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."

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.

Within a week, he was broadcasting a couple of hours a day, and within a month, The Park could be heard for a full 12 hours, kicking off with Marty's live morning show. Before long, people were calling the station with requests for music and announcements of upcoming community events.

He ran contests and gave away movie tickets. Last summer, he invited neighborhood teenagers to become guest disc jockeys. One sixth-grader, Cara Vance, was such a natural on the air, she developed her own fan club. "We did what disc jockeys used to do--cater to the needs and interests of the local community and play music that complements other music," Marty says. "I chose the music by this," he says, pointing to his heart.

Each day, he would pick cuts from about 50 albums. One day's lineup, for instance, included Peruvian flute music, Van Morrison, Harry Connick Jr., B.B. King, Ry Cooder performing Cuban music, and Edith Piaf.

"Maybe I would play all the cuts of a certain CD, if I liked them. People were hearing stuff they didn't normally hear. And they seemed to like it. The station became very popular. It was starting to glue the neighborhood together."

In many ways, Spring Park is fertile ground for a community radio station, because it is one of the few suburban areas with a real sense of community--a middle-class island that lies mostly within the blue-collar confines of Garland.

Gary Clark, former president of the Spring Park Homeowners Association, calls it Brigadoon or "The Third Park City." It is an uncommonly green and hilly place, built around a 16-acre pond and teeming with wildlife. Only a few of the homes, which range in price from $100,000 to $800,000, have fences, so the back yards roll into one another, connected by grassy common areas.

Civic groups abound. There is a woman's group that visits people who have fallen ill or lost a loved one. The Quackers Club nurses sick and injured ducks and geese back to health. There's a moms-and-tots group that meets monthly, and every holiday is celebrated in a big way, especially Christmas. At the annual hoedown, held around a roaring bonfire, 300 people come for hayrides, a bluegrass band, free chili, and a visit from Santa, who arrives in a helicopter.

"This isn't Plano," Clark says. "People don't just drive to work and come home, pull into their driveways, and that's that. People here know each other."

The community pride is reflected in and stoked by the town's Web site and its monthly eight-page newspaper, personally distributed by 67 block representatives. In fact, the town recently won communications and community-spirit awards from the National Community Association. Such spirit thrives because of--or perhaps in spite of--the neighborhood's origins 25 years ago. Raymond Nasher of NorthPark fame conceived Spring Park as a planned community with residential, community, and commercial areas covering 16,000 acres. He and his partners only developed one-third of the original plan, building residences and a clubhouse before abandoning the project in 1980.

Nasher sold the remaining land and clubhouse to an insurance company, which, in turn, sold the clubhouse to private owners, who kept it open until 1994. By then, the clubhouse had fallen into disrepair, and its tennis courts and swimming pool were in desperate need of an overhaul. The owners decided to put it up for sale, and a mid-cities church put in an offer.

The prospect of losing the clubhouse galvanized some segments of the Spring Park community. Neighbors went door-to-door soliciting $1,000 contributions to buy the building. They raised $335,000 and donated it to the homeowners association, which borrowed the rest to buy the club back. Then the residents pitched in to remodel the club. Marty donated and installed a new sound system, and another man, who had recently sold his business, spent the first few months of his retirement building a deck for the tennis courts. Others painted the building, weeded the grass, and hauled off debris.

"I never heard of homeowners devoting so much time and energy to their neighborhood," says Margie Acheson, editor of the monthly Spring Park newspaper, News and Notes. "Marty and his radio station were symbolic of the community spirit we have in Spring Park. He was knowledgeable and entertaining."

When Marty took to the airwaves, he made a special point of promoting the clubhouse and its myriad activities--the Memorial Day and Labor Day barbecues, the swim meets, the Mardi Gras party. Marty felt strongly that the clubhouse was the heart and soul of Spring Park and that had they lost it, they would have become just another garden-variety neighborhood.

Not everyone in Spring Park agreed. There was a small but vocal group of residents who were opposed to the neighborhood association buying and operating the clubhouse, even though it did not increase their neighborhood dues. And it is clear that the clubhouse brouhaha led to Marty getting busted by the FCC.

Marty had a suspicion--which he says he recently confirmed through a Freedom of Information Act request--that one of his neighbors, a staunch member of the anti-clubhouse camp, turned him in to the feds.

"I was trying to get the neighborhood together, and I innocently irked someone," Marty says.

The FCC officers were cordial, but Marty knew they meant business. He immediately took down his transmitter and stayed off the air for a month or so. He got dozens of letters and sympathy cards from his listeners. For weeks, he received five messages a day on his answering machine from neighbors who were devastated that the station had shut down. Some people even called the FCC to see whether there was something they could do.

Buoyed by the support, Marty was determined to resurrect The Park. He bought a new, albeit less powerful, transmitter that would send a signal low enough to comply with FCC regulations. It has about the same power and range as a garage-door opener, sending a clear signal for, at most, three blocks.

The station is broadcasting again 12 hours a day. But Marty no longer does his show, and all the music is pre-selected. He changes the lineup daily and the CD changer mixes up the order about three times a day.

"When you tune in The Park, you still never know what you're going to hear. It's like having a jukebox," he says. He tries to have some fun with it. At Christmastime, Spring Park homeowners go all out decorating their houses, with each block choosing a different theme. This year, Marty's block chose an Elvis theme, and visitors to the neighborhood who turned their FM radio dial to 89.7 were treated to nonstop Elvis songs.

He still has a strong following among those who are able to tune in. One recent morning, while Marty was talking to a visitor at his home, he was interrupted by a phone call from a listener thanking him for that morning's selection of songs, which included a lineup heavy with Cajun music that Marty had selected to promote the upcoming Mardi Gras party at the clubhouse.

"We're not really a neighborhood station anymore," Marty says wistfully. "We're just playing at being a station, in the hope that one day we'll be able to get a license."

That day may come soon. By August, the FCC will finish taking public comment on the proposals to license low-power FM stations. A final ruling could come early next year.

"If we're successful in bringing back localized radio, this is a very positive thing for communities," Marty says. "It will be like the days of underground radio. God knows what you'll hear. Some people will want to serve the community, and some people will just be self-serving. But the good will be worth having some of the bad for.

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