Posts Tagged ‘Broadcast engineering’


(Here’s a slightly updated version of one of the first pieces we ran on this blog back in the halcyon days of 2013.)

Free Radicals front cover

by Zeke Teflon, author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia

Long, long ago, in a far away place—so long ago and so far away, in fact, that the statute of limitations has expired—I had the privilege of serving as a staff engineer at pirate radio station KDIL, “The Big 16.”

Shortly before KDIL went on the air in 1972, its CEO and main announcer, Ray the Reptile, was browsing through the religious paperbacks at the annual Visiting Nurses Book Sale when he laid his pudgy paws on the book he was destined to immortalize: “Dildo Torture,” by Arthur Fox. Not only did the book provide KDIL with its call letters, but it proved invaluable during KDIL’s short time on the air: It provided an entire graveyard shift’s worth of programming, as Bob the Gimp and I read the entire book over the air one hot August night, stopping only to punctuate its steamy passages with ads for Globe Shopping City’s narcotics department (“This week’s manager’s special: Blotter acid, two hits for three dollars for school children with I.D.!”) and Black Sabbath’s “Live in Jerusalem” LP, which we assured listeners had been recorded at Gethsemane at Easter sunrise.

But KDIL was more than porn and pranks—it was a textbook example of how not to put together and operate a pirate radio station. Perhaps the only thing right about KDIL was its location—an old, secluded mansion with overgrown grounds, surrounded by other mansions, in downtown Phoenix. There were two primary advantages to this: 1) KDIL’s site was in a white, affluent neighborhood, and cops (in this case FCC inspectors) are always more reluctant to kick in doors in such areas than in poorer neighborhoods; 2) the site was secluded and covered with vegetation, which not only made observation of our activities difficult, but also allowed us to hide a half-wave dipole antenna approximately 300 feet long in the eucalyptus trees surrounding the house.

That seclusion and privacy is what ultimately saved our butts, as, after selecting our site, we did virtually everything else wrong. That started with our choice of co-tenants/co-conspirators. Unbeknownst to most of us, one of them was a junkie who normally kept small amounts of heroin in his room. If the FCC had ever tracked us down, he (and we) could have ended up in jail for years as a result of his (and our) stupidity. As well, we were in the habit of smoking dope and occasionally dropping acid in the control room. That, and our roomie’s smack use, wouldn’t have mattered but for the fact that we were ignoring an elementary safety precaution (legal variety) by having our studio and transmitter in the same place, in fact, in the same room. Thus, if the FCC would have found the transmitter, they would have found us (and god knows what in the way of drugs), as well as our studio, and they would have seized all of our equipment.

In itself, that would have been a disaster. What would have made it doubly disastrous was the fact that a good part of our studio equipment was stolen. At the time we put KDIL on the air, all ten or so of us involved in the project were working as either DJs or engineers at local radio and TV stations, and to equip our studio several of my compatriots simply helped themselves to “surplus” gear sitting in various stations’ storerooms.

(My compadres felt no compunction about liberating equipment from the faceless corporations that owned the stations; it only aggravated matters that they hated the stations’ managers and the commercial sleaze those managers were foisting on the public. My friends were well aware that the FCC mandate that stations operate in the public interest was [and is] a sick joke.)

And of course those who equipped the station didn’t bother to eradicate the serial numbers on the equipment, so all of it could have been traced easily.

The down side of this was that we were exposing ourselves to a horrendous amount of danger for no good reason; the up side was that we were better equipped than some of the commercial broadcast stations in town. We had cart machines for playing commercials and PSAs, broadcast turntables, and even a compressor/limiter. About the only thing in our studio not of commercial origin was our control board, but even that wasn’t a problem as Blue Cheese, one of the other engineers, had built an ugly but quite functional board in a couple of weeks of his spare time.

So, prior to going on the air, we made the following mistakes: 1) we had our studio and our transmitter in the same place; 2) we were using drugs in the studio; 3) we were using stolen equipment; 4) we hadn’t eradicated the serial numbers on it.

We then proceeded to compound our mistakes through our operating practices. Rather than occasionally and sporadically appearing on different frequencies using a low-wattage signal, when we went on the air we did it in a way calculated to attract maximum attention—with 24-hour-a-day broadcasting, on a fixed frequency (1600 KHz), with a relatively high-wattage signal. I had modified an old 200-watt ham transmitter to work on the broadcast band, and it, combined with the dipole strung in the trees, was powerful enough to cover the entire metropolitan area of our city, an area of over 2,000 square miles.

Amazingly, it took the FCC nearly a week to home in on us. (They had been alerted by one of the bootlickers — a category which covers a curiously high number of broadcast engineers — at a local TV station.) This was no thanks to our station IDs, which declared that our studios and transmitter were located high in the Mormon Tabernacle in beautiful downtown Salt Lake City—that hadn’t fooled anyone, not even the local Mormons, as we were hundreds of miles from SLC—or, alternatively, that we were broadcasting from the Satanic Tabernacle of Wickenburg. (One of our IDs was “KDIL, getting it said for Satan!”) The reason the FCC was so slow in tracking us down was that we weren’t reported for a few days, and it then took the FCC personnel some time to rouse from their bureaucratic slumber, load their direction-finding gear into their cars, and drive the several hundred miles from their regional office in L.A. to our town. Once there, they were on to us in no time. But they never found us.

What saved us was our secluded location, hidden antenna, and that we saw them before they saw us. As soon as we spotted the white car with the telltale direction-finding loop, our DJ, the Yuma Llama, went into a short rant about censorship, commercial monopolization of the airwaves, and the fascism of the war on drugs (yes, it was a social blight then, too). As the Llama’s vitriolic verbiage faded into the ether, we disconnected the transmitter, lugged it down to the basement, hid it in a hole in the foundation, lit up a joint, and settled back to watch the FCC car pointlessly scurry up and down our street on its fruitless search.

Over the next few years, KDIL resurfaced sporadically as a late-night, 1-watt FM station operating from the Cheese residence. But the thrill was gone, as were most of the people involved, and KDIL breathed its last in the late 1970s. Still, even though it’s gone, it’s not entirely forgotten. One day in the mid-1980s, while in the FCC’s Los Angeles office on business, Ray the Reptile walked into a stall in its restroom. As he settled on the throne, the first piece of graffiti to meet his eyes was “KDIL Lives!”

The point of all this is that despite doing a number of monumentally stupid things, we, KDIL’s staff, got away with it—because we took a couple of elementary precautions. You can get away with it too. (Well, probably—there are no guarantees.) If you put a pirate on the air and take reasonable precautions (especially having your transmitter and studio in separate locations), your chances of being busted by the FCC are probably no greater than your chances of being struck by lightning or eaten by hogs.