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A not so jolly Roger: the silencing of 'Radio Sarah'.

Dean Kuipers frequently writes about rock and roll.

One night last fall, a radio techie named Allan Weiner and the staff of Radio New York International fired up the transmitters they had installed on a battered Japanese fishing trawler named the Sarah. The D.J. cued up Come on Down to My Boat" by Every Mother's Son, and station RNI went on the air. Anchored just outside U.S. territorial waters four and a half miles off the coast of Long Beach, New York, RNI kicked out a 5,000-watt signal on 1620 AM - the strongest in alternative rock from Boston to Philadelphia between 9 P.M. and midnight.

The Sarah's D.J.s promised an end to boring classic-rock radio, offering instead rare and underplayed cuts seven nights a week. Weiner says that RNI aimed to promote "peace, love and understanding," baring music's political edge in an age of radio programming calculated by computers. Staff member Peter Menace called their sound "sensitive anarchy." The Federal Communications Commission called it illegal.

RNI was an unlicensed, pirate" radio station. Weiner, 35, and some two dozen scrappy, self-taught engineers, most of them in their 20s, believed that the Sarah's location and her foreign registry put her beyond the jurisdiction of the F.C.C. They also believed that the 1620 kHz AM frequency, which was unassigned to a commercial station, should be open to public use. But on October 18, four days after RNI went on the air, a Coast Guard cutter stood off the Sarah's port quarter and the following exchange ensued.

"Hailing motor vehicle Sarah: This is Coast Guard 41349. I've got a temporary restraining order from the court to give to you. Request you meet me on deck, skipper." Josh Hale, the Sarah's captain that day, refused. The Coast Guard's Chief Warrant Officer then read the order over the radio and Hale replied: "This is the Sarah. No RNI people are on board. This ship is owned by Atlantic Radio Communications, Limited. That is, I believe, in England." But Dobner persisted. "I'm going to be coming on board and well discuss this on your vessel."

Hale panicked. RNI had tried to begin broadcasting once before, in July 1987. The F.C.C. is authorized to seize or dismantle the expensive transmitting equipment used by pirate stations, and on that occasion agents had boarded the ship with guns drawn, arrested everyone and took apart RNI's studio. This time, Hale radioed back that boarding wouldn't be necessary and promised to "discontinue our transmissions until further advisement."

The F.C.C. asserted that it does indeed have the right to control signals broadcast into the United States from international waters - even from ships of foreign registry. More important, the agency also claimed to have the last word on the use of every frequency on the dial, even those that are unassigned. The subsequent court battle between RNI and the government has raged since October. At issue is an interpretation of the First Amendment and the limitations of the Communications Act of 1934, which grants the F.C.C. its powers. Does the First Amendment protect a person's right to broadcast, or a person's right to listen, or both? And how far beyond U.S. borders does that protection, if any, extend?

Jeff Young of the F.C.C.'s enforcement division says the agency scuttled a handful of unlicensed stations last year, most of them broadcasting over frequencies that commercial stations leave dormant at night. If tried as felons for obstructing the agency, pirates face fines of up to $250,000 and five years in prison, and their equipment may be seized. Most first offenders are charged with only a misdemeanor and fined $750. But pirate stations are usually set up in basements or garages-not in 170-foot, $50,000 fishing boats like the Sarah, and Weiner contends he has been targeted by the agency because of the Sarah's visibility. He claims that New Yorkers can listen to a "good half-dozen" pirate stations on any given night, and that the F.C.C.'s signal-tracking equipment could easily find them. But they don't bother. Young concedes that there are several "dormitory FM stations" that go on for months unmolested and that the F.C.C. doesn't have the funding to hunt them all down.

Weiner ran his first unlicensed station in 1970 from a basement in Yonkers, New York. He broadcast for a year before the F.C.C. arrested him. In 1981 he built a 3,000-watt country station in Presque Isle, Maine. In 1984 he and Randi Steele, later RNI's program director, started a licensed, 100-watt station in Yonkers. The F.C.C. soon shut them down for licensing violations, which forced Weiner to sell the Maine station also. "Government agencies are these great big blobs," says Weiner. "They think they're God, that they own the airwaves. They dole out the space, they screen the personalities who get licensed. Dammit, I'm tired of them telling me I'm not qualified to run a radio station."

Weiner and his sidekicks bought the rusting, derelict Sarah in 1986 from government surplus and docked her in Boston Harbor. Lawyers, he says, assured him that the F.C.C. had no jurisdiction over broadcast ships of foreign registry that remained outside U.S. territorial waters. So he registered the Sarah in Honduras. European radio pirates had taken to the water in the mid-1960s. Weiner himself once worked on the Caroline, a well-known pirate. broadcaster anchored off the coast of England, which has remained relatively unmolested by the British government. Pirate A.B. Nathan has been broadcasting the English-language "Voice of Peace" into Israel and other Middle Eastern countries since 1972, from a 1,000-ton freighter in the Mediterranean. The Sarah is one of three radio ships known to be operating.

Weiner and his pirates spent about eighteen months and $150,000 more of their own money making the Sarah seaworthy and equipping it for commercial radio. The ship's central hold, which for years carried frozen fish, was fitted with four transmitters: a 10,000-watt FM unit, two AM rigs of 1,000 and 5,000 watts and a shortwave unit. The crew also built a two-person broadcast booth, complete with a window, boom microphones, turntables and tape carts, though RNI's initial programming was on reel-to-reel tapes produced in a Long Island studio. They scrubbed away the lingering fish smell and set up living quarters in austere staterooms on the upper deck, trying to ignore the hammering of the ship's diesel generator.

On July 23, 1987, RNI - "Radio Sarah" - caused a sensation with its first broadcasts. Fishermen and pleasure boaters pulled up alongside to offer supplies and make song requests. But such popularity did not endear them to the F.C.C. At dawn on July 28, a squad of agents from the F.C.C.'s enforcement division were ushered onto the Sarah by a Coast Guard cutter with its deck guns manned. The agency men boarded without warrants, handcuffed Weiner, Rothstein and visiting Village Voice columnist R.J. Smith, and then, according to Weiner, vandalized" the ship's equipment while he sat on a hatch cover and wept tears of rage. Lawrence Clance of the F.C.C.'s field operations division maintains that RNI had violated a regulation established by the 1982 convention of the International Telecommunications Union (I.T.U.), which is part of the United Nations. The I.T.U.'s radio regulations prohibit the establishment of broadcast stations outside national territories anywhere on the planet. Military or private-sector exceptions to these regulations must be established by treaty between the countries involved. Because the United States is a signatory to the I.T.U., Clance explains, its regulations were incorporated into U.S. law in 1986 as a section of the Communications Act of 1934. It is thus a petty offense to broadcast from international waters, something the F.C.C. is authorized to police for. Besides," says Clance, "there is language in the 1934 act which makes it very clear that Congress meant for it to be applied extraterritorially." However, Jeremiah Gutman, Weiner's pro bono attorney in the civil case and an executive board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union, notes: "The fact that the Caroline has broadcast off the coast of England for years, or that A.B. Nathan has been broadcasting into Israel, means that [the courts may have] a problem interpreting international law."

Government attorneys also charged RNI with the more serious offense of obstructing governmental function by sidestepping the F.C.C. That is the felony that comes with five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. But in August 1987, Andrew Maloney, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, dropped the charges, apparently because Weiner and Rothstein were the first ever to be indicted under the new statutes. The Sarah was then turned over to Weiner and towed back to Boston Harbor.

The vessel remained docked in Boston for more than a year, undergoing repairs while Weiner got into more legal entanglements, this time with the harbor master over, whether the repaired Sarah was in fact seaworthy. Weiner eventually reregistered the craft in Maine to get it out of the harbor. The registration was changed yet again, this time to Sealand, an abandoned artillery fortress about eight miles off the coast of Essex, England. A man named Roy Bates claims the islet as a principality, which he shares with his wife. Neither the United States nor Britain recognizes Sealand's sovereignty. As far as the Federal courts are concerned, the Sarah is still under Maine registry, and fully accountable to the F.C.C. laws governing all U.S. vessels. Since the F.C.C. shut down RNI the second time last October, the government has shown a curious reluctance to prosecute Weiner and his crew, as it had threatened it would if Weiner went back on the air. Government attorneys asked the court only for a permanent restraining order against RNI: no penalties, no forfeiture of money or equipment. On December 13 in Boston, Federal District Court Judge John McNaught formally ordered RNI silenced for good. Weiner and Gutman have since appealed that decision. They do not contest the facts. Indeed, Weiner concedes he changed the Sarah's registry and repeated most of the acts he had committed in 1987. He did so hoping to force a reconsideration of the I.T.U. regulations and of what constitutes the basic nature of radio space. "Even though questions of foreign registry and extraterritoriality are important," says Gutman, "my main argument is that the 1605 to 1705 kHz band on the AM radio spectrum is open and protected by the First Amendment. The F.C.C. shouldn't have any say over those frequencies until they are assigned." However, Judge McNaught ruled that the First Amendment does not apply to radio broadcasting and that the F.C.C. has the right to regulate all radio use in order to guarantee listeners free access to vital information and to protect service channels like police and fire frequencies, as well as commercial stations, from interference. (The AM frequency range between 1605 and 1705 kHz will be opened to commercial bidding in July 1990.) Gutman argues that free speech is curbed by McNaught's interpretation. "It's absurd for the F.C.C. to think that they own the whole spectrum," Gutman argues. "They can't regulate unassigned space. There are plenty of cases concerning people who speak on street corners that say essentially the same thing." The F.C.C.'s Clance claims that pirates can't be sure that their frequencies are unassigned. The 1605 to 1705 kHz band, for example, is supposedly used for radio reporters' remote broadcasts, directional beams used to guide ships, traveler's information broadcasts and by a few commercial broadcasters. The F.C.C. did not, however, receive any complaints about AM interference generated by RNI. "Imagine if this were print and they tried to control who had licences to edit or publish their own little magazines or fliers," says Weiner. "Anyone can publish, and that's exactly how it should be. The First Amendment was meant to guarantee a well-informed citizenry. That certainly applies to electronic media." Clance replies, "They can apply for a license and they have every chance of getting one." In some basement, maybe, but clearly not for the Sarah. "If I was Donald Trump," says the beleaguered pirate, "I'd have my unlicensed station and it would be a big, chic media event - people would call me a maverick entrepreneur. But I'm not. I'm Allan Weiner."
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Title Annotation:Radio New York International
Author:Kuipers, Dean
Publication:The Nation
Date:Apr 24, 1989
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