While throngs of protestors liberated the streets of downtown Seattle during the World Trade Organazation convention, several small, independent pirate radio cells liberated the airwaves on Seattle's FM dial to report on the protest and rouse the rabble with incendiary rhetoric and riotous mood music. Free Radio activists from as far away as Philadelphia's Radio Mutiny converged with creative ideas for covering the protest on the air. One pirate station, Y2WTKO, broadcast into Seattle for five days from a tree on the Olympic Peninsula with music, updates on the demonstration, and relayed news programs from shortwave radio, Olympia's KAOS, and the local television audio frequencies.
The VOS pirate radio collective had already plastered Seattle with flyers and stickers listing the local free FM frequencies by the time my colleague Smokestack and I hit the streets as news correspondents and media contacts for Y2WTKO, the pirate radio station imported by Eugene, Oregon's Radio Free Cascadia (98.5 FM) collective. Y2WTKO started boomin' Monday, November 29, with the the most powerful and far-reaching signal of the pirates. We started out on 101.1, but on Wednesday the signal moved to 87.9, inadvertently bumping Free Seattle Radio up to 93.7 (sorry y'all, we could't hear ya). My job as correspondent involved me toting around hundreds of dollars worth of radio equipment concealed under my clothes. We had to be careful not to get arrested or detained. Our only press passes were from the Independent Media Center, not much better than a neon green tag reading "Arrest Me Now!"
Smokestack and I took great pains to look like slick, professional media personnel. We were up before dawn Monday, ironing our disguises. Under my long skirt dangled a dual band VHF/UHF transceiver with a flexible quarter wave whip antenna that poked up under my shirt to my armpit. Also wired under my shirt were a tiny microphone and a push-to-talk button. In my slick vinyl backpack: the home-hacked four element UHF yagi antenna I had made just for the occasion out of scratch materials, "the Beam". With our briefcases full of sensitive documents, we were ready.
Away across the Puget Sound, high on a hilltop at the end of a logging spur road, nested 65 feet up a Hemlock tree, the other half of our cell positioned the arrays with a line of sight 25 miles straight into Seattle. For correspondence they had a beam like mine, only longer with six elements. For FM broadcast and reception, two huge yagi arrays, one for each end of the dial, were assembled in the tree. The arboreal radio station also had two FM receivers, shortwave receiver, cassette player, compact disc player, mixer with mike input, and of course, the transmitter. In the wind, rain, and snow, with the bucking and swaying of the tree, installing, maintaining, and operating all this equipment was no simple task. Add to it all numerous heavy deep cycle 12-volt batteries, a gasoline generator with tanks of fuel, random techno-gadgetry, a kitchen, food, and a shitbucket and the station was ready. The sciences of radio and treesitting were truly merged and poised for a long-range aural assault on the greater Seattle area. Move over corporate radio!
Monday evening, we were on the air. Smokestack quickly wrote and sent out a press release: "Like the forests and the oceans, the airwaves belong to the public. This resource of the people has been stolen from us by governments and corporations, aided and abetted by the illegal, illegitimate organization that is the WTO. As with so many other aspects of our lives, we must once again struggle to liberate this element of our collective reality."
Tuesday, N30: While all our friends were on the frontlines getting gassed, setting dumpsters ablaze, smashing corporate glass and looting the Radio Shack, Smokestack and I hung back, looking like slick yuppie media twerps on the sidelines. It was kind of embarrassing; friends I hadn't seen in years were fukin' shit up and I was hoping no one would see me and wave. Comrades' eyes would meet mine over their balaclavas and I had to give them a quick, cold "Don't talk to me, I'm undercover" look. But the police never questioned us as we roamed around in front of police lines and through crowded streets, gathering information. The problem was relaying it. From deep down between the skyscrapers, my beam and my whip antenna were useless. We had to go way down to the waterfront or up on a parking garage to have clear contact with the station. We would hit the streets and take notes, swing by the Indy Media Center to get the official updates, then go back up on the neighboring parking garage to fire off our report. Then we'd do it all again.
In the streets and on the air, the unrest intensified. Free Seattle Radio had audio commentary streaming live on the internet from Studio X. One comrade from another radio cell cruised around briefly with a low-power transmitter in a suitcase and an umbrella antenna, but the signal had no where to go in the towering urban walls resounding with the noise of the mobilization of thousands and the crash/banging of the teargas grenades. We saw a friend's face get pummelled into the pavement by the Seattle stormtroopers before they dragged him away. While we put in some time on door security at the IMC, a young woman with blood streaming down her face was brought in to be treated by the medics. She had been gashed in the forehead by a teargas canister the police had launched at the crowd. At the waterfront that evening, as we ranted and detailed the successes and horrors of the day, our own voices were relayed on the air, sounding tinny and distant after crossing the sound and back.
Tuesday night I learned what panic felt like when the police locked us down inside the IMC. A hundred or more people were detained in one big room while tear gas seeped in from both ends of the building. The cops guarded the door and parked a "Going to Jail" bus right in front. Weird undercover agents watched us through the window from the deck of the parking garage conveniently located next door. I was sure the police would storm in and arrest us all, confiscate everything. I slumped down in the back of the room gasping for breath while Smokestack launched into emergency mode, joining the bottle brigade to get water to the basement where medics were treating teargas victims. I couldn't reach the tree-station at all on UHF from inside the building. Nervously I wiped out all the frequency memory banks in my radio. I had spent hours programming it! What to do with the secret code book? Destroy it? Hide it under the carpet? After a couple of angst-filled hours the police finally let us go in small groups. Smokestack and I walked out of the "No Protest Zone" that night with a heightened awareness of all we stood to lose if captured. What would happen to our friends in the tree?
Wednesday it started all over again. By afternoon the parking garage attendents were onto us. They locked us out, then men in suits came down the ramp to peer at us through the grate. We went down to the Pike Place Market area to get a clear shot across the sound. On a quiet side street, with Smokestack aiming the Beam, I was just firing a report when Smokestack gave the signal to ditch! An ominous unmarked white van adorned with multiple antennas had just pulled up across the street. They were watching us! We grabbed all our gear and bailed through the Pike Place Market.
No longer safely able to transmit from street-level, we retreated to the strategic heights of Capitol Hill, escaping the Pike Place market in time to miss the nerve gas and the heightening police brutality. If Wednesday was anything like Tuesday, we knew the police would herd the riot right up to our feet. The police performed on cue. Down the street, the Guardian helicopter trained a bright spotlight on the show being staged by the Anarchist Black Bloc on Denny Street. An armored personnel carrier careened around the corner mere yards away from my shadowed position just as I lost contact with the station. How did it happen? In all the excitement, one of us lost the frequency, and we had forgotten to establish a default.
Wednesday night and all of Thursday I stayed put on the Hill, parked by an FM receiver tuned in to Y2WTKO. I tirelessly kept trying to reestablish our UHF link to no avail. Without our street-level input, the station relied on commercial news, live reports by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, and shortwave news broadcasts on Radio Havana Cuba and Radio For Peace International. They also played alot of Negativland. Sometimes they would go off the air to recharge the batteries, and when they fired up again I sighed with relief. Without a two-way link, the FM signal was the only way I had to know if my affinity group was okay. If law enforcement assaulted the station, they were counting on me to respond. I was anxious, so I made a couple hundred small flyers for the station and distributed them around the Hill. We also logged several hours of the Y2WTKO broadcast on tape. Smokestack took leave of the operation Thursday evening.
Friday morning I hit the streets one more time to join the big march from the Labor Temple with a microcassette recorder. If we couldn't relay live coverage, we'd at least have tape to work with later. I felt guilty leaving the receiver unattended; small portable receivers weren't receiving from sea level. I stepped off one bus downtown, waited for the transfer. Suddenly my pager went off with an emergency code! I ran the several blocks to the IMC to make the call. An independent radio decryption cell had intercepted some startling signals from a federal helicopter headed in the direction of our radio station! They were tracking our signal. I knew that the crew in the tree had no ground support. Could I get from downtown Seattle to the site across the sound before the feds laid siege?
I had planned to meet a friend at the labor rally. He had access to our affinity group vehicle and he knew the way. A woman at the IMC offered me a ride to the rally. On the spot I deputized a videographer and an RFC comrade from Eugene. At the rally, I found our driver, but our group got split up. It took about an hour to regroup. I was stressing way out; in my head that black enemy chopper kept chopping away across the sound and along the Olympic ridges, triangulating the radio signal. We had no way to warn the station!
Finally we were on our way, having released topographic maps to the site in case anyone felt like leaving the riot of the century, taking a ferry, and driving up to a remote hilltop in the National Forest to face off with the feds and defend a beleaguered crew of radio pirates.
On our way up the mountain, we met a sheriff coming down. Low Dog and I lay flat in the covered pickup bed while our driver pulled off an award-winning improv. "Just drivin' around lookin' for snow, sir!" The award? The sheriff let us go. As we neared the site, however, the road was blocked by law enforcement. Two Forest Service law enforcement officers, more sheriffs, and an ominous unmarked white van with lots of antennas - the FCC! They had zeroed in on the signal.
Y2WTKO kept broadcasting the whole time. They seemed to be unaware of the siege. We racked our brains to think of ways to warn them: if only we could fire off an emergency press release to Radio For Peace International! As we retreated from the darkened road block, the cops were struggling up the hill through the thick wet undergrowth, guided by the light and the sound of the generator. Bright flashlights probed the tree for information. Finally the crew in the tree took note of the activity on the ground, just as the cops were retreating! The pirates attempted to dialogue, but the cops wouldn't stay too far from their vehicles. Over the radio we heard them goad: "Why don't you stick around and talk next time, guys?" So the feds didn't want to camp out under the tree all night. I envisioned them tag-team sleeping in their broncos, the FCC geeks taking turns listening to dead air all night. What would we do, establish a ragtag witness camp by the blockade? I wanted to bushwack around the roadblock straight to the tree and make contact. Maybe we could pull off a middle-of-the-night extraction right under their piggy noses! The driver and the videographer went to get gear and reinforcements, dropping Low Dog and I at the bottom of the hill by a payphone on Highway 101. We called our contacts in Seattle. The IMC was sending the Media 4 crew to cover the story; we had hours to wait for them. We nested down with blankets and an FM radio. Y2WTKO was playing slow, mellow jazz. How could they be so damn cool under pressure? I was pissing my pants! Would the feds send climbers up, or starve them down? Would my friends get a slap on the wrist, or get slapped with class C felonies for broadcasting without a license? Would they go to prison?
Finally, late at night, Media 4 arrived. The driver was the woman who had driven us to the labor rally. She had a high-clearance pickup with no camper. The other two guys I didn't know. One turned out to be from Free Seattle Radio. They were eager to get the story, but I urged them to help us get the pirates out of the tree. Media 4 was down. After a brief circle in which we forged a hasty affinity, we piled into the truck and headed back up the mountain to face the enemy.
The enemy was nowhere to be seen. Had we taken a wrong turn? I checked and rechecked my map, and as we reached the last intersection, the station dropped carrier. Maybe the feds were all camped out on the landing. I decided to walk the rest of the way up with Low Dog, rather than have us all blunder into a government camp, vehicle and all.
Low Dog and I reached the landing. It was a miracle! Not a bronco to be seen! Nary an ominous white van with antennas. Only the forest and the rock road, and the view! The dark sparkling water of the sound, the shaken city spread far below us, quiet, peaceful. We tentatively approached the tree. It was dark. I hooted. No answer. I called out my name. Tarps rustled, then earnest hoots resounded. Contact at last! We went back for the truck and the others. We couldn't fit everything in the truck, but we got all the gear and recovered the crusty, stubbly radio pirates who had managed to keep it all going through storm and several-hour siege while the city rocked with the uprising of the masses. It was a long, cold, exhausted happy ride in the back of the truck down the 101 that night. And not a fed in sight.
Did the feds go back up the mountain early in the morning with
reinforcements, only to find the birds had flown? We'll never know. But
learned that our signal had been heard loud and clear as far south as Tacoma
and as far east as the Snoqualmie River. With only 17 watts out, those
hacked antennas must've busted out some gain! Y2WTKO broadcasted for five
during the WTO protest, from Monday afternoon until Friday night. We pulled
off and pulled out by the skin of our teeth, and lost no one and nothing. I
can't wait to do it again!