The untold pirate radio story in New York

[Update, 4 June 2016—I’m attempting to listen right now to WFAN/101.9 and it’s obliterated by signals flanking it on 101.7 and 102.1. Maybe my tweet about it here will finally get some journalists interested in the topic.]

The radio dial here IMG_8116in “upstate” Manhattan and the Bronx is packed with pirate radio signals. Many are smack next to New York’s licensed landmarks. Here’s what I’m getting right now on our kitchen radio…

  • 88.1 “Romantica New York” Spanish announcers, music in English and Spanish. Right next to WBGO (@wbgo), New York’s jazz station (licensed to Newark).
  • 89.3 Spanish. Right next to WFDU and WNYU (@wnyu), the Fairleigh Dickenson and NYU stations that share time on 89.1.
  • 89.7 Spanish. Talk. Call-ins. Right next to WKCR (@wkcrfm), the Columbia University station on 89.9.
  • 91.3 Spanish, as I recall. It just popped off the air. Right next to WNYE on 91.5.
  • 92.1 Spanish, currently playing traditional Mexican (e.g. Mariachi) music and talking up a Mexican restaurant. Right next to 92.3 WBMP “Amp radio” (@923amp) in New York.
  • 94.3 Spanish talk. Not next to any local station, but two notches removed from 94.7 WNSH “Nash” (@nashfm947ny) in New York (licensed to Newark).
  • 95.3 Spanish music. Right next to 95.5 WPLJ (@955plj) in New York. (Note that in the screen shot above, of my kitchen radio, it lights up the ST (stereo) indicator.)
  • 98.9 Spanish talk and music. Right next to 98.7 WEPN-FM (@espnny98_7), ESPN’s flagship station on 98.7.
  • 99.3 Spanish talk. Right next to 99.5 WBAI in New York.
  • 101.7 Spanish music. Right next to 101.9 WFAN-FM (@wfan660) in New York.
  • 102.5 English talk, with a Caribbean accent. Just heard ads for businesses in The Bronx (nail salon) and New Jersey (dentist), massage therapy (50 fremont ave, East Orange, NJ), a reggae music concert, 708-282-8741. Right next to 102.7 WWFS, “Fresh 102.7” (@fresh1027ny) in New York.
  • 102.9 English talk and music, with a Jamaican accent. I believe this was the same station that earlier today was rebroadcasting a Kingston station, no doubt picked up off the Net. Also right next to WWFS.
  • 105.5 Some kind of Christian pop, I think. It’s not WDHA in Dover, NJ. I just checked that station’s stream online. Totally different.
  • 105.7 Music in English right now. Right next to 105.9 WQXR (@WQXR) in New York.
  • 106.1 English. Reggae dance. Ads: Mizama Apparel Plus, 4735 white plains road. Kings Electronics, 4372 White Plains Road. Jumbo concert in Mt. Vernon… Also right next to WQXR on the dial. All but blows QXR away, in fact. (QXR’s signal radiates from the same master antenna as most other New York stations, on the Empire State Building, but is just 610 watts, while most of the rest are 6000 watts.)
  • 106.9 English music. Caribbean accent. Right next to 106.7 WLTW “Lite FM” (@1067litefm) in New York.

This is a nearly completely different list of pirates than the one I compiled last fall from this same location, in the 10040 area code. (There were pirate signals on 89.3 and 89.7 then, but I’m not sure if these are the same.), None of the pirate signals match anything on this list of all the legitimate licensed signals radiating within 100km (60 miles) of here.

Man, I wish I knew Spanish. If I did, I would dig into as many of these as I could.

All of them, I am sure, are coming from the northern end of Manhattan and the Bronx, though 102.5 has so many ads for New Jersey places that I wonder if it’s actually over there somewhere.

All of them serve some kind of marketplace, I assume. And even though I don’t understand most of what they’re talking about (when they do talk), I’m fascinated by them.

At the same time they are all illegal, and to varying degrees interfere with legitimate licensed stations. If I were any of the legitimate stations listed above, I’d be concerned. Weaker stations (e.g. WKCR, WBGO and WQXR) especially.

There are a few New York pirate radio stories out there (here, here and here, for example); but they’re all thin, stale or old.

This is a real phenomenon with a lot of meat for an enterprising journalist — especially one who speaks Spanish. Any takers?

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13 Responses to The untold pirate radio story in New York

  1. wayneandwax says:

    Interesting stuff, Doc, especially the changes since last time you scanned. Fascinating how the language/format seems to move in chunks up the dial.

    This account, by the way, is neither thin, stale, or old:

    • Doc Searls says:

      Thanks, Wayne.

      Given how cheap and easy it is to set up a station, I wonder how many of these actually radiate from cars. I say this because the most basic FM transmitting antenna is a 30″ length of conductor — such as the whip antenna on a car.

      I once heard what I guessed was one of the pirates, blasting from the speakers of a restaurant on a weekend evening on Dyckman Street — and also from a car parked on the street nearby. Meaning that, if I guessed right about what I heard, there is a degree of grass (or street) roots popularity to some of these stations. That some stations seem to be almost wall-to-wall advertising also says something.

  2. Terry Hayes says:

    “Upstate” Manhattan (Washington Heights and Inwood) is a great place to visit. Just was there last week to walk across the newly opened High Bridge, and check out the Metropolitan Museum branch at the Cloisters. It definitely feels like the environment from “In the Heights”.

    • Doc Searls says:

      Thanks, Terry. We like the neighborhood. It’s a lot like Brooklyn before it became a hipster headquarters. It’s well settled, with a relatively low crime rate and not much gentrification. For those interested, Wikipedia’s articles on Inwood and Washington Heights do a good job explaining both areas (which run together, basically).

  3. D. C. Gal says:

    As a former WBAI producer/announcer and ardent radio nut (especially at the ends of the dial), thank you ever so much for this post. Gives me hope!

    With all good wishes,

    • Doc Searls says:

      Hi D.C.

      I was a huge BAI fan and supporter in the ’60s and ’70s when I lived in New Jersey (where I also grew up), and an occasional contributor of pitches for support as well. (Stuff I wrote got read on the air.)

      I wish I could say the same today. Every time I tune in I wonder, “What is that?” That’s not a knock. Just saying.

      There is so much more good radio off the air than on it these days. Flying to California yesterday, and again while working around the house, I listened to a bunch of podcasts, which are becoming a kind of “best of” way of approaching radio now.

      What’s so interesting to me about pirate radio is its DIY quality. It’s a maker approach, but gets little attention from the major media (or even the long-tail media, which is everybody who publishes), at least here in the U.S., because it’s underground culturally. Upstate Manhattan and The Bronx are off the radar culturally, mostly because other languages and uncommon dialects of English are used.

      Back to WBAI for a moment. Do you, or does anybody, know why BAI broadcasts with only 4300 watts from the same master antenna (on the Empire State Building) from which other Class B (the max allowed in the Northeast) radiate with 6000 watts? They had equivalent power on an earlier master antenna, and I can’t find any reason why on the current one they would be required to drop their power. WNYC is also lower-powered, though not as much (5200 watts), I believe because they found themselves short-spaced when they returned to the ESB from the World Trade Center location after 9/11. Other lower-powered stations on the ESB master antenna — WQXR and WBLS, for example — are grandfathered with their lower powers because of legacy short-spacing to other stations on the same channel.

      Anyway, that’s a side thing. Just wanted to put it out there.

  4. KDJ says:

    The story I heard was that many years ago, the FCC realized they had calculated the FM power levels on the Empire State Building wrong and invited all the stations broadcasting from there to apply for an increase. Everyone did except WBAI, presumably because someone there dropped the ball as usual. As a result of that missed opportunity, their signal is now permanently downgraded.

  5. Ben Dawson says:

    I’m a consulting engineer and I’m reasonably familiar with the ESB and other NYC situations. I am fairly sure ‘BAI is at lower power than the other class B FM’s on the 2 ESB master antennas because they simply haven’t the transmitter power available, and haven’t bought a new transmitter to bring it up. They also have a construction permit (BPED20140623AAX) to move to 4 Times Square as their permanent location (others use it as an aux). When I was in college ‘BAI and ‘NCN were on the roof of the Hotel Pierre – I worked for Concert Network which owned ‘NCN when I was in college (Harvard – I was also CE of WHRB for a while). They both moved to the old ESB antenna in the early ’60s before the adjustments in the US/Canada FM bilateral agreement allowed the power to be increased for NYC class Bs.

    • Doc Searls says:

      Hi Ben.

      Actually, both explanations make sense to me. Either ‘BAI failed to properly administrate the move from the old Alford to the new ERI master antenna, or they lacked the gear to do it right. Whatever the answer, they seem to be stuck with the lower status.

      When I look at this FCCinfo list of all the stations in midtown, a few things stand out. One is that WBAI is among the stations on the Empire State Building maintaining a auxiliary transmitter using the old Alford antenna (32 T-shaped things, all angled at 45°, protruding above and below the observation deck on the 102nd floor). Among those stations, WBAI and WBLS are the only ones using a lower power than the others — just as they do on the ERI master antenna (where WBAI is 4.3kw and WBLS is 4.2kw, while the others, except for WNYC, are 6kw). I also notice that WBAI’s construction permit for the new transmitter on the 4 Times Square master antenna (used as an auxiliary one for most of the other stations, and as the main for three couple lower-power stations: WBGO, WNYE and WKCR) is also below the Class B maximum. According to this calculator site provided by the FCC, WBAI should be at 14.5kw at 282.3 meters. Instead it’s just 10kw, which is less than the 11 to 13kw used by most of the other stations’ auxiliary transmitters.

      Anyway, I’ll bet that, if Pacifica ever sells off WBAI’s license, the commercial buyer will find a way go crank that power back up to equivalency. Given the sad depths to which both WBAI and Pacifica have sunk (just in terms of listening), it might be smart for Pacifica to sell the license while the price is still good. In the next few years, as listening continues to drift off AM and FM to digital streams on the Net and podcasts, FM properties will be selling for less and less. Pacifica can probably get a few dozen million dollars for 99.5 in New York, and use the money to improve the rest of their stations, their libraries and much more, and to establish the beginnings of a proper endowment.

      I remember when BAI and NCN were in the Pierre, and other stations were on various buildings around town. WTFM/103.5 and WRFM/105.1 were on their own towers in Queens, WRVR/106.7 was on the Riverside Church, WQXR/96.3 was on the Chanin Building. WPAT was on the Chrysler Building. Most of them jumped onto the Alford antenna on the ESB in ’65 when it went up. WNYC, WPAT, W(forget what it was called, the former NCN) and one more went to the WTC, and then down again on 9/11. A contract engineer told me he was pretty sure WNYC uses lower power on the ESB (5.2kw compared to the others at 6.0) because they found themselves short-spaced to somebody when they moved back to the ESB after 9/11. Makes sense. I haven’t checked into it, though.

      Fun to talk about this stuff. There aren’t many of us left who still care. 🙂

  6. Jim Russell says:

    I would like to point out that WBGO has always identifed itself as a Newark station, and the broadcast studio is in downtown Newark. They did move the transmission tower to Times Square a few years ago, but never on-air identify as a New York station. (As opposed to WNSH, who do everything in their power to hide the Newark connection.)

    • Doc Searls says:

      Thanks, Jim. Noted. I’ve listened to WBGO since the ’60s (at least when I’ve been in town). While it proudly identifies itself with Newark, it serves the whole metropolitan area from midtown Manhattan. My main purpose with this piece was pointing out that nearly all the pirates are smack next to stations radiating from midtown (all on the Empire State Building or 4 Times Square). Not sure why the pirates choose to do that, but there it is. I was also hoping to see a response from WBGO or one of the others, but have heard nothing, and there that is too.

  7. Currently cooking up a prospectus and sample chapters on the history of pirate radio in the U.S. It’s a phenomenon as old as licensing, wildly diverse in who participates, and rooted in a couple of common sentiments: radio is a medium of last resort, and there’s a sense that “the public airwaves” still has some literal meaning.

    I hope to do some ethnography on BK especially, and perhaps get to do a ride-along with the poor understaffed FCC folks on Varick st. Somebody’s set up @BKPirateWatch on Twitter which has logged 30+ station (my last bandscan on the Midwood/Flatbush border picked up 34 stations).

    NYC’s congressional delegation is raising quite a stink about all of this, and the FCC is cooking up some sort of “plan” to deal with it. Tough to kill a rhizome.

    • Doc Searls says:

      Well put, John.

      I think the most interesting stuff in the history of pirate radio is happening today. Most of it isn’t in English, and nearly all of it is not in the U.S. equivalent of BBC English. It’s minority radio.

      I almost wonder if a fun thing for the FCC to do is expand the FM band down into the abandoned space occupied by Channel 6, below 88 on the “dial,” and devote it to open spectrum low-power community broadcasting. It would take awhile to catch on, and might not at all, but it would be a good gesture, similar to making 88-92 the “educational” band (which it never was, becoming instead simply noncommercial).

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