Pirate radio lives, big time, in New York

Doc Searls Weblog 2013-09-13

Last Saturday evening I was walking up Wadsworth Avenue in Manhattan, a few blocks north of 181st Street, when I passed a group of people sitting sitting on the steps of an apartment building. They were talking, drinking, eating snacks and listening to a boom box set to 94.9FM. A disc jockey chattered in Spanish, followed by music. I noticed the frequency because I’m a lifelong radio guy, and I know there isn’t a licensed station on that channel in New York. The closest is WNSH, called “Nash,” a country-music station in Newark, on 94.7. Given the disc jockey and what little I heard of the sound of 94.9, I was sure the station was a pirate and not just somebody with one of those short-range transmitters you can jack into a phone or a pad.

Before I started hanging at this end of Manhattan I thought the pirate radio game was up. After all, that was the clear message behind these stories:

But where I mostly hang is a Manhattan apartment that is highly shadowed from FM signals coming from the Empire State Building and 4 Times Square downtown. (That’s where all New York’s main licensed stations radiate from.) Between those transmitters and our low-floor apartment are about a hundred blocks of apartment buildings. Meanwhile, our angle to the North and East (toward The Bronx both ways) is a bit less obstructed. From here I get unidentifiable signals on all these channels:

  • 88.1
  • 89.3
  • 89.7
  • 91.3
  • 94.5
  • 94.9
  • 959
  • 98.1
  • 99.7
  • 102.3
  • 103.3
  • 104.7 (Same as the busted one? Sounds like it.)
  • 105.5

I can tell most are pirates because they tend to disappear in the morning. Most play varieties of Caribbean music. A lot, but far from all, is in Spanish. (Which I wish I could understand, but I don’t.) Some is in Caribbean varieties of English.

To me this phenomenon is radio at its best. I hope somebody who speaks the languages on these stations will come up here and study the phenomenon a bit more closely. Because the mainstream media (thus far — consider this a shout-out, @VivianYee :-) ) is just coving a few minutes of the authorities’ losing game of whack-a-mole.