The Mystery of 96.7 MHz

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The Mystery of 96.7 MHz

The year is 2017. You are in Portland, or at least in the general vicinity. It is late at night. You are driving down a dark road. You turn on your radio, and happen to tune to 96.7 MHz on the FM dial. What you hear is something you’ve never heard on the radio. Something strange is going on, something very strange.

Today, 96.7 MHz in Portland is just another radio station but from about October 2017 to June 2018, that particular frequency was transmitting some unusual things. In fact, some very unusual things: Hours and hours of beeps and buzzes interspersed with random snippets of voices that sounded like old recordings of John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, or Martin Luther King.

Before we go any further, here are some over-the-air recordings of 96.7 MHz during the time frame in question. In this first recording, we hear weird sounds possibly from a Lou Reed album; then at 4:22 a recording of the Sputnik I telemetry signal begins; at 6:00, we hear a call sign of KZRY-LP; then more weirdness. We’ll get back to KZRY-LP in a bit. In this second recording, we hear more sounds; then at 2:25 we hear what seems to be a CBS broadcast of the Apollo 11 launch. Strange stuff to be broadcasting.

So, what was going on? A look into FCC documents indicates that the KZRY-LP call sign and 96.7 MHz were licensed to some outfit called Community Alliance of Tenants. This appears to be a nonprofit organization promoting housing justice for low-income renters. Okay. But how do we explain the strange content being broadcast?

A brief weirdness might indicate that someone had hacked these nice people’s radio station. But these broadcasts went on for months. Clearly, the Community Alliance of Tenants or whoever was running the station knows a good prank when they see one, or else needs counseling. For what it’s worth, KZRY-LP was later changed to KNUM-LP, but was still assigned to the Community Alliance of Tenants.

Hmm – KNUM-LP – was it a numbers station (NUM!), an equally strange type of transmission we recently discussed here? Probably not. This is a low-power station (as indicated by the LP in its call sign) and unless the secret agent you are trying to communicate lives in his mom’s basement next door, a low-power broadcast won’t do you much good. (That’s why numbers stations use shortwave, a type of broadcast that can literally skip around the world.)

Another theory holds that this was all a stunt to call attention to the station and thus stimulate a wider audience. As important as it might be, a program about tenant rights in Portland might not garner a huge audience. But weird beeps and voice recordings might create a buzz, and somehow get people to start tuning in. Well, at least that’s what the theory says.

My personal theory is that the Community Alliance of Tenants licensed this station with the intent to broadcast its doctrine, a good example of a community service. But, for whatever reason (lack of funding?) they were not able to produce content. And it is my understanding that if you don’t use your FCC-assigned frequency, you will lose it. So, this “content” was sent over the airwaves to comply with the FCC requirement.

Okay, that makes sense. But why was the broadcasting so weird? For a few hours on Halloween night – sure. But months and months of beeps and buzzes? Sputnik? Walter Cronkite? Why so weird, so spooky, so – creepy? That, is the mystery.

Sound & Vision

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