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Before Napster fought the record labels and MegaUpload took on the major studios, one Toronto man battled corporate giants to create an alternative to mainstream media. Jan Pachul is one of the original pirate broadcasters.
For 15 years, Pachul has run Star Ray TV, a rogue antenna-only TV station in the city's east end.
In an age when anyone with a Youtube account can instantly deliver content to billions of people around the world, Star Ray TV is an anachronism - from an era recent enough to be fresh in many memories, but that the internet has swiftly rendered obsolete.
From a storefront at Main St. and Gerrard Ave., Pachul labours 11 hours a day (with time allotted for an afternoon nap) to broadcast community programming on UHF channel 15. His signal is weak (it covers a spotty 20-km radius) and only reaches people with the knowledge and inclination to set their TV to receive UHF signals.
There's no doubt he'd get through to more people on the web, but he won't abandon TV. Why? Because, he says, the internet sucks.
"The internet is vastly overrated. Nobody cares about you on the internet," he tells me one afternoon in his studio, surrounded by banks of screens and dials of random purpose. Star Ray's mascot, an aging German shepherd named Shadow the Wonder Dog, sits at his side.
With UHF, he reasons, he only has to compete with 30 other broadcasters, as opposed to millions of people on the internet. Running a TV station has a certain prestige Youtube never will.
"I wouldn't call us on the leading edge of technology," he jokes. "More like the bleeding edge."
The smartphones and iPads that most media outlets are gearing their content towards these days Pachul describes as "distraction toys." Facebook is "a fad, and a lousy one as far as I'm concerned."
Pachul's distrust of more modern technologies extends beyond the web. He doesn't own a cell phone because he doesn't want to have his brain fried. When I show him my Android, he takes a device off the wall to measure the radiation its spewing. The machine's needle jumps disconcertingly when he holds its wand to the top of my phone. It barely moves when he holds it up to the TV screens that he spends most of the day with inches from his face.
Pachul, 57, is funny, often vulgar, and quick to emit a high pitched giggle, especially when scoffing at my ignorance of broadcast logistics. His passion for television goes back forty years when, at 15, he started working at a cable station in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where his father moved from Toronto for an engineering job. He did odd tasks around the studio, and in 1971 began hosting a teenage dance show called WJ Pachul's Freak-In.
He explains how Star Ray TV ended up broadcasting illegally.
"The whole idea was to get people on the air who normally wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting on the air," he says of the channel's early days. "That was the original intent."
When the channel launched in 1997, Pachul obtained an experimental broadcast licence from Industry Canada. After it expired he fought a protracted, unresolved battle with the CRTC. The commission, which he accuses of being controlled by big broadcasters, denied his request for a low-power licence in 2000. He fought the decision, arguing that Star Ray TV was a community station that provided programming not otherwise available in Toronto.
After some procedural wrangling, the commission sent him a cease and desist order in 2001, and for the next six years, Star Ray TV was basically a radio station with pictures; Pachul aired still images with sound, which technically didn't violate CRTC rules. But after a second licence application was turned down as incomplete (Pachul is adamant he was denied due process), he decided to go pirate, and began broadcasting moving images again in 2007.
"I got fucked all the way down the line," he says.
"We generally don't like to use the word ‘pirate' because we did everything we could to be a legal station. But we use that term occasionally because it has a certain amount of romance to it."
Since he resumed broadcasting, Pachul hasn't had any further trouble with the authorities. A CRTC spokesperson says the commission is not aware that Star Ray TV is still operating without a licence, and because the CRTC never received a complaint after the cease and decist ruling, no one's followed up.
At any given hour, anyone lucky enough to pick up Star Ray is likely to see a mix of public-access shows, old movies, and images that stretch the definition of television programming. He sells air time ($100 per hour, $200 per hour during prime time), mostly to religious groups. Recently he had a group of South Etobicoke residents on to talk about their opposition to a crematorium opening up in the area. Another organization used studio time on to advocate for greener technology.
But much of airtime is taken up by movies, either ones Pachul considers classics or local productions, which he'll air no matter how bad they are. A shelf in his studio is full of VHS titles he'll eventually get around to transferring for TV; Female Trouble, Dance Girl Dance, Bride of the Monster, Deadly Spawn.
For stretches of the day, he airs a "community marquee" of local announcements. Sometimes the only images are the text of quotes from Mahatma Gandhi and John F. Kennedy.
Recently In 2001 he reluctantly started up an internet channel, but even that is not available to Mac users or anyone using anything other than outdated versions of Internet Explorer.
Pachul can't be sure how many people watch Star Ray, but by using the Moses Znaimer method (take the number of people who write you letters, multiply that by 1000), he estimates he has 20,000 to 50,000 monthly viewers, or roughly a 15 per cent audience share.
He reckons that Shadow the Wonder Dog, who appears frequently on air, is "probably the most famous dog in Canada by now."
He admits that Rogers might dispute his viewership numbers however.
Running a television station, even a pirate one, costs money, and Pachul works hard to make ends meet. He sells advertising time, but prefers not to if he can avoid it ("advertising pisses off the viewers"). He also takes in some money by repairing electronics in a corner workshop in his studio, and sells equipment he's stockpiled over the years. He accepts donations, and volunteers.
After fifteen years of fighting to keep his station on air, Pachul is about to face another major challenge. This summer, CHCH is slated to begin broadcasting on channel 15, and the more powerful station will knock Star Ray off the airwaves. Pachul plans to switch over to channel 22 instead, but is worried that he'll lose viewers. Plus, the sign outside and his van parked out back already say channel 15, and changing them would be "a pain in the ass."
Still, he has no intention of giving up on his TV station, no matter what the rest of the world gets hooked on.
As I leave his studio he tells me a joke. How would you describe kids today? he asks. He grins and twiddles his thumbs in an imitation of playing video games, and then twiddles his thumbs up and down in imitation of masturbation.
The implication is clear: today's teenagers aren't nearly as cool as the Pennsylvania kids who used to show up to dance on WJ Pachul's Freak-In in 1971.
"Back then," he says, "we used to dress up like movie stars."