WUMS: The Granddaddy Of All Pirate Radio Stations

by Harry Helms W5HLH

When I first got interested in DXing back in 1963, pirate radio was almost unknown in the United States. Potential radio miscreants of all sorts feared the FCC the same way ancient Greeks feared the wrath of Zeus. As I studied for my Novice license back then, I trembled as I read a 1964 edition of The Radio Amateur’s License Manual and saw the penalty for a willful violation of the Communications Act: A fine of $10,000! Imprisonment for two years! Or both! I had visions of failing to identify my ham radio station properly, or accidentally emitting an out-of-band harmonic. . . . . . my door comes crashing down, G-Men storm in with guns drawn, and it’s off to Leavenworth for me! (Fortunately, I was able to suppress my fear long enough to earn my Novice and call sign of WN4EOX.)

I wasn’t alone in my fears (or delusions?). The FCC genuinely was more active in monitoring the shortwave bands then, and a lot hams—as well as coastal, fixed, and aeronautical users of the shortwave spectrum—found themselves receiving citations from the FCC, often for minor rules infractions. No one wanted to receive a “pink ticket” (so named for the paper color of the citations) from the FCC. And it was assumed that any unlicensed operation would be swiftly found by the FCC and the hapless unlicensed operator would certainly be packed off to a federal penitentiary.

But a handful of people weren’t intimidated by the FCC, and perhaps the most remarkable was Dave Thomas of Proctorville, Ohio, operator of pirate station WUMS (“we’re unknown mysterious station”). WUMS took to the air in 1925 and continued to operate until at least 1970 or so. The FCC tried its best to shoot down Dave, twice taking him to court. Both times he dodged the bullet.

Dave was also a DXer, and a very controversial one. He once claimed to have logged the nation of Chad on medium wave from Ohio as a result of enhanced propagation during a total solar eclipse! (Of course, this “logging” was totally bogus.) He also reported reception of the most notorious fraud in DX history, “Radio Nibi Nibi.” This hoax, perpetrated in the 1950s by a young DXer, involved a small island in the south Pacific called Nibi Nibi. There was no “Radio Nibi Nibi,” nor was there an island called Nibi Nibi, but those little details didn’t stop Thomas from “logging” Radio Nibi Nibi and reporting it to DX club bulletins (he even claimed to have heard their interval signal—the sound of falling coconuts!). He made other, similar “receptions” that no one else could duplicate. As a result of such “achievements,” Thomas was expelled from some DX clubs and became a pariah to many in the hobby.

WUMS first took to the air in 1925 as a semi-legitimate maritime and emergency station. Dave grew up near the Ohio River, became interested in radio at a young age, and at age 16 received a permit from the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), the predecessor agency of the FCC, to operate on 2004 kHz to communicate with boats on the Ohio and also to transmit to the public on 1560 kHz during flood conditions. The transmissions on 1560 kHz contained information about flood conditions, evacuation routes, when emergency assistance would arrive, etc. Thomas started filling dead air time during emergency broadcasts with talk and music, and discovered he liked broadcasting. Soon WUMS took to the air during such “emergencies” as routine thunderstorms and snow. When the FCC replaced the FRC, it did not issue Thomas a license or permit for WUMS. But that didn’t stop Dave; he just kept broadcasting. He dropped all pretense of providing an emergency service to the public and just wanted to see how far away he could be heard. WUMS was thus the first “DX pirate” operated for the benefit of DXers by a DXer.

I’ve often suspected WUMS was Dave’s way of taking revenge on the DX hobby which spurned him. Pirate or not, WUMS was a great DX catch; it operated with anywhere from 3.5 to 30 watts of power (usually less than 5 watts) on frequencies from 100 to 3000 kHz; 1560 and 2004 kHz were the most common frequencies (I suppose these were in tribute to the frequencies authorized by the old FRC permit). His operating schedule was highly erratic, but Thomas would sometimes leak word of impending transmissions to the DX community. Hearing WUMS was tough, but getting a QSL from Dave was even tougher. You had to transcribe all announcements word-for-word (including those made in Morse code), identify all musical selections by title and performer, have all times accurate to the second, and your report had to be postmarked less than 24 hours after reception. Dave answered all reports. If you met Dave’s exacting standards, you got a printed QSL card mailed with now-rare commemorative stamps. If you didn’t, you received a “non-QSL” detailing the reasons Dave couldn’t verify the report. In all the years WUMS operated, Thomas sent out a little over three dozen QSLs.

Such tactics didn’t endear Thomas to many DXers, and a few retaliated by alerting the FCC to upcoming WUMS broadcasts. He was hauled into federal court twice on charges of violating the Communications Act, but each time he escaped with acquittals. In his first trial, he was accused of operating an unlicensed amateur radio station. Thomas testified WUMS was a broadcast station, not an amateur station, and the judge dismissed the case! In his second trial, in 1948, Thomas produced his old FRC permit for WUMS, which the prosecutors had apparently not known about. Since it had no expiration date, Thomas argued, it was still valid. Whatever the legal merits of that argument, the jury believed it and returned an acquittal. After his second trial, Thomas became much more discreet in selecting those he told about upcoming WUMS tests; WUMS also took to the air less often.

In the May, 1963 issue of Electronics Illustrated magazine, Thomas and WUMS were profiled in an article written by C. M. “Stan” Stanbury II. “Stan” was the magazine’s DX columnist, and a recent, somewhat miffed recipient of a WUMS non-QSL. To put it mildly, the article wasn’t exactly flattering to Dave, painting him as something of a kook. Stanbury made fun of a book Thomas had written titled Mytheology, calling it a “strange mixture of religion, opinions, obscure chatter” and observing “the tome is notable for its misspelled words, its obscure currents of thought and its wild Thomas-made words.” I think Dave took greatest offense at the end of the article, where Stanbury said Thomas was now a CB radio operator—as Thomas later told me indignantly, “I’m a licensed ham, not a damn CBer!” After saying Thomas was a CBer, Stanbury twisted the knife by adding, “Chances are, he’s as legal as anybody else on the band.” This was at a time when CB rules violations were the FCC’s biggest enforcement problem, and Dave didn’t appreciate the insult.

Thomas was so upset by the article that he filed suit against Electronics Illustrated and its parent company, Fawcett Publications. The case never went to trial and instead was settled out of court. While I don’t know the details of the settlement, I suspect Fawcett paid Dave some cash to drop his suit. I don’t blame Fawcett. Based on my experience in publishing, the article does appear perilously close to libel and I suspect a jury might have agreed with Thomas.

By the late 1960s, Thomas was largely isolated from the mainstream DX hobby, even more secretive, and WUMS broadcast much less frequently. And this is where I enter this story. As a high school senior in the fall of 1969, I was surprised, and more than a little nonplussed, when Thomas dropped by my home unannounced on a Saturday afternoon. I had read Stanbury’s Electronics Illustrated article about him and WUMS around the time I first got interested in DXing, and heard rumors about him through the “DX grapevine” when I became involved in the DXing community. Now here was the legend himself on my doorstep!

Thomas’s wife had kin in my home town of Fort Mill, SC, and decided to visit me while his wife was with the relatives. Dave seemed delighted that I was young—only 17 then—and had become interested in DXing and radio at the ripe old age of 11. (I suspect this was because he also became interested in radio at an early age.) The two hours I spent with Dave were surreal and left my head spinning. According to Dave, the entire DX hobby was conspiring against him. Gordon Nelson of the National Radio Club was stealing his ideas and inventions; Perry Ferrell was keeping him out of the pages of Popular Electronics magazine. And did I realize that Ron Schatz was a Cuban agent, because that’s how he got the info for his Cuban station list? He knew people in Washington; he reported a lot of his DX catches to a top secret agency he couldn’t name. I didn’t have to prompt Dave for any of this; it gushed out of him in a delivery style reminiscent of those preachers I heard on Mexican “border blaster” stations. While I was somewhat naïve and lacking in worldly experience back in 1969, I quickly realized Dave was, to put it in radio terms, operating on a frequency not zero-beat with objective reality.

But Dave was really nice to me; he and I tuned my Drake SW4A receiver (my pride and joy, paid for by my first “real” job that summer) and he was complimentary about my modest collection of QSLs. He seemed genuinely interested to learn I had just sold an article to 73 Magazine and urged me to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Eventually Dave had to leave, and he asked me to accompany him outside. Parked in our driveway was this white, late model Cadillac that seemed as large as a Navy frigate. Dave hold told me he had recently moved to Florida and was living near Tampa, but his car had Ohio plates reading “WUMS.” “How did you get those tags?” I asked in sincere puzzlement. “I have my ways!” Dave cryptically replied. I knew that was all the explanation I was going to get and didn’t pursue the matter.

Dave motioned for me to accompany him to the car’s trunk, which appeared big enough to carry a piano. He opened it, and inside I saw what looked like a homebrew version of Ameco’s old AC-15 Novice transmitter. There were a couple of tubes, a power transformer, a couple of variable capacitors, and a large air core inductor on a metal “pie pan” chassis. I was stumped at what I was looking at and why he was showing it to me. After a pause of a few seconds, Dave dramatically intoned, “This is the WUMS transmitter!” He told me he was worried about the FCC breaking into his home while he was away and stealing it, so he took it with him when he traveled. He then let me in on a big secret: WUMS was going to take to the air when he got home. Dave told me the date, time, and frequency, and wanted me to try to hear it. I promised I’d do my best, and we said goodbye.

Sadly, I didn’t hear the WUMS test. I dropped Dave a note telling him I didn’t and thanking him for the heads-up, and he responded by saying he had received one correct report, from well-known DXer Kermit Geary in New York. Dave and I exchanged a couple of more letters over the next few months, but eventually I left for college and became much less active in DXing for a few years. Eventually we lost touch with each other.

I’m not sure what became of Dave Thomas and WUMS after 1970, although he almost certainly must be dead by now. The other DXers I’ve mentioned in this article—Stanbury, Nelson, Schatz, and Geary—have also passed on. I wonder what ever became of the WUMS transmitter. Is it (hopefully) in the possession of a relative, or was it carted away to the dump?

If I had to sum up Dave Thomas in four words, they would be “full blown batshit crazy.” But life would be so much duller without characters such as Dave, and his main offense was to not take some DXers of his era as seriously as they felt they should be taken. WUMS was the prototype for future pirate radio stations, and its record of at least 35 years of operation will likely never be broken. And Dave Thomas could be gracious and kind to some dopey kid interested in DXing.

This old article was reprinted in the A*C*E August, 2001 but originally from May, 1963, Electronics Illustrated magazine, written by the late C. M. Stanbury II, titled "The Strange Case of Radio WUMS"

Another article from Dec 1984 published in Popular Communications.