By Barry Rueger
Published: 2600 The Hacker Quarterly
October 12, 2023
My hacking spirit dates from long before I used computers. My first memory of it dates back to some time before 1980 – before the Internet, before personal computers, and surely before cel phones.
My group of close friends and hard-core partiers included the trio of Marty, Brad, and Frank. Frank and I had met at cooking school in Vancouver, and the rest – as they say – is history. We drank, we smoked, and we partied, including one year when I arrived at a Hallowe’en party dressed as Annette Funicello (as a Mousketeer).
The biggest memory for me though was running a proper pirate radio station.
At some point Marty had been owed money, and had accepted a small FM radio transmitter and antenna as payment. Since he also had a successful and longstanding DJ business it was a match made in heaven.
DJing in those days meant turntables, wooden cases full of vinyl records, big amplifiers, bigger speakers, and on occasion a home-built refrigerator sized dry-ice fog machine. Fill it up with water, stick in an immersion heater for a few hours, then dump in the dry ice. Fog!
Soon that do-it-yourself spirit extended itself to radio.
The DJ setup in his living room was quickly attached to the transmitter, and the antenna was stuck out an upstairs window. It didn’t take a lot of time to figure out where the “empty” space was on the local FM band, and with a little bit of tweaking we were broadcasting a music mix like nothing you heard on commercial radio or the CBC. While Marty filled the airwaves with New Wave and alternative music, the rest of us took turns driving around town just to see how far our signal went.
Marty worked on the assumption that the guys at Industry Canada who monitored such things didn’t work weekends or holidays, and he kept the radio station limited to those days. It was fun, and harmless, and cost nothing.
Still, it felt an awful lot like broadcasting into outer space, and after a while everyone started wishing they knew who was listening, and what they liked.
My friend Brad came to the rescue. He was employed by BC Telephone. In those pre-digital days every phone line was attached to a mechanical switch, and each of those switches was hard wired into the network. That was how you got your phone number. Brad was one of the guys that made those connections.
Brad figured out that there were always a few unused numbers and switches, so every Friday afternoon he would connect one of them to Marty’s home phone. Now, as well as his own phone calls, Marty could get calls from listeners. Each Friday he got a new “On-Air” phone number, and each Monday morning it would disappear when Brad arrived at work.
It was perfect. The radio station was success, there were more listeners than any of us imagined, and we could even take requests! And as far as we could tell, it was risk-free.
That was true until Marty moved into a south-facing tenth floor apartment, and attached the antenna to his balcony railing. Suddenly his radio signal went much further, and was much clearer.
He arrived home from work one day and found an Industry Canada vehicle covered with antennas sitting at his front door. Even though as far as we could tell that spot on the radio dial was vacant, it turned out that he had been interfering with a legitimate radio station 50 miles south of us in Washington state. The broadcaster in question called the American FCC, they contacted the Canadian Industry Canada, and Marty was visited by some very official folks who politely, but firmly, asked that he give them the transmitter. To his credit Marty’s reaction was to smile and say “What took you so long?”
Looking back at it, that experience probably changed my life by getting me involved in legal community radio, moving me far to the left, and by teaching me to generally distrust government.
The lesson learned is that if you can help someone to break the law just a little bit – like crossing the street when the pedestrian light is red – and if you can quietly point out to them that absolutely no-one was harmed, and no-one arrested, then you’ve started someone down the road to being anti-authoritarian.
If you plant that seed at just the right time you can change their life. Maybe they’ll even turn into a hacker!