The following is a radio piece and accompanying paper on the state of DIY and pirate radio broadcasting, particularly as it exists in large urban areas like NYC. It explores the history and motivations for DIY broadcasting, examines the migration of DIY broadcasters from the airwaves to the internet, and what effect the recent passage of the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA) might have on the future of microbroadcasting.
click to play. TRT ~33 mins
We Want the Airwaves: An Investigation Into DIY Broadcasting
Radio began as a DIY endeavor, invented by amateurs and tinkerers – the hackers of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Radio Act of 1927 allowed the government to privilege certain groups, particularly the radio corporations, in the allocation of the radio spectrum, and effectively locked the amateurs out. Since that time, unlicensed broadcasters – or pirates – have roamed the airwaves and tried to elude the FCC. Through a series of interviews, this 33 minute “broadcast” looks at some of the motivations of these radio hackers – why they started doing it, and why they stopped. It also takes a critical look at the recently passed Local Community Radio Act (LCRA) – legislation which intends to open the airwaves to broadcasters under 100 watts, but may not be able to accommodate broadcasters in the largest urban areas. Finally, the migration of many microbroadcasters from the airwaves to the Internet is examined, particularly how this move allows for broadcasts to proliferate, but may not serve the public in exactly the same way the traditional radio medium is able to. It concludes that there still is much more work to be done towards equitable distribution of the airwaves, and that while Internet radio may be able to meet the needs of certain communities, its very distribution methods indicate a much different audience than would be served by local radio.
Concept & Methodology
The original idea of this project was to investigate the “disappearance” of pirate radio broadcasters from the airwaves over the past decade. I had noted, observationally, that as Internet adoption grew in the United States and Internet technologies were better able to accommodate the transmission of live audio over digital networks, the “buzz” about illegal microbroadcasters I’d previously heard in underground performance and alternative media communities had diminished. This observation was corroborated by other recent examinations of the pirate radio phenomenon. For example, in a video entitled Pirate Radio Frequencies (2010), a short documentary produced by Vice Magazine on the London (UK) pirate scene, one DJ declares, “the Internet has killed pirate radio, and I don’t think it can come back.” In this study, my intent was to investigate the phenomenon of pirate radio and DIY microbroadcasting in New York City specifically, whether the phenomenon still exists, whether the broadcasters have moved to the Internet and if so, why. I also wanted to examine the Local Community Radio Act, new national legislation allowing the licensing of community stations of under 100 watts and what effect, if any, this might have on the future of microbroadcasting, pirate and DIY radio.
Instead of conducting and presenting my research in the traditional way, it was decided that it would be presented as a short “radio show” which could be played over the airwaves, on Internet radio, or otherwise distributed by means that were more relevant to the medium being discussed than they were to traditional academic methods of writing and submitting a research paper. To this end, I conducted a series of five interviews with people who were involved in DIY radio and microbroadcasting in a variety of ways, after reading several essays and articles on DIY radio to familiarize myself with the territory. I chose my subjects not only based on relevancy to the topics being explored, but according to accessibility within the time frame given to complete the project. The five subjects interviewed for the project were:
- Hank Hayes: Hayes was a pirate radio DJ that started in the late 70’s while he was still a teenager. For over 30 years, Hayes and his partner, Jim Nazium, broadcast illegally in NYC – often moving to different spots on the dial in order to elude the FCC. In 1986, Hayes was a member of a loose coalition of pirate broadcasters that purchased – and operated from- a ship, The Sarah, in international waters off the coast of New York. The ship was raided and shut down by the FCC after just five days. In the early 2000s, Hayes and Nazium went “legit” by moving their broadcasts to the Internet.
- Andre Alleyne: Andre isn’t a pirate broadcaster, but hosted a pirate transmitter in his Brooklyn apartment for four days in 2009 for a friend of his brother’s, a young man who ran a pirate radio station broadcasting Caribbean and urban music to the community. Despite his lack of meaningful involvement in the operation, the FCC raided Alleyne’s apartment, and he was fined $10,000. I found Andre through an Internet search of public records of people in New York that had been cited by the FCC for illegal broadcasting.
- Candace Clement: Clement is an outreach manager at Free Press, a New England based media advocacy organization that lobbied for the passage of the LCRA.
- Brandy Doyle: Doyle is the policy director for Prometheus Radio, a Philadelphia-based micro-radio advocacy group that was among the most outspoken lobbyists for the LCRA. The organization started as a pirate radio station – Radio Mutiny – that operated out of West Philadelphia in the late 90’s before being shut down by the FCC.
- Katrina Cass: Cass is one of the founders of BBOX Radio, an Internet radio station that has been broadcasting from a 160-square-foot shipping container in Brooklyn’s DeKalb Market since July of 2011. The station was set up after she and her friends won a contest sponsored by the market, which asked, “What would you do with a shipping container at the DeKalb Market?” Along with the space, the group won $5000 in seed money, and recently raised an additional $15,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.
Hayes, Clement and Doyle were all interviewed via Skype, and recorded with Audio Hijack, software designed to record computer system audio. Alleyne and Cass were interviewed in person. The specific interview questions, listed in Appendix A, were tailored specifically to each interviewee’s area of expertise, but were all designed to answer the following fundamental questions related to DIY radio and microbroadcasting:
- How did pirate broadcasting come about – what were the motivations for illegal broadcasting?
- Where is DIY Radio happening today in New York City?
- Did the advent of the Internet cause DIY radio stations to move online, or are there still pirates on the airwaves?
- What are some of the economic considerations of microbroadcasting vs. Internet radio?
- How will the passage of the Local Community Radio Act affect microbroadcasting, particularly in cities like NYC?
The outcomes that were revealed through the process of interviewing the five subjects could be categorized under four broad topics: motivations, benefits, limiting factors, and economics.
In her interview, Candace Clement stated that the motivations for all microbroadcasters, whether pirate or legitimate, could be summed up by stating that
“they see a need that’s not being met. They might not see that they’re doing it that way but that is ultimately why they’re doing it, because something doesn’t exist and they’re making it exist because it’s not there.” (Airwaves 19:30)
This conclusion was borne out by both my reading on microbroadcasting and the interviews I conducted. For example, Mbanna Kantanko started pirate radio station Black Liberation Radio (now Human Rights Radio) in Springfield, Illinois because his community wasn’t provided an outlet by mainstream media to express the violence and inequality they experienced in their neighborhoods. He said that the FCC put radio broadcasting
“out of the reach of the people what we’re trying to reach – people who live in public housing…who have no hope at all… of ever achieving any economic success in this country. That regulation [requiring a minimum 100-watt transmitter] systematically excludes the disadvantaged… When you’re facing the conditions that our community in particular is facing, you have a duty as a human being to do whatever you can to try to turn those conditions around. And we feel that communications is one of the things that we have to take control over.” (qtd. in Bekken, 1998)
By clearly perceiving his reality and creating a radio station as a way to overcome the oppression he perceived in his community, Kantanko’s creation of BLR can be seen as a prime example of the use of praxis as a method for overcoming a “limiting situation” as described by Paolo Friere in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). In that work, Friere wrote,
“In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform. This perception is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for liberation; it must become the motivating force for liberating action.” (49)
In a 1996 interview, Napoleon Williams – another leader of Black Liberation Radio – also spoke to the necessity of constructionist principals in education for teaching technology as a tool for liberation to children in oppressed neighborhoods, echoing the writings of Papert and Harel (1991). Williams said,
“I don’t know why we are not taking technology that is at our disposal and running classes to teach our kids to read schematics. Give your child some kind of electronic intelligence. You got to realize that technology exists to create a radio station almost on a matchbook, and our kids would be fascinated by that if we would direct them toward it.” (Williams 1996)
Not all radio pirates were as political as Kantanko and Williams. Hank Hayes began pirate broadcasting because he felt that commercial broadcasters were destroying the “fun” of radio. In my interview with him, he says that a primary motivation was a change in commercial broadcasting in the 70’s that emphasized
“the DJ not talking. And we liked the DJ. And what happened was, we said ‘well, if we can’t get it anymore we’re going to do it ourselves. And that’s exactly what we did.” (Airwaves 05:49)
Whether the motivations for pirate broadcasting were political or not, I agree with Clement’s assessment that for microbroadcasters, a primary motivator is to meet a need that is perceived as “not being met” by mainstream media.
Much of the discussion, with all of my interviewees, revolved around the benefits of microbroadcasting over Internet radio or vice-versa, depending on which side of the philosophical fence the subject happened to be on. For Clement and Doyle, the prevailing opinion is that, when it comes to broadcasting that is able to serve local communities, “radio offers something that the Internet just doesn’t at this time” (Doyle 22:55). Neither argues against the inherent values of the Internet as a medium that can reach a mass audience, but their concern is more for providing a medium that speaks to a local audience in a
“globalized moment when people are really yearning for that local, and they’re looking for local food and local businesses and local artists, and a sense of being part of a local community at a time when that has been wiped out.” (Doyle 22:39)
Katrina Cass of BBOX Radio tends to disagree, and finds that the Internet is able to not only serve a local community, but provide a “local flavor” to a global audience and thinks that
“there will be an audience that’s interested in what’s happening locally here in Brooklyn. I think people in Mississippi and California are interested in what’s happening in Brooklyn. There are things that are different. And you might not be seeing that on the larger national networks.”
Cass raises an excellent point, in the fact that local broadcasting is not available on the “larger national networks” which is precisely why Clement and Doyle are interested in opening the airwaves to community broadcasting.
Regarding some of the other differences between radio and Internet broadcasting, one of the most salient ones that I tried to have each interviewee address was the concept of “discoverability” i.e. how one finds a broadcast without knowing about it and specifically seeking it out. While both Clement and Doyle see this as an advantage of radio, both Cass and Hayes have been able to find an element of discoverability in their Internet broadcasts. For Cass, the element of discoverability comes from the studio’s physical location in the Dekalb Market, with people literally stumbling upon the station. For Hayes, he thinks that discoverability comes from being a part of a larger network of Internet stations (stickam.com) where people who listen to one show on the network are likely to check out another. He also thinks that once people are exposed to his show, they hear something they’ve “never heard before” – which is the old school style of broadcasting that he and Jim practice.
Through my interviews, I found that there are several limitations to microbroadcasting, particularly if one seeks to become licensed under the LCRA. First, the way the bill is written doesn’t allow for a set percentage of the radio spectrum to be allocated to low power radio, but only for community broadcasters to be able to set up shop in whatever portions of the spectrum commercial radio isn’t using. Therefore, in large markets like New York City, there will be very little opportunity for community broadcasters to become licensed. This is a limitation that is acknowledged by both Doyle and Clement, and a reason that Cass sees Internet broadcasting not necessarily as a solution to the problem, but as a necessary alternative.
Another limitation to microbroadcasters getting a license under the LCRA is the fact that all licensees must be non-profit corporations. Given the amount of organization and paperwork this requires, not to mention the time it takes to be recognized by the government as a nonprofit, this places a serious limitation on DIY broadcasters who place a premium on getting things done quickly. An example I raised in the interviews was the Occupy Wall Street movement, which emerged fairly rapidly and could have potentially benefitted by having a low-power FM station broadcasting to the protesters. The licensing restrictions and nonprofit requirement, then, would effectively eliminate a movement like OWS from having legitimate low power broadcasting available to them as a viable option.
Finally, a limitation to legitimate broadcasting raised by Andre Alleyne, is that becoming licensed can be “price prohibitive.” This was certainly true before the passage of the LCRA, when setting up for a station of 100 watts or more could cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Certainly the new bill will lower the economic barrier to entry for many, but compared to the Internet, setting up a terrestrial radio station can still be an economic barrier, and will be discussed in more detail in the next section.
The last outcome of the research I’d like to discuss is how the economics of local community radio compares to that of Internet broadcasting. According to Candace Clement, local radio is more cost efficient in the sense that it places the economic threshold to entry for the average listener much lower than it is for Internet radio listeners. Her feeling is that with Internet radio, there are economic barriers for the listener such as equipment, access, and data caps whereas “broadcast radio is totally free. You just have to get yourself a radio and you’re in, you’re all set, you’re good.” (Clement 21:50).
On the other hand, Cass sees the Internet as being more cost efficient, at least for the producers if not necessarily for the listeners. She emphasizes that for her station, the startup costs were low enough that they could get up and running easily, and that BBOX started with only
“a small stipend that pretty much covered the insurance for [the studio] and everything else was coming out of our pockets. So if we wanted to try and go get a transmitter for a space that doesn’t even exist for us, it just didn’t make any sense. A web server is like a hundred bucks a year at most. It’s very reasonable.” (Cass 25:10)
After listening to arguments about the economics of microbroadcasting vs. Internet radio from both perspectives, it appeared that an inverse relationship exists between the economics of each media. On the one hand, participation in microbroadcasting is much more inexpensive for the listeners but more expensive for the producers, both in startup costs and time and energy involved. On the other hand, Internet radio is very inexpensive for producers to get a station up and running, while access to listeners is limited by the availability of equipment such as smart phones and computers, as well as Internet access – all resources that are far more expensive than an average transistor radio.
Conclusions and Limitations
Although the topic requires more research, I was able to reach at least two conclusions from the outcomes of this project. The first is that, while the passage of the LCRA is a step in the right direction, it isn’t a solution that works for everyone. New York City, a city that could benefit from community broadcasting due to it’s several ethnic and cultural communities, will be eliminated from participation due to the fact that there is no room in the radio spectrum because of the space inhabited by commercial broadcasters. It would seem to me that a more equitable solution would be legislation that ensures a certain percentage of the spectrum is guaranteed to be available to community broadcasters in any market. This has precedent in the 1984 Cable Communications Act that required that all cable companies allocate a certain amount of their resources to community access television, and would certainly allow for a more equitable distribution of the airwaves.
Another conclusion is that, until allocation of the spectrum becomes more equitable, Internet radio may not be able to provide a solution to the problem, per se, but an alternative to those producers who want to get their message out in a way that is cost effective and has few barriers to entry.
Some of the limitations of the research include the fact that, due to the temporal limitations of the project, speaking to listeners of both microbroadcasters and Internet stations was out of the scope of the project. I believe that hearing the opinions of those who are actively engaged in these types of broadcasts would provide invaluable insight, and should be addressed in future studies. Another limitation is that my roster of interviewees didn’t ultimately include microbroadcasters or pirate radio operators that are currently active. One reason for this is that it can be extremely difficult to locate pirate broadcasters, if only for the simple reason that they don’t want to be found. After all, if I can find them, so can the FCC, and they have a vested interest in remaining underground. Ultimately, my hope is that if I continue this research in the future, I will be able to overcome these limitations. Hopefully by that time, we’ll be able to better understand the effects of the LCRA on the state of microbroadcasting as well.
Bekken, Jon. “Community Radio at the Crossroads: Federal Policy and the Professionalization of a Grassroots Medium.” Seizing the Airwaves: A Free Radio Handbook. Ron Sakolsky and Stephen Dunifer (eds.) San Francisco: AK Press. 1998. p 39.
Friere, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. 1970.
Papert, Seymour & Harel, Idit (eds). Constructionism: Research Reports and Essays 1985-1990. Epistemology and Learning Research Group, The Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ablex Pub. Corp, Norwood NJ. Chapter 1: Situating Constructionism. 1991.
Pirate Radio Frequencies. Dir. Matt Mason. Palladium Boots. 2010.
Williams, Napoleon. “A New Drum for Our People: An Interview with Napoleon Williams (Black Liberation Radio). Seizing the Airwaves: A Free Radio Handbook. Ron Sakolsky and Stephen Dunifer (eds.) San Francisco: AK Press. 1998. p 114.
APPENDIX A – INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Andre Alleyne (interview on 11/30/2011)
- Describe the radio station you hosted the transmitter for. What was the content of the broadcasts? How often did they broadcast?
- Who were the listeners? Was there community involvement in the station?
- Describe what happened with the FCC. How did they first contact you? How would you characterize their attitude towards you?
- You said in your email you feel you’d been made an “example” of – can you elaborate on this?
- Do you feel your persecution – and subsequent fines – by the FCC had a negative effect on other pirate broadcasters in NYC?
- Has there been subsequent consideration of resurrecting the station? Did your brother or his friend at any time consider trying to become licensed by the FCC? Why or why not? What do you consider the biggest obstacles to an individual obtaining a broadcast license?
- Was there consideration given to broadcasting over the Internet? What effect, if any, do you feel Internet broadcasting has had on the state of community, low power, or pirate stations on the airwaves?
- Do you consider yourself a political person? How does community broadcasting fit in with your personal politics?
- Last year, a bill was passed to allow FCC licensing of micro-power and community radio stations. Do you think this helps or undermines the pirate radio movement? Is it worth it to get a license?
Hank Hayes – Radio Free New York (interview on 12/1/2011)
- Your story is incredible. You and Jim have known each other since childhood, correct? How did you start getting into radio?
- You’ve been shut down by the FCC several times, and yet kept coming back for more. Why? What kinds of penalties did the FCC impose on you guys?
- It says on the site that you mainly started doing pirate radio because there wasn’t any good commercial radio on the air. As you continued to do it, and continued to get harassed by the FCC, did political motivations, like free speech issues, come into play as well?
- Did you have day jobs? How did you guys make money?
- I read on the site that your signal could be heard up and down the eastern seaboard. That’s pretty impressive for microbroadcasters. Is that mainly because you were on the AM band? How powerful was your transmitter?
- The story about RNI and the Sarah is amazing. I was kind of horrified to read about the apparent violence of the FCC – smashing equipment, cutting wires, etc. also the shotgun bearing Marshalls of 1989 bust. Seems like a bit of overkill for a couple of radio pirates. What’s your take on that?
- The case was dropped, so basically the message was “don’t fuck with us, because we’ll shut you down any time we want, right?” So, why DO you think they shut down RNI? or any of your other stations for that matter?
- Did you ever consider getting licensed, as opposed to just leasing time?
- I know you guys did radio because of the sorry state of radio at the time. What do you think of radio today? Has it gotten better or worse?
- When did you make the move over to the Internet, and why?
- What about this move from the airwaves to the Internet? Do you feel like you’re accomplishing the same things? How do you perceive the difference between Internet radio and microbroadcasting?
- What advice would you give to someone today who’s interested in getting into microbroadcasting? Is it worth it to broadcast on the airwaves or would they and their listeners be better served on the Internet?
- Last year Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act, which will allow licensing to microbroadcasters under 100 watts. How do you think this will affect DIY broadcasters? Is this a good thing, or is this just FCC’s way of getting microbroadcasters to play by their rules?
- Talk about what you guys are up to now – anything else, etc.
Candace Clement – Free Press (interview on 12/1/2011)
Brandy Doyle – Prometheus Radio (interview on 12/2/2011)
- What is LPFM and why is it important?
- Last year Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA). Can you describe this bill and talk a bit about its importance? Who will benefit most from this law?
- Do you know how who gets licensed will be decided? It seems like this could be a big win for progressives, but only if the fundamentalist don’t swoop in and snap up all the licenses.
- It seems as though, with the Internet, radio has almost become a “forgotten” medium. Do you think the LCRA will change that? How will it/could it affect the overall radio landscape in this country?
- What do you see as the benefit of LPFM broadcasting over the airwaves vs. using the Internet? How is radio different?
- What about communities, urban diasporas, in big cities where spectrum space is scarce. Will there be opportunities for them as well?
- The FCC has up to 2 years from passage of the LCRA to start taking applications – any idea when that will happen?
- I’ve heard that the waiting list could be up to five years after application. It would seem that this could be frustrating to those with an immediate need to get up and running. It also seems like it would effectively put the kibosh on anyone whose intent is to use the airwaves for discussion of any current political events (OWS comes to mind). Any thoughts on that? Could this be a way of the FCC to gain even *more* control of the airwaves?
- I understand that licenses will only go to registered nonprofits. Doesn’t place even more restrictions on who can and cannot broadcast?
- One of the most frequent complaints (or rationales) heard by unlicensed LPFM broadcasters in the past was that they couldn’t get a license from the FCC. Now, if they become licensed under the LCRA, they will have to play by the FCC’s rules. Is that a trade off you think will be worth it for them to make, or has the Internet effectively killed the pirate radio movement, rending the point moot?
Katrina Cass – BBOX Radio (Interview 12/4) /2011
- Tell me the story of BBOX. What’s your mission and how did you guys get started?
- Did you or any of the other founders have a background in broadcasting? What sparked this particular idea when you came up with it as your entry to the shipping container contest?
- What do you see as the principal differences between broadcasting on the Internet vs. micropower broadcasting on the airwaves?
- Do you think that the Internet has diminished the public’s interest in broadcasting on the air? Is the Internet a competing technology or a complementary one?
- Do you have any data on *how* people are listening to your station? Do they listen at work on their computer with headphones? via Smartphone apps?
- BBOX appears to be a very DIY effort – what have you found to be the biggest challenges in running an Internet radio station?
- Aside from the Kickstarter campaign, what are some other ways BBOX is funded? Do you have sponsorships, lease airtime, or have other means of bringing in an income?
- One of the reasons I find this project particularly interesting is that you’re doing something that’s very locally focused (community radio) on a decidedly non-local medium (the Internet). How has the local response been to BBOX and how do you feel you serve the local Brooklyn community?
- What’s your process for selecting programming? What criteria do you use? Can anyone apply to have a show on BBOX?
- Are all of your shows broadcast from the shipping crate studio, or have you done any remote/on location broadcasts from other places?
- What’s the future of BBOX? Are there any plans/desires to broadcast over the airwaves? What would be your advice to would be DIY broadcasters on the Internet? What’s the best, easiest way for them to start?