Imagine this: a worldwide network of communication, beaming out in waves, bouncing off the ionosphere, continent-wide (and in the right conditions, even farther). To get on the receiving end requires a fairly low investment, all things considered, and once the infrastructure is in place, sending the messages doesn't require an overwhelming investment either.
Regulations are bare minimum. Sure, there are respected news sources, military and intelligence applications and a smorgasbord of music and sports and entertainment of all kinds from around the world available right in the comfort of your home. But there's also unfettered nuttery; nonsense or lies or conspiracy theories can go out just as easily and spread just as far as information brimming with integrity.
This is, of course, easy to imagine in 2021.
We carry all the world's knowledge with us on our smartphones, we can listen to podcasts in our cars, and the price we pay is that unscrupulous disseminators have just as much power to spread their vitriol as eminent academics and respected legacy media have to spread their truth.
With great power comes great responsibility, as Uncle Ben Parker once told young Peter, and social media companies and internet service providers are being called to the congressional carpet to answer for how much responsibility they bear for the hate speech, disinformation and conspiracism their services host.
It's not a new struggle. Indeed, it goes back to the very earliest days when civil rights were a nascent idea.
And so every generation wrestles with every new technology, and the awesome power that mass communication brings, and the responsibility the operators of that technology have.
But long before Facebook and Reddit and 4chan and 8chan and whatever else has popped up in the time since you started reading this story, kooks and skeptics and conspiracy theorists beamed their sweaty-browed screeching over the radio. And for a time, a lot of that nuttery beamed to the world from Nashville.
These days, the stretch of Ashland City Highway between Briley Parkway and Old Hickory Boulevard is known to nature-loving Nashvillians as the way to Bells Bend. To obscurantists and lovers of local quirkiness, it’s known as the home of Travis Tritt’s Biggest Fan in Tennessee. And to local news watchers, it’s the location of Lewis Country Store, a gas station best known for the vitriolic messages on its roadside electronic sign — angry messages about Democrats and anti-Trumpers and people who believe in science and the rule of law.
But halfway between Briley and OHB, there’s a small street sign on the south side of Ashland City Highway: WWCR Avenue. “Avenue” is a bit of a grandiose moniker for the road, a 700-foot stretch of pavement sliding through the woody shoulder of the main drag and easy to miss between the salvage yards and the riverside industry that surrounds it. There are a few satellite dishes in front of a squat studio building, and beyond the tree line — four massive radio antennae, pushing 100,000 watts of signal on the shortwave frequencies.
This is WWCR, and in the 1990s, it was the global nerve center for conspiracy-theory radio.
Shortwave radio is mostly the domain of hobbyists. It uses high-frequency waves — higher than AM radio but lower than the VHF waves used by FM and television — pointed into the atmosphere, where they can bounce off the ionosphere and propagate for massive distances. Globally, the best-known shortwave broadcasters are the BBC World Service and the Voice of America, the U.S.-government-funded quasi-independent broadcaster of Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and Radio Liberty.
But there are thousands of shortwave broadcasters, and sliding around the dial is like traveling the world (and occasionally stumbling across obvious diplomatic channels intended to communicate with intelligence operatives — their bloops, beeps, seemingly random words and alphanumeric gobbledygook meaningful to someone, somewhere, surely).
Blasting out on shortwave, especially for broadcasters craving a global audience, requires a significant amount of energy. (100,000 watts, remember?) That takes money.
And that’s where our story begins.
WWCR was licensed in 1989, its call letters originally meaning “World Wide Country Radio.” Its owners struggled to find their niche, even though the number of dedicated country music stations on the shortwave band was, and is, fairly small. So they switched. “Country” became “Christian,” and the station focused on evangelical Christian broadcasting. Music, sermons, biblical exegesis. Sure, there was some hellfire-and-brimstone revival-type preaching, but there was also fairly mundane lovey-dovey Jesus-loves-you stuff.
But WWCR also had a fairly loose policy on leasing its airtime and its frequencies to anybody whose check was good. That brought in fringe personalities with fringe ideas who had difficulty finding airtime on other stations, or whose message was heretofore limited to local cable access — which, though similarly lax with its broadcasting guidelines, had a far smaller reach than the megawatt transmitters off Ashland City Highway.
By the early 2000s, a former Austin, Texas, talk-radio man named Alex Jones was sending his show out on WWCR (among other places). But the world’s most famous radio conspiracist wasn’t the one who laid the groundwork. For a decade before the Infowars magnate beamed his tenuous grasp on reality from the big towers, WWCR was already brimming with the hypertensive wailings from the cliff’s edge of the political spectrum.
Before that, the shortwave station’s most noteworthy program was from a collection of veterans of the pirate-radio movement. Pirate radio first rose to prominence in the United Kingdom, where for decades the BBC had a stranglehold on the radio spectrum. But with the right know-how and the right equipment, anybody can broadcast a radio signal. Of course, you’d risk prosecution doing so. Unless you set up beyond the reach of the constabulary, which is what pirates in the U.K. did: They broadcast from ships or disused oil platforms in international waters off the English coast.
Allan Weiner, a Maine man who had worked in both legitimate and illicit radio, visited one of these British pirate stations, Radio Caroline, and decided to replicate it in the United States. It’s a convoluted tale involving a wrecked Japanese fishing vessel in the process of being seized by U.S. Customs because drugs were found on board.
Over a holiday weekend in 1988, Frank Gantner — an associate of Weiner’s — bought the ship for $100 and re-registered it under a Honduran flag with that country’s New York consulate. Gantner towed the ship, named Sarah for Weiner’s wife, to international waters, and “Come On Down to My Boat, Baby” by one-hit wonders Every Mother’s Son beamed to more than half the continental United States.
Customs took the bait, arresting Weiner, a radio engineer and a reporter from The Village Voice. While the case was pending, Weiner agreed he wouldn’t broadcast as a condition of his release. He eventually sold the ship to a Virginia woman who had plans for a shortwave station featuring expatriate Chinese students (this was in the wake of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square) and for a link with Nashville’s WWCR.
Unfortunately, Weiner couldn’t produce a valid paper trail for the ship. And in the meantime, as his would-be buyer tried to verify ownership, Weiner came to an agreement to sell Sarah to MGM for use in the climactic final scene of the 1994 Jeff Bridges action flick Blown Away. (That film is largely forgotten to history because 20th Century Fox rushed the similar movie Speed to open against it.) Before the big bang, though, Weiner transferred his broadcasting equipment to another ship, and with the help of the duped Virginia woman, the FCC was able to show that the ship made a broadcast within the United States’ territorial waters, and Weiner finally faced the music. Nevertheless, Weiner’s show — Radio Newyork International — was broadcast on WWCR, and there was a sort-of pirate-radio reunion broadcast on the station in 1991, which brought together pirate-radio personalities from all across the country.
The Sarah/RNI folks were fairly benign. There were some garden-variety libertarian politics there, but by and large, these were mischief-makers out to have a good time and thumb their noses at the government.
The whole saga only tangentially involved WWCR, and what press there was — particularly about the reunion show — was of the “well wouldyalookatthat? And now sports …” variety.
The conspiracism shows were going out from the banks of the Cumberland through the early 1990s, but by and large they flew under the radar. Despite its long-range capabilities, shortwave wasn’t — and still isn’t — terribly common, and the chances of running across at random a show about, say, how the United Nations is building reeducation camps? Pretty low. It’s the sort of thing that has to be sought out, and it requires a shortwave radio receiver.
But at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, everything changed.
The explosion that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City thrust the “militia movement” into the national consciousness. Bomber Timothy McVeigh and accomplice Terry Nichols had ties to the movement, and in the weeks after the bombing, the media followed every thread they could find.
One of those threads led to a Michigan man named Mark Koernke, known to his listeners on WWCR as “Mark from Michigan.” His show, the airtime paid for by precious-metals dealer Viking, told tales of secret U.N. facilities in Gulfport, Miss., the U.S. government’s plans to subvert the Second Amendment, and the rise of socialism. He’s notable for popularizing the “black helicopters” conspiracy theory, which — in its various multitentacled forms — encompasses everything from aliens to the New World Order.
Koernke, at the time a dormitory custodian at the University of Michigan, was so extreme — claiming, for example, that 15,000 Gurkhas (Nepalese soldiers who serve in the British Army) were in hiding in the Great Lakes State to effect a U.N. takeover — that even other paramilitary groups tried to distance themselves from him. He said he never met McVeigh, though numerous people reported that McVeigh acted as part of Koernke’s “security force” during a Florida visit.
In the days following the Oklahoma City bombing, Koernke’s WWCR-broadcast Intelligence Report claimed, among other things, that the bombing was an inside job, that the government had foreknowledge of the attack (this is based on a fax received by a Texas congressman that was received after the attack but had a timestamp from before the explosion; this was due to a faulty clock on the fax machine), and that it was all a setup for the federal government to implement a U.N.-backed police state.
Another WWCR host, Kurt Saxon, gave over-the-air instructions for building a bomb from easily acquirable materials, though he claimed he was just reading from a book.
On another show, the hosts laid out a complicated theory that the bombing was undertaken at the direction of the Japanese government in retaliation for the sarin gas attacks on a Tokyo subway a month prior to Oklahoma City. In this theory, the sarin attacks were ordered by President Bill Clinton in retaliation for stalled trade talks between Japan and the U.S.
For a few weeks, the station’s ownership — the F.W. Robbert Broadcasting Co. of New Orleans — tried a pretty common defense: We don’t know what you’re talking about.
“We’ve never had contact with Mark Koernke,” the company’s president told The New York Times on April 30, 1995.
In numerous interviews in the weeks after the bombing, with increasing coverage of Koernke’s statements, the station’s general manager told reporters that militia-themed shows made up less than 1 percent of what WWCR broadcast, and that there was no way anybody could monitor all of the content. But eventually, the pressure got to the station. WWCR pulled the plug on The Intelligence Report May 1, one day after the company’s president said he’d never heard the show.
In a reaction that’s predictable, Koernke and his cohorts said they were being silenced, that the station had been pressured by the FCC, that the jackboots of broadcasting regulators had come to their threat.
For its part, the station’s move to cancel the show was inspired more by upset mamas — horrified that Koernke was spewing nonsense about a bombing that killed children in a day care center — than by federal regulators.
Despite the station’s statements that it would review the content of its shows in an effort to be more responsible, no other shows were canceled, and Koernke was back on the air after a few weeks.
The media moved on, as it often does. Koernke’s (short) cancellation eased the pressure on the station, which continued operating in its usual way — Christian-geared programming with a smattering of the hard-right/conspiracy stuff — until 1997.
Among the shows then carried by WWCR was one hosted by Ted Gunderson, former head of the FBI’s Memphis field office and, at one time, a candidate to become FBI director. But after leaving the bureau, Gunderson took his investigations in a more bizarre direction.
Gunderson became a purveyor of the debunked satanic ritual-abuse conspiracy theory. He warned about the New World Order. He warned that a shadow government was on the verge of seizing the reins of power in the United States. He said children were sold to Saudi Arabian government officials at Las Vegas slave auctions. He said more than 4,000 human sacrifices took place in New York City every year. And in a stomach-churning foreshadowing of QAnon, he said powerful interests connected in a network of cabals kidnapped children for sacrifice and sexual abuse.
But none of that was what got him in trouble.
On Dec. 9, 1997, Gunderson’s guest was a man named David Hinkson. Hinkson claimed that Art Bell — the host of overnight paranormal radio sensation Coast to Coast AM, the famously freewheeling radio home of ghosts and alien sightings and so on — was a known child molester who bribed local police to cover it up. Bell, as one might suspect, was apoplectic about the accusation, but no one would know why for three years.
On April 1, 2000, Bell announced his (first) retirement (of many).
“In order that you all understand the gravity of the announcement I’m about to make, it’s going to be necessary for me to repeat some very painful events that have occurred to my family over the past several years,” Bell told Coast to Coast listeners, according to a contemporaneous report in the Scene. “On May 16th of the year 1997, my son, Art Bell IV, was kidnapped, transported across state lines, and raped by a substitute teacher from his own high school. The assailant was HIV positive. My son was a minor. He was only 16 years old at the time. The teacher involved was tried, convicted, and is now serving a life sentence.
“As our family was working through this trauma in private, an event beyond all bounds of decency and humanity occurred,” Bell continued. “On Dec. 9 of 1997, just a few months after my son’s ordeal, my own began. Ted Gunderson, a retired FBI agent, along with David Hinkson and the assistance of others, aired a broadcast which — incredibly, absolutely incredibly — accused me of committing the very same crime my son had suffered, child molestation. … Of course, these accusations were entirely false.”
Bell sued WWCR for slander in Davidson County, calling the station “one of the country’s leading broadcasters of hate radio” and “one of the most irresponsible stations permitted to broadcast over the airwaves of this country.”
Station manager George McClintock — he who pulled Koernke and then put him back on — didn’t answer the Scene’s question about the lawsuit. Instead he went on a rant about the litigiousness of America, how his station represents “real people” and how criticism of his station is tantamount to trampling his constitutional rights. (Sound familiar?)
Despite this spirited misdirection, the station ultimately apologized to Bell, with the Radio Hall of Famer announcing in October 2000 that the case had been settled.
The internet seems to have spelled the end for WWCR’s days as a hotbed of reactionary thought. These days, the program listings are almost exclusively religious programming. Everything from the Salvation Army to the traditional Roman Catholic Mass in Latin to Pentecostals to various strains of Baptists and prophecy churches.
There are a few political programs. Tony Arterburn, a former Army paratrooper who finished a distant fourth in the four-man Republican primary for Texas’ 4th Congressional District seat in 2014, hosts a program now and again. His politics are definitely conservative — he’s strongly anti-choice, strongly anti-gun-control, strongly low-tax and so on — but he’s not suggesting the U.N. has a secret base in Mississippi.
And yes, there’s Infowars available plenty. But there’s also one other hint of the station’s old days: its original vision. Running at the same time as Infowars on one of the station’s sister frequencies: World Wide Country Radio. Maybe the world is ready for it now.