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As police crack down on pirate radio, broadcasters resist the move online

As police crack down on pirate radio, broadcasters resist the move online


Police are cracking down on unlicensed broadcasters, but don’t touch that dial

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pirate radio address
pirate radio address

The address where The Fire Station's equipment was confiscated, according to police.

New York is pirate radio central. There are dozens if not hundreds of illegal radio stations operating without a government license in the state. They’re especially easy to find in New York City, where licensed stations often complain that bootleggers are hijacking their frequencies.

Twist the dial in Brooklyn and you’ll hear reggae, dance hall, and the news from St. Thomas coming in over the airwaves, broken up by commercials for barbeque at Frankie’s. Occasionally, you’ll pick up a signal on your cell phone and hear DJs bantering faintly in Spanish or Yiddish in the background.

But lately in Brooklyn, the underground airwaves have been much quieter than usual. Earlier this month, The Fire Station 104.7, a prominent Caribbean pirate radio station, was shut down after its owners inadvertently sold a $500 ad to undercover police. The police arrested Solomon Malka, the owner, and DJ Fresh Kid, whose real name is Seon Bruce. The pair face up to a year in jail.

The underground airwaves have been much quieter than usual

In the past, getting busted meant pirate station owners merely had to pay a fine. Frequently, the same station would pop right back up again, which is partly why New York has more Federal Communications Commission enforcement actions than any other state. But in 2011, New York passed a law that made unlicensed broadcasting a class A misdemeanor.

The vibrant pirate radio scene in New York City is dominated by immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other parts of the Caribbean, where the traditional radio culture is strong. Most of the audience listens on car radios, kitchen stereos, or with a boom box on the front stoop.

"When people go into their cars, it's like a norm: you turn on your radio," said Jay Blessed, the pseudonymous Trinidadian blogger and radio personality based in Brooklyn. "It’s an important part of our culture. I grew up listening with to my grandfather with his radio by his ear. If we can’t hear ourselves on the radio, then we feel ostracized."

This radio subculture exists almost entirely offline

This radio subculture exists almost entirely offline. The overwhelming majority of bootleg stations in New York don’t have websites or streams. But as the state gets serious about cracking down on unlicensed radio stations, these communities may be forced to break with tradition and ditch their old tech.

Moving a radio station online is a logical way to solve the problem. Startup costs are negligible. You can broadcast whatever you want, 24 / 7, as long as you can get the rights to the music (or are willing to take the risk of pirating them).

However, pirate radio isn’t just a public service for the Caribbean community and Brooklyn’s other clans. It’s a business, and there just aren’t enough listeners habituated to listening on the internet to draw advertisers. It’s worse than being relegated to a lower-quality, less prestigious AM frequency.

Securing a license from the FCC is difficult because of high demand and limited spectrum, which is the main reason why broadcasters go underground. Setting up a high quality FM pirate radio station isn’t cheap. You’ll need an antenna ($100), a transmitter ($1,500 to $30,000), audio mixing equipment ($100 to $500), a few coaxial cables ($10), and a source for the music — either a laptop, tape deck, or other player. Getting caught can result in fines of up to $25,000 and confiscation of the equipment.

Getting a license is hard because of high demand and limited spectrum

There is precedent for pirates moving online. Waah Gwan Radio 95.9 was reportedly once known as the "Hot 97 of underground stations," before pressure from regulators, among other problems, forced it to become an internet-only station. Another internet pioneer is Red Hot Radio, a pirate station that broadcasts on 102.3 (to the annoyance of the Babylon, NY-based rock station WBAB, the official licensor of that frequency). Red Hot Radio streams online, offers apps for iPhone and Android, and even allows listeners to call in to hear the broadcast.

Still, tuning in on phones and computers is a big change of habit from the familiar radio, and advertisers are harder to attract without the broadcast element. Rather than fleeing to the internet, Blessed said, the community needs its own legitimate radio station. "We are misrepresented on radio by pseudo-broadcasters with a microphone and an antenna, and that's doing us an injustice because we could really come together," she said. "Radio can’t be replaced in this community. It makes them feel home."