A pirate is a radio station that tries to be heard over a relatively large area but operates without benefit of a license from the government. This is the story of the rise and fall of a pirate: Cat Radio, as it came to be called.
It began several years ago when I happened across a review of the Ramsey FM-25 synthesized FM stereo transmitter kit, a perfectly legal low-powered unit meant to be heard over a very short range. "Own and operate your own FM stereo broadcast station," the review had said. Wow! I thought, my own radio station! Actually, I had been thinking about doing something like that for some time. Always fascinated by the mystery of radio, one of my earliest questions as a kid was, "Dad, how does the music get from where that man is playing it to the dashboard of our car?" (I think he mumbled something about phone lines.) The technical challenge of doing it myself had always been there.
Radio: Elevator Music
In recent years a second reason for putting my own signal on the air has surfaced: Most of the programming now out there on the radio sounds like noise to my ears. Radio has become less important in my life because of that. The compressed and boring music (not to mention the commmercials) that comes out of my radio has become tiresome. I now only listen to radio while driving, and then only with the radio tuned to a news/talk station. I've "tuned out", preferring to listen to music on CDs and tapes. I began to think there might be others out there who would like to hear something unconventional - some music, perhaps, for those who choose no music at all rather than the insipid "elevator music" now filling the dial.
I started hanging around the alt.radio.pirate news group on the Internet, where I found many advocates for FM piracy. Low Power FM (LPFM) they called it. Most FM pirates were similarly motivated by a desire to put something "good" - or at least different - on the radio dial, and saw LPFM as a way to do it. Now and then an altercation would flare between pirate operators using AM or SSB on the shortwave bands and the adherents to LPFM. At the core of these debates was a difference of opinion about who the target audiences should be. The shortwavers wanted to be heard by hobby listeners; the LPFMers wanted to be heard by the general public. I was of the second school: I wanted my signal to be heard by ordinary people.
In all of my musing over the years, though, I had never considered FM. AM (Ancient Modulation?) always came to mind, with its lower frequency band and simpler concepts. I had visions, I guess, of the early days of FM and the convoluted phase and serrasoid schemes that were necessary to produce high-fidelity modulation in a era before high-speed digital dividers and linear variable reactance diodes made directly-modulated synthesized exciters commonplace. Upon reflection, it began to sink in: Of course, FM is the perfect choice! FM is for people who like music! The challenge was now irresistible.
So, I built the FM-25, extended the built-in whip antenna, attached a CD player, fired 'er up and jumped in the car to check out the range. That little transmitter sounded just pretty darned good to my ears - at first. But I hardly got to the end of our driveway before its tiny signal petered out. I also noticed an irritating buzzing in the audio and some strange noises that seemed to be coming from the CD - they were keeping time with the music. I can do better than this, I thought. From that moment I was hooked. I began an almost year-long struggle to get the signal out beyond the borders of our yard and to clean up the FM-25, a struggle that turned into a happy addiction and a two-year life of crime.
One of the first station improvements was an amplifier added to the complex, a modified Ramsey LPA-1, which brought the output power up to a whopping 750 milliwatts and well beyond the bounds of legality. In engineering terms, the FM-25 was now called the exciter in the system, and the designation transmitter now applied to the exciter plus any downstream amplifier stages. An audio mixer from Radio Shack was also installed early on, between the CD player and the exciter, giving the station much-needed flexibility. The mixer, equipped with a set of VU (volume unit) meters, allowed sound from many different sources - reel-to-reel tape, phonograph, cassette tape, CD players, and the all-important microphone - to be smoothly combined.
Several antenna improvements were also made that first year. The system progressed from a homemade collinear in the attic to a J-pole made of aluminum pipe to the commercially available 5/8-wave Comet CFM-95SL mounted on a 24-foot mast sunk in concrete in the back yard.
Range was now almost to the edge of our small town of 3200 souls, and I was having great fun. I played all the music I liked: contemporary instrumental, new age, classical, a little polka, some bluegrass and Ragtime piano generated by the sound card in the family computer (the sound of the grand piano was about the only instrument that sound card was capable of reproducing really well), organ music on Sunday mornings, Christmas music during the Christmas season (what a concept!). It was a blast.
I never got the FM-25 to sound as good as I thought it should, though. After adding lots of bypass capacitors, ferrite beads and an audio pre-filter, and enclosing the whole works in a metal box, the buzz had improved considerably, but was still audible. The thing just didn't sound "professional". So I bought a new exciter. This time it was the North Country Radio MPX96, which had been featured in an article in a recent issue of an electronics magazine. Construction of the MPX96 was a bit more difficult than the FM-25 and the quality of the circuit board was not as high, but what a difference in sound! It was dead quiet and had a smooth, silky sound - you know, the way FM is SUPPOSED to sound. The MPX96 was not perfect, however. It had a strange 9 dB boost at the extreme bass end of its audio response range, and stereo separation and balance were not as good as I would have liked. Also, that "dead quiet" was marred by a high-pitched whistling sound heard faintly in the background. In the next few weeks I made quite a few improvements to the '96, mostly capacitor value changes and the tightening of resistor tolerances. The bass boost problem and the high-pitched whine were traced to problems in the unit's loop filter.
I also added a subtle modulation limiter circuit in the audio path between the mixer and the exciter. The purpose of a modulation limiter is to protect the transmitter from being driven into distortion by a too-loud audio signal, a condition very easy to encounter with high dynamic range CDs. Also, the typical mixer board operator's tendency is to bang the VU meters into the red in an attempt to sound as loud as possible over the air. The limiter allows the operator to indulge this proclivity without over-driving the transmitter.
The result of the improvement effort was highly satisfactory: The '96 checked out at 0.1% audio distortion on a high-quality modulation monitor. Separation came in at better than 45 dB at 1 kHz, and noise was too low to be measured! (For a complete explanation of the improvements made to the MPX96 click here.)
I also jacked up the power again, this time to 14 watts, using a highly modified power amplifier cannibalized from a Repco VHF 2-way radio transceiver. The modification was no easy feat. Fortunately, I had access to a spectrum analyzer and, to make a long story short, the result was impressive. The second harmonic was some 55 dB down and spurious emission and higher-order harmonics were non-existent. In other words, that amp was clean!
The station was now quite satisfactory from a technical standpoint and the choice to operate in the FM band was definitely the right one for the situation. The signal easily covered our small town and could be heard several miles out into the country, adding maybe another 1000 or so potential listeners. Coverage was still a little spotty on cheap radios, however, so I began to lay plans for an increase in power - to 100 watts. But it was not to be. Cat Radio was building to a downfall..
I was on the air a lot for a pirate: 6 or 8 hours almost every Saturday and Sunday morning, with a few weekday evening hours thrown in. Also an occasional all-niter - playing "Night Music" (what else), a large classical set from Naxos, on a CD jukebox changer. In one of my few concessions to popular music, I once played the sound track from Titanic 6 times in a row - and got some favorable comment. Often I would use the station as a substitute for the CD player my car lacked: I would throw a favorite CD on the air just so I could enjoy music in the car while driving about town on errands. And more than once, I'm embarrassed to report, I was on with nothing more than a dead carrier, having forgotten to shut down the transmitter after a stint of broadcasting. I once went on an out-of-town business trip and left the carrier on for three days!
About that time my 13-year-old daughter came on board with a program of her own. She called it "The Reading Break". She read books on the air. Every day for 6 months, 7 days a week, at 4:59:48 PM, I would start the intro music - the first movement from J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #3 - and, at exactly 5 PM, fade the music and turn up the microphone... whereupon she would say in her best BBC announcer tones, "This is Cat Radio, and you are listening to 'The Reading Break'..." She would proceed to read for twenty or thirty minutes, then finish with a polished, "Tune in tomorrow at 5 PM for the next edition of... 'The Reading Break'... on... Cat Radio... 99.7 on your FM dial." Fade down microphone, fade up Bach...
It was so much fun we had to fight to keep from laughing out loud. In her short career she read 4 books, including the first two books in J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit/Lord of the Rings quadrilogy, and a number of short stories about cats - hence "Cat Radio". She loved it. After she became familiar with the station's operation, she would often go on the air and play music of her own. I remember being in my truck one night at work on a hilltop some 12 miles from town. I turned on the radio and checked 99.7 - "our" spot on the dial - and out came Wagner's "Magic Fire Music". I can hardly describe the feeling. Wow, this sounds like a regular radio station, only better! How refreshing! What other teenager gets to play songs on the radio! When we were finally shut down, she was heartbroken.
So, here we were, out in the middle of nowhere, with our 14 watts of clean signal on a clear frequency interfering with no one. The nearest on-channel station was 200 miles away; the nearest adjacent was 170 miles and the nearest second adjacent was 60 miles out. Our technical quality was second-to-none. And, at least as important, we weren't spewing out the highly compressed, modulated-to-the-absolute-limit sort of programming usually heard on the typical commercial station (you know, what the public seems to LIKE nowadays if you can believe the ratings) and, therefore, didn't offer any real competition for listeners. Nor were we swearing or ranting, like many pirates do. We never received a single negative comment. As near as I could tell, most people in the coverage area either had never heard our station or had heard it and couldn't care less. And maybe... just maybe.. some small minority were hearing it and actually enjoying what they were hearing. The possibility that some listener out there was deriving pleasure from what was emanating from his or her radio was the key to the fun. Delivery of Pleasure is what made the endeavor so deeply satisfying, as satisfying as anything I've ever done. I was addicted to that feeling, addicted as I imagine smokers are to nicotine. We couldn't stop. We couldn't even back off - adding sporadic book readings via tape and news broadcasts via RealAudio from the Internet. I began to have a nagging suspicion that we might be pushing the limit..
As it turned out, there WAS someone in town who cared, and he cared very much. The owner of the local legally FCC-licensed FM outlet had been monitoring us and had decided to take action. I received a call from him one evening. Seems he had contacted his maintenance engineer, who lives some 200 miles away, for some help with his pirate problem. Since the engineer couldn't be of much help from that far away, he had suggested calling me. Not knowing I was the perpetrator, the station owner explained the situation and asked if I could help him track down the guy. I almost came clean right then and there when I replied that I already had a VERY good idea of who the guy was... but would rather not identify him. The station owner then said that he had been in conversation with the FCC and that they were "cracking down on these people." Trying very hard to control my voice in this unreal situation, I said something to the effect that I would "talk to the guy" and could almost guarantee that he would shut down. Thanking me, he ended the conversation.
And that was how Cat Radio died without a whimper. Well, yes, there was a whimper. We went on the air for a short time at exactly 5 PM the following day with a tearful farewell. My daughter thanked her listeners and suggested they take a "reading break" at the library. (Interestingly, when she went to the library the next day to pick up the third book in the Tolkien quadrilogy, it had been checked out!)
A few days later I stopped in at the local station and, still operating in lying mode, told the owner I had "talked to the guy" and had been assured that his operation had ceased. It was at this meeting that I gained a little better appreciation of the owner's point of view. Basically it was this: He operates by the rules, pays his dues - thousands of dollars, it turns out, to something called a Regulation Fund, and to ASCAP (this money goes to recording artists) - and of course, he's a businessman and makes his living from his radio station. He saw the pirate as taking food from his mouth. I quizzed him a little about whether the pirate had been interfering with his signal and, more importantly, on whether he considered the pirate to be a serious competitor given the fact that the program format was so drastically different. No, the pirate was not interfering, and no, he said with a bit of a chuckle, the pirate's format made absolutely no difference in his view. He then made it perfectly clear that he would be in contact with the FCC if the pirate's operation continued. We shook hands and I left, feeling like a jerk and a fraud..
A day or so later The Man called. His name was Jon Sprague and he was calling from the Federal Communications Commission. He asked if I knew why he was calling. I replied that, yes, I did. He asked if I knew who the pirate was up there? Yes, I did, but would rather not say. Did I help construct the station? "Well.. yes," I said. Then.. "Aw hell, I may as well come clean. I'm the pirate.."
There followed a long, friendly conversation in which he tried to get as much information about our station as he could: What was the power? Where did I get the transmitter? Details of the transmitter's construction? Had I checked it on a spectrum analyzer? What sort of antenna? Were we making any attempt to conceal the antenna? (No.) What hours were we operating? How long had we been on? Would I PROMISE not to operate anymore? (Yes.) Would I consider destroying the equipment? (No.) Would I sell the equipment to some other pirate? (No.) Who was that girl on there? Did I know the station had been heard in a town 27 miles away? (No, I thought it highly unlikely.)
I asked him a few also: Does he enjoy tracking down pirates? (Yes, and he'd been ready to roll on this one had the local legit station owner called him back.) How many pirates does he track down a year? (One or two.) Had they actually shut down Dunifer (a famous San Francisco pirate)? (Yes, Dunifer stopped broadcasting voluntarily after a judge granted the FCC an injunction to shut him off.) Isn't there a proposal before the Commission to establish some sort of low-power FM "community" license? (Yes.) We finished the conversation with him saying that he'd be sending an official warning letter. I said I'd frame it and put it on the wall.
I'd spilled my guts to the Heat. What a relief!
And, true to our word, Cat Radio has been silent ever since. Cold turkey..
As in much of life, I think excess was our downfall. Had we been more prudent in choosing our operating hours, I suspect we could have stayed on the air for years. While Cat Radio had nowhere near the competitive schedule of a commercial station, the daily 5 o'clock program and long weekend hours made it all too obvious in this tiny market and a bit too irritating for our local competitor. But, then again, what would have been the point if no one could find us? Much better to operate in the open and go down in a blaze of glory. So, you may be wondering, if I liked the idea of operating a radio station so much, why didn't I just get a license and go into the business? The answer is money and fun. In order to keep from going broke, a small-market station owner has to be a slave to public taste and put on the same stuff as everyone else. It makes more sense to subsidize a pirate operation with a "real" job and put on the air exactly and precisely what you want, and have a lot more fun doing it.
So, no regrets. My daughter (my partner in crime) and I have shared an experience that will bind us forever. The story of Cat Radio will be passed down for generations. Future generations, though, may not understand why someone would be driven to provide alternative radio back around the turn of the century. For them, multi-channel direct-from-satellite and/or Internet digital distribution systems will be in place and elevator-music-with-commercials as the only option on the radio will have faded from memory.
Letter from FCC - embarrassing details censored (PDF)
Epilogue: Cat Radio LIVES..
at a different location,
on a different frequency and greatly reduced schedule,
and operating strictly within the limits of FCC rules, Part 15.239..