Radio Free America: A "Red, Right and Blue" Political Pirate
by Don Jensen
The thin wisp that curled up from the charring deck was symbolic. The Rev. Dr. Carl McIntire's plans for Radio Free America were going up in smoke.
Not surprising, though, since from the start the 67-year-old preacher had been flying on a wing and a prayer.
The wing, politically, was far right; the prayer, fundamentalist Presbyterian.
The former had McIntire in hot water with the federal government. The latter, backed by the contributions of the radio evangelist's devoted followers, made it possible to equip a clandestine shipboard station to operate from international waters off the New Jersey coast.
To the controversial minister, Radio Free America was a means to end federal regulation of broadcasting by the FCC, which had pulled his AM and FM station I license after an avalanche of complaints that he'd violated broadcasting's "fairness doctrine."
Though McIntire was long on plans and hopes, the station's life was short. Ignoring a couple of earlier and brief equipment tests, Radio Free America went on the air for the first time-and last-time on Sept. 19, 1974.
Everything had moved too fast. There were still bugs in the broadcasting setup. RF energy from the 10,000 watt AM transmitter during tests had caused a transistorized console to virtually explode in flames.
And once broadcasting began, the transmission feed line to the ship's end-fed "V" antenna began arcing. At the point where the line passed through a hole in the deck, the oak began to smoulder and char. Hurriedly, a station engineer "throttled back" the transmitter power to keep from setting the wooden vessel on fire.
Two days later. as the repaired Radio Free America was preparing to return to the air, came the crusher. A federal judge issued an injunction ordering the seagoing station not to resume broadcasting.
McIntire, with the stubborn determination of his Scots forefathers, had been willing to do battle with the Federal Communications Commission over what fie saw as his constitutional right to free speech. But his respect for the Constitution would not let him directly defy the nation's legal system. He took his case to court instead.
But it had been another court decision nearly four months earlier- Brandywine Main Line Radio vs. the FCC-that started the whole business in the first place.
On May 29, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not upset an FCC decision denying renewal of the broadcasting license of WXUR AM and FM, a set of Pennsylvania stations operated by McIntire's Faith Theological Seminary.
A longtime conservative gadfly, McIntire had been defrocked by mainstream Presbyterians as far back as 1935, for "causing dissension" in the church with his fiery attacks on liberal "modernism,"
The preacher had set out on his own, his Bible Presbyterian Church in Collingswood, NJ, becoming the nucleus of a splinter denomination that grew to include congregations across America.
In 1957, the self-styled No. I anti-communist began a daily series of radio broadcasts, the "Twentieth Century Reformation Hour," on which the Rev. McIntire expounded a volatile mixture of fundamentalism and hawkish patriotism, while denouncing nearly every other "ism" in sight, from Catholicism and ecumenism to socialism and communism. The programs were carried by more than 600 stations nationally.
Unable to find a station willing to carry the broadcast in his own theological backyard, in 1965, he acquired his own, WXUR in the Philadelphia suburb of Media. According to FCC records, almost immediately the station began to broadcast not only McIntire's "Twentieth Century Reformation Hour," but also a series of ultra right wing programs by the Rev. Billy James Hargis, Dan Smoot, Kent Courtney and multi-millionaire H.L. Hunt, and others.
So when WXUR's broadcasting license came up for renewal, no less than 19 different organizations petitioned against it, calling the station's programming inflarnmatory, racist, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and "weighted-on the side of extreme right-wing radicalism."
After long months of hearing, then court appeals, the FCC ordered WXUR shut down. It's license, in the end, was revoked for misrepresentation of programming plans in the original application. The final blow came when the federal Supreme Court refused to intervene to save the station.
And so at exactly midnight, July 6, with a Titanic-like playing of "Nearer My God To Thee," WXUR slipped beneath the radio waves and vanished forever.
Now it was necessary for McIntire to move fast. Across the nation, scores of stations which had aired his taped "Twentieth Century" program were dropping the show. 11 had become an uncomfortably hot potato. Station spokesmen told McIntire, he said, that they were afraid that their broadcasting licenses, like WXUR's, could be revoked if they continued to air the preacher's programs.
The loss of outlets was serious. He could lose those faithful listeners who had been contributing $30 million a year into the fundamentalist ministry.
But McIntire had a plan, which he'd revealed a month earlier, just after the Supreme Court had dealt the death blow to WXUR.
"We're considering moving the equipment of radio station WXUR to a ship off Cape May beyond the three-mile limit," he had announced. "We are determined that our views are entitled to be heard in this area."
The most important part of the coverage area was, of course, the District of Columbia, a hundred miles away or so, where Congress was still in session that summer. For McIntire needed Radio Free America on the air and audible to nag the lawmakers into intervening on behalf of his cause.
Having announced his pirate radio plans, the preacher began a game of cat and mouse with the feds. When he lined up a suitable ship for his station, a 160-foot drydocked freighter in Trinidad, the U.S. State Department promptly applied pressure and the Trinidadian government disallowed the sale. Another deal elsewhere was similarly scuttled.
Finally, a McIntire supporter in Florida secretly bought for $40,000 the WWII-vintage, wooden-hulled ex-minesweeper, "Oceanic." The buyer then transferred the 300-ton ship once used by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau to McIntire's ministry.
Docked at the evangelist's Florida conference facility, the Reformation Freedom Center at Cape Canaveral, the 138-foot vessel was rechristened the "Columbus" and outfitted with a $6,000 used 10 kW RCA AM transmitter.
McIntire's volunteer broadcasting engineers-who prefer to remain anonymous even today for fear of jeopardizing their FCC-issued licenseswere stunned to find a wooden ship, not a steel-bottomed vessel, had been chosen for Radio Free America. Without a ground-to water, in this casehow would the transmitter's signal be radiated efficiently? Trying to make the best of it, they installed two thick copper straps under the wooden hull to ground the ship.
Clandestine radio was nothing new to one of the engineers. Back in 1967, "John Jones", while a technician for a fully legit station in the New York area, had been assigned to a remote taping session. Record controversial congressman, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell at a rally at his Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, he was told. He did, but later that night at home, after a few beers, "Jones" fired up his ham radio transmitter on 3,800 kHz and replayed parts of Powell's speech. Playfully, he periodically banged away on an improvised gong-a kitchen pot-with a wooden spoon and identified his station as "Radio Free Harlem."
He discovered the next day, to his horror, that the FCC had monitored his impromptu broadcast and taken it in deadly earnest, believing his prank to have been a militant clandestine station, And, he learned later, monitors had come dangerously closeright to his block-to pinpointing the illegal broadcast before he had tired of the play and shut down Radio Free Harlem.
That close call didn't deter him from helping McIntire with his station, but he kept a particularly low profile.
"I am going into Radio Free America to back my government down, and if need be, I'll be happy to go to jail for freedom from tyranny," the florid, perspiring minister announced to a band of followers and the press on the wide Victorian porch of his grand old Christian Admiral Hotel at Cape May.
In a rented. fishing boat, appropriately named, the "Wild Goose," McIntire and his entourage set out for the offshore station and its inaugural broadcast.
Then it was discovered that there were nine persons over the legal limit on board and the "Wild Goose" had to return to the dock, where a sweating, perplexed McIntire used his bullhorn to persuade some of his followers to get off.
To make sure that the radio ship was not molested by evil forces, the preacher announced that it had a cache of rifles and ammunition aboard to prevent "the Russians or anybody else trying to tinker with our broadcasting."
Back on the Christian Admiral's pillared porch, those left behind pointed out to sea where, not far from the "Columbus," several fishing tugs could be seen. Soviet spy trawlers, the faithful muttered worriedly!
But trouble, that day, came not from Commie hoards, but rather from the 22-year-old captain of the chartered boat. He'd agreed merely to take McIntire's group out to the "Columbus." But would not let them board the radio ship. Custom regulations, he announced, barred him discharging passengers on the high seas!
"No way, man!," the young skipper, Ronald Lasky told McIntire. "You may be a reverend, but you don't know anything about boats and marine law. I'm a captain and I don't know anything about religion, but I know about boats and ship!"
That ended broadcasting plans for the day. After circling the radio ship a few times, the "Wild Goose" chase ended and the disappointed group returned to shore.
It was just as well, since Radio Free America still was without an antenna and the control room equipment was acting up.
Originally, the station's frequency was to have been 692 kHz, a European channel, but only 2 kHz away from the old WXUR slot. This made sense to the non-technical McIntire. It was close enough to pick up old listeners but at the same he was forswearing FCC authority to regulate his channel.
His engineers worried, however, that the offset frequency was uncomfortably close to a Canadian medium wave outlet, CFB, Montreal, on 690 kHz. Its use would cause an international -howl, both audio and diplomatic.
So Radio Free America's three-man technical staff set out on a secretive, early morning mission to persuade the stubborn preacher that a different frequency was essential. At about 2 a.m., they arrived at his unpretentious home to find, not surprisingly, the McIntire household asleep. Flashing the headlights on the bedroom window failed to rouse the minister, so finally, throwing caution to the wind, the desperate engineers, leaned on the auto horn! After some minutes they succeeded in waking McIntire and half of southern New Jersey!
He came, sleepily to the door, in nightclothes and slippers, but ever mindful of his dignity, with a suit coat over his pj's.
At the predawn conference, the group settled on 1160 kHz as the primary frequency, with 1608 kHz as a backup.
1160 kHz, a clear channel, supposedly with minimal interference on the eastern seaboard after WJJD, a Chicago daytimeonly station signed off. After that, KSL, a Salt Lake City broadcaster, was the only cochannel user.
The technicians, however, really preferred 1608 kHz, which, being outside the regular AM band, promised to be free of interference. A study had shown about 80 percent of all radios Were able to tune this slightly out-of-band channel.
A brief open carrier transmitter test on Sept. 13 burned up the solid state console board. It was replaced with an old tube-type unit and more tests were conducted on Sept. 16. Everything worked, more or less.
Radio Free America was ready to broadcast.
About midday, Sept. 19, wearing an admiral's cap, the Rev. Dr. Carl McIntire stepped out of the cabin of the radio ship into the bright sunlight. Because of some uncertainty as to whether the high seas began at the three-mile or 12mile mark, he'd instructed the skipper to move the "Columbus" another nine miles off shore.
On the forecastle of the radio ship he knelt in prayer.
"Our Father, may the transmitter be operating. And God, give us WXUR back!"'
12:23 p.m.-McIntire was back in the radio cabin, before a microphone.
"This is Radio Free America," he proclaimed! "The silence of the sea is broken at 1160 on the AM dial!"
The radio preacher was in his element now. As he put it later, he "got our spiritual emphasis in, and our freedom emphasis." He urged listeners to send money to support the new station, rejecting the term "pirate" which the press had hung on Radio Free America.
"We are not lawbreakers!" McIntire insisted.
Then he left the studio and stepped out on deck for a bit of ocean air, while pinkrobed Bishop V.J. Stephens of Kerala, India, took over the mike.
Knifing through the blue Atlantic swells came a sleek Coast Guard cutter from the Cape May station. It hovered menacingly near the radio ship. The FCC later said it had an agent aboard and it was necessary to approach closely "to provide easy monitoring" of the station.
Medium wave DX'ers as far away as Cape Cod weren't having trouble hearing the broadcasts, however. And reception in Washington, D.C., where McIntire wanted so much to be heard, was not bad, according to reports.
But then the antenna feedline began its arcing. The engineers, fearing it might actually ignite the ship's decking, reduced the transmitter's power. The station's coverge area shrank accordingly. By 9 p.m. the signal was very weak. And at 10: 14 p.m., Radio Free America left the air.
The Rev. McIntire was pleased with the day's efforts.
"We did it! It's going! It's working," he said. "The Lord is giving us the platform we wanted!"
Not so happy though was Seymour Abramson, vice president of station WHLW in nearby Lakewood, NJ. The seagoing broadcaster was interfering with his station on 1170 kHz, he complained in telegrams to McIntire and the FCC.
McIntire was sympathetic, responding, "There is no dearth of wavelengths. We do not want to interfere with any other station. " Radio Free America would move to 1608 kHz, he said. "That's way up at the top of the band. There's nobody up there." He promised to have his station back on the air the following week.
The following day, however, the U.S. Justice Department, at the request of the FCC, went to federal court in Camden, NJ, to obtain a temporary injunction from Judge Mitchell H. Cohen, ordering McIntire's radio to stay off.
McIntire huffed and puffed, but he did not violate the court order. He threatened to subpoena Central Intelligence Agency officials to prove that the spy agency also used the high seas for unlicensed broadcasts elsewhere in the world. And he announced that he would acquire a new radio ship, under a foreign flag, claiming then the FCC could not legally touch him.
But in the end he did neither and Cohen, on Oct. 26, refused to lift the temporary restraining order. On Feb. 22 of the following year, the federal judge made permanent the injunction barring broadcasts by the offshore Radio Free America. A spokesman for McIntire said the decision would be appealed.
That was just about it for Radio Free America. But McIntire wasn't quite finished. On the first Saturday of April, 1974, he staged a First Amendment March down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue to protest what he called censorship of radio and TV stations by the Federal Communications Commission.
But McIntire had gained allies in Congress, one of the most prominent of whom, North Carolina's Sen. Sam Ervin, called for the abolishment of what he called the "outmoded" FCC fairness doctrine. He noted there were over 7,300 U.S. stations on the air. The Fairness Rule, valid when there were few broadcasters on the air, was no longer needed to ensure the airing of a diversity of viewpoints, Ervin said.
But it wasn't until the election of President Ronald Reagan that things began changing. The broadcast industry began pushing harder for deregulation. New FCC commissioners looked at the fairness doctrine and urged Congress, unsuccessfully, to repeal it, saying it "chills First Amendment speech" rather than serving the public interest.
In 1986, a federal appellate court held that the longstanding rule wasn't even a statutory requirement. And, last year, after the president 'Vetoed a measure that would have written it into law, the FCC simply abolished the fairness doctrine.
Some in Congress claim the issue isn't dead, but for now, at least, McIntire's view prevails.
The conservative minister, now in his early 80s, is healthy and active, preaching regularly at the Bible Presbyterian Church in Collingswood, where he lives quietly. And he still tapes his radio broadcasts, though for a presumably smaller audience than in past years.
McIntire never got his WXUR license back. And the original Radio Free America-after its single high seas broadcastnever returned to the air, although on ultraconservative radio network (via satellite distribution) has recently gone on the air to carry on the name of Radio Free America.