Radio-Free Garland

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

This climate has led to a proliferation of pirate stations. It is as if the more we are reminded that we live in a global village, the more we seek a deeper sense of our own little village. But at the same time, the FCC has been cracking down on illegal broadcasters like never before--even the small, innocuous stations run by guys like Marty Markowitz. In the last year alone, the agency busted more than 250 pirate radio stations across the country.

Like Marty, many of these pirates don't want to operate outside the law, but the government gives them few options. They either must use a signal that is so weak it fades out beyond a half-mile radius--a setup that can cost as little as $2,000--or they must buy a station at a price that is prohibitive to small-scale entrepreneurs.

In an effort to return a greater diversity of voices to the airwaves, the FCC recently has begun to consider adopting new rules to license commercial and non-commercial "microbroadcasters." The proposal the FCC is looking at would offer two classes of licenses for low-power FM stations, allowing a maximum broadcast radius of 3.6 miles and 15 miles, respectively. The stations would also have to prove that they don't interfere with any other station's frequency.

"People want something personal, a way to be connected to the people around them," Markowitz says. "Microbroadcasting is one way to achieve that. With deregulation, radio has come very homogenized-sounding, and the audience has been segmented. I think people are yearning for a more personal sound. I wasn't looking to compete with KVIL or The Zone or The Edge. I was looking to inform and entertain my neighbors."

Marty didn't set out to be a crusader. A lifelong music lover who worked for more than 20 years in record company sales and promotion, he launched his station as a lark. As much as anything, it was a way to recapture a part of his youth.

Specifically, it transported him back to the mid-1960s and his teenage years in suburban St. Louis, where he ran a pirate radio station from his garage. Called KMM and featuring such progressive sounds as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the blues, Marty's station broadcast seven days a week from 4 to 6:30 p.m. He did the weather reports by holding a thermometer and sticking his hand out a window.

The station could be heard only in a four-block area, but it got a lot of attention, including a full-page feature story in the city newspaper's magazine supplement. The station, however, also came to the attention of the FCC, which threatened Marty's father with a $10,000 fine and 10 years in prison if his son didn't shut it down.

By then, Marty had made a lot of friends in the radio business. He became a sort of mascot for a popular nighttime DJ in St. Louis, who let him answer the phones. One time, some record promoters sneaked him in to see Tina Turner perform in a smoke-filled East St. Louis dive. "It was like something out of The Blues Brothers," he says.

After studying radio, television, and film at the University of Missouri, Marty fully expected to spend his life at a radio station as a DJ or station manager. But a friend in the record business lured him away with the promise of more money. For the next 20 years, he worked in promotion and sales for Liberty/United Artists, which would eventually become Polygram.

The job landed him in Dallas in 1976. Polygram had the biggest disco stars, and they helped make Marty a very comfortable living. But company politics made his job increasingly uncomfortable, and by 1980, Marty had left the record business. He got in on the ground floor of the nascent video-rental business, opening five stores around the city with a partner.

Then, a few years later, having tired of the retail business, Marty switched professional gears again and started his own consumer electronics firm. From there, he launched another niche business--an independent car-leasing consulting company for people who hate haggling over prices.

Today, the car-leasing business provides him a nice income and lots of free time, which he has filled with assorted projects. A self-professed "electronics nut," Marty was consumed for a while with single-handedly building a home theater that boasts a dozen seats and its own concession stand, complete with popcorn maker and candy counter.

Once that was finished, he cast about for a new thrill. One night in winter 1998, Marty was home alone and bored. Mary Ann had gone out to a meeting, and he had nothing to do. A few months earlier he had sent off for a do-it-yourself radio kit, with transmitter and antenna. "I built it, went on the air, and it went boom," Marty says with a little kid's enthusiasm. "I thought it would be neat to have a neighborhood radio station."

He cleared out a closet off the screening room and outfitted it with audio equipment--several CD players, a CD changer, two turntables, and an audio mixing board, most of which he already owned. He played music from his collection of more than 500 CDs and an equal number of vinyl albums. He enlisted Mary Ann to help him do spots on news and information important to the residents of Spring Park--upcoming town hall meetings, community center events, and a host of civic projects.

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