Low power to the people | VailDaily.com

Low power to the people

CVR Radio Free DT 11-13-10

MINTURN, Colorado – The pirates are still sailing local airwaves.

Radio Free Minturn has survived federal agents, funding shortfalls and nearly a fire. The local station boasts an all-volunteer staff that plays some of the most eclectic music since the invention of the minor key.

They’re running an on-air fund drive over the next week. It started Friday and runs through next Monday.

Radio Free Minturn is one of those things you hear about in your passage from the cradle to the grave, and say, “Yeah, I’d throw 20 bucks at that.”

It’s time to throw a little support their way. All the money goes back into the station, which really needs it.

All their financials are on their website, minturnradio.org. They’re not wasting a dime, but they really could use some cash for computers, a copier, maybe a printer, says Radio Free Minturn’s Liz Campbell.

“We are looking at some large capital purchases in the next year,” Campbell said.

People come forward with some cash and some talent, and somehow it keeps working out.

It has not been without incident. Stuff breaks occasionally. Dick Gustafson was on the air with his weekly show when he called Campbell to tell her the board was smoking – as in about-to-catch-on-fire-type smoking.

But, the show must go on and Dick’s did.

“I’m the one who wouldn’t let the idea die,” Campbell said.

Alex Markels was the original Radio Free Minturn pirate captain. He was writing stories on pirate radio for some national publications, including Mother Jones magazine.

He learned what it was like to run a pirate radio station and where to buy equipment. They set up the gear in Scott Willoughby’s Minturn house and started broadcasting. People started listening, including the feds.

A couple agents from the Federal Communications Commission showed up at Willoughby’s door. They had heard the station and seen the antenna on top of his house. When he greeted them and opened the front door, they noticed the 100 watt transmitter in his living room.

“The antenna was on top of his garage and people found us, including the FCC,” Campbell said. “The FCC issued a cease and desist order, so we ceased and desisted.”

The agents offered him a $100,000 fine and free room in board for a year in one of their fine facilities, such as the Eagle County Crossbar Hotel. Or they could shut down the station.

“When the feds busted us, we figured that was the end of Radio Free Minturn,” Willoughby said in a story Markels wrote for Mother Jones magazine.

Around that time, lots of radio pirates were setting sail, hijacked radio frequencies from licensed broadcasters. They’d be on the air a while – an hour or two or three – then shut down and move.

Before long, capitalism became involved and $300 would buy you a broadcast kit from people like Stephen Dunifer, founder of Northern California’s Free Radio Berkeley.

They used their new stations and the fledgling Internet to loudly proclaim that their rights to free speech were being violated. Civil disobedience was gaining a wider voice.

Along with the political winds, FCC policy shifts every time one of their bureaucrat’s mood ring changes color. Congress changed the law to allow low-power radio broadcasting, and the pirates were back in business.

The Minturn pirates applied for a license, only to learn that the Colorado Department of Transportation wanted the same frequency, 107.9. CDOT runs recorded road and weather reports on that frequency across other parts of Western Colorado.

The Minturn pirates offered to share, part of the FCC’s new policy. But CDOT wanted its own toys. Markels moved to Boulder and eventually to the East Coast with National Public Radio. Other board members got jobs in other areas and that was that, they thought.

Except it wasn’t. One day out of the blue, Markels called Campbell to tell her about his NPR job, and oh-by-the-way the FCC had granted Minturn pirates permission to play in the palace.

There was $1,700 in a fundraising account, Markels told Campbell. He told her how to get it, and wished her good luck.

So, what’s an FCC license worth? Anything?

Campbell kept getting calls from religious groups who wanted to buy it, so she figured it must be worth something.

They raised a little more money, wired everything together in a room above the Minturn Cellars winery and went on the air.

Radio Free Minturn is located in Minturn, conveniently enough, in the winery building. It’s upstairs.

It’s neighborhood radio for intergalactic neighbors. They have 46 volunteer deejays, so the station doesn’t sound anything like corporate radio.

They do deep and rare tracks, Campbell said. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes not so much.

“Everyone’s automation system leaves a little to be desired, but so does everyone’s iPod,” Campbell said.

About the only similarity between Radio Free Minturn and corporate radio is that people say stuff and play music at one end, and it spills out into people’s homes, automobiles and places of employment.

The signal fades in Wolcott and at the top of Vail Pass. But they’re streaming live on the Internet, so they’re everywhere you are.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, Campbell said. But cruise continues.

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