The Pirate and the Prophet

Story Mane #2098
Pub Date 4/24/94

AH: RADIO, RELIGION: The story of two rebels who say they were mistreated.
KE: Pirate
Of the Post and Courier- Paper from Columbia S.C.

A powerful shortwave transmitter beamed the Last Day Prophet's gruff voice into the heavens where it slammed into a layer of electrically charged gas and bounced back to earth.

"When I speak, he thundered, it's the word of God!"
Soaked in shortwave static, his voice quieted. I've told this over and over again that God gave me , in the spiritual realm, authority over this church- the true church- in all these Southern states. And my influence reaches to the far corners of the world. He was pleading now, almost crying.

We're getting very close to the final countdown, Call 1-803-538-4202, and you'll be on the air with the Last Day Prophet of God.

Everyday, R.G. Stair, 60, can be heard on more than a dozen shortwave and AM radio stations from Sacramento, California to Conway.

During one recent broadcast, he said listeners sent him nearly $1 million last year to proclaim his warnings of the coming apocalypse. And he said he's increasing his presence on the airwaves. Today I wrote three checks for 31,000 dollars signing up radio stations, he told his listeners.

But not too long ago, Stair hoped to have his own shortwave radio station.

From a ship anchored off the coast of Belize, he planned to broadcast his messages of doom across the world.

But those hopes were dashed in January.

In January, while the ship was being prepared at a local yard, federal agents stormed the vessel, claiming transmitters aboard were broadcasting illegal test tones.

The Federal Communications Commission called his vessel a pirate radio ship. Stair and his controversial radio expert, Al Wiener, called the government's action a crime- the work of the devil- sometimes mentioning in the same breath last year's violent bungled raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

The story of the seizure sheds light on two very different subcultures: One is the world of shortwave broadcasting, where stations broadcast programs across the globe and unlicenced pirates try to hijack the airwaves.

The other is the doomsday movement, which some observers believe will grow dramatically as the year 2000 draws nearer- and possibly trigger potentially dangerous police actions against nontraditional religious groups and Christian extremists.

The Pirate

On any given night, pirates are on the air. Mostly kids, they broadcast music, skits and their own shows, usually on shortwave frequencies. They are called pirates because they don't own FCC licenses. Some are more energetic than others. One pirate group that calls itself 'Radio Airplane' reportedly has a transmitter on the back of a small aircraft.

It's sort of a game to see if they get caught, said Glenn Hauser, a columnist for Monitoring Times', a radio magazine popular with shortwave enthusiasts.

Radio piracy isn't always fun and games though. In Roanoke, VA, a man posing as an air traffic controller broadcast fake instructions to pilots for several weeks before the FCC nabbed him. But the nation's most famous radio pirate is Al Wiener. As a teenager, Wiener aired music on AM and FM stations from his basement. He had no license, and the FCC eventually arrested him. He was sentenced to one year probation.

Wiener, a lanky man with long brown hair, eventually moved to Maine, opened a natural food store, and bought a legitimate AM station. But, like many small AM stations, he was not allowed to broadcast at night. Wiener went on the air after dark anyway, usually once a month. He did so for three years before the FCC shut him down again.

But Wiener's real claim to fame was his pirate radio ship, the Sarah. In 1987, he installed radio transmitters aboard a trawler, moved the ship four miles off the coast of New York- outside U.S. territorial waters- and broadcast alternative rock programs.

Once again, the FCC moved in. Agents boarded the ship, seized radio equipment, and arrested Wiener on charges of obstructing government function, charges they later dropped. We want to give him a chance, explained FCC official.

Al is a folk hero to a lot of people who want to open up the airwaves, said Anita Louise McCormick, author of Shortwave Radio Listening for Beginners.

There's no question the FCC hates my guts, Wiener, 41, said recently. Without the FCC, there would be anarchy on the airwaves, so I think they have an important role. I'm not an anarchist. I love my country. But I think the FCC attacks things they shouldn't.

About 18 months ago Wiener received a call from a friend, Scott Becken, who operated satellite network. Becker said he had spoken with a radio preacher, R. G. Stair, about financing another radio ship.

"I said, Oh no, not another one" I said I wouldn't be involved this time unless it was all on the up and up.

The Prophet

During his programs, Stair often reminds listeners he was born in Bethlehem- Bethlehem, PA.

Since he was a teenager, Stair has traveled the country, making the rounds on the evangelist circuits, doing radio shows.

In the late 1970's, he drove past the Carolina Motel on S.C. Highway 15, four miles north of Walterboro. It was a modest motel, a single story row of rooms, the kind that became obsolete when the interstates were built. In 1978, he paid $45,000 for it.

Stair attracted a small band of followers who moved into the motel and several mobile homes behind it. He also bought a nearby farm. He called his group the "Overcomer Ministry'

He hoped to live a simple life there, like the Mennonites or the Amish. No drinking, swearing, smoking or television. No buying on credit and no doctors. They would live off the land. Women would wear hair long, men would keep it short. Women would wear dresses, men pants.

In 1987 and 1988, not long after Wiener makes the fronts pages with his pirate radio exploits, Stair also began to attract national attention.

He made dramatic predictions: By the end of 1988, the U.S. economy would collapse and the country would be destroyed in a limited nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In his broadcasts, he announced he was creating, 'cities of refuge', small farms throughout the South where believers might weather the catastrophe.

The message hit home with some, and a handful of listeners across the country sold many of their possessions and moved to the motel and farm.

Among them were David Foltz and his wife. The one thing that struck me was that there were no big cars. No one was living an outlandish lifestyle, said Foltz, who lived in Stair's community for two years before moving to a home nearby. He still attends services.

If you had gone to (Jim and Tammy Bakkers) PTL at this time, the dog houses would have been air conditioned, but with Brother Stair, all the money that was coming in was going into radio ministry.

As the contributions poured in, Stair was able to buy more radio time. By mid-1988 he was on nearly 100 stations.

That year, Stair's predictions and allegations that his group was a cult drew hordes of reporters and television people to the small motel. Foltz said the cult label was unfair.

It hurts the public that reads it, because it creates a stereotype. Just because an organization does something different, it doesn't mean it's a cult. I wasn't brainwashed into their beliefs. I came down there on my free will.

The media scrutiny intensified in July 1988 when a couple from Pennsylvania left Stair's group after the woman's baby was born dead. Stair had discouraged her from going to a doctor, even though she had trouble delivering her first child. The Colleton County coroner said the baby probably would have lived had the woman gone to the hospital.

William Alnor, an evangelist and free-lance writer, covered the story for a Pennsylvania newspaper.

He's always proclaiming the idea of doom, and this serves as a catalyst. They were drawn to him by fear, said Alnor, author of 'Soothsayers of the Second Advent'.

There are a number of groups out there like this, and they're popping up more and more because of the year 2000. In the year 1000, people were so worried they were living in caves.

But Foltz said it wasn't fear of Stair or the end of the world that attracked followers. It's really about what's happening with the country. You look around and see what's going on, and it makes you wonder if maybe the Amish have the right idea.

After Stairs predictions failed to come true, he began to appear on fewer radio stations. For the most part, he stopped talking to reporters. In his broadcasts, he calls them perverted. (He refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.) He still preaches that the world will end, but instead of setting dates, he simply says the jig is up soon.

And, he never gave up his goal of spreading this message across the world.

The Plan

The pieces fell together quickly. Within a few months, Stair, Wiener, Becker, Wiener's friend in the satellite business, had a 140-foot-long ship called 'The Fury' and four transmitters from Boston to Halsey and Cannon Boat yard on the Wando River.

Becker, who also run the business side of the ship, renting three transmitters to anyone who wanted air time. Stair would have exclusive use of one shortwave transmitter. They would move the ship to Belize or another Caribbean country. Wiener was in charge of building the radio station. Stair's followers chipped and sanded paint and did other work on the ship itself.

Wiener said the ocean would act like a huge reflector dish, increasing the power of the shortwave transmitters. Shortwave radio transmitters are beamed 150 miles from the transmitter. Wiener said Stair's broadcast from the ship would be heard throughout North American and possible in large areas of South America and Europe, where shortwave radio stations are more popular.

Honestly, I saw the hand of God work on that ship, Wiener said. But in less than a year we were able to throw together the people, equipment, and the boat, which was incredible.

Becker and Wiener estimate that Stair pumped $250,000 to $300,000 into the ship. Stair told 'Monitoring Times' that he spent $125,000 on the transmitter installation.

Wiener enjoyed working with Stair's group. The best time we had was at supper, he said. They were people who seemed at peace with themselves. We could be talking about generators and bilge pumps one minute and the glory of God in another breath.

Becker was less enthusiastic. The only way I can describe this group is bizzare.

He said he saw members looking for scraps of food in the trash bin behind a grocery store. He scares people to come and live with them. It gives me the creeps. The women dress in long Quaker or Amish dresses. They walk around like zombies. He's a David Koresh waiting to happen.

The Bust

It was late December when Johnny Lightning came on the air. One of the FCC's monitoring stations picked up the transmission. 'Johnny Lightning was the announcer. He was playing music and there was some chatter said Lawrence Clance, the FCC assistant bureau chief for law. Johnny Lightning was on a frequency normally reserved for government communications, one that's often used by pirates.

We knew right away we had a pirate radio station, Clance said. The monitoring stations traced the transmission to South Carolina.

In January, FCC agents were dispatched to Charleston. For two weeks they drove around the area in cars packed with equipment that track down radio broadcasts.

At 12:15 a.m. on Jan 14, FCC engineers heard something. It wasn't Johnny Lightning. It sounded more like test tones. Their direction-finding gear guided them to a dirt road leading to the Halsey & Cannon Boat Yard- and the Fury. They seemed to be tuning it, said Richard Breen, an FCC engineer who tracked the transmission.

Breen and the other FCC engineers didn't board ship that night. Instead, after discussing their findings with their superiors in Washington, they went to the federal judge and asked for an order allowing them to seize the Fury's radio equipment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph P. Griffith Jr. said at 8 a.m. on Jan. 19, gun-totting U.S. Marshals and Coast Guard officers raided the ship. There was no resistance. No one was hurt or arrested. Only one firearm was found.

The FCC paid electricians and neighboring shipyard crew $7,500 to remove the transmitters. Wiener was on board when the raid happened. It felt like evil attached the boat, he said.

The Aftermath

Wiener said the feds went overboard, that seizure was a personal vendetta against him. The station was destroyed, he said, because someone in Washington, D.C. apparently doesn't like Brother Stair or me.

He said he was asleep during the time the illegal transmissions were alleged to have been made. Besides, the transmitter and generators weren't working, so it was physically impossible for anyone to broadcast, he said.

The charges are totally unfounded, he said. Even had there been transmissions, he said, the punishment did not fit the alleged crime.

Prosecutors could have sought either a restraining order or a fine.

Why was an entirely legal radio station destroyed without a hearing and due process? What is going on here? Wiener said. A radio station, a printing press of the air, has been smashed.

Stair has since filed a motion in federal court asking the government to return the equipment.

The FCC out of Washington takes a strong view of this kind of deal, particularly in light of who was on board. Griffith answered. The seizure was done entirely at the FCC's request. I would like to think there were no personal animosities involved.

He said the agency considered criminal prosecution but was concerned it would make Wiener a martyr. Taking equipment was a middle road approach.

Said Clance, "We're simply in the business of shutting down pirate radio stations.

Apocalypse Later

Immediately after the bust, Wiener left Charleston. We didn't know if we were going to get shot or arrested. He returned to New York and began working at another radio station. He began writing to newspapers and communications magazines criticizing the FCC's action.

The bust didn't slow Stair down either. He bought more air time on radio stations. During these broadcasts Stair asked for more and more money.

My dear friends, Stair told his listeners, this message of hope to the people of God is being heard. They are responding! They are doing it! This is what stirs my heart. They are obeying! I know that makes me enemies. So be it.

A listener from Canada said he put a money order for $1000 in the mail.

Like Wiener, Stair lobbed verbal darts at the government and armed forces, you, you are the Antichrist.

And he hints at future battles with the government. They will come after me. I'm sure they are going to, because I'm a voice out here that they're going to have to reckon with.