From the Existential Issue: The Pirate Radio Capital

A sound tour with David Goren, radio producer and audio archivist

In 2018, David Goren, a radio producer and audio archivist, created the Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map to collect the sounds of dozens of pirated broadcasts from across the borough. Pirate stations earn their name by hitching a ride on already licensed radio frequencies that typically cost commercial stations millions of dollars to acquire and set up. Nowhere in the country are there more pirate radio stations than in New York, where they provide a vital service to immigrant populations.

Goren estimates that New York has about a hundred pirate stations, transmitting from rooftops and attics to listeners seeking news from around the city and back home, as well as entertainment and religious programming. The broadcasts bypass socioeconomic barriers and provide a means to seize control of the flow of information. But they are now at risk of extinction: Before Donald Trump left the White House, he signed the Pirate Act, which increased the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to fight pirate operations through mandatory sweeps in cities with high concentrations of pirate radio use. Pirate stations today face fines of up to two million dollars. “The people running these stations, they don’t have two million dollars,” Goren said. Broadcasters that don’t make it onto his sound map could be lost forever. —Amanda Darrach

Listen here and find the transcript below.

 

Amanda Darrach: Imagine that you’re new in town. Maybe you’re new to the US altogether. Your day is winding down. You’re exhausted from operating all day in a second language, or a culture that is foreign to you. And what you really want is to hear the news. Or music like they play at home. Or just some confirmation that someone knows you’re still out there. You may not have a computer, or a smartphone, or Wi-Fi, but you can afford a radio.

Hi, this is Amanda Darrach. I’m a contributor to CJR, and you’re listening to clips of pirate radio stations in Brooklyn, New York. Our latest issue asks the question, “What is journalism?” To help me explore that today, I’m going to talk with David Goren. David is a radio producer and audio archivist based in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He’s interested in radio’s special ability to build communities whether over short or long distances. That’s why, in 2018, David created the Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map.

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Pirate stations earn their name because they broadcast by hitching a ride on already licensed radio frequencies—the same ones it can cost commercial stations millions of dollars to acquire and set up.

Nowhere in the country are there more pirate radio stations than New York City, where they provide a service for immigrant populations that can be vital. David’s map archives over a hundred hours of pirate radio broadcasts from 2014 to today. 

David Goren: I have a sort of an interest in oral history and folklore in my background. So this project is sort of like a hybrid of being an archivist and a journalist with notions of recording culture.

Darrach: That’s David, speaking to us from his home studio. That’s where he catalogues the stations he discovers with the help of an FM radio connected to a directional antenna. David primarily picks up broadcasts serving immigrants from the West Indies, but also Latino and Orthodox Jewish communities.

He estimates there are about one hundred pirate radio stations that are on every day, twenty-four hours a day, in New York City alone. From transmitters hidden in plain sight on city rooftops, or in a friend’s attic, unlicensed radio producers commandeer occupied radio frequencies to form a web of pirate stations. They give a much fuller picture of the poly-cultural city than the commercial airwaves provide.

Here’s spiritual guidance on 100.7 “Irie Storm” and 88.7 “Kol Hashalom” (The Voice of Peace), broadcast in Hebrew to the Sephardic Orthodox Jewish community. David’s archive quilts together classes on immigration law (97.5 Vybz), ads for immigrant-owned bakeries and beauty parlors, even English lessons for Kreyòl speakers.

Unlicensed broadcasters have to fight to bump corporate stations—or, more often, each other—off the airwaves. You might have heard that kind of back-and-forth before, late at night on your car radio. Here are two pirate stations: Radio Rumba, from Upper Manhattan, and Brooklyn’s 95.3 New York Kreyòl, competing over the same frequency.

In January 2020, President Trump signed the Pirate Act, which increased the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to fight pirate operations through mandatory sweeps in cities with high concentrations of pirate radio use. Pirate stations risk fines of up to two million dollars. Broadcasts that don’t make it onto David’s sound map could be lost forever.

David’s fascination with radio began in grade school. On Friday nights, he and his sister would use an AM radio to find stations from across the country.

Goren: At night, the signals change from just going, you know, fifty, sixty, a hundred miles during the day. What happens is a layer of the atmosphere evaporates after sundown and the signals skip off the ionosphere and you can hear them. I grew up in the sixties and seventies and, for a certain class of person, usually male at that time, there was a fascination for listening to the radio and seeing what you could hear.

Darrach: When David was thirteen, in the early seventies, his uncle Lou gave him an old radio with a shortwave band. 

Goren: Essentially, it’s another part of the radio spectrum where you can hear signals from thousands of miles away.

Darrach: David’s dad warned him there was no way he’d find anything on those frequencies. But as soon as they got home and turned it on— 

Goren: Radio Moscow. You know, really hardcore propaganda. 

Darrach: This felt like a huge deal. To be in the eighth grade, and to find a broadcast from behind the Iron Curtain, at the peak of the Cold War, was mind-blowing. He was hooked. David began to search for, and find, stations around the world.

Then, in high school, he discovered the work of Studs Terkel. Terkel was an American author and disc jockey who collected oral histories on themes like the Great Depression, World War II, and American racism.

Goren: The idea of this guy collecting all these stories from people from different walks of life around different themes was really intriguing to me. So I think I caught that story-collecting bug early on. And then at the same time, in my college and post-college years, when I was sort of trying to get my foot in the door in the public radio world, I was thinking, I’m not really an academic, and I’m not going to go to grad school, but what I would like to do is to make NPR-style radio pieces that explore roots culture, you know, and just the different cultures that make up people’s lives.

Darrach: So what exactly does it take to start your own pirate radio station?

Goren: I have a friend. He bought a cheap transmitter for two hundred dollars, about one watt. It can go about one block. So really anyone can get on the air and make a noise and it’s not very likely they would get caught.

But I was out one day talking, getting person-on-the-street type interviews, and I was just recording some ambience on a corner of Rogers Avenue and Clarendon Road. And as I was recording, a man beckoned to me who was selling water from a cooler outside a Haitian church. It was a Sunday.

After a couple of minutes, he revealed that he was one of the people involved in running Radio Comedy, this Haitian station. I think if you’re dealing with a higher power than one watt—which could reach, you know, a block or two, or maybe even a little more—if you want to reach Little Haiti in East Flatbush, which is like eighty thousand people spanned out over a couple miles, then you probably want to run a transmitter with a lot more power. And it’s probably something that you can’t easily do from your house. So he described to me that they have to find a landlord. It’s usually a basement, because they can’t afford anything else. People on this team that put the station on the air, they chip in money and they buy the transmitter; they put up the antenna. Sometimes the FCC comes by, doesn’t find them, but asks them to take the antenna down. Other times, stations can have their equipment confiscated, so they have to buy it again.

Darrach: What’s different about a radio broadcast than hearing it online?

Goren: You know, we don’t know. We don’t see the signals, but they’re actually coursing through our bodies—you know, they’re very low-level electrical signals, which are drawn to the moisture in our bodies. So we’re almost like radios without the equipment.

Some of these stations, it’s like listening to a vinyl record. You hear the skips, you hear the hums, you hear the buzzes. So on like a meta level, that sort of radio has a special quality to some people. And I think the people that run the stations like the feeling that they’re beaming a signal of their culture to the community.

Darrach: And it turns out that pirate radio is so much more than a reminder of home or an anchor in a new country. It can be a way to seize control of the flow of information. A tool to bypass social hierarchies, or even to make a revolution. 

Goren: The flavor of the pirate radio scene changes around the different boroughs. Where I live, it’s largely West Indian.

In the Haitian culture, there was one independent radio station in Haiti during the Duvalier regime, and eventually the guy who ran that was assassinated. There’s a cultural, historic basis to people growing up in different countries and how the media was. I’ve heard this described in Haiti as being the age of transistor or the transistor revolution—that during the Duvalier regime, in order to get independent news from off the island, people would keep a radio or a transistor radio under their bed.

Darrach: Here’s a 1963 broadcast from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Goren: As Dr. Jean Eddy Saint Paul put it to me—he said, “A peasant, a farmer in his field would rather go without tobacco to buy batteries for his radio to be able to tune in to the Voice of America,” which would have been an alternate news service, or even any independent news from off the island. If you’re in Haiti, you could probably hear stations on AM radio from the southern United States and from other Caribbean islands. So you could actually get a different view than what the government media of the Duvalier regime was telling you.

In the sixties, there was a big wave of immigration to the United States from Haiti. And when they got here, they wanted to set up media centers, basically. If you’re Haitian, you want to listen to the radio because you grew up feeling this was a way to get independent news. If you’re a potential broadcaster, it establishes you as someone important in your community. These immigrant communities, and especially the Haitians, I think, are economically disadvantaged, so if you are broadcasting on the radio, you don’t have to have a cellphone, you don’t have to subscribe, to pay monthly for that cellphone data plan.

I talked to a Jamaican pastor. His church has a station. And I said, “Well, why?” You know, “Why are you on the air? Because you’re also on the internet. And you also give out a phone number that people can call and listen on their phones.” And he said, “Because I want to reach the homeless, the hospitalized, the shut-ins, the elderly.”

Darrach: This feels so much more trustworthy to someone who’s new in this country—and certainly someone who’s undocumented.

Goren: Yeah, well, it’s talking to them more directly. It’s just like that. What I told you—I met the guy from that station by accident. He was showing me all this stuff and he was using digital means to get it. His friends on the ground were sending him photos and then later they would talk about it on their station and they would set up, you know, phone calls with people on the ground in Haiti.

This guy’s friend says, “CNN, they don’t show you this. The BBC, they don’t tell you this.” And every time Joseph is saying this, his friend is saying, “No, they don’t. No, they don’t.” So, you know, there’s definitely an access to the media that these people don’t have just by the offerings that are available to them from the commercial stations.

Darrach: Unlicensed stations go back way further than the transistor revolution. The Communications Act of 1934 established the FCC and made it illegal to broadcast without a license; pirate radio stations have been around ever since.

The Godfather of New York City pirates, as David calls him, was a guy named Allan Weiner. As a high school kid in Yonkers, Weiner put a couple of stations on the air using old World War II surplus receivers. He’d also share his gear with people across the boroughs. By 1982, the New York Times counted about twelve active stations in the city. The FCC was always listening. Enforcement was active back then, so in 1987 Weiner bought a ship, named it the Sarah, and invited some other local pirates to join him. They broadcast four miles off Long Island and called the project Radio New York International. It worked for about two days before the Coast Guard came in. Weiner was handcuffed and taken off the air.

After that, the pirate scene got competitive. People tried to sabotage each other’s operations. There’s one story about owners of a station hitting a rival over the head with a brick. At the same time, pirate stations were exploding across the country. Here’s David. 

Goren: Starting in the eighties, across the country, there was a rise in pirate radio activity in response to the FCC phasing out a low-power license. They were trying to get rid of any station that would broadcast under a hundred watts. And with that power, you can reach a small town or a small community. Radio, really in community radio, you know, has the power to bind communities together and support different kinds of ethnicities and cultures. So by the nineties, this was sort of a widespread movement across the country—some people termed it a civil disobedience—where there were probably about a thousand stations across the country.

Darrach: Here’s “Radio Bomb,” by the Matthew Good Band, an anthem from the peak of the pirate scene. Then the content of the broadcasts began to shift.

Goren: It’s sort of like the energy of this earlier scene, which, like, young kids underground, not all white, but mostly white kids and young adults changing over to serving more immigrants. The earlier wave of pirates kept broadcasting well into the nineties, but then they sort of faded out.

Darrach: Immigrant stations overtook the punk-rock civil-disobedience movement when city media rates skyrocketed and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed station owners to license even more stations than they already could.

Goren: So even in New York City, where on the legal stations you can hear Spanish stations and Russian stations, some stations became more formatted. There used to be—and still is to a degree—stations that just lease blocks of their time to different broadcasters. But these people from the West Indian community or the South Asian community in Queens, they would rent time—and some still do—these legal times, on these legal stations that would broker time. But they would be paying five thousand dollars an hour. No one could buy a station because you would need like one hundred million dollars to buy an FM station. At the same time, there was a wave of cheap transmitters coming in from China, so you could get on the air with much less fuss. You didn’t necessarily have to have an electronics background to do so.

And also then the internet was on the rise, so people could trade information more easily, like: here are plans to build a receiver. And that’s what fueled both the community-focused immigrant pirates and like, the progressive, arty pirates.

Darrach: The FCC responded to the pirate boom by offering a new, lower-power class of licensing. The National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio found ways to block the initiative. The broadcast lobby fought to require that low-power stations be at least two clicks on the dial from local stations already on the air. That ruled out most urban areas, which of course have fewer available frequencies and play home to the concentrated immigrant populations who rely on pirate stations. Pirate radio evolved into what David calls a cat and mouse game.

Goren: The New York City pirates would come on largely after midnight. Actually, in my New York City’s Pirates of the Air documentary, someone who used to be on a station called Stereo Nine FM said they followed the “Carson rule.” So when Johnny Carson went off the air, at one, they would go on the air. That way their neighbors would have these interfering radio signals from a transmitter, you know, next door to their house. So they would attract less attention.

And they also said that’s what their audience would be—their people, lonely people, and the new people who are going to call up and talk about politics. So it sort of continues in the face of the law and of other opportunities to get your message out.

Darrach: In 2017, Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai chairman of the FCC. That June, Pai said he was going to “take aggressive action” to stamp out pirates. In early 2020, Trump signed the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement, or Pirate Act, into law. The act increases fines from a maximum of a hundred and forty-four thousand dollars to two million dollars.     

Goren: I think the FCC was also asking for something with more teeth to try to get people off the air. 

Darrach: In the past, practical difficulties have worked to the pirates’ advantage: there’s a government statute that allows fines to be reduced to “ability to pay,” and not enough staff to chase all the stations down.

Goren: This new law tries to make the finding happen more quickly, with less paperwork. It mandates sweeps; it mandates a list of legal stations for the public to know.

Darrach: Even if the FCC does manage to track down a pirate station, most proprietors of pirate radio stations can’t afford to pay.

Goren: And when they get the big fines, the FCC in and of itself does not collect the fines. The Justice Department has to be involved. So one reason why they’re raising the fines to two million dollars is maybe to interest the Justice Department to go after them. But on the other hand, the people running these stations, they don’t have two million dollars, and they could just say, “Look, here are my tax returns, I can’t pay you.”

Darrach: I asked David: Who would actually go to the trouble of reporting a local pirate station to the FCC? It turns out it’s mostly listeners of legal stations who hear interference from pirates, and that’s really the only argument the FCC has that holds up.

In part the FCC justifies taking action by saying pirate listeners might miss emergency alerts, or that faulty pirate equipment could interfere with air traffic control. But David told us about a pirate radio scholar, John Anderson, who filed a foia request and found out the government is the number one disruptor of air traffic control. Broadcasters were down around number ten on the list.

Then there’s concern about pirates filtering ad revenue away from legal stations. But Haitian funeral homes, car services, and restaurants could never buy airtime on licensed local stations.

David, as you listened over the past year, covid hits, the uprising against police brutality begins. Plus, whatever’s going on in these people’s countries of origin. How did you see the pirate stations in your area respond to the climate this year?

Goren: So what I noticed in March 2020 is that, on the weekend, these stations are on full time; during the week, they’re off during the day and they come on around dinnertime and they stay on until early the next morning. But what I started to hear is that some stations that would normally be off during the day were now on the air twenty-four hours. And there was definitely—the stations drew even closer to their listeners than they had before.

On the stations that were more automated, that just play music all the time, they began to drop in PSAs, announcements, about how to take care of yourself during covid. But I also heard a lot of DJs, one on one, giving shout-outs to the undocumented during this time as well as to rescue workers and healthcare people, all the essential workers in the community. One station would have a call-in and people could talk about who might have died in their family.

There was one that’s online, but they’re also on the air, where this DJ—he is obviously very connected. And he had a show for about two hours where he had on all the local politicians: Jumaane Williams and Yvette Clarke and the assembly people in the district. I also heard other stations put on Cuomo’s daily news conferences. Musicians will come in and play covid calypsos.

You know, calypso is this form from Trinidad which is very political. So you would hear music that would address that. And as for Black Lives Matter, there were similar things going on.

You know, I’ve been doing this for a while, and now I’m like, Wow, I really need to be recording, like, all the time, you know? Because I’m hearing it now on like a micro level. And the meaning of it has become more potent to me, of what these stations mean and what they’re doing. And they probably won’t be around forever.

Darrach: When Joe Biden entered the White House, he immediately signed into effect dozens of executive orders, but none addressed the FCC. With so many urgent crises at hand, it’s hard to know how his administration plans to deal with pirate radio.

What we do know is that Biden named Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC board member nominated by Barack Obama, as the new acting chair. Throughout Pai’s term, Rosenworcel criticized him for making proposals that would lift caps on media-ownership limits—and that would overwhelmingly benefit white, corporately controlled broadcasters, at the expense of minority interests. In 2017, Rosenworcel denounced one of Pai’s proposals as “a giveaway to the largest station group at the expense of diversity, localism, and competition.”

An FCC leader that champions diversity and localism may give pirate radio stations reason for hope. But still, they face another existential threat: the lure of the Web.

Goren: Well, over time, these stations have adapted to digital means. So for their younger audiences, probably they may connect digitally more than using the radio. The older people who are running these stations may eventually not do it anymore. And the audiences do gravitate more towards most of these DJs that now you can also watch on Facebook Live. So it could be, you know, eventually, the radio piece may fade out over time.

What I notice in my researching articles in the media is there’s not a lot about these stations, you know, in the past twenty, twenty-five years. But these communities are not as connected to digital culture as others. The commercial radio industry will still tell you that their listenership is still fairly robust. It’s gone down a little, but it’s still hanging in there.

Darrach: David also points out that low-power pirate transmitters are uniquely suited to listening communities that are concentrated around a few blocks, a somewhat homogeneous neighborhood.

Goren: Unfortunately, in the sense that it’s changing these communities, it’s maybe gentrification that ends pirate radio sooner than the legal enforcement. Because there’s a lot of gentrification going on in those communities, a lot of apartments going up. So, you know, given that with the aging of the audience that uses radio and the diluting of the neighborhoods, to a degree, the audience may dilute enough that the stations don’t feel they’re reaching their audiences.

Darrach: For his radio archival work, David was just made a partner of the Radio Preservation Task Force, a project of the National Radio Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. And as long as there are pirate radio broadcasts, he plans to archive them.

Goren: Recently the FCC sent notices to three stations in Queens, to landlords. There is a station in Queens that I’m able to hear in Brooklyn, probably six miles away, this Ecuadorean station. They were on the air when the notices came out, and they were on the air for several days after, but now they’re no longer on that frequency, so they may have felt some pressure to shut down and move.

That’s why I feel this project is important, to document these stations. Because, legal or not, they are fulfilling a need for their audiences. Just the snapshot of history through listening to the stations—I think it’s valuable to have.

Darrach: If you’d like to check out the Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map, there’s a lot more to hear. You can find it at pirateradiomap.com. This is Amanda Darrach for CJR. Thanks for listening.

ICMYI: Check out the rest of the Existential Issue, which asks the question “What is Journalism?”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.