This fast-paced documentary is ostensibly about radio piracy, but by the end it spirals into a blunt indictment of several ways the American society and government are falling apart.
The film begins with a short history of radio, of media monopolies, and of the rise of radio “pirates” (or people who set up small, low-wattage radio stations for personal use). We then meet DJ Him and DJ Her, the Seattle-based hosts the documentary, who became interested in radio around 1996. Around the same time, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was cracking down on unlicensed radio stations, shutting down people who felt they had the right to use public airwaves without a license. The stance of these “pirates” is that the airwaves are owned by no one, that licensing them is unconstitutional, and that lots of other devices that use radio waves (such as CB radios, Wi-Fi, garage door openers, and even deep-space communication) do not require licenses.
Although dissent is among the most American of activities, there is a line between protesting the rules and breaking them. The radio pirates have a self-absorbed disregard for the law, but then they complain when they are punished. Although it is easy to sympathize with their cause, one can’t feel too sorry for them when they are shut down by the authorities. Also, the thing that struck me about most of the footage of the radio pirates in action is that for the most part, none of them seem to be contributing anything of value to our larger culture. They are playing records and babbling about things that have little interest to people other than themselves. This freedom of expression is crucial to the foundations of American law and society, but I think these people can find other ways to express themselves that does not involve breaking laws.
The Seattle pirates, and the attention they drew to the right for common citizens to the use airwaves, did influence the FCC to relax the rules. However, these pirates, in their narcissistic desire to broadcast nonsense to the people of Seattle, Tucson, Iowa City, and elsewhere, do not consider the possible side-effects of their broadcasts. For example, their stations can interfere with airplane communication systems, if the stations are set up near an airport. This actually happened in Puerto Rico, according to an FCC representative interviewed by DJ Him, who immediately dismissed the claim when he couldn’t find paperwork supporting the FCC rep’s claims. I wasn’t convinced that DJ Him looked as hard for evidence that might put holes in his perspective as he did for information that supports his point of view.
Of course, all of this activity, which took place in the late in the 1990s, is mooted by the rise of modern internet radio in the past few years. This documentary would therefore be in danger of obsolescence, if it did not aspire to more than whining about the plight of a few troublemakers in Seattle. As the show progresses, it focuses more on discussions of international media consolidation and the flagrant suspension of constitutional rights for Americans in the 2000s; the Seattle radio pirates are simply a way of leading in to a discussion of much, much larger and far more vital issues.
In one of the more substantial chunks of the film, DJ Him and DJ Her are involved in a joint effort to broadcast the protests during the Seattle WTO convention. During the Seattle debacle, the local police suspended federal law (federal law always supersedes local authority; every school child should be aware of that). Meanwhile, the national media put an inaccurate spin on the event, lumping the thousands of peaceful protesters in with a few notable vandals. The doc goes on to use the struggle of the radio pirates to paint a larger portrait of the extremely poor and flagrantly illegal and unconstitutional behavior exhibited – and clearly captured on video – by Seattle police, plus corruption within the U.S. Senate, the loss of liberty that Americans face in the new century, and the hijacking of the white house by George W. Bush. DJ Him has obviously been diligent about shooting video of most of the major events that took place within his subculture for the better part of a decade, and he is able to back up most of his claims convincingly.
Although the actions of the radio pirates are questionable to begin with, the government’s enforcement of the pirate’s actions is taking place within a terrifying distortion of the system envisioned by our founding fathers. The erosion of the rights that made this country great is something that everyone, no matter which end of the spectrum one’s politics land on, needs to be aware of. This documentary does a fine job of showing that, as well as illustrating that this problem is not only limited to this small group of people. Although snappy in tone, and often funny, there is also a lot of sobering material here, and a few things that might make a person mad, if they care at all about their nation’s fate.