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Radio Renegades : The Bad Boys of Ham Airwaves Bicker, Berate Each Other and Bend FCC Rules


It was nearly midnight, and the argument between two ham radio hobbyists, Richard and Darin, was heating up faster than a transceiver with a short circuit.

"Wait till I see you," yelled Darin, of Watts, accusing Richard, of Orange, of interfering with his radio transmissions. "You're gonna eat your words. . . . You're gonna get a taste of South-Central in your face. I swear to God--you haven't the slightest idea what you're dealing with here. You read about it in the news."

"Just look over your shoulder," shot back Richard, who contended that Darin was running interference of his own. "Your homeboys are statistics every night in the news. . . . Why don't you go stand on the corner and they'll take care of you, part of their population control? They'll be coming around the corner with their automatics."

Finally, both men's microphones went silent, giving another operator the last word.

"This is what amateur radio is all about!" the anonymous voice laughingly told shortwave listeners from Goleta to Mexico.

Another day of broadcasting was coming to an end for the Mt. Wilson Repeater Assn., home to the Hells Angels of hams.

While most of the 500,000 amateur radio hobbyists in the United States are viewed as genteel, eccentric electronics tinkerers, those using the ham radio relay station atop a Malibu ridge have become the bad boys of the airwaves.

Other hams are preoccupied with antennae and transmitter tubes as they tap out Morse code messages to fellow hobbyists worldwide. Unfailingly, they are polite and proper as they answer inquiries about signal strength and reception.

Things are different at the Mt. Wilson Repeater Assn.'s frequency, which is heard at 147.435 megahertz on shortwave radios and scanners in Southern California.

A ham who made the mistake the other day of calling on the channel to ask if his signal was clear was curtly told: "It's fine, stupid. Now shut up and get the hell out of here."

Insults are routinely tossed at whites, blacks, Latinos, Poles and other groups. Comments about women's anatomy and about other radio operators' masculinity are common. Heated debates on abortion, police brutality and Supreme Court confirmation hearings have a fervor missing on commercial talk-radio stations.

During one five-minute period last month, various hams heard themselves labeled on the Mt. Wilson repeater as "a lying scumbag," "pothead" and "drunken fool." And those are the milder descriptions.

Hams who use the other 320 mountaintop repeaters in Southern California to amplify their low-powered, 2-meter walkie-talkies and transceivers grumble that such talk is outrageous.

But users of the "4-3-5 repeater," as they call Mt. Wilson, claim it's all good, clean fun.

"I don't get offended," says Darin Jones, a Watts school custodian who found himself involved in the other night's debate over radio interference, called "jamming" by hams.

"They sometimes tell me on the radio that I stole my equipment or bought it with food stamps. But ham radio is a hobby, and hobbies are supposed to be fun. There's a switch on my radio--if I get offended, I'll turn it off."

Richard Clark, the machine operator from Orange who shared in the debate, says he agrees.

"It's all in the name of fun," Clark says. "We can be obnoxious. But you can't believe everything you hear on the radio. It can be deceptive. . . . It's just letting our hair down."

The debate between Clark and Jones went no further than the airwaves. But other radio disputes have landed Mt. Wilson repeater users in court and in jail:

* In 1981, an operator using the channel had his equipment confiscated, his license revoked and a $500 fine levied after Federal Communications Commission investigators discovered him jamming the Mt. Wilson repeater frequency. The ham, who was arrested after allegedly threatening to kill two local FCC engineers.

* Ham Richard A. Burton, a Harbor City electronics engineer, was sentenced to federal prison in 1982 after being cited for using obscene language and jamming other operators' signals on the channel. The FCC also suspended his ham license.

"I served 6 months, 20 days and 8 hours at Lompoc," Burton recalls. "I guess they wanted to use me as an example. But if I did everything they said I did, I'd have had to be on the air 48 hours a day."

Burton is on one year's probation from a second conviction last year for operating without a license. He says he plans to apply for a new license so he can return to the air when probation ends this week. Ironically, he serves as editor of the Mt. Wilson Repeater Assn. newsletter.

* The FCC tried without success in 1983 to yank David Hildebrand's license for allegedly using obscene language over the Mt. Wilson association's frequency. "I challenged them that they couldn't prove what was obscene, and they couldn't," says Hildebrand, a technical writer who lives in Hollywood.

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