American Times: San Marcos - The Texan pirates who are ruling the waves

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THE ANTENNA at Micro Kind Radio appears to be supported by the house, but it may be the other way round. The "studio" is a tiny 10ft by 12ft room covered in graffiti. Inside, George is struggling with the antique machinery, trying to get it to play a tape of one of his friends. "I'm just totally screwed, man," he says, shaking his ponytail.

Outside, Metal Mark and Ratman, two of the DJs, are watching with wry amusement. In the garden is a stripped-down motorbike and what must be the biggest collection of drink cans in the United States. Broadcasting House, this is not.

What it is is the house of Joe Ptak, a local community activist and the man who helped to bring radio to the small Texas college town of San Marcos.

But Mr Ptak is under threat from the law. This is pirate radio. Micro radio is booming in the US, as hundreds of people spend the $500 (pounds 320) or so that it takes to buy the basic equipment and put up an aerial to broadcast at under 100 watts. Most are motivated by a desire to reach the local community and crack the stultifying patterns laid down by the commercial industry.

"There is no law of physics that says that there is room for six computer programmed `adult contemporary' music stations in the same city - but none to broadcast the local high school football game," says Radio4all, one of the groups promoting the idea.

The founding father is Stephen Dunifer, of California, who launched Radio Free Berkeley in 1993. The past six years have largely been spent fighting for the right to broadcast against the Federal Communications Commission, the mainstream stations and National Public Radio, the subsidised public broadcaster.

Two weeks ago, Dave Huff was in the studio at Canyon Lake Radio just down the road when he noticed shadowy figures in his house. It was the FCC, the marshals and the local police. They took the equipment, tore down the aerial, ripped out the phone lines and disconnected the answer phone.

"There's no other public station that's doing anything else, telling us about our community," says Sandy Duchien, a neatly dressed woman who did the lunchtime slot on CLR and is now hanging out with the rascals of San Marcos, or San Martians as they call themselves. The FCC never told them exactly which rules they had broken, she says.

Plenty of other stations have gone the same way as the FCC clamps down. Micro Kind Radio is also under threat of closure, but it is powering ahead until the day comes when the law arrives. It has two transmitters,one of 40 watts that reaches the county, and another of 5 watts that spans the distance between two highway exits.

Pappy, of angular limbs, wild grey beard and shapeless hat, arrives for his four o'clock slot. He has several plastic bags of beer cans, tall ones that his friends complain get warm too quickly. "Why don't you get shorter beers?" asks one. "They run out too fast," he says, and sets himself up for the afternoon. Within minutes the sound of ZZ Top is drifting from the radio shack.

But once Mr Ptak arrives, a lanky bundle of energy in cut-off jeans, the station switches to a discussion of a local environmental issue. The university wants to restrict access to a river, and Mr Ptak and others have been protesting.

The FCC has promised to bring out new rules later this year to regulate low-power FM, but neither Mr Ptak nor the others believe that will resolve the issue. So they will carry on, encouraging Canyon Lake to get its station back by helping the DJs and assisting with fund-raising.

Ms Duchien is optimistic. "We will be back on the air," she says defiantly.