Broadcasting Gang Radio
One evening last month, in Orlando, Florida, two young gang members, Christopher Roth and Balthazard Senat, were sitting in Roth’s bedroom, smoking joints and hosting a radio show called “Street Heat.” Roth and Senat probably felt good, perhaps transcendently clever: three months earlier they had identified a vulnerable slot in the FM broadcasting band (91.3 FM) and established a pirate radio station. Now they could be heard everywhere in Orange County. They spent their time on-air demonizing their enemies and lionizing their allies, urging local kids to join their gang, detailing the requirements of membership, offering practical advice (novice gangsters could learn how to correctly fold their signifying bandannas) and instructing listeners where to find drugs and prostitutes. People called in to discuss their illicit transactions, recommending this or that dealer or pimp, this or that crack variety or slate of prostitutes.
The house was just off Highway 441, known as it runs through Orlando as Orange Blossom Trail. Decades earlier it had cut through orange groves, among which, later, luxury hotels had been built, but the section near Roth and Senat’s house had become a ghetto known as “South O.B.T.” Behind the house, an antenna stuck out of a tree; a cable ran down the tree trunk and through the bedroom window. On the bedroom floor was a felony amount of bagged marijuana.
Until that evening, Roth and Senat had broadcast “Street Heat” unchallenged, but two weeks earlier an inadvertent listener, appalled, had called the police. (Which raises the question: During those first ten weeks, how many people hit “scan” on their stereo receivers, learned where to buy the best crack in South O.B.T., and blithely hit “scan” again?) F.C.C. investigators began monitoring the station, triangulated its signals, and located the house, which was just off the intersection of 30th Street and South Orange Blossom. When the investigators drove by they saw the antenna in the tree, the cable, the open window in the northwestern wall of the house.
That night, at a little before 9pm, members of a SWAT team entered the front door, made their way up the stairs, and arrested Balthazard and Roth for illegal radio transmission and illegal possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. When the helmeted officers appeared in the doorway of his bedroom, Roth was DJing. He generally played, unsurprisingly, a lot of gang-centric hip-hop. Balthazard was on the mic, hosting the show. In my imagining of the scene, Balthazard and Roth are relaxed: sublimely high, incipiently confident after three months of broadcasting without legal interference, hitting their stride as radio personalities. The show was apparently beginning to cohere conceptually: This was one of many pleasurably blunted, increasingly productive nights on the air.