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Obscure FCC Monitoring Stations Eavesdrop on World

August 2, 1987 GMT

ALLEGAN, Mich. (AP) _ When radio pirates began broadcasting rock ‘n’ roll from a ship off the East Coast, it wasn’t the Coast Guard but an obscure government monitoring station hundreds of miles away that stopped the music.

The Federal Communications Commission intercepted the pirate radio signal with instruments stored in a building that looks more like a farmhouse in this rural, southwest Michigan town than a center for global eavesdropping.

The rural outpost is one of 13 monitoring stations nationwide where the FCC keeps its ears to the airwaves.

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″We monitor the world,″ says FCC engineer Mike Rhine, one of the station’s 13 technicians and engineers.

The stations are equipped to check compliance with FCC rules, scanning radio, television, short-wave, microwave and citizens’ band frequencies.

The outposts respond to complaints of interference from private citizens, law enforcement officials, pilots, and marine radio operators, said Melvyn Hyman, engineer in charge at the Allegan station.

Such complaints could range from a boater’s monopoly of an emergency marine channel to aircraft interfering with somebody’s television signal.

Because of the huge numbers of frequencies and transmissions, the FCC rarely finds violators without first receiving a complaint, Hyman said.

But on the evening of July 23, FCC staffers in Allegan were randomly checking signals when voices turned up on a frequency reserved for teletype transmissions.

″We didn’t know who it was, what it was, where it was or what it was doing there,″ Hyman said. ″We took a bearing, asked the other stations to take a bearing and eventually pinpointed it″ to a ship anchored off Long Island.

The signal originated from a group of rock ‘n’ roll aficionados who outfitted a former fishing vessel named Sarah to broadcast on four different frequencies.

The seafaring station was shut down in a raid by Coast Guard vessels, but a Long Island radio station, WNYG-AM, has announced that it will bring the airwave pirates to firmer ground and let Radio Newyork International use its facilities for 16 hours.

The Allegan eavesdroppers generally cover a 15-state region, but pick up broadcasts from around the world, Hyman said. The 13 FCC stations frequently work together to pinpoint a signal.

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When a potentially illegal transmitter can’t be located, trucks equipped with receivers are dispatched, often chasing it across several states, Hyman said.

The Allegan station is the national training center for engineers and technicians for the 12 other monitoring stations. Most of the personnel are military veterans trained in communications, Hyman said.

″I love it,″ said Brock Fekken, an Air Force veteran. ″You never know what you’re going to find.″