Rebel preacher makes waves

The Detroit News/December 11, 1996
By Ron French

ADRIAN -- The cameras pick you up as you pull into the driveway and roll past the "Church Property -- No Trespassing" sign. They follow you through the door and into the church foyer, where a motion detector switches on a light shining on the baptismal pool.

Down the hall, in a makeshift broadcast booth, radio show guests discuss the New World Order; a media conspiracy to miscount votes in the presidential election; and an impending holocaust from biological warfare covered up by the government.

Welcome to Radio Free Lenawee, a pirate radio station where conspiracy is king and taunting the government is the daily bread -- at least until the government decides to do something about it.

For a month, the station has thumbed its nose at the Federal Communications Commission, which requires licensing of all broadcasts.

"The fact that the FCC won't approve it won't stop me," said the Rev. Rick Strawcutter, of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. "This is the Rosa Parks of radio."

Twenty-four hours a day, a 100-foot tower behind the white, Colonial church beams messages of paranoia and conspiracy to part of Lenawee County. The low power limits the radio waves to a 10-to-15-mile radius, but the ripples reach from Washington, D.C., to California. The station is one of hundreds of radio signals springing up illegally around the country. Radio Free Lenawee is one of the biggest at 95 watts, and one of the most noticeable because of Strawcutter's try-and-stop-me attitude toward the FCC.

"Is there free speech in America?" taunted Strawcutter. "Are we back in the old Soviet Union? Let's find out."

He may soon. Two FCC investigators visited the church Nov. 22, telling Strawcutter he risked losing his equipment and a $10,000 fine if he keeps broadcasting. Strawcutter sent them packing, with only a folder prepared by his attorney.

He expects them to be back, and to be more forceful next time.

He compared his fight with the federal government to that of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians -- a fight that ended in the deaths of four U.S. agents and 86 sect members.

"That's one of the reasons we're doing this," Strawcutter said. "If David Koresh had a station like we have, with a power generator so he could have broadcast what was really happening, do you think they would have pulled that stunt?"

Strawcutter's 250-member, nondenominational church is religiously, socially and politically conservative. It has a generator to produce its own power if electricity is cut off. Strawcutter also admits having a gun in the broadcast booth recently, calling the 22-caliber rifle a "squirrel gun."

The church has high-tech security, with cameras in every room and in front of and behind the church. While Strawcutter talked to a reporter, a church-goer videotaped the conversation.

"I don't think it's paranoia," said Strawcutter, 46. "I think it's common sense."

Born in Grand Ledge, Strawcutter was named after the All-American Ricky Nelson on Ozzie and Harriet. But by 18, Strawcutter was smoking pot, dropping acid and trying to avoid the draft.

From drugs, he turned to Amway. "I did nothing but eat, drink, sleep and push soap for 11/2 years," Strawcutter said.

At 21, he gave up soap for God. He studied to become a minister, and at 26, the congregation of what was then the United Pentecostal Church of Adrian chose him as its new pastor. Since then, Strawcutter has overseen several church name changes, the construction of a new complex, and a slew of controversies.

He first made headlines in 1979 when his church held a book-burning. In 1988, he was jailed for refusing to obtain a building permit for an addition, saying he couldn't apply for a permit because "this property is owned by Jesus Christ."

Strawcutter had been fascinated by radio since he was a teen-age ham radio operator. He once tried to start a 3,000-watt station, but the FCC told him no frequencies were available. Later, he hosted a call-in show on a local radio station called The Last Straw.

Then he heard about Stephen Dunifer. In 1995, the California man operated a 95-watt radio station without FCC approval, called Radio Free Berkeley. Since 1980, the FCC has refused to license stations under 100 watts.

A federal court stopped the FCC from shutting down Dunifer's station. The case now is being appealed. Now, Dunifer distributes information on setting up "micro-radio stations," and sells the needed equipment. For about $500, anyone could be on the air waves.

No one knows how many underground stations exist. Some broadcast only a few blocks. Many hide from the FCC, switching frequencies and camouflaging antennas in trees. Strawcutter had a different idea. On his first day of broadcast, Strawcutter invited the FCC to try to shut him down.

He rigged equipment in a church store room and went on the air Nov. 4. Parishioners wore signs on the sidewalks of Adrian, telling residents to "Tune to 97.7 Now."

Strawcutter tries to distinguish between the church and the radio station. But he leases the room and broadcast equipment from the church, and the station is staffed by church volunteers.

The minister claims the FCC knew of his station within an hour of going on the air. John Winston, FCC assistant bureau chief, said the agency knows of the station and an investigation is under way.

Meanwhile, Strawcutter claims to be building a loyal following. The station broadcasts around the clock, filling most of the time with talk shows from the American Freedom Network, with hosts such as Bo Gritz. The station has a local drive-time show from 6 to 9 a.m., and Strawcutter hosts a daily program from noon to 1 p.m.

"Are you tired of the liberal, biased, left-wing media?" asked the sign-on for Strawcutter's show on a recent day. Not waiting for a response, the minister launched into his first interview with a California man who once also ran his own pirate radio station.

"We're living in a totally lawless society," the guest ranted. "Anything that presents itself as a law is a bluff."

The man went on to claim that anyone who voted in the last election violated the Constitution, and that the only hope for America is to have 10,000 stations just like Radio Free Lenawee.

Strawcutter said there is room for at least 500 unlicensed, renegade radio stations in the country. It's a view that makes him unpopular at the FCC.

The FCC views the issue as one of control; he expects his station will face a long battle in court.

"The mainstream media overlooks a lot of stories that are important," Strawcutter said. "A lot of people to the right feel their views are not being reported."

Strawcutter admits being an extremist. He doesn't pay taxes, and believes the United Nations is a harbinger of one-world government. "I'm an American, not an internationalist," he said.

He preaches long and loud on the radio about the evils of homosexuality, and believes the militia movement has gotten a bum rap from the media. "It's more than shooting," he said. "It's food and generators. There's a videotape on how to do minor surgeries at home.

"We're in some really desperate straits here, with a government that is out of control. It seems to me it is a matter of destiny that I do this at this time."

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