Pirate station takes to the airwaves

By Mike White
Register Staff Writer

NAPA - Where's Wino?

His presence can be felt throughout Napa, but don't expect to find him by scanning the phone book or prowling the streets.

His music can be heard on the radio 24 hours a day, or at least when his equipment is working, but he rarely speaks and few know his identity.

But he's becoming a greater presence as his radio station adds variety and gains popularity. At the same time, he might be exposing himself to greater risk because, as one of the nation's radio rebels, he's operating outside the law. WINO radio. at 90.5-FM. is one of hundreds of so-called 'microbroadcasting" stations in the country, tiny FM stations that put out signals of less than 30 watts. Like WINO, most stay in hiding, hoping for the day when a court affirms what they see as their constitutional rights to free speech.

Where's Wino?

There are no commercials on WINO-FM, No stops identifying the radio stations call letters, no interruption's by deejays making bad jokes.

Except for one weekly and occasional talk show, all one hears at 90.5 FM is music, alternative and obscure music, music that for the most part can't be heard on other radio stations in this area. Or maybe anywhere. One hears local bands, bands with small cult followings, even street bands.

He's getting more people involved in the radio station and is even venturing out to interview people with his new microphone. It's Napa's first pirate radio station, and the pirate knows he could face fines and lose his equipment.

The station's founder, who calls himself the Wonderful Wino, reluctantly agreed to an interview with the Register, but only on the condition that his name not be used. He did not not rule out going public in the future as his station grows.

He started the station for the simple reason that he wanted to hear good music, he said.

"I've been in this town for a long time, and everyone always complains that there's nothing to do in Napa. We decided to go ahead and do it," the Wonderful Wino said.

Where's Wino?

Almost since the day radio was invented, pirates have taken up space on the radio dial to transmit their political views or their tastes in music. Lately, technology has developed to the point where someone can put together a station for about $1,000. A regular commercial license could cost $100,000 or more.

On the other hand, advances in technology allow the Federal Communications Commission to quickiy find a pirate station when the agency decides to look for one. Its equipment can pinpoint the origin of a pirate station within seconds.

Free Radio Berkeley is the most prominent pirate station in the Bay Area. It even sells kits for people to start their own stations.

Several years ago, the Federal Communications Commission fined the station's founder, Stephen Dunifer, $20,000. But the station has been fighting the fine in court and continues to operate by constantly changing the position of its equipment and remaining underground.

In a letter to the FCC and others this month, Dunifer argues that the regulatory structure excludes all but the wealthy from having a voice.

"... Our only option is to do what has historically been done, from the tea dumping in Boston Harbor to current struggles for free expression and basic human rights," Dunifer said in his letter.

The FCC downplayed the movement's lofty pronouncements.

These people just want to skirt the law," said John R. Winston, assistant bureau chief for the compliance division. "If he wants to be a broadcaster, he should flle for a license and become a legitimate broadcaster."

When a station broadcasts in an area larger than a few blocks, it needs to obtain a license, Winston said. If he fails to do so, the operator could face a fine of up to $11,000 and his equipment could be confiscated. In addition, repeat offenders are subiect to fines of up to $100,000 and one year in jail.

Where's Wino?

Some people don't want to know where he is or who he is, just as long as he keeps playing music. Fans are concerned that if authorities know his identity, they will shut him down.

The station, which has been on the air since May, has developed a loyal following among fans who love the station's off beat music.

"It's my favorite radio station," said Rex Stults, membership coordinator for the Napa Chamber of Commerce. He politely wished a reporter bad luck in learning the Wonderful Wino's identity.

He enjoys the station's mix of obscure music, which reminds him of the college radio station he worked for in Washington.

Managers at KVYN-FM/KVON-AM, the only other station based in Napa City, aren't exactly fans of the radio station, but they aren't making a big issue of it either.

Mike Martindale, chief engineer for KVYN/KVON, talked to the Federal Communications Commission about the pirate station, but the feds don't seem interested, he said. And he doesn't plan to pursue the case.

"As long as he does not interfere with us or start selling commercials, I guess there is nothing we could do," he said.

He speculated that the operator of the station had a broadcasting background because of the station's apparently good equipment. The signal reaches from about Salvador Boulevard to the southern crossing, he said.

He said he didn't know the operator's identity.

Where's Wino?

The Register found out. It's not Napa's best-kept secret.

There's Iittle one can say about the man without giving away his identity. It's safe to say that he's not old, but not young, that he shaves on some days and not on others, and that he's a man guided by his own free wlll.

He at first denied it. "What radio station?" he responded when a reporter asked about his clandestine operation.

He wants to remain anonymous because he doesn't want to be shut down. He is as quiet as his station is loud, and he is deeply concerned about publicity.

After much hemming and hawing, he agreed to talk."How about we do it on the radio?" he asked.

The interview aired live sometime between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Monday.

He wanted to try out his new microphone.

The "station" is located on an upper floor of a building with more than one level. A computer is hooked up to a stereo. That's about it for the station. Via his computer, he can program the stereo to play music for as long as five days without repeating.

The stereo is hooked up to a transmitter near the roof, which in turn is connected to an antenna. He said he has friends in the business, that he never worked for a radio station, and that he's not sure how much he spent, but he doesn't really want to know.

He researched the plan for a year. One of the things he tried to do was to obtain good equipment so that he wouldn't interfere with other stations. He wanted to fit into the "hole" at 90.5 without veering in other directions.

He found it mildly difficult to set up the station because while there are plenty of small operators out there, "nobody knows about it" when asked. "It's like a secret society," he said.

He wanted to start the station because he wanted others to hear the music he loves. He also likes to promote art events.

The way he sees it, he's simply sharing his music with anyone who cares to Iisten. He doesn't know how many people listen or who they are.

"I don't think I need to know," he said. "I'm afraid I might alter my programming to suit my listener."

But he is doing more now than just playing music from such bands as Idiot Flesh, M.I.R.V. and Poop Deck Pappy. His friends are starting various programs such as a talk show and a segment for pop music. He has a vision of the station being a miniature version of a public broadcasting station.

He carried his new microphone to Downtown Joe's last Friday and interviewed people on the air. He said he's not sure if he wlll ever do that again because of the risk. "That was crazy." he said.

He pledged that he will never run commercials and, unlike other tiny stations, he would avoid politics. For this, he hopes authorities and other stations will let him be. He thinks the law should make allowances for small stations that only project their signal for several miles in each direction.

"I would hope that if the populace feels it's a good thing there would be no reason to stop it," he said.

Still, he thinks a few support letters sent his way might help (WINO-FM, 1325 Imola Ave. Suite 528, 94559. or e-mail at support@wino.com).

"I don't think it would be a bad thing for me to have a stack of supportive letters." he said.

Still, where's Wino?, one might ask.

He is living on the airwaves in Napa City.

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