lost vinyl worlds like the turbanned "Korla Pandit at the Pipe Organ," an intense-looking Indian emigre´ who played "the maharajah of musical instruments" on an hour-long TV show in the infant days of California television. In Krishnaís garage are 1,500-odd albums that didnít have the je ne sais quois of Pandit and will never make it to the air.
While the station doesnít exactly pander to audiences tastes, its operators do want to know whether anyone is listening and what they might think. In the past, KKUD has rented a voice mailbox where listeners could leave messages and requests. But tonight, for the first time, Krishna has a listener line direct to the studio for some real-time response.
They donít have to wait long. Soon after Krishna starts, the phone rings.
"Well, weíre just sort of here and gone," Krishna tells him in response to a question. The caller asks that he play a song by an avant garde jazz musician named John Zorn, a request Krishna says he will try to honor.
Lonesome for Zorn
"It was some guy listening from work, a gas station or a convenience store or something," he says after he hangs up. "He obviously was digging it. And he knew this was the only chance he might have to hear John Zorn."
Actually, not. Ego and Krishna discover that neither has any Zorn albums with them this night. Krishna goes on the air to ask the listener to call back with a second try, again canít fill it and finally moves on.
Itís hard to imagine that listenerís reaction when Krishna segues from Sammy Davis Jr. singing the theme from "Shaft" to Frankie Yankovicís version of "The Pennsylvania Polka." Willfully difficult to listen to, indeed.
"This one is strong," Krishna jokes about the caller in his best David Carradine/Kung Fu voice. "But I am stronger."
Kitsch and camp aside, as the evening wears on, Krishna occasionally weaves some truly inspired segments, slipping seamlessly from comedy to jazz to blues-inflected pop that offers a glimpse of how inventive radio can be if you do it for love and not for money.
By around 2 a.m., the momentum is fading. Egoís daughter has fallen asleep on another couch. He mom, her set over, has finished a craft project in a nearby chair and stowed her glue gun. Ego and Krishna are beat. The kids, doubtless, will be up early.
The last act of the night is for Krishna to flip the switch that turns off the transmitter. Itís a moment he savors, reminding him of the empty hole on the dial when he is not broadcasting.
One minute, thereís KKUD rolling along on its quirky way.
Then flip, phhhhhhhttt.
Nothing but dead air.