In a city saturated with digital technologies, radio can seem like a humble relic. But its very limitations also make radio unusually accessible. With a handful of decades-old, analog tools — an antenna, a transmitter, and perhaps an amplifier, too — anyone can broadcast to their neighbors, in theory. However, like so many urban spaces, the electromagnetic spectrum is contested territory. Despite strict regulation and rampant privatization of the airwaves, so-called pirate radio stations have been operating throughout New York City for decades. Since at least the 1990s, in Brooklyn (but not exclusively), illicit stations have cropped up within immigrant enclaves whose cultures are so often not reflected in the programming prerogatives of major channels and sanctioned low-power alternatives alike. And with uneven access to online streaming platforms, listeners from Borough Park to East New York can still turn the familiar, and free, radio dial to listen to music, news, and worship services that speak directly to their experiences.
Since 2014, audio documentarian David Goren has been tuning into the underground stations of Brooklyn’s diaspora communities and talking with many pirate practitioners about their craft and public service in the face of very real risks. Goren’s Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map project is a growing archive of these sonics and stories, as well as a primer on the deeper roots and political dimensions of pirate radio throughout the five boroughs and beyond. Below, we share some of the sights — and more importantly, sounds — of this collection: a record of an important and vulnerable social infrastructure, built from “threads of invisible signal.”
Everyday across New York City, radio waves flow from antennas connected to hidden transmitters, transgressing physical and legal boundaries to wrap immigrant communities in threads of invisible signal. These unlicensed stations act as a bridge, bringing sounds from ancestral homes to a new home, transforming time, space, and culture.
Around 5pm as the workday winds down, the stations start to switch on across Brooklyn’s sprawling West Indian neighborhoods. Dollar vans and taxis roll down Flatbush Avenue blasting stations with names like Irie Storm, In the Street and Yard Vibez Radio. Known in the community as “underground” stations, they’re also often called “pirates” for taking over radio frequencies assigned to licensed stations.
By dinnertime, as many as thirty stations are on the air, scattered among the legal stations on New York City’s already crowded FM radio dial. Many have been on for ten-to-fifteen years or longer, but new stations continue to pop up. They cram in where they can, often causing interference with licensed stations and other pirates alike. The kaleidoscopic and intensely local feeling of the programming combines with a sometimes-shaky grasp of the technical art of broadcasting. The result is a raucous, chaotic counterpoint to the steadfast blandness and predictability of corporate-owned commercial radio.
“From a top secret location on a big rock called Planet Earth . . .” — Royal Radio 94.3
A montage of Brooklyn underground stations
Unlicensed stations in the US are prohibited to transmit a signal using power over a few milliwatts (basically enough to reach a couple hundred feet), but radio rogues have been around since the early days of broadcasting. In New York City, pirate radio activity stretches back at least to the late 1960s. During that era, broadcasting without a license was considered largely taboo and the complexity of assembling and operating broadcasting equipment kept the bar for entry fairly high. If a pirate made it on air, they faced a potential visit and shutdown by investigators from their local FCC field office.
In 1982, the New York Times noted that there were more than a dozen active pirates citywide. Currently, media watchers estimate there are at least 100 unlicensed pirate stations across the NYC metropolitan area. Many of the pirate stations of the ‘70s and ‘80s delighted in putting their own spin on the rock radio of the day. They made up fake call signs like WBUZ and WAXY. In Brooklyn, “Hank Hayes” and “Jim Nasium” ran WFAT, WFUN and WHOT. The standard practice for pirates was to sneak on the air late at night and on weekends when they hoped the FCC wasn’t listening.
Allan Weiner describes WKOV’s origin story and demise
Bumpers for WHOT, WQLB, WFRB
Allan Weiner is one of the founders of New York City’s modern pirate radio scene, putting his first station WKOV on the air in 1969. With his high school friend JP Ferraro and numerous volunteers, Weiner ran the operation out of his family home in Yonkers. For many, broadcasting without a license was a kind of irresistible, technically challenging prank. Once on air, some pushed the medium as far as they could. Stereo Nine FM, out of Queens, staged an elaborate remote broadcast covering the protests live from outside Madison Square Garden during the 1980 Democratic National Convention.
Regardless of how they went about it, all pirates had to constantly contend with the threat of FCC enforcement in a game of cat and mouse with Judah Mansbach, the FCC’s determined (and derided) field agent of that era. While on air, the pirates monitored the communication channels the FCC used when tracking a station, shutting off the transmitter when they got close.
During the 1980s, a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie spread among most of the New York pirates. They’d meet and work out an informal schedule to share what were prized as the two optimal pirate radio frequencies in New York City. 91.9 was preferred, as it was clear of local stations. The second, 91.5, was available only after midnight when WNYE, owned by the school board, signed off for the night. The NYC pirate community also collaborated on special broadcasts and relays, culminating in the daring and brief high seas adventure known as Radio New York International (RNI). After the WKOV shutdown, Allan Weiner moved to Maine to operate a legal station. But in July 1987, always with an eye on putting a station on air in NYC, Weiner returned, hatching a plan to broadcast on AM, FM and shortwave from a ship anchored in international waters off Jones Beach, Long Island. After four days and two “Notices of Apparent Liability” from the FCC, the Coast Guard boarded and dismantled the station.
Allan Weiner on the short life of Radio New York International
After the demise of Radio New York International at sea, Allan Weiner began leasing time for RNI on WWCR, a shortwave radio station based in Tennessee, until the FCC relented and granted him a license for his own shortwave station WBCQ. The local pirate radio scene began to devolve into squabbles and sabotage. In their wake, more diverse voices began to take to the air. New stations like WJQR-Nasty Radio, and WBAD-Bad Radio veered away from the usual rock music and inside jokes, instead playing hip hop and the latest club music directly to an African American and Latino audience eager to hear this music on the radio. WJQR’s founder, the technically gifted (and raunchy) Dr. X, broke pirate convention by going on the air earlier and on weekdays. He also pioneered selling blocks of airtime to aspiring DJs — a funding mechanism that some pirates use today.
DJ Cintronics and Dren Starr on the genesis and impact of WBAD
A barbershop ad and listener call-ins on WBAD
One of those DJs, Dave Cintron — also known as DJ Cintronics — became Dr X’s protégé in the art of radio piracy. After Dr. X sold Cintronics his spare transmitter, WBAD was born. Cintronics started out spinning house music, his first love, but soon switched the format up, exploiting a hole in hip hop programming on Sunday nights in New York City (when hip hop giant HOT 97 would break format to air talk programming and a reggae show). Filling the gap, Cintronics recruited experienced DJs in the underground hip hop movement including the ambitious DJ and promoter . Together they broadcast the raw, uncensored hip hop that kept parties going in living rooms, barbershops and hangouts across Brooklyn and the Lower East Side.
WBAD was raided and shut down by the FCC in July 1998, not long after they were featured on a television newscast against the wishes and behind the back of DJ Cintronics. They had been on the air for over three years, a long run for a pirate station at that time. During WBAD’s time on the air in the mid-90s, the number of Brooklyn pirate stations began to spike beyond the handful that were on every week. A new wave of unlicensed broadcasters, trying to reach immigrant and other non-“mainstream” audiences, began to slip through the cracks caused by rapid changes in the media landscape. Airtime costs on conventional stations were soaring, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed the rules to allow for one owner to have several stations in a single media market.
This led to consolidation of programming formats and fewer diverse voices on air. Inexpensive, easy-to-use transmitter kits were becoming widely available by mail order and tidbits of information about how to get on the air were passed along on the burgeoning internet. At the same time, the FCC Enforcement Bureau suffered from deep budget cuts by Congress and were not able to keep up. Many station operators who were cited for illegal operation just ignored the penalties and stayed on the air. Often, when a station was taken down, they waited a bit and then went back on with new gear from a different location.
DJ Cintronics on competition between Brooklyn stations
“Feel the Vibe!” — DJ Dlife on WBIG and early Caribbean pirate stations
The dozens of newcomers flooding the dial rattled longtime pirates like WBAD who felt they’d earned the rights to 91.9 through the benefit of their seniority on the frequency. They fought back, using a combination of persuasion, jamming, and sabotage. The bulk of the newcomers in Brooklyn were broadcasting to the thriving West Indian neighborhoods in Flatbush, East Flatbush, Crown Heights, and Canarsie due to the scarcity of Caribbean programming on conventional stations at the time. Pirates like were popular for their cutting-edge DJ mixes and underground vibe.
Angel Lopez, Jean Luc, Rev. Dr. Saunders, and Joan Martinez on listening to pirate radio
“This station rules the nation . . .” — an unknown Brooklyn broadcaster, 1993
Starting about ten years earlier, a civil disobedience-style movement comprised of many types of unlicensed stations began growing across the US. This push to take back the airwaves by activists and community members could be traced in part to the elimination of low power community-oriented stations in the late 70s known as the ‘low-power desert.’ The nationwide micro-broadcasting movement swept up radio experimenters, media artists, and progressive political activists. An early catalyst was the primordial micro-broadcaster Black Liberation Radio. Another groundbreaking station, Free Radio Berkeley, peddled FM transmitter kits and tangled with the FCC in an unprecedented and protracted legal battle to remain on the air. The court case led to a grace period in which Free Radio Berkeley were allowed to stay on the air. The provided a cover for other stations to do the same. In New York several progressive, experimental arts oriented “free radio” broadcasters came on the air in places like Manhattan’s East Village and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“Radio On!” — Free 103point9 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
After the FCC physically occupied and shut down , a collectively organized pirate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, its members voted to reorganize as the , which advocated for a legal form of licensing called They held to build community stations across the country, while teaching the skills necessary to run them. In 2000, The FCC commissioners to offer a new low power license in answer to the rampant pirate activity. Fearing interference and competition, the commercial broadcasting industry lobby and National Public Radio fought this change, and aside from a few brief licensing windows in 2000 and 2007, delayed its implementation for several years by influencing Congress to enact spacing rules (increasing the distance on the dial that the LPFM station can be from a full powered broadcaster) to limit the number of new stations. This was finally resolved with the passage of of 2010.
As LPFM slowly took hold, many pirates abandoned the practice and pursued a legal license or started to experiment with streaming their program online as internet connection speeds became robust enough to support audio. But in urban areas like Boston, Miami and New York City, LPFM’s spacing rules of the early 2000s left very few available slots. Pirate activity remained high as did the level of interference to legal stations. With so many pirates on the FM band, the was largely rendered a paper tiger, losing its ability to enforce broadcasting regulations and quickly address the majority of complaints from the licensed stations and their listeners. In Brooklyn and the rest of the New York City, pirate stations began to broadcast twelve to 24 hours every day of the week and full-time on weekends.
In Brooklyn, the pirate stations play multifaceted roles for listeners, providing music, entertainment, a connection to home cultures, and support for surviving in a new place. Access to breaking news and information is crucial. During the early evening hours, many of the Flatbush pirates relay newscasts from Jamaica, Haiti, Grenada, Guyana, and Trinidad. For Haitians, with a local population of over 80,000, access to news and cultural content via the radio, particularly in Kreyol (or Haitian Creole), is considered vital to the well-being of the community.
The need for multiple, independent sources of information has roots in the repressive regimes of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, which lasted from 1957 to 1986. That time was known as the “transistor revolution”. Haiti’s media was controlled almost completely by the government with programming delivered in French, the language of the elite, rather than Kreyol. Working class Haitians saved up to buy small, easy-to-conceal radios to access news from outside of the country. Just under half of the 25 or so nightly pirates in Flatbush are Haitian stations. Not just stations, they are hubs for political and artistic activism, and the people who run them are key figures of influence in their communities.
A montage of Haitian Kreyol stations
Dr. Jean Eddy St. Paul on the “transistor revolution”
Joseph of Radio Comedy on the importance of unlicensed stations in Flatbush
After almost a century, pirate radio persists in the United States, particularly in densely populated cities like Miami, Boston, and New York where LPFM options are scarce on an already jam-packed dial. Even in the age of numerous, easy to access digital channels, the Brooklyn pirates still perceive a need to provide hyper-local service over the airwaves to marginalized immigrant audiences. The Brooklyn stations have been around so long that most listeners no longer think of them as pirate stations, or as anything out of the ordinary.
After three decades in which the pirate broadcasters thrived in tandem with ineffective and underfunded enforcement by the FCC, a new effort was launched after the election of Donald Trump as President. He appointed Ajit Pai as the new Chair of the Federal Communication Commision in 2017. Pai quickly instituted a with new tactics to try and shut it down. These included higher penalties and holding property owners accountable for hosting transmitters and antennas. Though mostly operating at low power and usually covering an area of three to five miles, the pirate stations can still cause interference to legal stations, particularly to low power community and college stations. This has caused Ike Hull, a passionate listener to WFMU, a freeform music station in Jersey City, to start a Twitter profile monitoring the stations.
In January 2020, anti-pirate radio legislation was passed by Congress. The PIRATE Act greatly increases fines, mandates a yearly sweep in pirate radio hotspots, and generally make it easier for the FCC to fine and take the stations off the air. As the laws tighten, and younger listeners gravitate more toward digital media, it’s hard to predict just how long the pirates will hold on to their audiences. To increase their reach, most stations have added websites and live audio streams. Many DJs make a point of using Facebook Live during their sets.
Gentrification is another threat. The western edge of Caribbean Flatbush is beginning to change, with many empty storefronts newly up for rent. Cultural traditions like outdoor steel-pan band rehearsals are in danger as vacant lots are lost to luxury housing. So far, the number of stations on the air remains steady even amid the increasing pressure from the FCC. Some stations say they stay on the air so as not to abandon, as one pastor at a church station put it, their “most vulnerable listeners: the elderly, shut-ins, the homeless and hospitalized,” and other people who are economically disadvantaged. These groups are less likely to easily access digital media and instead turn to a free service delivered by a widely available device that they likely already own: a radio.
The West Indian stations have always broadcast a lively array of music, preaching and relays of Caribbean news programs from Haiti, Jamaica, Grenada, and Trinidad, while shows focused on local concerns and other current events were somewhat less common. This changed in March 2020 as Covid-19 spread through Brooklyn’s West Indian neighborhoods at much higher rates than much of the rest of the city. In response, the stations drew closer to their listeners, with many expanding into daytime hours (a potentially riskier time to broadcast illegally). They met the pandemic with a sharpened focus that permeated all levels of programming: health information, interviews with local officials, shoutouts to essential workers, prayers for the sick and remembrances of those who died, along with COVID Calypsos and Quarantine Mixes.
“Too Much Dying” — 91.9
A corona calypso on 105.5 Crossroads Radio
DJ Elly gives a coronavirus update on 98.5 Yard Vibez Radio
A coronavirus prayer on 99.3
This focus on the well-being of the listening community remains, and so do the stations, despite the enactment of the PIRATE act, , and the preference for digital access by younger listeners. Though Brooklyn has the most activity, there are additional pirate radio hotspots with perhaps as many as 100 stations citywide. They’re concentrated in West Indian, Latino and some Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in the Bronx, Queens, Newark, and Paterson, New Jersey. Even so, with the lingering threat of enhanced enforcement, and almost no pathway to obtaining a license without a great deal of money and political clout, the future of unlicensed, pirate radio broadcasting in New York City remains murky and vulnerable to an eventual fadeout. that host rogue broadcasters
This feature has been adapted from the StoryMap,
"Tracing Neighborhoods in the Sky".
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.