In Flatbush, Pirate Radio Tunes Into Trouble

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It’s the afternoon before the annual West Indian American Day Carnival Parade, which draws some 2 million revelers to Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn each Labor Day. Across the borough, weeks of anticipation have now given way to vibrant social gatherings in many quarters. And that includes the small, windowless back room of a basement in East Flatbush where four men bounce and sway to calypso music while engaging in lively banter.

They’re inside a tidy, wood-paneled space—outfitted with a turntable, laptops, a telephone and assorted studio equipment—that serves as headquarters for VYBZ Radio.

Among those broadcasting live from the makeshift studio is a tall Trinidadian known as DJ Ruckshun, who dances in front of a stand-up microphone. He’s sharing airtime with DJ Invincible, who is visiting from Toronto. After DJ Invincible cues the next song, a classic hit entitled “One Family” by the legendary calypsonian Lord Nelson, DJ Ruckshun delivers a crisp, patois-inflected introduction. “We’re goin’ down memory lane,” he tells listeners. “You don’t know where you goin’ ’til you know where you come from. It’s all about one family.”

VYBZ Radio, courtesy of its website, can be heard daily around the world by anyone with access to high-speed Internet. Yet the Caribbean-oriented station also uses a transmitter and rooftop antennae to air its programming on terrestrial radio. With that signal, VYBZ is attempting to build a local audience in Flatbush and surrounding neighborhoods. But without a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to broadcast on the FM dial, VYBZ Radio is breaking the law.

VYBZ isn’t alone. Whether they’re broadcasting in Spanish or Hebrew, “pirate” radio stations continue to emerge as community staples inside many of the city’s ethnic enclaves despite their outlaw status. They represent one way that community voices are struggling to get heard in a media landscape dominated by commercial conglomerates.

Exactly how many underground stations exist right now in New York, or anywhere else for that matter, isn’t known. After all, these are small-scale operations that avoid unhelpful publicity, and individual stations are likely to appear or disappear at a moment’s notice. But whatever the number of pirates on the air in the five boroughs, the city remains at the center of the FCC’s long-running effort to prohibit the “unauthorized operation” of radio facilities nationwide.

Boom times, then a backlash

Pirate radio has been around since the mid-1930s, growing up alongside commercial radio. But as the cost of technology—namely radio transmitters and antennas, which can be had for as little as $200 these days—fell during the 1980s and ’90s, underground stations began to multiply like never before, from Miami to the South Bronx. In Flatbush, Haitian pirate stations became especially notorious for their sheer number and collective proficiency in drowning out licensed broadcasters.

The proliferation of pirates nationwide triggered a federal crackdown. Since 2001, according to FCC figures, the agency has issued more than $1 million in fines to individuals and organizations across the country for “willfully and repeatedly” operating pirate stations in defiance of federal telecommunications policy. The fines generally max out at $10,000 per case, although many are later reduced in court settlements. And while Florida has had the most underground stations fined since 2001, New York City is a close second with about a dozen of its own, according to FCC records.

“We have field agents in 23 jurisdictions throughout the United States who routinely check for signal interference,” says Janice Wise, a spokeswoman for the FCC who declined to address enforcement actions for any specific geographic region. “There are cases where people operate without knowing they need a license and we tell them where to go and apply for one. And then there are others who knowingly operate without a license and they are subject to a number of penalties.”

Also keeping score are the pirates themselves. A number of them use an online database overseen by John Anderson, a sympathetic media reform advocate in Illinois, to report instances where the agency has distributed warnings, issued fines, conducted raids or joined with U.S. Marshals to seize equipment. Anderson’s database indicates that since January, nearly a third of the 200 FCC pirate radio enforcement actions carried out nationwide happened in New York state.

Pirates have long been denounced by commercial broadcasters for causing signal interference. For the noncommercial classic jazz station WBGO (88.3 FM), which broadcasts from Newark, N.J., piracy remains a persistent headache. “Our listeners in Brooklyn and Queens are still telling us that they can’t hear us,” says Cephas Bowles, WBGO’s general manager.

Across New York City, piracy has declined in the past few years due to the increased FCC scrutiny, according to some observers.

In areas like Flatbush, however, pirate radio has not receded. And while the tension elsewhere is between pirates and large commercial stations and their listener-supported counterparts, underground radio operations in New York’s Caribbean community are competing with small, community-oriented, licensed stations that cater to the same audience as the pirates.

On either side of the law

Since the 1980s, the Haitian community in the New York area—which boasts a population of some 500,000 people—has seen the rise of multiple legally-sanctioned, low frequency Creole-speaking stations, from Radio Soleil D’Haiti to Radio Tropicale in Long Island.

And there’s an emerging crop of outlets now, which some observers maintain is a direct result of cases like the highly-publicized 2002 arrest of Paul Dorleans—a Brooklyn man who was reportedly operating an underground radio station despite repeated warnings from the FCC. Since then, several area Haitian community groups have been touting the benefits of subcarrier technology, which enables low frequency stations to rent transmission signals from licensed FM stations, to discourage piracy. “We’re helping them research so that they can follow the law,” says Jean Michel, executive director of Chay Pa Lou (“The Load Is Not Heavy”) Community Center located in Flatbush. “A lot of them didn’t know they were breaking the law.”

But whether the ongoing push for subcarrier stations, which requires that radios are equipped with special chips, have deterred piracy isn’t clear. Subcarrier technology, while cheap, is not a flawless option. The Haitian stations that use it tend to focus on news and talk programming, but pirate stations are usually tailored for a younger demographic with a heavy emphasis on music—sounds that subcarrier technology is less suited to transmit.

Perhaps because of that, Flatbush—which has the largest concentration of Caribbean-Americans in the country—continues to experience a veritable explosion in the number of pirate radio stations regardless of the FCC’s enforcement activity, and with no small effect on the local, sanctioned stations broadcasting nearby.

“They’re killing us,” says an executive at a Haitian-oriented station who refused to be identified. “It’s bad. We have to spend money just to stay on the air. What are the people setting up these [pirate] stations trying to do?”

It’s a question that underground radio detractors and supporters alike continue to grapple with.

According to DJ English, a 39-year-old Brooklynite of Grenadian heritage who launched VYBZ nearly three years ago, his station fills a community need. Like many underground station operators, English works a 9-to-5 job. He’s a licensed electrician who has helped to maintain antennas for major commercial radio broadcasters including WKTU, 101.9 Lite-FM and Hot-97. Ironically, that work only reinforced English’s desire to create an unlicensed station. “It isn’t hard to get a license to broadcast,” he reasons. “The problem is in building and maintaining the facilities to broadcast. It’s very expensive.”

After purchasing a transmitter, affixing an antenna to a rooftop, and recruiting other DJs, English founded VYBZ in 2007. By that time, the local market of Caribbean-oriented stations in Flatbush had grown markedly after Inner City Broadcasting’s WLIB, an AM station that catered to the city’s West Indian population for more than two decades, changed its format in 2004 to talk radio.

“For many of us, WLIB was the umbilical cord to the Caribbean,” says VYBZ Radio personality Collin A. “Ever since that was taken away from us, the so-called underground stations have been filling the void to keep the culture alive not only during Carnival season, but all year long.”

That sentiment is shared among VYBZ’s staff of about 12 DJs, who rotate their on-air schedules around day jobs and club dates. With limited advertisers, DJs at underground stations are rarely, if ever, paid. As a result, they use airtime to promote upcoming club engagements or to generate enough buzz to land future gigs.

Cat and mouse

For underground stations, remaining on the air requires that they stay one step ahead of the FCC.

That’s not easy for a medium that makes enemies. Pirate broadcasts interrupt not just other radio transmissions but can interfere with anything from cell phone to television reception. “You might be watching something and all of a sudden, you hear us playing [soca recording artist] Machel Montano,” says English. “That’s when you call Cablevision, who might eventually call the FCC to check out the antennae.” To avoid detection from the FCC, pirates either lay low and stop broadcasting for weeks at a time, switch the location of the antennas or reinvent themselves with different call letters on a new frequency.

But evading the FCC isn’t the only hurdle for radio pirates. In Flatbush, a recent scan of the FM dial found 12 underground stations airing Caribbean-oriented programming during the evening hours. That many pirates means competition. Earlier this year, DJ English turned on his transmitter only to discover that no signal was emitting. “When I looked for the antenna, I saw that it was gone. It was stolen and that’s no good,” he says. As a result, the station was offline for months. “It’s really getting out of hand. I know it was someone from the competition trying to shut us down. At the end of the day, we all could get shut down because we’re breaking the rules.”

As the cat-and-mouse game ensues, some local civic leaders remain divided over the underground stations. “They are doing a public service because there’s no legitimate station catering to the Caribbean community,” says Edgar Henry, a prominent area businessman and president of the Flatbush Avenue Business Improvement District. “But it’s like traveling down a street with no traffic lights or speed bumps. It might be a long and expensive process to own a station, but the rules are there and they should be followed.”

Hank Hayes well understands the allure of owning a pirate station. He and his childhood friend and on-air collaborator, Jim Nazium, launched several underground stations in Brooklyn beginning in the late 1970s. For Hayes, who now hosts a webcast series with Nazium in New York, the new crop of underground stations in Brooklyn harkens back to an era of personality-driven radio. “When rock-and-roll came along in the 1950s, it was pure energy. Grown men who were radio DJs were yelling, jumping and screaming in the studio over the music,” he says. “Now, the Caribbean pirates are doing the same thing, which makes for great local radio. It’s just that there’s so many of them now that they’re blocking out legitimate stations and that’s a problem.”

Meanwhile, organizations like the Prometheus Radio Project, a non-profit group in Philadelphia, are lobbying in favor of pending legislation in Congress that seeks to increase the number of low-power entities. Doing so, they argue, will expand the local broadcasting spectrum and convince more pirate operators to opt for a licensed—and now more affordable—route to broadcast. Still, opponents like the National Association of Broadcasters contend that more signal interference could result if the number of low-power licenses grows.

As for the pirate DJs themselves, many of them express the desire for their stations to someday become legit outfits. “A lot of people think that the Caribbean market isn’t lucrative, but that isn’t true. We know that people are listening because the streets talk,” says DJ Ruckshun of VYBZ. “Maybe we can do something on satellite someday. But whatever happens for this station in the future, it has to be positive and elevate the culture because at the end of the day, a lot of us are just doing this for the love.”

– Curtis Stephen