FCC silences pirate station
Wild West Radio, shut down in mid-July, may soon begin streaming its unusual mix of country music to listeners via the Internet
Fewer banjos will be heard around town since the Federal Communications Commission ordered a pirate country station off the air in mid-July. For just over a year, listeners in Roseville, parts of Granite Bay and Citrus Heights tuned in to commercial-free Wild West Radio to hear an unusual mix of tunes in the singer-songwriter vein.
Jeff Scammon, a real-estate agent and investor, seems an unlikely target for federal attention, but his passion for music and disillusionment with commercial radio led him to a pirate’s life. Or, at least, to an unlicensed broadcaster’s life. Scammon’s just “a real guy with a real job, basically looking at [running a 300-watt radio station that reached across a 7-mile radius] as a community service.”
During its yearlong existence, Wild West Radio featured bluegrass, folk, twang, rockabilly and occasionally some Cajun, insurgent country and Americana—music that Scammon says goes against the grain. “If you hear it on the radio, you won’t hear it on Wild West,” said Scammon, in explaining his pirate philosophy. “Otherwise there would be no point in me coming on the air.”
Rick Sellers, a regular listener from Roseville, couldn’t agree more. “I loved it. I thought he had an excellent balance of older and newer and funny music that you would never hear on the radio. It wasn’t boring.”
Boring “corporate music” is what Scammon accuses the region’s legitimate country-music stations of “ramming down” the throats of listeners. He thought he could use the music collection he has spent 25 years building to provide an alternative. Initially, he thought he’d try to do it legally, but when he came face to face with the bureaucracy and expense of getting a license, he opted to go pirate. “There was no way for me to be operating within the law. If I could have, believe me I would have.”
This isn’t Scammon’s first foray into piracy: Twenty-five years ago, he ran a 10-watt station—also called Wild West Radio—off and on over three years in the Bay Area.
To start up this time, Scammon bought his equipment on eBay. “Financially, it is one of the most costly things I have ever done,” he said. “Personally, it is the most rewarding.”
What or who alerted the FCC to the Wild West broadcast is unclear. Scammon’s theory is that stories in The Sacramento Bee tipped the government off to his pirate station. “I thought it would go for years. Showing up in the Bee like that didn’t do me any favors.”
The fact that he picked 92.9 FM—locally owned by Christian station KLOVE—may have played a part. Scammon said he scrupulously avoided infringing on anyone else’s air space, arguing that since 92.9 is used by KLOVE only as a signal repeater for listeners in the Rio Linda area, Wild West’s broadcast shouldn’t have been an interference.
But the FCC’s “notice of unlicensed radio operation” delivered by agents to his home on July 14 was clear: “Your radio communications are causing severe interference to public safety radio communications. Your communications on this frequency must cease immediately.”
Facing possible fines, jail time and confiscation of his equipment if he continued, Scammon decided to pull the plug. “Unlike KNOZ, I am not going to get a $20,000 fine. I am not going to fight the man. The government has way more money to fight this thing than me.”
In response to Wild West’s demise, Scammon received a barrage of e-mails from fans. Sellers is one fan who wishes “the FCC would make it easier for independent music to be played.”
Scammon’s working an end run around the FCC to make that happen. Web streams over the Internet may offer a legal way for Scammon to air his alternative playlists. Music streaming from his Web site—at http://wildwestradio.com—ultimately could reach an infinitely larger audience and give Scammon more freedom: “The Internet is completely unregulated, so it’ll be even looser once I’m online.”
Does he regret living outside of the law? “Radio needs some sort of regulation. I know it was illegal, but the way I justified it was that I wasn’t charging anybody, nobody lost any money, and no animals were hurt in the making of this radio station. So, what crime have I really committed?”