I saw this movie at the BendFilm Festival and was glad to see our local community radio station KPOV 106.7 FM bringing the documentary to McMenamins on Wednesday. As a DJ on KPOV, I confess that I'm somewhat biased - sharing an affinity for the free-speech rights of local broadcasters over large media conglomerates, having volunteered at the station for more than three years.
Pirate Radio USA conveys the history of Low Power FM ("LPFM"), which includes low power and unlicensed "pirate" radio broadcasts as well as online streaming radio, but the real message of the film is the practice of First Amendment rights that the Constitution protects and that certain corporate and government entities try to curtail. References to the printing press run rampant (it used to be illegal to own one) as does the disgust of Starbucks, which is based in Seattle, just like the documentary's authors.
Hosted and narrated by DJ Him (Jeff Pearson) and DJ Her (Mary Jones), the movie never loses its cynical edge and amusing outlook. I can actually vouch for the fact that these two are as witty, charming and engaging in real life as they seem on film, for I had the pleasure of meeting them at BendFilm. Running their illegal station and carrying a video camera around, they captured all they ventured into.
Picture a mobile home in someone's driveway, large antennae jetting out ... That's the beginning of pirate radio-sort of...
Pirate's history is presented in cool graphics, diorama, 1950s film clips, and other assorted ways of story telling. There's an extremely colorful cast of characters: Petri Dish, (a Castro-bearded electronics wizard), DJ Realtime, DJ Sara Zia, Stephen Dunifer, (banned from radio or teaching classes on transmitting), a frightening interview with Pam Harston (corporate FCC enforcer), and Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden talking up the attributes of LPFM and comically getting a little too carried away by the gizmos of the future.
A favorite scene was when the pirates overtake the Kalakala (a gutted '64 World's Fair Airstream ferry vessel) resembling revolutionary pirates broadcasting on the sea from the broken-down ship.
DJs Him and Her and company must stay one step ahead of the law because the feds will shut down unlicensed transmitters and crack a few heads in the process. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, authority figures were up in arms at the very appearance of these pirates. A bearded guy carrying a suitcase filled with equipment and wires? Obviously a terrorist. With a bit of ingenuity, it seems a pirate can use a transmitter in an umbrella, a boom box, access to Internet and earphones to construct an entire media blitz. DJ Him sums it up: "Really what saves us all is not our ability to do bad things, but the fact that almost no one chooses to do them."
The film presents a virtual onslaught of information, including the origin of the FCC, the technical aspects of broadcasting illegally, exposing the influence of outfits such as the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the WTO, as well as interference from the Bush administration (Colin Powell's son was the head of the FCC). Even NPR is not what you think. DJs Him and Her capture, exploit, and examine all they come in contact with, shamelessly and humorously. They pay closer attention to WTO riots of 1999 (Battle in Seattle) and all its implications- tear gas, riot gear, vandalism, police brutality. An extremely sobering moment is when they go to a Spokane prison and visit fellow rebel Mark Alan, who is incarcerated for allegedly punching a federal officer. His recounting of the story behind the prison window glass is like a splash of cold water in your face.
DJ Him defends First Amendment rights with these words to the wise concerning corporate global domination: "The founding fathers were smart enough to know that if you monopolize the tools to forge ideas, you get tyranny" thereby illuminating the printing press analogy: it was the only tool at the time for mass communication and what the First Amendment initially steered toward protecting.
This movie has so much to offer in its insight and viewpoint it's almost an overload. You might be glad when it comes winding very nicely and simply to an end, but then again if you're like me, you'll just see it as a short break and want an update soon.