Voices in the Night
The Secret City on latimes.com
Features column: The purchase of a reel-to-reel player at an estate sale leads two men to build and broadcast a part-time pirate radio station.
By JEREMY ROSENBERG, Special to Calendar Live
"This is your old pal Retlaw Kedzu. We really on top of the mountain. We up here in the Cedar Country and Peter's Creek."
Somewhere in Echo Park. Dec. 12, 2001. The 100th anniversary of Marconi's debut transatlantic radio broadcast. A drummer's duplex. High up on a hillside, with a view of downtown. A rickety porch. An 8-foot-tall antenna, raised higher, mounted where iron railings corner.
Follow the cable inside. See a contraption made of blonde wood. Compartments filled with electronics, wires, a meter.
This is a portable radio station.
An unlicensed, illegal radio station.
Ahoy, a pirate radio station.
Broadcasting an old-timer's voice, like William Burroughs reciting "A Junky's Christmas," crackling, avuncular, charismatic, shaky. Goes by the enigmatic name, Retlaw Kedzu. Commemorating Marconi's feat with a three-hour broadcast.
Kedzu speaks. Marconi explains radio history. Negativeland clips play. Listeners never hear a deejay's voice.
"Say I never told you about, last night I had a dream. I had a dream I was right on top of the mountain. And when I opened my eyes, I was right here in Peter's Creek. Right on top of the mountain, right here in good ole Peter Crik [sic]. Now really if you wanna be dreaming, or if you're gonna dream, where else would you rather dream that you would be other than on top of the mountain?"
There are other found sounds and music blends. The old man again:
"Now it's a 10-second station break. But you know old Kedzu and I'm gonna tell you just where we're at. Because we 170 miles north of Vegas, we 120 miles south of Ely, Nev., we 84 miles west of Cedar City, we 11 miles south of Pioche, we 14 miles north of Caliente. About eight and a half miles southeast of Mrs. Wah's Cantina."
Locals within a range of up to 20 miles tune to 104.7 FM--the old call numbers of Silver Lake's legendary pirate station KBLT. Three hours. Not enough for the FCC, even if aware and interested, to triangulate.
Tune in again, then, a minute after the broadcast ends. Hear static. Or maybe entrails of a hip-hop station in Riverside.
* * *
"We've got a lot friends here who are old standbys. We've got oh, Mrs. Wah, Hop Sing, Peter Dowsky, Jimmy Dean. I don't know how long this station is going to keep on. But we don't seem to have as much support as we gonna need."
The two men behind the broadcasts--and nine others like it during the past 10 months--call themselves Ray Rug and Peter Crik, after names and geographic locations mentioned in the tapes.
Mountain Radio, the station name itself, comes from the constant references the old man makes to his own elevated geographical location.
Rug and Crik are in their early to mid-30s. They have art school educations. Hold day and freelance jobs. One lives in Pasadena. The other in Eagle Rock.
A decade or so ago, Rug was a deejay at a college radio station in the Southwest. Did an experimental sonic collage sort of set.
Crik had no experience in radio, save maybe for listening to KFI-AM's (640) Phil Hendrie and Art Bell; and little with recording save for documenting birds as a 7-year-old with a tape deck and built-in mike.
Rug and Crik didn't set out, then, to be pirates; it just happened.
In July 1999, Rug found an old Wallensak brand reel-to-reel deck at an estate sale. A reel was still inside. He plugged it in, dug what he heard, paid $15 to bring the player and its contents home. The sellers threw in some polka and religious reels.
The attraction, though, was Kedzu. His voice. His age. His habit of giving out mileage markers like signposts at a military base. How he sometimes sounded drunk, sometimes inspired. And most of all, how he pretended to be making a radio broadcast when likely he was recording himself in a ghost of a town in rural Nevada.
"The guy's name is Retlaw Kedzu, which we figure is Walter Uzdek backwards," Crik says, sitting on a sofa at Rug's place. "And when you listen to these tapes, it makes sense that he would be doing this to his name because ... it's difficult to tell what's real and what's fiction when he's talking about the people he knows, who live in his town."
Rug says that Kedzu was probably in his 80s when he made the recordings. "And this was like 1972, so he's long dead by now," Rug adds. "The people he mentions are pretty much all buried in Panaca, Nev."
In November 2000, Rug had some time on his hands; he'd recently been laid off from a dot-com job, so he decided to follow Kedzu's map coordinates and investigate further.
Rug headed to Panaca; population 800; elevation 4,700 feet. Started asking questions. Anybody heard of Kedzu? No? How about some of these other names mentioned on the reel?
Rug visited the local post office, where he met the postmaster, a descendant of a town founder. The man pointed Rug to a nursing home and a cemetery, where Rug found some familiar names, but not the name he was looking for.
Rug corresponded with a local historian. She didn't know Kedzu, wondered if perhaps he was a drifter.
Lately, Rug's come to believe he knows more about the man. The broadcaster found a web page that lists World War I draft dates. Only one Walter from Lincoln County is mentioned. Another man from the tape is listed, too. It's a long shot.
Somewhere along the way, Crik and Rug also came up with a way to honor the man, whatever his real name. The pair would build a pirate radio station and actually broadcast over the airwaves Kedzu's original recordings.
* * *
"This is the station that gives you the best of everything, when we're operating. But now we're crippled up and we're not working real good."
The pair take a visitor out back to a garage free of cars. Metal hopper with tennis balls. Spare tires.
Rug and Crik carry the station--weight: 35 pounds--outdoors. Set it down under a stout tree and the telltale dirt of a gopher hole. They attach an extension cord to the station, plug it in. Show a visitor the components; try to explain the technology behind it. Speak proudly of the case, built conceptually by an art center graduate to resemble a cityscape.
The unit, made of a blonde, strong wood, is 3 1/2 feet long by 18 inches wide and rests eight inches off the ground. Inside sits a long tube of fluorescent light, which shines through a narrow yellow Plexiglas cut-out.
Rug and Crik kneel behind the station, both wearing dark, solid colors. They cover their faces with the reels in order to maintain anonymity, pose for photographs bathed in the yellow florescent glow.
"[We] just had some kind of blind confidence that we could pull it off," Rug says. "We don't have any experience in electronics at all."
The radio station has cost Rug and Crik about $1,000 so far. Depending on a variety of factors, it is able to power up to 150 watts.
Rug and Crik searched online for schematics. Sought advice from recent pirate The Monkey Man, who at the time operated a 24-hour-a-day station from a fixed location in Hollywood.
Rug and Crik also checked in with a suspicious staffer at a local ham radio outlet.
"He realized right away that we weren't the usual ham radio characters," Rug says. "Because we weren't 45 years old and driving a Lincoln Town Car with our 'Ham Radio' [license] plates, like the rest of these guys."
Crik and Rug ordered an amplifier from England. The transmitter came from Slovenia, by way of a web auction site and a seller in Maine. Some components were purchased at local electronics stores, but the pair was nervous about leaving behind a paper trail.
The first confirmed broadcast emanated from Rug's living room floor via a transmitter and TV antenna. Three watts was the most they could conjure. They bumped Joe Meek, the pioneering British producer of stereophonic songs. Crik possesses a collection of Meek's home recordings.
"It really hit home," Crik says. "We fired it up and walked out to the car in front of the house. And tuned to the frequency. And there it was. So we had officially broadcast like I don't know, 50 to 100 feet."
Since then, the two have done a Halloween show, playing digital music backwards. Using a quirk in QuickTime computer software, they were able to play scary Hollywood movie trailers in reverse sequence, so the words were recognizable, but the order of the words was reversed.
They've broadcast from the Mt. Washington hilltop home of a prominent artist--he wasn't home. The first mobile broadcast took place north of Altadena, on a hiking trail, the station plugged into the cigarette lighter of Rug's car. A hiker made an inquiry; the broadcasters lied, said they were Cal Tech students receiving signals.
They've explored several frequencies, eventually settling on 104.7-FM.
Then there was the Aug. 4, 2001, broadcast of a Disneyland-themed show. Rug and Crik circumnavigated the happiest place on earth the week prior, driving around with a scanner, picking up and recording two and a half hours worth of transmissions emanating from inside the theme park.
They captured such dialogue such as: "I have some guests inquiring to the status of Space Mountain, please."
And: "That's affirmative. They're not released because the carpet has been cleaned. Can you check to see if it's dry?"
Mountain Radio's creators are starting to get bolder, think grander. They are pondering what Rug labels a "high-concept idea"--setting up near a drive-in movie theater and culture jamming their own soundtrack over that of the film's. In the more benign version of this plan, a moment of an action film's score would be replaced seamlessly by a different snippet of score.
Rug also relates a real reel vision. One that would return to the station's estate sale roots.
"The ultimate would be to go back to Panaca to broadcast the Retlaw Kedzu [recordings] in their entirety, unadulterated," Rug says.
He's scouted out the rural Nevada dial and found only a single automated classic rock station the whole span of the FM spectrum. Almost too good to be true, the pirates figure.
"That would almost be like an exercise in not just going back to the source of the recording," Rug says, "but having a place where we could broadcast wherever the hell we wanted to."