With his deep voice and sensual delivery, Napoleon Williams sounds like he was made for radio. His interest in the medium dates back to his Saint Louis boyhood, when he would stay up late trying to tune in signals from distant cities on an AM radio. Soon he started broadcasting on CB and shortwave radios. His obsession became more than just a hobby after his experiences as a regular caller to a local news- and talk-radio station in downstate Decatur. "People would call in after I did just because I was black and say that things are not as bad as that black guy says they are. People who knew nothing about me or people like me were telling us how it was. That attitude made me realize the problem was a lack of communication," Williams says. "In radio you can target an audience or you can leave out an audience. If there is nothing informative or entertaining as far as black people are concerned, they're not going to listen. Decatur was a town where blacks didn't participate." He decided to try to change that. "The first thing was to put a radio station on the air that targeted them, that played music that would cater to them and everything, and that's what we did."
When Williams and his partner, Mildred Jones, decided to start broadcasting in 1990, they didn't bother applying for an FCC license, nor did they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase a radio station. Instead, for about $1,000, they ordered a microwatt radio kit from the back of a magazine, plopped an antenna on the roof, plugged in a microphone, and began talking.
When it went on the air their ten-watt endeavor joined a growing number of community-based microwatt stations. But these stations are illegal because they have not been assigned a bandwidth by the FCC, and thus can broadcast almost anywhere on the dial. This supposedly makes them more likely to interfere with other frequencies--such as those for aviation, emergencies, and commercial radio. FCC regulations require that a station have at least 100 watts of power to be eligible for a license.
Nevertheless, today Williams and Jones's Black Liberation Radio is on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It takes up one room of their three-bedroom home in Decatur, and Williams and ten helpers broadcast a mix of speeches, books on tape, interviews, callers, scatological rants, and satellite feeds of programs from other microwatt stations. He also plays the police scanner and encourages listeners to call in with personal accounts of police brutality and other injustices. Nights are usually devoted to music. "You will not find anything like it in Chicago," says Williams. "We don't have million-dollar jingles or contests. But we have call-ins, requests, and tales of people being persecuted that can bring you to tears."
Williams and Jones's daughter Unique Dream Williams provides the voice for the station's slogan: "You're listening to 99.7 FM, Black Liberation Radio, home of the real dream team." Unique Dream was taken away by DCFS authorities and put into Jones's mother's care in March 1992 because Jones was in jail on contempt charges stemming from a domestic dispute. The state claimed the child was at risk remaining at home with Williams, who had once been accused of sexually assaulting his stepdaughter. A second daughter, Atrue Dream, was born in December 1993 and also taken into DCFS custody. Jones was jailed again in 1994 for theft and for violating her parole.
"The trouble started after we went on the air," says Williams. "We have two kids in foster care and nobody can say we did anything to our kids. It's almost unbelievable, like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, that people would tolerate this." He claims the arrests and the taking of his children are a form of persecution. "They think that if they take the kids and break up the family, they can break the radio station."
It's true that since going on the air Williams and Jones have had several run-ins with state and local authorities. (Williams referred me to a Web site, at burn.ucsd.edu/ -blr/, that lists the incidents on a time line.) Just ten days after they started broadcasting, Williams was arrested for the alleged sexual assault. The charge was later reduced to battery. In 1993 he was slapped with a $17,500 fine by the FCC. He and Jones have been arrested and accused of everything from criminal trespassing at the Macon County Building to assaulting a police officer to the abduction of their own child. Today Jones is serving time at Dwight Correctional Center for parole violation, and Williams has custody of the couple's two sons, 17-month-old Miracle and Khallid, who was born at Dwight in October. "There are times when I'm talking about something, and I have to get a crying baby and sit right down at the mike and feed and burp the baby while I'm playing records," says Williams. "Everyone knows my kids from the radio."
In January of this year investigators from the Illinois Attorney General's office and Decatur police raided Williams's house and seized his radio equipment as well as CDs, clock radios, a computer, library books, and files. Williams sent out a call for help to other microwatt activists over the Internet and was back on the air in two weeks--with a stronger signal.
But in April the police returned to Williams's house to arrest him for felony eavesdropping after he broadcast a telephone conversation with his daughters' caseworker. He went underground for a month, then returned home and went on the air, telling the authorities he was back and daring them to come and get him. He also advised his listeners to surround his house and watch the police take him to jail. With about 75 people looking on, Illinois Power cut off his electricity and a SWAT team broke down the door and took Williams and Jones away. Jones was charged with concealing and aiding a fugitive; Williams has yet to go to trial on the eavesdropping charges.
"They used the pretext of eavesdropping to silence a station," says Williams. "They thought I would fight in court to get the station back. We don't care. We started a new one. When the judicial system is against you, they can break you just in setting court dates, and you pay for every appearance. It's cheaper to start a new station than hire a lawyer.
"Last time they took it away, we told them we would be back on the air in two weeks. If they were to take it again, I'd throw the shit out the door after them. While they were picking up the pieces, I'd put a whole new station back on the air."
Williams will take part in a panel discussion called "Censorship: Untold Stories/Unsung Heroes" on Saturday at Chicago Media Watch's one-day seminar on media deregulation and the public interest. He'll be joined by In These Times editor Salim Muwakkil; Jose Oliva, host of the syndicated radio program Voice of Guatemala; and Northeastern Illinois University English professor and censorship expert Harry White. The panel is at 11 (the conference is from 9 to 4) at Loyola University's Sullivan Library in Galvin Hall, 6339 N. Sheridan. Registration starts at 8:30. It's $20, $10 for students and low-income folks. Call 773-604-1910.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Napoleon Williams photo by Stephen Warmowski.