For the past three and a half years, the Portland Radio Authority did something improbable. The illegal 100-watt station had managed to operate every day, broadcasting an eclectic array of music across the city, from Nob Hill to Mount Tabor.
Last Wednesday, that run ended with a knock on the door of the station's downtown studio. Inside, DJ El Fudge was finishing his two-hour set. Outside waited two men who identified themselves as agents of the Federal Communications Commission, demanding to be let inside.
"I told him to shut everything down and to not let them in unless they had a warrant," says 29-year-old PRA program manager Brian Riehle, who spoke to El Fudge via cell phone while the agents waited. "When the agents threatened to fine him $7,000 as an individual, he freaked out and let them in."
The agents photographed the equipment and walked out, leaving behind only a business card and the threat of a $10,000 fine. The visit from the FCC was unfortunate for the station and its roster of 75 local DJs. But it was hardly unexpected.
"I'm surprised we got away with it for as long as we did," says Gus Elg, Riehle's 26-year-old partner in PRA.
As a pirate radio station, PRA, which broadcast illegally at 96.7 and streamed legally over the Web at praradio.com, had kept a relatively high profile, hosting a number of concerts at local clubs. The Portland press took notice: All the city's major publications have written about PRA. Despite all this publicity, the station went off the air only once, for a week last year, when it learned the FCC was downtown hunting for the source of the station's signal. The government agency, they believed, had been tipped off by an Oregonian article written by Margie Boulé that offhandedly mentioned the station frequency. A week later, when the heat was off, they were back in business.
So when another Oregonian writer, freelancer Lee Williams, came calling to write about PRA last month, Riehle says he was willing to talk if the story focused on PRA's year-old Web radio station and would not mention the illegal FM broadcast. Despite the fact that the radio's illegal status is both a valid and more compelling news story, Williams agreed.
But when the story appeared in the O's Feb. 24 A&E section, it not only mentioned the FM signal but focused on the station's illegal activities, quoting Riehle as saying, "We've made it very easy for the FCC to say stop.... And when they do, we will." The article also included a paraphrased quote from Riehle stating that a broadcast license was "not expensive," making it appear that PRA simply chose not to obtain one. Riehle told WW that he was misquoted. Technically, licenses are cheap—if you can find one to buy, he says, adding that, in Portland, all frequencies are claimed.
Elg says that those quotes "read like we were waving the station in the FCC's face."
Williams agrees that a deal was struck with PRA, but says the terms had changed."Brian originally said, 'Don't put in the FM broadcast 96.7,'" Williams told Riff City. "That was one of the ground rules.... Later he asked me, 'What's your take on this gonna be?' and I said I was gonna mention 96.7, and he said go ahead."
It's impossible to say whose story is right, or whether that article tipped the FCC off, or even if the visit from the feds will be followed by stiff penalties. But one thing is certain.
"Everything is up in the air," says Elg. "But PRA is definitely off the air."
After a couple of weeks' break, PRA will continue as an online station. Go to www.praradio.com for updated information.