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Bootleg Youth Radio

Popular Electronics January 1972 Page 114

From the "Television Scene" column by Forest H. Belt

While you read, here's some acid rock, as might have been heard on youth radio at the time, to set the mood

Bootleg Youth Radio

Traveling through a certain city not long ago I tuned across the AM dial on my car radio. I picked up a youthful-sounding announcer saying, "This is Radio Free --town." Then some noisy switching and bumping was followed by a 20-minute run of heavy acid rock. Then there were 10 minutes of youthful ranting against some unnamed annoyances presumably caused by "the establishment."

The signal was weak, but it covered a couple square miles. There was no other station ident. I had stumbled across a recent fad--the illegal broadcasting station.

Kids set up little oscillators with a mike and broadcast around their neighborhoods. They play off-beat music for their friends, often on records some cooperating store loaned then in return for mention "on the air." All too often, they get outside the law, intentionally or not. They have a too-long antenna, high power, and a lack of technical knowledge. Any of these can lead them to interfere with legitimate broadcasters, and put the kids afoul of Federal law. Sometimes, these experimenters exploit their medium with vocal vulgarity and lewd songs and verse. These are legal violations, too. Some almost comically fill the air with pseudo-political mouthings of philosophical ideologies they don't even understand.

Not every neighborhood operation is illegal. The fine line is drawn in Part 15 of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Rules and Regulations. If "transmitter" power is no greater than 100 milliwatts (0.1 watt), and the antenna no longer than 10 feet, there's no violation of the law unless profanity is used.

But distance is limited. The tenth-watt of power can only reach a block or less. So a few youngsters who don't know the legalities (or don't care) set about widening their audience. A longer antenna usually comes first, then extra power. One such illegal station ran 100 watts on the AM band. Another fed 60 watts of FM into a whip antenna.

Neither station was in any way legal. The illegitimate operators stood to incur penalties up to $10,000 and a year in prison. One FCC engineer says these operations are only occasional, but they're easy to track down. The risk is steep for a little "in" music or the "privilege" of broadcasting obscenities to an unknown and fragmentary audience.

I've read other descriptions of bootleg radio from this time period, usually just amounting to a paragraph in a radio/TV column, but this was fairly detailed, likely because he actually heard one of the stations, and he did more research because Popular Electronics was a technical magazine.

One of the transmitters Youth Radio enthusiasts would have used is this Knight Radio Broadcaster, a popular kit in the 1960s.

Knight "Phono Oscillator", 1963

This is a heavy transmitter for your heavy rock, at least by hobbyist standards. With 120 volts on the oscillator tube, it's possible that the output could hit 1 to 2 watts. When used with several feet of wire for an antenna indoors, the range was probably a few hundred feet or less, but the trick was to add a long piece of wire and run it outside. 50 feet of wire running out to a tree would make the transmitter sing, and it could give neighborhood coverage, and a ready audience of your friends from school.

The cost of the Knight Radio Broadcaster was $12.95 in 1963 dollars, and I checked with an inflation calculator which figured that would be $101 in 2017, so if your parents weren't rich, you'd have to deliver lots of newspapers to afford to broadcast, but oh what fun for you and your friends!

By the early 1970s, transistorized transmitters were introduced to hobbyists, and the power dropped dramatically.

Science Fair (Radio Shack) transistorized broadcaster kit 1971

This is a very simplistic transmitter kit, and note the range, 20 feet. Likely it had a 100th of the power of the tube kits, or less, just a whisper compared to what a rig like the Knight could do. I've never seen a commercially offered solid state kit that could get near the 100 milliwatt allowed power level; they all used low power germanium transistors, and advertised range to maybe 40 feet.

How could you mount an effective protest within 40 feet, and what would your youth protest be about, maybe your mom cooking eggplant Parmesan that night for dinner?

I liked little hobby broadcaster kits and still do, my first being a Radio Shack model, with a red base for the tuner and circuit, and a green box loop antenna that you had to wind yourself. It was pretty slick for a kid DJ, though in hindsight I'd have liked it more if these kits came with more flair, like a card with alphabet stickers so you could put your station's call letters on it and attach it to the transmitter prominently, and something like a 'Junior Broadcast License' that you could sign and put in technical features, like your station's broadcast power and frequency.

"Some fun, hey kid?!" - Tramp to Lady in Lady and the Tramp