Radio-Free Garland

An unlikely suburban airwave pirate lands in the FCC's crosshairs

Shortly after sunrise one day last August, the doorbell rang at the home of Marty and Mary Ann Markowitz in northwest Garland. It was 7:30 a.m., which, by sane folks' standards, is a bit too early for casual neighborly visits. But Spring Park, an exceedingly convivial community, is not like most neighborhoods.

So Mary Ann, a 34-year-old professional recruiter who was getting dressed at the time, didn't give it a second thought. She figured it was someone stopping by to see her husband, Marty, who had become something of a local celebrity in recent months.

Ever since he launched a radio station from a spare closet in their two-story patio home, people were calling and dropping by at all hours of the day and night to talk to him about The Park (89.7-FM), a commercial-free mix of eclectic music--from African drums to zydeco--and public service announcements that Marty ran strictly for the benefit of the 800 families who live in Spring Park.

The people at the door wanted to see Marty, all right. But this was not a social call. These were not neighborhood fans, or teenagers who'd come to try their hand as DJs, or some member of the local citizenry with a last-minute announcement about the upcoming Labor Day festivities or a plea for a home where a lame duck could convalesce.

No. Standing on the Markowitzes' front porch next to the flower pots were two sober-looking federal agents brandishing badges. They identified themselves as officers with the regional office of the Federal Communications Commission compliance division. And they wanted to see Marty immediately.

Huddled over the control panels, Marty had just signed on and was about to begin his hour-and-a-half weekday morning show when an ashen-faced Mary Ann knocked on the door to his ersatz studio.

"Marty, the FCC is here," Mary Ann said, her voice quavering.
"The feds," Marty whispered to himself as he hurriedly signed off. "The men in black."

Melodrama aside, the two federal officers, a man and a woman, wasted no time in letting Marty know the gravity of the situation. For the last week or so, the two officers had been driving around the neighborhood listening to The Park and measuring the power of its signal. Though the station's signal covered only a one-mile radius--and that was on its best days--it was still way beyond the government's legal threshold for what is permitted without a license.

As far as the feds were concerned, 50-year-old Marty Markowitz was a pirate, a thief of the airwaves that others--corporate moguls, mostly--pay a hefty price to use. The feds told Marty that he had to immediately cease operations or he would face paying a steep fine, perhaps as much as $10,000. And if he persisted in defying the law, he could be arrested and imprisoned. (FCC regional officers declined to comment on Markowitz's case.)

Marty apologized profusely, told the agents it had been an innocent mistake, and promised to do as they said. For days and weeks afterward, everywhere Marty went, he was besieged by his Spring Park neighbors, distraught that The Park had gone off the air, that the voice of their community had been silenced.

Short, slight, and preternaturally perky, Marty Markowitz is an unlikely radio pirate. Not a counterculture enthusiast, like the folks who started the seminal pirate station Radio Free Berkeley in the 1960s. Not a bored teenager. Not a political zealot with an ax to grind. Just a middle-aged guy with a surfeit of spare time and disposable income--thanks to some entrepreneurial endeavors that paid off--as well as an abiding passion for electronics and a lot of chutzpah.

When he launched his underground station in March 1998, he joined the ranks of airwave outlaws who have attempted to bring radio broadcasting back to its locally owned and operated roots, when the music was unpredictable, the vibe distinctly personal, and its information the lifeblood of a community.

Intentionally or not, he was joining a media movement whose mission has taken on a particular urgency in recent years. Since 1996, when the federal government deregulated the radio industry, station ownership has become concentrated in fewer hands. During the last two and a half years, each of the top 10 radio markets, including Dallas, has lost an average of three local station owners. With the loss of local ownership has come a loss of flavor in programming, which over the years has become highly formatted and frequently bland, the media equivalent of mediocre chain restaurants.

This trend has not gone unnoticed by government leaders. In his address at the National Association of Broadcasters Radio Convention in October, FCC Chairman William Kennard voiced his dismay about radio's diminished diversity. "I am concerned when I talk to small, independent broadcasters who tell me that they are being squeezed out of their markets," he said. "I am concerned when I talk to advertisers who tell me that large multiple owners have locked up certain demographics in many markets. And I am concerned when I talk to small entrepreneurs, including minorities and women, who tell me of their fears that they will have to abandon their dreams of ever owning a broadcast station."

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