The FCC Unmasked          

There were always rumors, here are the facts.   



In the wild and crazy 1970's, and into the early 80's, the period of time when I had the most fun that I could on CB radio, one of those thorn-in-the-backside perpetual issues which always seemed to be lurking in the background, were those ever-present rumors of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) being "in town".  To someone running 100% legal, this would not be a problem.  But since most of my friends and I bent or outright broke many of the FCC's rules for the Citizen's Band Radio Service on a fairly regular basis, those rumors of the FCC's presence caused us more than a little gastro-intestinal discomfort.  Starting back as far as I can remember in my earliest days on the radio, this perpetual rumor would pop up seemingly out of nowhere, and would spread around the channels like wildfire. The information always seemed to originate from some unnamed friend of a friend, who knew someone who had a contact in the government who "knew about these things".  The rumor would be revealed on one channel, and the ensuing discussion of it would be invariably overheard and subsequently spread around to the rest of the local channels post haste.  By the time the rumor had been repeated several times, as it leapfrogged from channel to channel, any potential "facts" accompanying it would have been long gone, or distorted well beyond what was originally conveyed.  But even though those early rumors of "The Candyman" being in town turned out to be false alarms, each time the next rumor would surface (and they always did), the locals did not want to risk the possibility that the rumor was really true this time, so everyone went into their well-rehearsed radio equivalent of a lockdown.  The amplifiers would be turned off, disconnected,  and hidden away someplace safe.  Jaunts to the freeband or those special "escape" channels would be curtailed, and some would even go as far as to start using their FCC assigned call letters.  It was actually comical to witness the way some of the most prolific radio scofflaws would act when they thought that they were being monitored.  In their haste to clean up their acts, most of them never even considered that had the FCC actually been there, by the time these people found out about it and got their respective houses in order, that it was most likely already too late. 

Neither my friends nor I were so paranoid that we would go so far as to start using our call letters.  We were aware enough to know that since we did knowingly break some of the rules on a regular basis,  we didn't want to provide the feds with any clues to identify who we were, which using our call signs definitely would.  Our attitudes were, if the FCC wanted us badly enough (and we figured that they didn't), we would make them work for it.  The other downside was that once you used those call letters, then others could write them down and use them against you at a later time.  It was the gamble we took, and history will show that it was a good gamble since, to the best of my knowledge, no one that I knew personally, or knew of directly, had ever been visited by the FCC or had been fined by the all-mighty organization in the 1970's.  That changed in the early 80's when the FCC really did show up in our general area and proceeded to bring the heavy hand of governmental redress to bear on some really malicious malcontents and a broader group of associates who were playing on frequencies which they had no business being on. 

It started with a local idiot by the name of Tim Kerper, who went by the handles of "Gunslinger" and "Starship Enterprise".  Tim was a textbook sociopathic agitator, whose warped idea of fun on the radio, was to spend it berating, disrupting, and jamming the interactions of others.  He had few friends, and usually jumped around from channel to channel looking for someone to provoke a fight with.  The CB band was never short on insecure, or highly strung people, so Tim never had to look far to find someone to spar with.  As time went on, Tim's radio stable grew to include a modified 40 channel Courier Centurion  which could go out of band, as well as an amplifier which he used to shut down the locals in his area.  Somehow, Tim managed to align or associate himself with a group of guys who were also somewhat on the blacklist of some of the more conventional adult groups.  I guess the old concept of "The enemy of my enemy, is my friend" applied here, as these guys and Tim seemed to have some common adversaries, which allowed this loose alliance to form.  With Tim's lead, these guys started getting more belligerent and abrasive.  At one point these guys decided to make channel 19 their home channel so they could talk amongst themselves (They were all fairly close to each other), while simultaneously agitating the truckers and other transient drivers.  The level of vulgarity and obscenity continued to rise and threats of physical violence were made toward anyone who tried taking the group to task.

Meanwhile, another loose associate of the group, and someone that I also knew fairly well,  by the handle of Grasshopper, was an aspiring technician.  He started out in radio in much the same way as I did, by experimenting with his radio to see what he could get it to do.  Well he didn't limit his experimenting to just his CB.  He also started playing around with his programmable police scanner.  Anyone who's familiar with receivers will tell you that every super heterodyne receiver will have a local oscillator which determines the received frequency. That oscillator is usually offset by the I.F frequency either above or below it.  In a typical police scanner, that I.F. is 10.700 Mhz. The local oscillator is designed not to leak R.F. radiation outside of the receiver per FCC Part 15 regulations.  But if you deliberately attach an antenna lead to it, it can radiate with a fairly decent level of signal, enough to carry for a mile or 2, and that is exactly what Grasshopper did.  He attached an antenna to his scanner's local oscillator.  He also added a microphone to the scanner's PLL VCO to create FM modulation. Well, when you have a programmable VHF oscillator, it didn't take him long to find the input of his local police department's repeater.  Supposedly, he used his modified scanner contraption to start interfering with them.  I did not witness any of these transmissions myself, so I do not know if he was actually jamming or what he might have been doing there.  But evidently he (or somebody) was causing enough interference, that the police thought it was enough of a problem for the FCC to be called in.  At least that's the story I was told by someone from within the "inner circle".  

Now back to Tim and his group of radio thugs......

As mentioned before, Tim had taken his agitation show to Channel 19, and the seriousness of his disruption had also prompted numerous complaints to the FCC. The combination of these complaints along with the interference complaints from the police was a "perfect storm" or sorts and was enough of a sore spot to get the FCC to leave their cushy offices and take a road trip out to the Lansdale/Ambler area of Pa..  I don't know if the FCC suspected that these two interference complaints were at all connected or not, nor do I know how long they were in the area monitoring before they swooped in (In all likelihood, my friends and I could have been monitored by the Feds as well, as we were well in range of this area). But when the FCC swooped in, they were all business.  They came, along with their U.S. Marshall escorts, and visited all of the guys on the hit list.  Equipment was confiscated, and fines were levied.  The bust was fairly high profile to the point that it earned a spot on the local evening news. That was when I first became aware that anything had happened.  Not surprisingly,  the local CB channels were abuzz with chatter about it, including some inflated claims and additional rumors of even more busts. Tim was conspicuously absent from the channels right after the FCC's visit, and as the days went on, more pieces of the puzzle started falling into place. I heard all sorts of stories from people close to those targeted, including one where it was alleged that Grasshopper agreed to help the FCC bust the other guys in return for leniency. I can't verify if that story is true though (and Grasshopper has since denied that as well).  I was told that Tim's amplifier and other radio gear was taken, along with modified equipment from a few of the other guys.  All of them were fined various amounts, although I don't think any of those fines exceeded $1000. Tim, the leader of the gang, cried poor and had his fine reduced to somewhere around $350.  A month or two later, he was back on the air again, and just as belligerent as before.  But without his large amplifier, his influence was considerably less.  Some of the other guys eventually got back on as well, but kept a much lower profile afterward.  A couple even became hams and are semi-active today.

Update: I ran across Grasshopper on one of the ham bands, and we got to talking about the old CB days, and invariably, about his brush with the FCC.  He corrected my earlier notion that he was fined by the FCC for jamming the Lansdale police repeater.  He says that it wasn't the police repeater interference which brought the FCC to his house, it was his homemade pirate AM broadcast band transmitter, which he received a fine for.

I would be remiss if I didn't include my own personal brush with the FCC.  It was nothing so spectacular or newsworthy as a high profile bust for illegal operation.  Rather, it was a simple inquiry notice sent in response to a TVI complaint received from a neighbor (remember when the FCC actually acted on those?). This story had its roots in the early days of my neighborhood CB activity.  Back during the period of time when I was transitioning from a 1 Watt Walkie-Talkie to a full 23 channel rig, my directly across the street neighbor, who was about 20 years older than my teenaged friends and me, got interested in CB after seeing us all running around with our walkie-talkies.  He went out and bought a Robyn 23 channel mobile which he put in his car.  He also bought a power supply and a base antenna so he could operate the mobile radio from inside the house.  His interest in radio expanded when he switched from being a bus driver to a truck driver, and he joined the ranks of the thousands of other professional drivers on the road, with their CB's on channel 10, and then later 19.  But the long hours driving a truck eventually wore on him and he went back to bus driving.  He eventually started losing interest in running CB at home and, when he no longer wanted to run a base station, he sold me his base power supply.  At that point, his CB'ing became strictly mobile.  During this time, he pretty much understood and accepted that CB's would cause occasional interference to TV's and table radios.  Occasionally, when I was fired up with the amp running, he would see a few lines in his bedroom TV when I was transmitting, and he used to joke with me that he knew the skip must have been running that night, or there was some big fight going on, since he knew what went on on the local channels. Those small, wavy lines in his TV were pretty much the extent of my interference, and he was pretty cool with the whole deal until..........  

TV's, like any other consumer device, eventually break and his was no exception.  Rather than pay a sizable bill to repair his old TV, he decided to spend a little more and buy a new one. The new one was a bit fancier, with more bells and whistles and a more vivid color picture.  But unfortunately, it wasn't designed with R.F. immunity in mind and he didn't have it home more than one night before he was disturbed by TVI from me.  This time, it was not the little herringbone lines like before, but the full high fidelity sound of my voice blasting from his speakers. This was not something he could easily ignore, and it wasn't long before my neighbor was knocking on my door demanding to know what I was doing.  He accused me of getting a bigger "linear", or otherwise hopping up my radio setup more.  When I told him I wasn't even running the amp, and nothing else had changed with my setup, he thought I was lying to him, based solely on the severity of his newfound interference.  He told me about being able to hear me over the speakers, and almost matter-of-factly passed along the fact that it was a new TV.  I told him that since the only thing which had changed was his TV,  that the new TV was likely the reason why he was now hearing me.  I suggested he try a high pass filter.  Like most technically challenged consumers, he didn't want to accept that it was his TV which had the problem, and he didn't like the idea that he should have to spend more money to not have to hear me.  So with that, his whole attitude began to change.  He felt that he shouldn't have to do anything, since it was me who was "causing" the interference.  I tried to explain how TVI worked, and I told him that if the TV was not properly rejecting my signal, there was nothing else I could do on my end, other than not transmitting at all, which was a solution I was not even going to contemplate.  Just for kicks and grins, I put a low pass filter in line, just to show him I was trying.  But it made no difference (which didn't surprise me).  And thus our casual friendship dissolved.  He no longer had a kind word to say, and he even went as far as to acquire a 40 channel walkie-talkie so he could throw dead carriers to block my receive while I was talking.  I guess he felt that if he couldn't enjoy interference-free TV, that I wouldn't enjoy interference-free CB either.  Fortunately, I could escape to SSB or an out-of-band channel, where he couldn't follow me, when I wanted to talk to anyone farther than a 1/2 mile away.  But it was an awkward situation, and something I hoped would not last.

This situation continued for some time until one day, I received an official looking letter from the FCC.  Having recently passed my technician ham test, I initially assumed this letter was related to that.  Upon opening the letter, I soon found out that I was wrong, and instead was staring at an official FCC correspondence.  What the letter stated was simple. They (the FCC) had received a complaint regarding TVI from one of my neighbors (Gee, I wonder which one?), and requested that I respond with my station callsign (If any).  I knew full well that the TVI issues were the result of my CB operations, and not my measly, budding 2 meter station,  But I wisely sent my ham callsign back to the FCC.  Once the FCC realized that I was a ham, and not just another potentially clueless CB'er, they softened in their language, and in their next notice, they advised me that my case had been referred to a local volunteer TVI investigation group, consisting of area hams who specialized in identifying and reducing R.F. interference, and advised that this group would be contacting me for further information relating to the problem.  Well, as it turned out, the "TVI committee" never contacted me, and the whole matter pretty much fell through the cracks.  I was glad too, as the thought of having these guys poking around my station would have meant that I would've had to clean house and remove any amps or other potentially illegal devices.  Fortunately, I never heard from the FCC again, so the problem became moot.  As for my neighbor, he had shortly thereafter became another statistical victim of a divorce, his house was sold, and he moved away.  So the problem pretty much solved itself.

So as I look back in retrospect, it would seem that the shadowy, sinister, and somewhat mysterious reputation of the FCC and its paranoia-infused crusade to stamp out all illegal CB activity was grossly overstated,  at least in my area.  Other, more populated, metropolitan areas may have had a greater incidence of a regular FCC presence.  But not here.  But even that fact never stopped people from retelling those fantastic sounding stories again and again.  It was all part of the lore fostered by the CB experience in the 1970's.