This Article Appeared in Worcester Magazine May 8, 1998

Left Off The Dial

By Doug Hanchett

Chat with Mike Malone and it takes only a few seconds to realize he has that sometimes annoying vocal quality usually belonging to news announcers, disc jockeys and broadcast pitchmen.

The words come at you in a wave, smooth as a baby's bum and steady as a surgeon's hand. The enunciation is flawless, inflections are perfect.

It's a radio voice, pure and simple. And up until six months ago, Malone was putting it to good use on WDOA (89.3), bringing Worcester's sound-starved masses a nightly fix of obscure rock'n'roll, punk, and garage rock, as well as a handful of other eclectic programs.

Never heard of WDOA? Don't be surprised. Malone was broadcasting from his basement apartment on Fenwood Street, pumping out a mere 60 watts.

And though you may have missed WDOA's 18-month run on your radio dial, the Federal Communications Commission(FCC) did not. Malone was a radio pirate, shut down by two FCC agents who came trick-or-treating two days early last October.

If you twist the knob to 89.3 today, you'll hear nothing but dead air-music to the ears of the powerhouse National Association of Broadcasters, which last summer began pressuring the FCC to squash the growing number of unlicensed broadcasters, like Malone.

The FCC responded by shutting down 97 unlicensed stations last year-including WDOA and Radio Free Allston. The agency is on pace to pull the plug on 268 more this year.

Nevertheless, more and more people are taking advantage of better(and cheaper) technology and going on the air unlicensed. And no matter what the NAB might say, they're often filling a need in their community, whether it be with minority programming in urban areas or right-wing militia radio for the Timothy McVeigh/Randy Weaver set.

Some observers estimate there are now as many as 1,000 renegade stations across the county, with new ones popping up daily.

"This is a phenomenon that's going wild right now" says Vincent Kajunski, director of the FCC's New England filed office. "Everytime we turn around, we're seeing more and more of them."

A lot of pirates-who prefer to be called microbroadcasters because they're not hiding from anyone-would like to get FCC licenses, but are prohibited by a 20-year-old regulation that requires licensed stations to broadcast at 100 watts or more, which is out of the financial reach of most.

To protest the FCC licensing conundrum and the agency's crackdown on unlicensed broadcasters, pirates attending a microbroadcasting conference in Philadelphia in early April vowed to launch 10 new stations for every one the FCC shuts down.

It's all part of a concerted effort to get the FCC to change its rules to allow smaller, community-oriented stations on the dial. Microbroadcasters consider the megacorporations that own an ever growing share of the nation's radio stations-General Electric, Westinghouse, Disney-the real radio pirates, saying they plundered the airwaves from "the people" years ago. They say the FCC serves as the NAB's lapdog, or, to extend the pirate metaphor, the parrot on its shoulder.

It's an angry movement, and one that's righteous in its beliefs. But unlike many of his microbroadcasting colleagues, Malone wasn't interested in grandstanding for First Amendment rights or protesting the oppressive city-state.

"It wasn't like, 'Hey, we're going to take back the airwaves,'" says Malone. "We were like, 'We're going to go on the air and we're going to (play records).'"

In Malone's mind, WDOA was nothing more than a chance to spin some wax. Let the others wax philosophic.

"It was a conscious effort to fill a niche," he says. "We didn't go on the air to be like, 'Fight the power, man!'"

And despite having a WDOA web page, the last thing Malone wanted was the FCC knocking on his door.

"I told people not to mention that we were unlicensed on the air," Malone says. "I mean, every now and then people would make allusions to it on the air, but my opinion was-and it worked for a year and a half-don't poke the sleeping dog, you know? They're not bothering us, why bother them?"

Malone wasn't the only radio pirate in Worcester. There are at least two other unlicensed stations that have been on the air sporadically, both of them featuring Spanish programs. One is Radio Lucero, who motto is "Sirviendo a Dios"-serving God. Based out of a triple-decker at the corner of Mason and Pemberton, Radio Lucero was reportedly shut down just a few weeks ago by the FCC. (Worcester Magazine's attempts to contact the man who ran the station were unsuccessful).

According to Malone, the station was broadcasting on 89.9FM, which he says was probably too close to WGBH (89.7) in Boston for the public radio station's (and the FCC's) liking.

"He was a goner," Malone says.

Like most pirates, Malone doesn't think much of the current state of radio. To him, and to many other listeners, the radio dial has become little more than a morass of soundalike talk shows and bland radio formats that pump out either "classic" hits (the Eagles, Springsteen), generic rock (Bush, Stone Temple Pilots) or mindless pop (Hanson, the Spice Girls).

Since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, allowing companies to own up to eight stations in one market, radio stations have been changing hands at a rapid clip. The large conglomerates that are buying up the bulk of these stations often use syndicated programs to maximize the bottom line. Inevitably, stations begin to lose any local flavor they might have had, which means Worcester radio sounds a lot like radio in Tulsa, Okla., which sounds a lot like radio in Tampa, Fla.

But the blandness isn't limited to commercial stations. NPR, in a constant struggle for funding from Congress, turns to large corporations for underwriting. As a result, critics say, NPR becomes beholden to said companies and less likely to rock the boat-or the airwaves, for that matter.

According to Malone, WICN, where he was a rock director until being let go in May 1994, is a good example. He says that station's emphasis on wine-and-cheese programming (jazz, classical) is too narrow for the second-largest city in New England.

On the other hand, Malone says, Worcester's other public station, WCUW tries hard to cover all the bases but ultimately fails because of poor management and staff apathy.

"I was kind of frustrated at the overall radio situation in Worcester," Malone says, explaining why he launched WDOA. "WICN had gotten rid of their rock programming, CUW's was very scattershot. Holy Cross' was very narrow and they didn't want nonstudents involved"

Into this void came WDOA.

Malone's fascination with radio dates back to when he was a young boy.

"I've always been interested in radio" he says. "I even had the little Radio Shack kits where I built the little radio transmitters and stuff like that."

During his senior year in high school, Malone went on the air for the first time, winning a one-hour slot on WAAF's Sunday-night amateur hour. If nothing else, he spun some records most AAF listeners were probably unfamiliar with-the Ramones, the Clash, Flash and the Pan-as well as some cuts from safer bets like the Stones and the Dead.

It wasn't until Malone enrolled at Assumption College in fall 1979, however, that his radio obsession really took off. He quickly joined the staff at WACR (88.1), Assumption's low, lower powered station. Ironically, this was also his introduction to pirate radio: The station was unlicensed.

While most of the staff at WACR played the same middle-of-the-road arena rock that WAAF and WCOZ were playing, Malone stuck to what he knew best.

"I was one of the few students that played anything considered punk," he says. "Everyone else was trying to mimic their own favorite commercial station."

A couple of months into his freshman year, the station manager at WACR quit, and the job was offered to Malone, who was constantly hanging around the studio anyway.

But after his sophomore year-just as his interest in radio was growing and he was thinking about it as a career-Assumption shut down the station, in part because it was unlicensed.

Malone salvaged the transmitter from a closed and then transferred to Umass, where he earned a degree in communications and toiled for the much larger WMUA.

After finishing his studies in 1983, Malone landed a job as a reporter at WTAG. He stayed there for four years until a personality conflict with a new sales manager led to his firing in 1988.

At the same time, Malone was volunteering at Worcester's public radio stations, first at WCUW and then at WICN, where he spent about 10 years. It was when that station started to play more "yuppie-friendly kind of stuff rather than the loud rock'n'roll-with-guitars thing," that Malone started thinking about launching WDOA. He found some radio gear lying around his apartment and began tinkering, putting together a transmitter "that would reach the end of the street."

"Toward the end of 1995, I started to get serious, thinking, 'Hmmm. I can do this," Malone says.

WDOA had actually been on the air once before. In 1994, Malone and his brother went on the air from Malone's parents house in one of the highest parts of Westboro. Using the transmitter he had taken from Assumption, the two set up an antenna in the attic and broadcast from 89.1, although Malone says "that was basically just screwing around."

This time it was for real. After buying a more powerful transmitter, Malone started airing with impromptu broadcasts in December of 1995 on nights when he "had nothing better to do".

The goal was to play stuff that the commercial stations wouldn't touch, no matter how "alternative" they billed themselves. Opening with the theme from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Malone mostly played stuff that followed the old-school punk ethos of fast, loud and simple.

"It's not being esoteric for the sake of being esoteric, being obscure for the sake of being obscure," says Malone. "It's actually good stuff that people listen to."

Though on any given night there might not have been anyone tuning in, it struck a chord with many who stumbled upon it.

"When we were on the air, we used to hear from people, 'I haven't heard anything like this (before). This is great,'" Malone says. "We got a lot of positive response. The phone wasn't ringing off the hook while we were on the air, but after we were shut down I heard from a hell of a lot of people. I was surprised, personally…by the response we got."

It ain't easy being a radio pirate, knocking heads with the FCC and the powerful broadcasting industry.

But it sure sounds cool.

Malone certainly thought it was. Launched in January 1996, WDOA soon became a daily operation, with over a dozen people involved at the time it was shut down. Monday through Friday, the station would broadcast live from 6pm to around 9pm., with those shows being rebroadcast until midnight. Weekends, things might continue until the wee hours.

One night, Malone even invited the Free Radicals into his apartment to play live over the airwaves.

All the while Malone was working a full time job.

Although WDOA was primarily a rock 'n' roll station, anyone could have approached Malone about hosting a show.

Take John Q. Public. A salty tongued former truck driver from Shrewsbury whose favorite word seems to be "friggin", the 57 year old Public (not his real name) has a collar that's as blue as a summer sky.

Public spent most of his time on the air talking about local issues, but he also fit in some old jazz and Italian music.

"The average working person likes to express himself," Public says. "You stand by so long watching all the stupidity…and you just like to express your point rather than getting a gun and going out and shooting people. And I found an outlet over there".

That was the only outlet Public would ever find. His show wasn't something you'd hear on a commercial station, and despite his name, it's unlikely it would ever fly on public radio, either. Another WDOA host was L.B. Worm, who hold the dubious distinction of having dubbed Worcester "Wormtown" years ago.

"It was fun while we were doing it," Worm says of WDOA, where he'd spin records for three hours every other Saturday night. "The city needed it. The state of Worcester radio is worse than it's ever been. We have no rock station in the city that I can think of-legitimate station-and you look at Boston and Springfield and Providence and they have at least two or three."

Worm never thought the FCC would bother to come out to Worcester, because "we weren't stepping on anyone's toes."

But WDOA , one of the first microstations in New England, became a prime target for the FCC after the NAB started making a stink about unlicensed stations.

"We operated for a year and a half," says Malone. "(During that time) it wasn't that big of an issue. What happened-and what the FCC agents told us when they were here was that the priorities had changed at the FCC."

Last October, during a show by Uncle Joe Salty and Finn, two FCC agents arrived at Malone's door and told him to cease and desist (though they did allow him to go back on the air a few minutes later to tell the listeners what happened). He signed off for good with the Replacements' "Left of the Dial".

Malone also thinks the FCC's Kajunski wanted WDOA and Radio Free Allston shutdown for personal reasons. A few nights after the FCC came a' knocking, Malone says, Kajunski was scheduled to speak in Boston in front of the Society of Broadcast Engineers. His topic: pirate radio.

"I think he wanted to have a couple of notches in his belt , going into the talk," Malone says.

Since October, the $500 worth of radio equipment in Malone's apartment has been collecting dust. Although he tapes a one hour show each week broadcast on the Internet (http://palmsradio.com) and on April 27 did his first live broadcast on WDOA's Web site, his ultimate goal is to return to the airwaves.

Malone doesn't think the FCC shutdown will be the death knell of his radio hobby. On the contrary, he's hoping the same agency will breathe new life into the station by relaxing its licensing regulations for low-power stations.

Even if it does, however, it'll be some time before you hear WDOA broadcasting legally. With government bureaucracies being government bureaucracies, likely to take awhile for such regulatory changes to go through the required review process.

And Malone might face an uphill battle in acquiring a license. Because WDOA broadcasts at 89.3, it might be considered too close (geographically) to WAMH in Amherst, as well as to WEVO in Concord (89.1) and to WGBH in Boston (89.7).

Malone's other option is pursuing a 100 watt license. Despite the cash outlay it would take to upgrade his equipment and pay for engineering studies, he says he'd go to 100 watts in a heartbeat.

"Believe me," Malone says, "if the FCC were to knock on my door tonight and say, 'Here's a license for 100 watts' how fast do you think it would take me to come up with the money and the equipment here? I tell ya, I'd do it within three weeks. Begging , borrowing or stealing."

In fact, Malone all but assured listeners he'd be back-someday-when he signed off 6 months ago with that Replacements tune.

A paean to college radio stations, whose normally low-frequency numbers take up the left-hand side of the dial, "Left of the Dial" is actually about reconnecting with someone. It ends with this hopeful refrain:

If I don't see you, for a long long while/ I'll try to find you left of the dial.

It was a message from Malone to his listeners. He's hoping they'll keep it in mind.

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