Remembering the Ministry of
The Reverend Dr. Carl McIntire
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Reverend Carl McIntire: A Pirate of God
by Larry Townsend

Traditionally, the Federal Communications Commission has been under fire from broadcasters for its regulatory role in the industry. Many have expressed concern that the federal government is becoming dangerously involved with the daily operation of broadcast stations. Some have challenged the government's right to regulate the industry beyond the mere licensing of stations. A few have gone to extremes to issue this challenge. One man sacrificed his livelihood in broadcasting and, in so doing, made broadcast history.

Reverend Dr. Carl D. McIntire, a right‑wing fundamentalist preacher, is responsible for one of the most controversial "pirate" radio broadcasts in U.S. history. McIntire, a strong believer in law and order, and a man of God, also has strong convictions about First Amendment rights. He is as fundamental in his approach to those rights as he is in his approach to religion.

McIntire believes the broadcast industry should enjoy the same First Amendment rights as the print media. His "purist" philosophy combined with his steadfast personal convictions prompted him to defy the law.

McIntire and WXUR

McIntire's right‑wing empire began as pastor of the Bible Presbyterian Church in Collingswood, New Jersey. He founded the Christian Beacon, a weekly religious newspaper, and acquired Faith Theological Seminary in Elkins Park, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Eventually, he became head of the International Council of Christian Churches.[1] His holdings grew to include the Carl McIntire Foundation, which owns several properties in Cape Canaveral, Florida, including three apartment buildings, a motel and 280 acres of undeveloped land. But the springboard for McIntire's empire was provided in 1965 when he mortgaged Faith Seminary for $425,000 to buy WXUR.AM‑FM,[2] a radio station in Media, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. WXUR syndicated McIntire's 20th Century Reformation Hour radio program to 610 stations. During the peak of his popularity, McIntire's fiery attacks against liberals in church and state were heard by ten million people who contributed $30 million a year to support his fundamentalist ministry and related financial interests.[3]

Dissatisfaction with McIntire's conservatism began to grow, however, and nineteen opposing groups raised $30,000 to drive McIntire off the air. Some who opposed renewal of WXUR's license wee the Greater Philadelphia Council of Churches, the New Jersey Council of Churches, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti‑Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the Catholic Community Relations Council, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the AFL‑CIO of Pennsylvania. In a petition to the FCC, they contended that WXUR's programming was inflammatory, racist, anti‑Catholic, anti-Semitic and weighted toward radical right‑wing conservatism.[4]

After a nine month hearing, H. Gifford Irion, an FCC examiner, found the WXUR views balanced by other opinions. He recommended that the general public be allowed their constitutional rights to hear the views and could cope with controversy it aroused, because the American scene has always been characterized by rough and tumble rhetoric. The Commission rejected Irion's recommendation, however, and ordered WXUR off the air.[5] The FCC contended that upon receiving a license in 1965, WXUR immediately began broadcasting right‑wing programs to the virtual exclusion of others. Such programming violates the Fairness Doctrine, which requires stations to air both sides of controversial public issues it presents and to broadcast replies by those it has attacked. Listeners who called to challenge the program views of WXUR were repeatedly balked at, hung‑up on or otherwise denied access to the station's airwaves to express their views.

McIntire appealed the decision and lost, but not on grounds he violated the Fairness Doctrine. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC action was justified because of programming misrepresentation. The majority of the Court said that McIntire never intended to air opposing views when he got the license in 1965. Since he had misrepresented himself to the Commission, the FCC action was appropriate.

In his dissenting opinion, Chief Judge David L. Bazelon questioned the constitutionality of lifting a license on the ground of misrepresentation. That ground, said Judge Bazelon, is "too narrow to use if it deprives a broadcaster of his constitutional right to free speech. He said taking a licensee's constitutional rights away because of a failure to list each program to be aired is like squashing gnats with a sledge hammer. [7] Such FCC behavior, he continued, defeats the goal of the Fairness Doctrine by depriving the public not only of a viewpoint, but also of robust debate on controversial issues. The First Amendment and the Fairness Doctrine are intended to guarantee open debate, said Bazelon, not prevent it.[8]

Spencer Coxe, executive director of the‑Greater Philadelphia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the ACLU didn't join with the groups opposing WXUR's license renewal because of reservations about the use of government power to silence any medium of communication based on the content of its message.[9]

McIntire emphatically denied any intentional misrepresentation to the FCC but it was to no avail. The Court decision in favor of the FCC forced WXUR off the air on July 6, 1973.[10]

The Columbus and "Radio Free America"

McIntire and his supporters were furious and determined. He decided to carry out plans to convert a 140 foot minesweeper, the Oceanic, into a floating broadcast station. The old ship was restored and renamed Columbus. [11] McIntire chose that name because he said the ship's mission was to rediscover First Amendment rights in America. Contending that freedom of speech should apply equally to broadcasting as they do in the press, McIntire called the station "Radio Free America. [12]

Equipment was removed from WXUR and installed aboard the Columbus. McIntire said the FCC would have no power to stop the transmission since the ship would be anchored twelve miles out to sea, in international waters, where the FCC had no jurisdiction.

McIntire, proceeding in the name of free speech, began broadcasting at 1160 kHz on the AM dial without a license. He took to the high seas off Cape May, New Jersey in the converted World War II minesweeper. He had already installed the 10,000 watt WXUR transmitter aboard. He also armed the ship with a cache of rifles intended to ward off "Soviet Communists [13] or any other potential intruders. The ship displayed no skull and crossbones, but nevertheless meant to wage verbal battle with the FCC over First Amendment rights. The first and only of the pirate broadcasts pierced the ether at 12:23 pm on September 19, 1973.[14] Amid fanfare from supporters on shore, McIntire read his "Manifesto of Freedom" on deck during the dedication ceremony calling for radio and television stations to be delivered from government repression and control.[15]

He continued broadcasting throughout the day along WXUR's traditional gospel programming lines, until he learned from WHLW in Lakewood, New Jersey, that his broadcasts were interfering with their signal. WHLW, located at 1170 kHz AM, complained to the FCC as well. The transmissions also interfered with the signal of station KSL of Salt Lake City, Utah, which broadcasts at 1100 kHz. McIntire voluntarily closed down "Radio Free America" after a one day stand. Citing the abundance of available wavelengths, McIntire planned a temporary shutdown until his engineers could readjust the equipment to broadcast nearer the top of the AM band where no other stations were operating.

Before this was accomplished, however, the FCC obtained a temporary injunction halting further pirate transmissions from the Columbus. McIntire had overlooked an international agreement made in Geneva and ratified by the U.S. Congress in 1961. Article 7, Section 1 (1) of the International Telecommunications Convention prohibits the unlicensed broadcasts by American ships anywhere.[16] In addition, section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934, (Act), 47 U.S.C. Sec. 301, affords the FCC direct regulatory power over any craft of US registry.[17] The Oceanic was so registered.

McIntire quickly challenged the injunction accusing the government of sponsoring their own unlicensed broadcasts. He said the CIA and other government agencies constantly make unauthorized use of international airwaves, citing "Radio Free Europe" as an example. McIntire argued that, since the government's own hands are dirty on the issue, it has no right to sit in judgment. This "unclean hands" argument became his central defense in the case. He also accused the government of creating a "chilling effect" among broadcasters who wished to exercise free speech, but feared the FCC would revoke their licenses.[18]

As the court battle continued, McIntire began to win favor among some Congressmen. North Carolina Democratic Senator San V. Ervin, Jr. called for legislation to kill the Fairness Doctrine. The North Carolina Democrat said the doctrine was valid in the early days of broadcasting to ensure a diversity of viewpoints. The Senator noted, however, that radio stations now far outnumber daily newspapers and should be afforded the same First Amendment benefits as newspapers. Ervin added that the FCC had no right to require programming promises in the first place. Representative John E. Hunt, Republican of New Jersey, and Representative John R. Rarick, Republican of Louisiana, introduced bills to force the FCC to renew WXUR's license. The bills were never approved.[19]

A decision making the injunction permanent was handed down in District Court by Chief judge Mitchell H. Cohen on February 20, 1974. Judge Cohen rendered the argument of "unclean hands" unavailable to the defense due to the overriding national interest in maintaining orderly use of the nation's airwaves, as well as the adverse effects of the defendant's unlicensed broadcasts on the public interest. [20] The permanent injunction ended McIntire's pirate contingency plans and no further broadcasts ensued.


In handing down the permanent injunction against the Columbus, Chief Judge Cohen affirmed the government's duty to manage the nation's airwaves, even in international waters, in an orderly manner and within the public interest. But Judge Bazelon's Federal Circuit Court of Appeals had previously side‑stepped an important issue closer to home. The heart of the problem remains the question over the constitutional validity of the Fairness Doctrine. The court avoided the issue in favor of the FCC contention that McIntire misrepresented programming intentions in obtaining WXUR's license in 1965. However, the FCC also accused McIntire of violating the Fairness Doctrine, which is the real issue in the case. The primary reason McIntire and his fervent followers chose the path to piracy through the Columbus, and "Radio Free America" was specifically to challenge the doctrine.[21]

Court decisions in the case ended McIntire's battle with the FCC. The preacher lost WXUR permanently and his high seas pirate adventure closed down after only one day. Though his efforts were defeated, the Fairness Doctrine question he posed still warrants a ruling. On one side, the government is committed to enforcing laws that require broadcasters air all sides of a controversial public issue discussed on the air. On the other side, many believe broadcasters should have the same constitutional rights as print media. They believe the public has the right to hear a broadcaster's views, so First Amendment rights of listeners are also being violated.

The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech, or of the press. But the term "press" at the time the Constitution was written meant printing press." The concept of broadcasting could not have been foreseen, it is not listed among First Amendment rights; therefore, Congress can make laws about broadcasting. Broadcasters can be lawfully required to make programming promises and to be licensed. Unless it is decided that the term "press" includes broadcasting, the U.S. Constitution provides no answer. Freedom of speech, as an issue in the case, is also a point of contention. It is difficult to say who was not allowed to speak; McIntire to his audience, or those he spoke out against who didn't have the means to respond in kind on the air? Until doubts about the Fairness Doctrine are satisfied, those of determined character will challenge it. A landmark decision on the Fairness Doctrine in the McIntire case could have forced the issue before the Supreme Court, wherein lies the means for its resolution.


It appeared Rev. McIntire's empire might rapidly sink after the permanent injunction was issued by Judge Cohen. He relinquished the Columbus, and its equipment in the face of a tax suit by Cape May, New Jersey officials on his beachfront Bible conference facilities and other properties. The city billed McIntire for nearly $550,000 total in taxes and interest.[22] Devoid of income from WXUR, McIntire faced financial disaster. However, when New Jersey State Tax Appeals judge Carmine F. Savino, Jr., ruled that the Christian Admiral Hotel and its property were exempt from real estate taxes, a ray of hope appeared for McIntire.[23]

Although he may never own a radio station again, his 20th Century Reformation Hour is still syndicated on radio. The fiery fundamentalist also makes regular appearances on radio and television, and still publishes the Christian Beacon newspaper.[24] It seems Rev. Carl McIntire, pirate of God, will not be silenced.

[1] "McIntire's 'Pirate' Radio Ship Slated to begin broadcasts by End of Week," New York Times, August 10, 19739 p. 31 Col. 5.

[2] "The Pirate Preacher," Newsweek, XXIV (September, 1973), P. 93.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Janson, Donald, "McIntire Asks FCC to Reconsider Lifting of His Radio License," 1174ew York Times, July 3, 1973, P. 57, Col. 1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] "McIntire's Radio, VXUR, Off the Air," New York Times, July 7, 1973 , p. 52, Col. 1.

[11] "McIntire's Radio, VXUR, Off the Air," New York Times, July 7, 1973 , p. 52, Col. 1.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Krebs, Albin, "McIntire Unable to Get 'Pirate' Radio Ship Going," New York Times, August 31, 19739 P. 56 Col. 7.

[14] Janson, Donald, "'Pirate' Ship off Jersey Begins Broadcast Challenging FCC," New York Times, September 20, 1973, p. 97, Col. 2.

[15] The actual ceremony was held aboard .Columbus on September 3, 1973 . Notation courtesy of the Christian Beacon, Collingswood, New Jersey.

[16] 28 U.S.C.A., Fed. Rules Civ. Proc. rules 8(d), 12(c), 65(b).

[17] 47 U.S.C.A., Communications Act of 1934, Sect. 301.

[18] "McIntire Asks FCC," P. 57.

[19] Janson, Donald, "McIntire Gains Support In Radio Station Dispute." December 3. 1973, p. 87, Col. 7.

[20] 370 F. Supp. 1301 (1974).

[21] op. cit., New York Times., "Ship to Begin Broadcasts," p. 81.

[22] McIntire a Winner." Christianity Today, p. 60.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Several attempts were made to ascertain more about Dr. McIntire. His staff members were courteous and helpful, but McIntire declined to comment personally. The Reverend may understandably be wary of writers not known to him.

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