Did you know there was a website with a map of pirate radio stations in Brooklyn where listeners can tune into their favorite illegal radio station? Brooklyn is a hotbed for pirates and the FCC has been trying to close as many of them down as possible. Their efforts are either falling short or those behind the illegal operations simply don’t care about the consequences. David Goren hosts the website with the map of the pirates. On Wednesday, we spoke to Goren about his website and the swarm of pirates that continue to operate in that part of New York.
Radio Ink: What made you decide to produce a map like this?
David Goren: I’m a longtime radio documentary producer for BBC, NPR, and other platforms. You can hear my work on my website and read my bio here. Some of my work covers the way media programming — particularly radio — supports diverse, underserved communities. (One example may be found HERE.)
As a resident of Flatbush, Brooklyn, I’ve heard pirates on FM going back to the mid-80s, (though they go back further than that.) For the Sound Map project, I was particularly interested in finding out why pirate activity started to change in the 1990s, who the stations serve, and why they take the risk. I also wanted to create an archival presentation of the unusually diverse programming that I’ve been recording for the past four years.
Previously, pirate stations stuck to one or two frequencies (91.5 and 91.9), and broadcast late at night and on weekends. Programming was largely in homage to the rock radio of the day. Starting in the early-mid 90s, new pirate stations came on the air with programming specifically for many of Brooklyn’s immigrant communities. These new stations also began broadcasting earlier, on weekdays and on frequencies throughout the dial. This situation continues today.
With this project, I was interested in using the sound map format because these stations are tied to particular neighborhoods; it lends itself to an archival approach. The Sound Map is connected to a website, pirateradiomap.com, which explores the history and consequences of Brooklyn’s pirate radio activity. The Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map was funded by the Brooklyn Arts Council in 2017.
I am currently making a conventional radio documentary on the NYC pirates for the BBC World Service.
Radio Ink: How many pirates would you say are in and around the Brooklyn area?
David Goren: I typically hear 36 stations, give or take a few, on an average weeknight or weekend. This is the prime time when most of these stations operate.
Radio Ink: How do you find them?
David Goren: They are very easy to hear on any type of FM radio where I live in Flatbush. A lot of my research involves intensive listening and recording. If you’re asking about finding and talking to the actual operators of these stations, I’ve used information available on their websites and social media profiles. Most are not interested in press attention. Some have been willing to talk off the record and a few on the record.
Radio Ink: Do you know if any of the pirates you have on your map are interfering with any regular radio stations?
David Goren: Yes, the New York City dial is crowded to begin with, so it’s hard for them to avoid interfering with a licensed station or each other. There are pirate operators that try to use frequencies that don’t interfere with the most local licensed stations (i.e. using a frequency occupied by a broadcaster from the Jersey Shore, the Hudson Valley, or Long Island). Some of these have been using such frequencies for decades. Others cram in where they can.
Radio Ink: Do you think these folks know what they are doing is illegal and they can get in a lot of trouble with the FCC?
David Goren: I’ve gotten a range of responses to this question from the pirate broadcasters. Some say they know it’s illegal, and do what they can to minimize their risk (which in some ways is tempered by the large number of stations on air). Others have said that they are only streaming and they don’t know who is putting their signal on the air. (I have come across this type of response in press coverage over the years.) One operator told me he heard through the grapevine that if he stayed under a certain amount of power he would be operating legally. I think a lot of them are hoping that somehow they’re legal under Part 15 rules.
All of the pirate broadcasters that I’ve spoken with have expressed a strong desire to operate legally, and ask many questions about how they can do so and then express frustration when they find out how limited the options are, and how expensive the process is. Since most of these operators also stream online, I’ve asked them why they take the risk to be on the radio. For many, radio is an important platform embedded in their home cultures, and they want to replicate that here. Others say that if they were to leave radio and only stream, they would abandon their most vulnerable listeners, the elderly and economically disadvantaged who are less likely to use digital platforms. One pastor I spoke with said he wouldn’t be able to reach his listeners who are homeless, shut in, hospitalized, in shelters, or living in a similar marginalized situation.