Harlem Goes Radioactive

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Now on the air in upper Manhattan: some spirited programming you can’t hear anywhere else–by law. This summer, 10 high school students spent several days each week recording their own radio shows for Kids Discover Radio 88.7, a low power FM station. Sound better than summer camp? There’s just one problem: low power radio, otherwise known as pirate radio, is illegal.

In 1997, a couple of community activists–Ms. Pyramid and Peyo 1, as they’re known on the air–launched WKDR as an after-school program for pre-teens in a Harlem housing project. About 25 signed up to learn how to produce radio shows, edit content, and engineer sound–they even climbed to the roof of their building to mount the antenna themselves. Because the Federal Communications Commission bans broadcasting without a license, everyone also came up with their own pseudonym, or “radio tag,” to protect their identities.

“I like the way I feel when I’m talking on the air, knowing that there are people out there who would actually listen and hear me,” says Tattoo, a high school sophomore who hosts “Radio Divas.” Her show originally featured self-styled poetry, but soon expanded to include music and talk radio. Recent topics have ranged from light-hearted talk about relationships to serious discussions of teen pregnancy and suicide.

“It wasn’t just a matter of teaching kids to produce and edit, but also to think critically,” says Pyramid. She and Peyo have also taken their students on visits to the Museum of Television and Radio and to other local low power FM stations. “Low power radio is providing the kind of activities for kids that are needed in this community,” she adds. “Kids Discover Radio created bridges between different generations and different groups of people who would otherwise never have talked to each other.”

The station has gone through several incarnations, recently becoming part of the curriculum at a Manhattan alternative high school.

Low power FM has recently experienced a national renaissance, fueled in part by a lawsuit over Free Radio Berkeley, a California station serving activists and immigrants. A five-watt station with a broadcast radius of a mile or two costs as little as $600 to set up and can easily reach thousands.

New York is home to about 40 low power FM stations, according to DJ Dizzy, who runs the Brooklyn station free 103point9. At least four have been raided this year by the FCC, including a Latino immigrant news station in Queens, a religious broadcaster in the Bronx and two Haitian frequencies in Brooklyn.

Last January, the FCC unveiled a plan to let some small stations go legit. So far, 750 have applied for licenses. But low power FM still has powerful foes. The National Association of Broadcasters argues that micro stations interfere with commercial channels. It is sponsoring a bill in Congress that would eliminate three-quarters of the frequencies available for low power FM. If it passes, the FCC will likely refuse to grant any new licenses to broadcast over New York’s congested airwaves.